Cyber Monday for online shopping, Black Friday for what I think should be called Digestion Day--as shopping season gets under way, it's time to start thinking of gift books, which of course gives you a chance to consider which books you want for yourself. This season offers plenty, whatever is happening in the rest of print and book publishing.
I'm going through the stack that found their way too me and collecting more, and the most beautiful I've seen so far is My New Orleans: The Cookbook. John Besh is becoming a national celebrity chef--facing Mario Batali on Iron Chef, making talk-show rounds, with TV-ready looks and the genial, laid-back manner and ready, ivory smile he actually wears in repose off camera.
I first met Besh in 2005 at the Southern Foodways Alliance, when he spoke on a panel just after Hurricane Katrina about how restaurants were faring. His efforts to feed rescue workers, open his elegant Restaurant August almost immediately, and help fellow chefs get on their feet are by now New Orleans legend. But they were just an extension of his can-do, idyllic Bayou childhood, raised by a Marine father and his own years in the Marines, and the family-centered magnanimity that is everywhere in the book.
Aside from recipes that can get you cooking even immediately after a Thanksgiving marathon, the book has archival pictures of New Orleans that make it a trip into the city and region's present and past. One of the French Market, for instance, with its sloppy chaos, looks right out of the 1880s; only the telephone poles make it seem even plausible that the date was 1955. And there are farms, and hunting and fishing grounds Besh grew up around, and of course lush food pictures. I say "of course" because the editor and co-author was Dorothy Kalins, the marvelously stylish and substantive founding editor of the US version of Saveur and former executive editor of Newsweek.
This is a feast of a book, and appropriately to the city it's organized around feast days. You're only slightly late in using the book for its chapter on Thanksgiving, preparing for which is "an event in itself":
We take our feasts quite seriously here, striving to serve as many people as possible as many dishes as possible, while staying very close to tradition, never straying from the recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
(I'm hoping for pictures of Regina Charboneau's cast-of-hundreds annual Thanksgiving in Natchez, a three-hour drive from New Orleans and governed by the same spirit.) But you're not too late for a fall-greens salad with blue cheese and pumpkin seed brittle with cayenne--a brittle I've gotten extra plates of at Restaurant August--or, next month, bourbon pecan pie with blackstrap molasses, brown sugar, and corn syrup.
And you're in plenty of time for New Year's Eve (Reveillon) turtle soup, oyster dressing with of course bacon, and, for lunch the next day, crackling corn bread with requisite white corn meal. Then there'll be Passover, with Creole matzo ball soup, and a frustratingly tempting summer selection of all sorts of berries of the kind he grew up picking, with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, cheese, and country ham that makes me want to violate the seasons now, and "light and airy" fig cake with cane syrup--the secret and important native sweetener I grew addicted to thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance.
"He really is as good as he seems," Kalins says in an editor's note at the end, and this book will convince you he's the real thing. (I admire her decision not to exploit Besh's equally photogenic family and four tousled little boys, who appear only in passing.) So will this chapter introduction:
Most cooks grow up almost totally removed from the source of their food--from farming and the most elementary practices of harvesting and preserving; giving animals a better life is an alien idea to most of them. Yet I have never met a great chef who did not have a respect for the origins of their ingredients. So, over the years, I've found it very effective to take my cooks out of the kitchen and into the woods, face to face with mosquitoes, snakes, wasps, and all the creatures of the wild.
Take a trip to Besh's bayou.
The panel where I first encountered Besh was moderated by R.W. Apple, who recounted it in this New York Times article, written with his typical elegance and dispatch. Whatever food books you buy this season, be sure to buy Far Flung and Well Fed (my piece celebrating it here) for yourself. It's a readable feast.