Inspired by my wife, Judy, I have become an enthusiastic cook, and of course a corresponding devotee of good wines. This combined with my passion for book collecting has led us to possess a very large collection of cookbooks, books about food history and culture, and books on wine. There is no possibility of my cataloguing all of them here, but I will from time to time list some that have had a particular influence on our joy of cooking and fine dining.
Richard Barnett. The Book of Gin. New York: Grove Press, 2011.
This entertaining little book covers the rise and fall multiple times of the juniper-based beverage, gin. It’s history is mostly British, where it first emerged as a derivative of the Dutch genever. Throughout much of its early history it was a distinctly lower class competitor with beer and ale. It had many seedy and controversial periods in its history, what with gin lanes, gin palaces, and other sordid environments. Many fake versions with a host of other kinds of flavorings, including turpentine and sulfuric acid! It’s union with quinine-laced tonic water helped reduce the problem of malaria, and the gimlet, with lime juice, helped defeat scurvy. In the 20th century it emerged as a higher class, sophisticated beverage, and formed a key part in the emergence of the mixed drink, or cocktail. It was a popular beverage during the US Prohibition. His last chapter begins with “now is the best time in the last five centuries to be drinking gin.” It’s revival in the late 1980s includes fashionable newcomers such as Bombay Sapphire and Hendricks, as well as many smaller artisanal varieties. As a fan of the martini, the gin and tonic, and the negroni, I enjoyed this lively historical journey. The appendices include selections of early writings about gin, including Charles Dickens, and a review of the author’s favorite varieties.
Eric Block. Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science. Cambridge, UK: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2010.
Garlic is one of my favorite ingredients in cooking. There is nothing quite like the step in a recipe of sautéing onions and garlic on the way to something delicious. Therefore, it’s no surprise that this book caught my eye at a funky store on Maui. It is actually quite technical, as one might expect of a volume published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. In case you are wondering, the allium family includes not just garlic, but onions, leeks, chives, and others. A key component of alliums is sulphur. But there is much more than science. The role that the alliums have played in architecture (the onion domes), art, medicine, literature, and many other domains is described and illustrated. Since I think of cooking as a species of applied chemistry, this volume is perfect.
Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer. A Meatloaf in Every Oven: Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish and Dozens of Recipes — from Mom’s to Mario Batali’s. New York: Grand Central Life & Style, 2017.
Aw come on, I can hear you say. Meatloaf? Yup. It may reflect my Midwestern upbringing, but it is one of my favorite things. The Tuscan meatloaf (Polpettone), listed below (review of Flavors of Tuscany), is one of my most enjoyed, and it’s also in this book! But, just to show you how varied the recipes are, there’s Zucchini Loaf (yes, vegetarian), Frito Pie Loaf (yes, with Fritos in it), and Speaker Paul Ryan’s Loaf (made with venison; but it’s politically and epicuriously balanced by Nancy Pelosi’s bison loaf). The authors are two New York Times staff members who discovered their mutual fondness for meatloaf. One thing led to another, and this book resulted. It includes amusing transcripts of chats between the two authors about, well, meatloaf.
Carol Field. In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
This is the book that started it all. I heard it reviewed on NPR shortly after Judy had challenged me to cook. So I did. I won’t bore you with the story of how I proceeded, having not cooked very much before. But not to start modestly, the first thing I made was Crostata di Fagiano, or Pheasant Pie. I’ve subsequently cooked dozens of things from this and other Italian cookbooks, and we’ve enjoyed an extensive range of new flavors and tastes. I believe the volume is now out of print, but it can be acquired via secondary markets, including Amazon. A few of our other favorites:
- Pasta alla Palombara — Pasta with Tuna, Anchovies, Pine Nuts, and Currants
- Torta di Verdura — Mashed Potato and Spinach Tart
- Pollo con le Olive — Roast Chicken Stuffed with Black Olives
- Trenette con Pesto — Trenette with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans
- Risotto alla Rucola — Risotto with Arugula
- Bruglione — Wild and Brown Mushrooms with Garlic and Potatoes
Adam Gopnik. The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
This is Adam Gopnik, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, at his best. It is a mix of erudition, humor, love of food, and expert raconteur. He reviews many dimensions of food, eating, and especially, writing about food. He discovers what he feels is a soulmate in a 19th century English food writer, Elizabeth Pennell, and writes e-mails to her scattered throughout the book. These often have his favorite foods and recipes in them. Alas, late in the volume, he reveals a side of Ms. Pennell that greatly disturbs him. I am astounded at the depth of his knowledge, both historical and contemporary, of cuisine in general, and French cuisine in particular. There is the unsurprising lament about the contemporary French cuisine’s loss of innovation. But overall, this is a delightful tour of many issues in cooking, restaurants, and food in general.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Flavors of Tuscany: Traditional Recipes from the Tuscan Countryside. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
This is a companion to In Nonna’s Kitchen. We often cook pairs of recipes, one from each volume. Here are a few favorites:
- Tuscan Onion Soup
- Potato Gnocchi
- Country-style Chicken
- Tuscan Meat Loaf –Polpettone
- Grilled Beef Steak — steak put sizzling on fresh arugula
- Sauteed Greens with Garlic and Oil
Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Rev. Ed.). New York: Scribner, 2004.
