What Are The Books That Inspired You the Most? - Part One

I wrote a book that came out in 1996 called Books That Shaped Successful People in which I asked influential people in various fields what books shaped the people that they became. The response was rather astounding (you can see more about it HERE) and it really sparked my drive toward research and creating large projects focused on getting to know people through their passions.

I have decided to do a follow-up project where I ask prominent people in the barbecue world, the 'barbecue-adjacent world, and respected professionals in creative and business settings what 5 books (or more) inspired them the most during their life journey, along with providing some explanation as to why they chose each book. Once again, the response was remarkable.

Because I want to give time and space within each post to highlight the participants below and their lists I have decided to release a new list every other week or so in groups of 10 people. This is Part One of many to follow.

Hopefully, this ongoing project will inspire you to search out some of these books at your local bookstore and moreover give you a bit more insight into the individuals featured below. I have links to each book on Amazon however, as always, I am a huge fan of supporting local businesses.

I would also be remiss if I didn't thank Kelly Yandell (you can see her list of inspiring books below too) for assisting me with photographs of all of the books you'll see below.

Here are the responses in their own words and in no particular order.


Evan LeRoy - LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue - Evan is the co-owner, chef, and pitmaster of LeRoy & Lewis Barbecue in Austin and is quite easily one of the most inspiring barbecue chefs in the nation. He's mentored (and continues to mentor) countless pitmasters and has always been one of the first to assist me with any question or project. He's a class act and I am a better person for knowing him.

  • Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan - Michael Pollan’s book came to me early in my career. It taught me how to think deeper about food.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain - Bourdain’s classic, raw look behind the kitchen door. Kitchens were largely not run like this anymore by the time I got to work in them but his words and scenes captivated me.
  • Franklin Barbecue by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay - I had already developed my own style of cooking bbq when I read this book so I didn't take any techniques from it but the DIY attitude that is threaded through this book gave me the confidence to buy a welder and build the pit we still use at L&L.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni - I read this book at a time when we were in transition with some staff and it helped me to be a better leader.
  • The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber - Despite what recent Eater articles proclaim, Barber is a visionary. It only takes one like him to inspire thousands to do something different.

Jon Flaming - Artist -  Jon Flaming is one of my favorite artists (you can see his work HERE), but as I’ve gotten to know him since our chat HERE, he’s shown what a fantastic human he is and is easily one of my favorite people. He is kind, thoughtful, inspiring, and one of the hardest-working artists out there. You can see his prints for sale HERE.

  • The Bible - The teachings of Jesus are foundational to informing me on how to live my life.  
  • Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson - One of the most insightful books I've ever read on the contemporary art market. - I'm re-reading now for the 3rd time.
  • Think and Grow Rich by Napolean Hill - One of the best books I've read on how to use my mind/imagination to create wealth.
  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan - A very gritty and inspirational piece about the dust bowl and the folks who stayed and survived it. - Always encourages me especially when times are tough.
  • The Psychology of Money by Morgen Housel - A great book that dives into how/why people make decisions about money. This book has been a great tool for helping me understand my own behavior and also the behavior of others concerning money.

Adrian Miller - Adrian Miller is a food writer, James Beard Award winner, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado but what means the most to me is that I can call him a friend. It truly is an honor. His works include Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, and Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.

-My influential books are (in order of influence):

  • The Bible--the Christian faith is foundational to everything I do, and it drives me to love everyone and help people on society's margins.
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison--It's the first book that captured the struggles I felt as a Black man in America. I read it every time I enter a new decade of life, just to see what new insights I might gain. 
  • Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History by John Egerton--One sentence in that book about the absence of a tribute to African American culinary achievement started my food writing journey.
  • The American Slave: A Composite Biography, edited by George Rawick--I'm cheating because this is a multi-volume series of books. These are the recorded interviews of formerly enslaved people that were conducted in the 1930s. It's an eye-opening look at slavery that touches a wide range of the human experience from the absolutely evil to the resiliently good.
  • The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis--This was the first literary cookbook that I read. Previously, I never thought that a cookbook could tell such a compelling story. I also loved that it was about an African American community in rural Virginia.

Kelly Yandell - Photographer/Writer/Creative Force/Texan - It's hard to imagine someone can be immensely talented at both photography and writing but Kelly Yandell is one of those people. She has taken some of my all-time favorite photographs and written some of the most thoughtful and compelling short stories I've ever read. She's also abundantly kind and a true friend. You can see a selection of her photos HERE and read some of her short stories and poetry HERE. Bonus: If you want to see an online collection (virtual museum really) of over 150 of her vintage and unique bandanas run over to Bandana Cafe HERE. It'll blow you away.

