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Friday, December 14, 2007

HOLIDAY GIFT BOOKS: Food and wine memoirs, history, tips


For the more literate person, there are the "memoirs" of writers,
chefs, and wine people. Some have called these memoirs "creative non-
fiction", suffering from embellishments and gilding. And also suffering
from a lack of indexing, which makes it difficult to find what the
writer said about another person or subject. But this also avoids the
potential for lawsuits and disjointed noses. Nevertheless, they are
rewarding to read. Who cares about poetic license? Here then are some
that stood out from last year's run, and any of them would make great
gifts for the reader. Here we go, in no particular order.

* THE AMATEUR GOURMET; how to shop, chop, and table-hop like a pro
(almost) (Bantam Books, 2007, 216 pages, $32 hard covers) is by Adam D.
Roberts, who has both a jurisprudence degree and an MFA in writing.
Noted logrollers assembled to help this amateur along include the Lee
Brothers, Michael Ruhlman, and Clotilde Dusoulier. It's a good read if
you like schadenfreude. Roberts takes readers through everything from
slicing and dicing an onion to cooking for a date.. He interviews
Amanda Hesser as she tours her pantry, he lunches with Ruth Reichl to
get the ten commandments of dining out. There are a dozen or so sourced
recipes from Batali, Child, Shere, et al, and the print is large enough
so you cannot miss anything. There is more stuff to check out at But unfortunately there is no index to retrieve
the tips or the recipes.

* KITCHEN WISDOM (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2007, 96 pages, $18.50 hard
covers) is by Anne Sheasby. It's a basic book of tips, advice, hints
and tricks, with chapters on staples, flavourings, produce, dairy, and
so forth. There is a reference section on food safety and food
preserving. What I like about this book is the large typeface; I hate
squinting when I am reading for reference.

* ALICE WATERS AND CHEZ PANISSE; the romantic, impractical, often
eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution (Penguin
Press, 2007, 336 pages, $35 hard covers) is a biography of both Waters
and Chez Panisse, surely the most influential California restaurant in
the 1970s. Thomas McNamee has written this "authorized" biography; he
had access to her and to her friends, private collections and
memorabilia. The story is revealing of how Alice fell into the food
business: she was essentially a Francophile replicating Provencal food
(as in the name of the resto), quite similar to Julia Child of twenty
years earlier. She was the first "foodie", no doubt about it. But she
is now a public figure: chef, activist, advocate, and spokesperson for
the good food movements. There are also some recipes and some
historical menus.

* ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE; a year of food life (HarperCollins, 2007,
370 pages, $33.95 hard covers) is by novelist and essayist Barbara
Kingsolver, with her husband academic Steven L. Hopp and teenage
daughter Camille Kingsolver. This is the story of a year in which they
make every attempt to feed themselves with items whose provenance they
know about. They moved from Arizona to a farm in Appalachia. Of course,
all of this only works if you live on or close by to a farm, as they
did. Hopp contributes the scholarly analysis of the food environment
(journalistic investigation) while both Kingsolver women deal with the
memoir part. The daughter provides good material on teenage
"adjusting". There are some recipes, a bibliography, a list of
organizations and websites (including some from Canada). The book is
also available as an audiobook, with readings by the same principals
and printable recipes. There are more recipes and resources at

* COMFORT FOOD FOR BREAKUPS; the memoir of a hungry girl (Arsenal
Press, 2007, 171 pages, $19.95 paper covers) is by Marusya Bociurkiw.
She's a fiction writer, film maker, and food blogger. These are
vignettes (4 - 5 pages each) about food in her life: how it nourishes,
comforts, and heals. There are about a dozen recipes, mainly Ukrainian
and Italian food. Some stories have been previously published; many
deal with travels throughout the world.

