I've just been out doing last-minute shopping. You're out doing last-minute shopping. Or deciding what to do with the book-buying gift certificates that always make the best Christmas gifts. Here are suggestions I've been meaning to make for too long, offered almost too late--but these are all books you should own, whenever you make your way to a bookstore and however they make their way to your or a worthy recipient's library.
My first love is Italy, so I start with two Italian-themed books you need. The first, La Cucina, is an encyclopedia by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina of over 2,000 recipes that is an essential reference for professional and home kitchens. The range and scope of the recipes, many of which you'll never have occasion to make (donkey stew, tope--a name I didn't know for shark--with garlic and finferle, Tuscan wild mushrooms substituted here with chanterelles), itself sets it apart from almost any other book, particularly one in good English.
I say "good English," because although the credited translator is Jay Hyams, I know that my friend Fred Plotkin had a great deal to do with the translation of the recipes for American kitchens. I hear his dry wit in many places--"This recipe from Toscana for beans cooked in a glass flask should ideally be made with an authentic Chianti fiasco (with or without the straw)"--and see his good sense too. And as always in a book of this size and any book Fred has anything to do with, I learn things constantly. In a brief swing through, I finally found the derivation of the common Italian, especially Roman, way to refer to offal:
the quinto quarto ("fifth quarter") on the theory that the weight of these parts, which no one usually wants--including the head, tail, hooves, and tripe--was equal to one quarter of the slaughtered animal's weight.
When you have a dish anywhere in Italy and need to make it at home, you'll want to start here.
Why Italians Love To Talk About Food is another matter altogether, as discursive as La Cucina is, for all its length, terse--a gallimaufry of a book of Italian regionalism, history, and culinary traditions. "Gallimaufry" is usually a fancy way to say "hodgepodge," and indeed there are mini-chapters within each section on subjects like Pasta or Democracy. But on initial reading, the book by an essayist and translator named Elena Kostioukovitch, looks to be a series of very wide-ranging essays divided by region, in essence trying to see the country's soul through its food. As my esteemed friend and authority Carol Field says in her foreword, "Italians talk constantly about food even when food isn't the subject." She, too, likes what she calls the "interstitial" chapters "that deal with subjects as diverse as pilgrims, the liturgical and popular calendar, democracy, slow food, Jews, primary materials, eros, and restaurants." This is a work of scholarship written to be as engaged and engaging as it is informative, and will make a very good travel companion, in advance of or after an excursion.
For sheer knockabout fun, Randall Grahm's calculatedly loony wine newsletters have finally been collected, in Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology, whose punning title indicates the tone of the collection. Everyone who can't take wine too seriously has long prized Grahm's rambling, erudite, footnote-strewn, funny writing, so much a forebear of the late David Foster Wallace that I did a quick Google search (the only linkage I found was a listing of well-known non-philosopher philosophy majors). A very random search through the pages turns up this sample dialogue:
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'I'd rather have a frontal lobotomy than a Laube in front of me.' Can you believe that? I'm telling you, he's his own worst enemy."
For all his relentless punning and anti-establishment that is itself a direct descendant of Tom Lehrer and, closer to his southern California roots, Stan Freberg, Grahm's Bonny Doon vineyard has been enormously influential, particularly in the spicy and fruity yet medium-weight Rhone-style wines he dubbed Rhone Rangers (does anyone even remember the origin of that particular pun, Sloane rangers? His own variant seems to have lasted longer). And his labels have always been as iconoclastic as he. You'll find many notes on wines, the history of those labels, and most of all Grahm's exuberance everywhere here.
Colman Andrews, an amazingly fluid writer, is always worth reading, and his Country Cooking of Ireland is, along with John Besh's My New Orleans, the picture book to buy this season. Friends are always surprised to the point of shock when I tell them that Ireland is my favorite food country, for the unspoiled, grassy, rich quality of its ingredients, particularly, milk (the butter! the cream!), cheese, and fish. And the soft, beautiful breads...I go into a reverie just thinking of them, and you can see and read about all of them in this lush book.
Now, the unread-night-before-the-exam book that's my eleventh-hour promise: William Grimes's Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, a book I've been waiting for since I first saw an exhibition of historic New York menus Grimes curated at the New York Public Library (and got to write about it for his own paper, the Times. The book isn't full-color and lavish, but it's full of black and white pictures, and menus, and more important the history of a city and its restaurants, I can't wait to read. Anyone who loves eating out and loves New York will want this book. And really, do you want to be shopping for anyone else?