Eleventh-Hour Food Books

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?

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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