* EATING INDIA; an odyssey into the food and culture of the land of
spices (Bloomsbury USA, 2007, 304 pages, $30.95 hard covers) is a
travel memoir, with cultural history and descriptions of festivals and
traditions. Most of the Indian food in North America is based on
Punjabi recipes. Chitrita Banerji, a food writer, takes us through the
influences of other aspects of India: the Aryan tribes, Greeks, Jews,
Mongols, and Arabs who have left their mark on Indian food. Recipes are

* TABLE TALK; sweet and sour, salt and bitter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
2007, 271 pages, $34.95 hard covers) is a collection of previously
published articles by Brit food critic A.A. Gill; they are from his
Sunday Times and Tatler columns (four of the latter). He is exuberant
about great eating and caustic about poor preps. He suffers from one
disease: he is allergic to bad food - and he writes about it. His
writings here focus on specific experiences of food fads, tipping,
chefs, ingredients, eating in town and country, and eating abroad. They
cover the range of a decade, and there is nothing on individual
restaurants such as a review or critique. All material has a source
date, and there is even an overall index.

* THE LAST CHINESE CHEF (Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 288 pages, $32.95) is
a novel by Nicole Mones (she write "Lost in Translation"). A food
writer is coming to grips with her husband's premature death. From out
of nowhere comes a paternity suit filed against her husband's estate.
Could he have fathered a child while in his firm's Beijing office? A
good read.

* THE YEAR OF THE GOAT; 40,000 miles and the quest for the perfect
cheese (Lyons Press, 2007, 224 pages, $28.75 hard covers) is by food
writer Margaret Hathaway. This memoir explores the possibility of
starting a goat farm and fromagerie. Her therapist suggested it: "Take
off a year, away from New York city". She and her boy friend
photography Karl Schatz (he took the pictures here; they are now
married) went through 43 states in search of the perfect goat cheese.
She talks with (and we listen in on) farmers, breeders, cheese makers,
and chefs. They now live in Maine, and are involved with the Slow Food
movement and the Maine Organic Farmers group.

* A PIG IN PROVENCE; good food and simple pleasures in the south of
France (Chronicle Books, 2007, 224 pages, $29.95 hard covers) is by
Georgeanne Brennan. It is a culinary history from a Beard winner and an
IACP winner, but it has still been log rolled by Alice Waters and
Frances Mayes. She now runs a seasonal cooking school in Provence.
Thirty years ago she relocated her family to the south of France. Each
chapter is centered on a traditional Provencal food or meal. Local
material includes eight informal recipes plus histories and talks with
local people and markets.

Things are a little slow in the memoir world of wines. I saw only a
handful. One was A DAY IN TUSCANY; more confessions of a Chianti tour
guide (Globe Pequot, 2007, 256 pages, $23.75 hard covers) by Dario
Castagno, who earlier had written "Too Much Tuscan Sun". This current
book concerns the activities of one spring day in 2005 (they don't
bother to say which day). "The sights he sees and people he meets as he
takes a one-mile walk through his village during the course of this day
trigger memories of his childhood and adolescence in Tuscany." He also
talks with the village elders and reviews his career as a Tuscan tour
guide. Did you know that more than a million Americans visit Tuscany
each year?


Nostalgia and popular history come together in the form of THE
TOOTHPICK (Knopf, 2007, 443 pages, $35.95 hard covers) by Henry
Petroski, an engineering prof at Duke who has written a dozen other
books in popular history (such as The Pencil, The Evolution of Useful
Things, and Small Things Considered). This time he goes even smaller,
driving the pencil into the toothpick. He begins in Rome with silver
toothpicks; in mediaeval Spain it was used by maidens to resist those
with an ardent pursuit of the kiss. Charles Forster in 19th century
Boston hires Harvard students to create a demand for toothpicks in area
restaurants. A modern day factory can churn out 200 million toothpicks
a day. A fascinating microstudy. Another useful popular book is TEA;
the drink that changed the world (Tuttle Publishing, 2007, 256 pages,
$21.50 hard covers) authored by Laura C. Martin, a botanical
illustrator and storyteller. The illustrations are black and white, and
mainly historical. This basic history comes with added material such as
"best times of day for sipping various teas", a bibliography, and a
website listing.