-A slightly chronological and incomplete list of some of my favorite books. I am particularly drawn to books with Texas settings and/or Texas authors. So the end of this list is very Texas-centric. Not all are timeless, exactly. I’m not a big brain or an English major. I just like what I like. Here are a few favorites from my life:

  • Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. This was the first book I ever loved. I adored it. I rolled on the floor laughing before it was a thing. When I was four, my neighbor in San Antonio, Melba, made me green eggs and ham with food coloring for a meal one day and I thought I was the luckiest human on the planet. I read it to my kids over and over again. But I was reading it for my own pleasure.
  • The Cider House Rules by John Irving. John Irving is another author I’ll read no matter what (along with Stephen King and Larry McMurtry…I defy you to find the binding cord between these three storytellers). My high school senior year English teacher recommended A Prayer for Owen Meany and I was hooked. However, CHR was a sweeping look at the difficult circumstances of being a woman and the responsibility the troubled doctor felt for caring for these women who were essentially cast off. It broadened my outlook from a primarily religio-ethical take to a pragmatic-ethical take and was probably formative in the way I look at reproductive justice, oddly enough.
  • Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu as translated by Stephen Mitchell. This is a decidedly Western translation of an important part of Eastern culture. But I needed that to get my foot in the door of Eastern religions way back when, and these faiths (philosophies) have had a lasting and strong influence on the way I think. Taoism is lovely and practical. But it is difficult for a Western brain such as mine to decipher elegant messages without significant help. This book has a wonderful set of notes in the back to further the thoughts. But I think Mitchell crafted an English language take that is both lovely and accessible and I’ve been thumbing through it for thirty years.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. All five books in the trilogy. Absolute, joyful, silly, English buffoonery. I read it in college. I read it again a decade later. And I read every last one with my son yet again a few years back. Utter nonsense. And delightful.
  • Some Can Whistle by Larry McMurtry. I’ve read most of Larry McMurtry’s books. I always have. I even like the ones I don’t like. He has a way with dialogue and gallows humor that appeals to me deeply. And he sees Texans in a way that up until recently was quite unique. I think he had a real love-hate tension with a lot of what Texas is and therefore was able to lovingly draw a bead on our greatest inadequacies and foibles. As I now read the reviews of this one in particular I see it was widely panned and I should re-read it. Yet still, how could T.R. stick with me all these years? Therefore, it makes the list. Larry makes the list.
  • Goodbye to a River by John Graves. If you love Texas, especially North Texas, this is poetry. It is love in the form of words. It is a Western sonnet to all the things we see and love that are hard to translate to non-Texans sometimes.
  • Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. The Comanche were stunningly effective warriors, unmatched horsemen, and they were brutal in victory. The white settlers were less creative in their exploits, but also completely brutal. One cannot read anything on Native American history without feeling sorrow for the near-total destruction of an entire nation of people. This is one hell of a window into some of the fighting. Much like Goodbye to a River, it is about areas of Texas that we live on now. These were host to some of the most unsettling blood-letting in human history. All that blood is part of the soil of Texas and an important thing to consider when one talks of being a Texan, who we are, and how we got here.
  • Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. I read this book and was devastated that I hadn’t written it. It is dusty, painful, brutal, honest, real, and completely of Texas. The sense of place in this novel is exquisite. I’ve been writing for a long time and I admire it much, but this is a book that I wished I were talented enough to write.
  • Sophomores by Sean Desmond. I have lived primarily in Dallas for the last 30 years, all the way back to the end of the 80’s. This book is a wonderful, familiar, and sad book about a family facing the hard times of that period in Dallas, and about a teacher who made an impact. It is wonderful. This and Valentine are two recent reads that were simply great finds that I hope others will pick up.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Finally, a classic. I loved this book. I’m sure a brighter person could go on about its literary merits, but I just thought it was fun and fast, and a vacation from the real world. I finally got to it in my fifties, having long turned up my nose at many of “the classics” but I’m trying to give them a go and I can say thumbs down to Crime and Punishment, thumbs up to Dracula, and a standing ovation to The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Red Dirt and a Cool Breeze by me. You will not find this in any store as it has never been published and may never be. But it taught me how to write. It taught me to write simply because you have a story to tell, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. It is the biggest project I’ve ever completed outside of having kids and marriage. It taught me how to take rejection. It taught me that most things can be improved if you put in the time. And it taught me that time itself is a hell of a writing instructor. It taught me how to be confident about who I am and my experiences which are woven into the stories here and there. It taught me that art and writing are worthy just for the process of making them, even if they never see the light of day.

Lisa Fain - Lisa is a seventh-generation Texan behind the regional food blog Homesick Texan. A James Beard award-winning writer, she is also the author of three booksThe Homesick Texan Cookbook, The Homesick Texan’s Family Table, and Queso: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip. She's also a mentor, a constant around the Texas barbecue scene, and a super kind soul.

