Books interview: Louise O. Fresco

Wageningen University president and author of Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat on her appetite for good books, from Primo Levi to Claudia Roden.

December 3, 2015
Louise O. Fresco, Wageningen University and Research Centre

What books did you love as a child?
I remember very vividly reading Hector Malot’s Sans Famille and identifying completely with poor but free Rémi. There were several other books in the same vein, some by the Dutch writer Tonke Dragt, all about children left to themselves, travelling and discovering the world (and themselves) against all odds.

Which books come to mind when you think of science and scholarship’s contribution to building a better world?
I think all knowledge helps to build a better world in the end, because through knowledge we understand who we are and what we are doing. Knowledge is the only inexhaustible sustainable resource! I could name many books in this category, because there are so many good science educators: Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, E. O. Wilson, Simon Schama, Oliver Sacks, Douglas Hofstadter and, in France, for example, the geneticist François Jacob. And a book by a scientist who was also a novelist: Primo Levi’s Il sistema periodico. I am particularly taken by books that combine a depth of space and time with a true desire to educate the public in the joys of science without unnecessarily simplifying the science. A better world begins with storytelling.

You lived in Rome in the years you served as an assistant director general of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Have you a favourite book about Italy?
Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is unavoidable, and also his short stories, because so much about the decline and renewal of Italian society is forecast in that book. Among present-day writers, Sandro Veronesi (La forza del passato, Chaos calmo) is one of the best; he explores Italian life through individual pain and choices. And on the subject of the art that is so omnipresent in Italy, I found Dominique Fernandez’s La Course à l’abîme, a fictional autobiography of Caravaggio, absolutely mesmerising.

In your new book, ‘Hamburgers in Paradise’, you mention a ‘well-thumbed cookery book’. Which titles on your kitchen shelf do you consult most often?
I love Claudia Roden’s books, as she was the first to explore the complex Mediterranean history through recipes. Of course, one should read at least one entry daily from Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food. Harold McGee, the scientist turned cook, is fascinating because of his delight in experimentation. And I would love to recommend his Dutch counterpart, Johannes van Dam, and his encyclopedia, De Dikke van Dam (“The Fat van Dam”, referring to both his girth and the size of his book).

You are a novelist as well as a non-fiction author. Which fiction writers do you rate most highly?
I greatly admire Javier Marías and Amos Oz because they both show brilliantly how huge moral and political issues play out in individual acts and thoughts. The same applies to Philip Roth. Every year I hope one of them will be awarded the Nobel prize.

What books are you reading at the moment, or are on your desk waiting to be read?
I have stacks of books everywhere: next to my bed, on the dressing table, on the sitting-room table and on each of my four desks (one of them serves as an alternative bookcase). I am always reading and rereading three or four books. Right now, they are Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, Patrick Modiano’s L’Horizon, and Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. Since I am travelling so much, it is worth mentioning that I always carry local authors in my suitcase, so African or South American authors only when I am flying to these continents.

Louise O. Fresco is president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and a professor of plant production systems. She is author, most recently, of Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat (Princeton University Press). View the book trailer at

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