I must admit that, despite spending far, far too many of my waking hours thinking about food, cooking food, and eating said food, I have never been a big fan of cookbooks.
I don't mind the occasional recipe here and there, but I never want to pick up a book with 200 recipes and flip through them looking for something interesting. My food book curiosity is more in the realm of narrative and history, of reading about food and where it came from.
Many of the food-oriented people I know have shelves brimming with cookbooks of every stripe and flavor, from geographic- and ethnic-centric to restaurant-focused and diet-focused manuals. Not me. My food books fit nicely on a single shelf. I may check cookbooks out of the library, but rarely would I plunk down dollars twenty five for one.
Here is, in no particular order, my (current) list of my favorite five food books from my (small) food bookshelf:
The Tummy Trilogy ( American Fried, Alice Let's Eat, and Third Helpings) Calvin Trillin is an American treasure, and a complete rarity among foodwriters. He writes passionately and honestly about good food, but completely deflates the overwhelming pretension and silliness that plagues most food writing. To read a food piece by Trillin is to get hungry, to want to hop in your car and drive all night in search of genuine boudin or to track down the original Buffalo chicken wing. To hell with La Maison de La Casa House: bring on Arthur Bryant's!
The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten's writing persona is brilliant: a passionate, compulsive bumbler who lurches his way through one culinary investigation after another. He throws himself headlong into his pursuits and never fails to both amuse and educate.
The Taste of America, by John L. Hess and Karen Hess. A delightful polemic, first published in 1976, that skewers the state of American cooking and dining in the 1970s. It may be a quarter century old, but the book is still relevant today not only because of the broad ranging history of American food it provides but also because the central tenants of what makes for good eating--and what makes for gussied-up food charlatanry--are as relevant now as they ever have been.
Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney. This barbecue book is what every book on barbecue should aim to be: well-researched, wide-ranging, funny, lavishly-illustrated, and just downright enjoyable. Sure, there are recipes, but they don't overdo it. Who really needs four thousand recipes for barbecue sauce? A mere half dozen will do. Between the authoritative history of barbecue in the Tarheel state to the in-depth interviews with the state's legendary pitmasters, Holy Smoke not only entertains but also leaves you a lot smarter and hungrier than when you picked it up.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain. I'm a little leery of the gonzoesque nature of Bourdain's original book, having OD'ed on Hunter S. Thompson quite a while ago, but something about Bourdain's writing still manages to hook me. The sheer lack of romanticism is part of the appeal, as is the underlying love for food and the restaurant life that shows through every page. Best of all is the energy. In writing about food and cooking, Anthony Bourdain makes you want to be there and live the life, and that's the hallmark not just of great food writing but great writing in general.
All great books, and all great writing and storytelling, too.
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