  • The first cookbook I ever bought for myself was The New Basics Cookbook. It came out when I was in college in the early 1990s, and my housemates and I had a blast cooking from it. We felt very fancy making dishes such as eggs Benedict with orange Hollandaise and pesto pizza.
  • These days, favorites include The Border Cookbook by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, as it’s a great portrait of the Southwest and all my favorite flavors. Robb Walsh’s books such as The Tex-Mex Cookbook are a fine window into Texas cuisine as he provides well-researched history along with the recipes. Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico was one of my first cookbooks, and I still refer to it for ideas and techniques. 
  • Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking is another one I dip into often, as the writing is so poetic and honest about her childhood growing up in a freedmen’s town in Virginia. The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg also gets a lot of use, as its lists of ingredients that go well together are an inspiration when I’m cooking or developing recipes. I also treasure community, church, and Junior League cookbooks, with El Paso Junior League’s Seasoned with Sun being one I refer to often since I’m obsessed with that part of the world.

Simon Majumdar - Simon Majumdar is a world-renowned broadcaster, author, and cook who has dedicated the second half of his time on this planet to fulfill his ambition to “Go Everywhere. Eat Everything.” It is a journey that has taken him to all fifty states and to dozens of countries around the world. He has written three books: Eat My Globe: One Year in Search of the Most Delicious Food in the World, Eating for Britain: A Journey Into the Heart (and Belly) of the Nation, and Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with My Fork, which catalogs his journey to American citizenship. He regularly appears on the Food Network and Cooking Channel and is also the creator and host of the food history podcast, EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Food. See all things Simon Majumdar HERE. He's also a dear friend and a constant source of inspiration.

-I am looking at my nonfiction books. 

  • The Thesaurus - Dr. Mark Peter Roget. (1852) A book that was not supposed to be read, from cover to cover. But, I never realized that.  I used to love reading it and seeing all the words that could be used for everything. 
  • London: A Biography by Peter Ackroyd. -  (2000) A man who has written a huge multitude of novels, and a number of biographies. But, this was his finest. 
  • A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elisabeth David. - (1950) - A book that gave Britain, and the wider world a view into what was so magical about the Mediterranean world.  
  • De Profundis by Oscar Wilde - (1905) - A journey written by the superlative Oscar Wilde, as he was waiting to emerge from Reading Goal.  It is a tour de force. 
  • The Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cramner - (1662) - A work that can be read as both a read of its time, but yet as also as a contemporary read, as well. 

Sean Tucker - Sean is a photographer, filmmaker, author, and speaker based in the UK. His brilliant YouTube channel HERE is a must to subscribe to if you want to learn how to better yourself as a human and artist and his recent book The Meaning in the Making: The Why and How Behind Our Human Need to Create is something I turn to again and again for direction and navigation throughout my creative endeavors. He was also kind enough to sit down with me HERE to share his story and provide a further understanding of what moves him creatively.

-Here's my list:

  • Falling Upward: A Spirituality For The Two Halves Of Life by Richard Rohr - A foundational book for me that came along at just the right time, teaching me that sometimes what feels like the end is really the middle, and when things fall apart it might just be an invitation to the second half of life... if you can find the courage to accept.
  • Mastery by Robert Greene - Teaching me that there are many paths to mastery in any field and that you have to forge your own way.
  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl - A beautiful book written out of the horrors of the concentration camps about the centrality of finding meaning for human beings.
  • A Guide to the Good Life by William B Irvine - A great introduction to Stoic philosophy.
  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield - A simple but powerful book helping to put into words the 'resistance' we all feel when trying to make new things.

Jill Silva - Jill Silva has more than 20 national writing awards, including a James Beard Award, 2 additional James Beard nominations, a dozen first place awards from the Association of Food Journalists as well as two entries in the anthology “Best Food Writing,” 2008 and 2011. She has also received the Hunger Champion award and Harvesters: The Community Food Network Culinarian of the Year. She is currently a @flatland_kc contributor and has been beyond nice to this kid from Los Angeles at every turn.

-My son and daughter used to say I only read food books. And only for work. I would remind them I DID read all seven Harry Potter books out loud to them! WITH voices!! Since I left the newsroom and joined a tiny and thoughtful book club (there are three of us), I read more for pleasure, and more broadly, including mysteries, Victorian literature, poetry, and sci-fi. But food books are the ones that continue to shape my professional self. I would also argue food is where some of the best writers work today. Has anybody read a Best Food Writing anthology lately? It’s exciting to share my favorite titles, and hear new perspectives from non-foodie friends.

  • Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan - When I was a food editor for The Kansas City Star, I was generally less interested in recipes and more interested in food politics, food systems, food deserts, food sovereignty, food justice, and food insecurity. UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan’s ability to write for a popular audience really made an impression on me. He also wrote this book as farm-to-table was a new concept. He seemed like a modern-day muckraker, digging down to explain the dilemmas created by the industrialized food system, like how the heck corn got in our DNA and why we should probably kill the animals we eat. His formula for dividing his book into four meals, though repeated in several of his subsequent books, was also an interesting structure to pick apart. I reread the book recently with my book club. They were blown away by the writing, and distressed by questions about the food system they had never considered. I felt like I was reading a time capsule with ideas now less novel to me, but still as important.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain - Everyone is binging Netflix’s “The Bear.” And I think I know the reason why. It’s the same reason Anthony Bourdain’s first book catapulted him to fame: He pulled back the curtain, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly in the restaurant industry. Something I’ll always remember is how he compared a kitchen brigade to the wily crew of a pirate ship. Side note: I interviewed Bourdain while he was on that book tour and he was so smart, but less the bad boy in person than I expected. I took him for lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s, a gas station barbecue joint, now Joe’s KC. My favorite quote from our interview: “Proximity to petroleum products is rarely an impediment to a great meal.”
  • Tender at The Bone and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl - Ruth Reichl’s first book was a breathtakingly honest and touching memoir of how she became a powerful food critic. Like my entrée into food, pretty much by accident! The Secret Life was a glimpse of the tricky world of restaurant reviewing and her amazing ability to describe flavors.
  • Black Smoke by Adrian Miller - If you’re a former full-time journalist interested in making a BBQ documentary (in your off hours (like I am!), it helps to hang out with historians (and read them). It has been said that journalists only write the first draft. Adrian Miller’s award-winning Black Smoke encouraged me to keep trying to tell the stories of underrepresented figures in barbecue.

Jack Timmons - Proprietor and pitmaster at Jack's BBQ, which has blossomed into five Seattle locations. He grew up in Texas and has lived in Seattle for over three decades working at both Boeing and Microsoft until a magical thing happened in 2012. That was when attended BBQ Summer Camp at the Meat Sciences department of Texas A&M. This led to diving headlong into the barbecue world and building his small yet formidable Pacific Northwest Barbecue empire. He's a thoughtful and detailed man that I've grown to look towards as both a business mentor and inspiration.

-For restaurant life:

-Personally:

  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.  I’ve read this multiple times.  It helps me not waste my life, take chances, and live this one short life correctly and to the best of my abilities.
  • The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  I listen to this book while driving, any time I am feeling anxious.  Being present is an important key to happiness.
  • Goodbye to a River by John Graves. I floated this river with my brother as a kid. Graves describes it in the most beautiful way, making me aware of the impact your environment has on you as a human.
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.  Great lessons on stoicism: how to focus your life, be prepared for mishaps in life and engage with people in an open-minded way.

John Shelton Reed - "​John Shelton Reed has written a score of books, innumerable articles, and a few country songs, mostly about the South one way or another. His writing has been described by the Washington Post as "provocative, instructive and amusing," and by the San Francisco Review as "funny and erudite and annoying." He has been Chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and is co-founder and Éminence Grease of the Campaign for Real Barbecue (TrueCue.org)." In our two sit-down interviews, I have grown to find a strong bond and kinship with John and cannot believe that we are not related by blood. He's a good soul and an incredible writer and historian. His latest book On Barbecue is a perfect way to take a step into his literary world.

  • Book of Common Prayer (1549-1928) - Many Southern writers have spoken of the importance of being raised on the King James Bible, but for this cradle Episcopalian, even more, important was the Book of Common Prayer. Heard and spoken week after week, how could it not have improved my prose and maybe even my character? Too bad for Southern literature that both the Bible and the Prayer Book have been vandalized in my lifetime.
  • Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand (1930) - For a Tennessee boy in a New England college, coming across this 1930 “Agrarian” defense of the South, written in the wake of the Scopes Trial, was an eye-opening experience. Whatever its shortcomings (a subject for another time) it proved to me that “Southern intellectual” isn’t a contradiction in terms.
  • Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Morris Rosenberg, The Language of Social Research (1955) - The great Viennese-born sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld was a pioneer of quantitative social science research and my mentor when I was in grad school at Columbia University. This book was an exciting introduction to the kind of stuff he and his students were doing. I’m still just an ole country positivist.
  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • In 1968 the SDS and other student radicals shut Columbia down. I was there, and I feared that they were wrecking something precious and irreplaceable. When I turned to Burke (someone must have recommended him) I found a kindred spirit.
  • Walker Percy, Lancelot (1977) - Imagine: a Southern writer who’s not trying to write or not to write like Faulkner, writing about a South that resembles the absurd region we live in now, where stereotypes are consciously enacted and history is less a burden than a commodity. My literary friends sneer when I say that this is my favorite Percy novel, but it’s the only one I’ve read more than once.