For culinary historians, we've got plenty this year.

* THE LAST FOOD OF ENGLAND: English food - its past present and future
(Ebury Press, 2007, 488 pages, $65 hard covers) is
by Marwood Yeatman. He and his photographer-wife Anya live in a
farmhouse in Hampshire, on two acres, from which they derive fuel,
fruit, nuts, and vegetables. They brew their own beer, salt their meat,
and bake bread in an original brick oven. The region covered in this
book is just England - not Wales, not Scotland. He abhors the words
British and Britain. His contention is that English food had a
provenance, and that a lot of it still does. He does a deep analysis of
regional food, such as Cheddar (cheese), Hereford (cows), Middlehorn
beef, and Southdown mutton. For example, he notes that there are
thousands of types of apples, and that there are different varieties
for eating, for storing, for sauces, for pies, for mincemeat, and for
cider. The same for pears. He covers the cattle markets, the local
shows, towns and villages, and rural outposts. His people chapters
include bacon curers, seine fishermen, and tripe dressers. Other
products include historic breads, homemade butters, mediaeval peas,
seagulls and eggs. He claims that England has more breeds of livestock
and fruit cultivars than any other country in the world. He has some
basic recipes and a bibliography (of mostly older books). His history
of milling is a compelling read.

* THE PANTRY; its history and modern uses (Gibbs Smith,,
96 pages, $20.95 hard covers) is a useful small book. The
author, Catherine Seiberling Pond, is a New England architectural
historian and writer; she lives in an 1813 home with pantries (plural).
It is a basic book with the past, present, and future possibilities for
the pantry. She comments on storage solutions, design and layout.
Topics include larders, butteries, store rooms, and Victorian
farmhouses. There are 75 photos of old adverts, furniture, shelving,
and the like. She has more details at

* FEAST; why humans share food (Oxford University Press, 2007, 364
pages, $60 hard covers) is by Martin Jones, an archaeologist professor
specializing in the study of fragmentary archaeological remains of
early food. This is an historical approach to communal dining, ranging
from the chimps at a kill to the formal dinners of the 21st century. He
covers Roman banquets, TV dinners, and drive-through diners. He also
deals with the ecology of the surroundings in his scholarly approach to
the history of the meal. There are illustrations, end notes,
bibliography, and an index.

* AMERICAN FOOD WRITING; an anthology with classic recipes (Penguin,
2007, 753 pages, $50 hard covers) has been collated by Molly O'Neill
who was a food columnist for the New York Times - and a major cookbook
author. The book is part of the Library of America series; the 50
scattered recipes come from both vintage and modern cookbooks. This
book is supposed to present 250 years of US food writing, and not
everybody here is a food writer. There is Thoreau on watermelons,
Melville on clam chowder, Mencken on hot dogs, Ellison on baked yams,
Styron on fried chicken, and Ephron on internecine wars among the food
establishment. Food writers include Fisher (oysters), Claiborne
(foreign restaurants), Brillat-Savarin (American food), Villas (being a
waiter), Bourdain (cooking school days), and Child (early French Chef
TV series). There is a bibliography listing for the original source

* SECRET INGREDIENTS; the New Yorker book of food and drink (Knopf,
2007, 585 pages, $37.95 hard covers) is a selection of essays and
fiction from 80 years of the New Yorker. David Remnick, the current
editor, did the selecting. Topics: eating in, dining out, foraging,
drinks, "tastes funny", and fiction (e.g. Roald Dahl's "Taste" from
1951, plus John Cheever). There are 58 in all, with a date supplied for
their original appearance in the magazine: A.J. Liebling, Calvin
Trillin, James Thurber, M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, John McPhee
(but NOT the article on oranges nor on that great chef in New Jersey),
and Adam Gopnik.

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