CHICAGO -- Now that we're in the summer reading season, here's a toast to the serendipity of picking a book about one thing and discovering that it's really more about something else -- and much more important than you thought.
This was how I lucked into three books about Hispanic and other immigrant laborers while on a quest to learn more about food and how Americans eat it.
Notable about these selections is that none are specifically about immigration or written by Hispanic authors -- who are commonly relegated to the "ethnic" section in a faraway corner of the bookstore -- and therefore stand a better chance of being read by non-Hispanics. And, really, non-Hispanics are the ones who would most benefit from learning about different aspects of immigration in a manner that's free of the politics so prevalent these days.
Let's start with Barry Estabrook's "Tomatoland." Released last summer, I counted the days until this book came out on audio. For the last few years I've been hearing foodies lament that store-bought tomatoes lack flavor. But since I've never grown my own and can't perceive the difference, I wanted to get to the bottom of the tasteless tomato debate.
Instead of an arid history of tomato genetics, I discovered a beautifully narrated story of the plucky little fruit that originated in the deserts of South America, came to flourish in the sands of Florida, and is now grown and harvested by the hands of migrant workers from Central America and Mexico.
I really can't begin to do justice to the graphic and heart-wrenching storytelling that Estabrook employs in illustrating the indispensable role migrant farm workers play in getting food into the mouths of Americans. Or the high price these laborers pay -- he describes worker conditions in South Florida as "ground zero for modern slavery" -- to ensure we can buy our fruits and vegetables cheaply.
In a similar vein, Tracie McMillan's "The American Way of Eating" confronts the contradiction of our country's obsession with food coupled with our rampant malnutrition, young people's lack of cooking skills, and the pervasive belief that only the rich can afford to eat well.
McMillan got mixed reviews for this book in which she went "undercover" in the garlic fields of California, the produce section of Walmart and the kitchen of Applebee's. Obviously she was working with a safety net that few struggling workers have as they claw their way through labor that no American ever wants to do except under the grimmest of circumstances.
But her haunting account of the physical and psychological pressures of being a worker with few rights, next-to-zero protections and a paltry payday has much to tell us about the effects of our current immigration laws on America's lowest paid workers, both legal and illegal.
"Valley of Shadows and Dreams," a photo book by Ken and Melanie Light, adds striking images to the experiences of farm workers who toil for our sustenance in the Great Central Valley of California. In an essay written for The New York Times at the launch of their book in May, the authors tell their readers that, like so many of the rest of us, and "like so many of our fellow Californians, we hadn't really thought about the communities and people that provide our food, or the labor that has made the state what it is."
Images from what they call the "fruit bowl of America" jump off the page, chronicling the living standards of the unskilled laborers struggling through the economic bust, the faces of children living with birth defects from pesticides, and the cragginess of the land they say "has provided the dream for many, but it is also deeply shadowed."
Ingesting these three books -- free of the usual political agendas, ethnic grievances and fear of cultural change that color most writings on the topic of Hispanic laborers in today's economy -- you get a feel for how deeply interwoven in this country's economic fabric these oftentimes illegal workers really are.
And it's fundamental to any intelligent conversation about U.S. immigration policy that these workers' vital role in our plentiful lives is, if not celebrated, at the very least acknowledged in the comfort of a favorite reading chair miles and miles away from the heat of America's fields and kitchens.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.