This is a volume to be sampled from time to time. It is encyclopedic in its coverage of food. I have always thought of cooking as a form of applied chemistry, and this book satisfies the urge to know more about the underlying principles of the wide variety of ways of preparing food. The author is a chemist, but also a food lover. He weaves in history as well as science, often tracing the origins of the foods and styles of preparation that we know today. I love looking up a favorite food to get the underlying insights into the whys and hows. It is also written in a witty and engaging style. For instance, on eggs, it quotes the Victorian Samuel Butler who said that “a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg.”
Panikos Panayi. Fish & Chips: A History. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.
This is another of my quirky fetishes — I love fish & chips. And the odd thing about this, it’s a love fostered almost exclusively in the US. I’m sure I’ve had fish & chips in the UK, but nothing stands out. I’ve had them all over the US, from Alaska to Boston. It’s just a dish that rocks me, and is today very common on US menus, especially in restaurants that feature seafood. So this history was great fun. It traces the separate history of grilled fish and grilled potatoes in the UK, until they finally met in the second half of the 19th century, which led to a huge uptick in their popularity, and the explosion of fish & chips shops all over the UK. There are complex threads to the history. The fish component seems clearly to be a Jewish import, as frying fish in batter is an old Jewish custom brought to Britain by immigrants. The potato thread is murkier, though it is possible that it too was an import from either France or Belgium, where frying potatoes was common. The fish and chip shop becomes a harbinger of the emergence of the takeaway form of dining, which in the mid 20th century expands to Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and US imports (the latter chicken and burgers). Such takeaway enterprises become a conduit for immigrants to get into business. And there are many other social implications of the fish and chip phenomenon that Panayi explicates in this short but interesting volume. It’s an entertaining history, though one thing I could not find, is how the US version of fish & chips is almost always accompanied by coleslaw. So there is certainly more to learn. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy them myself, like today, when I originally wrote this. I had fish & chips at Watermarc in Laguna Beach, with halibut as the fish. Great!
David Remnick (Ed.). Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. New York: Random House, 2007.
As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I don’t usually include anthologies in these reviews. However, as I said before, the Library of America is one clear exception. Now I add The New Yorker as another. That magazine has produced a number of high quality anthologies, largely because the magazine itself features such high quality writing. This is a typical satisfying collection, written by a who’s who of New Yorker writers from the past century. It’s hard to single out any favorites, as the quality is uniformly high. But I love the selections from A.J. Liebling, M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin, Roger Angell, and John McPhee. Interesting authors include Steve Martin, Nora Ephron, and Ogden Nash. A bonus, typical of New Yorker anthologies in general, is a generous sprinkling of great cartoons. This is the perfect book to pick up when you need a break from some monstrous tome you are in the midst of, which, alas, is often the case for me.
Redcliffe Salaman. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1849, 1985.
Yes, I own this book. It was one of the last that I acquired at Heffers’ in Cambridge at the end of our 1989-90 sabbatical at Rank Xerox EuroPARC. I moved a non-trivial portion of their inventory to our flat, for shipment home. This is probably the book that most often leads viewers in our library to comment, “You own this?” Yes, I do. It is a remarkable book. It was first published in 1949, and re-released by Cambridge in 1985, edited and with a new introduction by J.G. Hawkes. I have read much of it, and it is very entertaining. It follows the potato from its origins in South America to its impact on Europe, especially Ireland, and especially the disastrous Irish famine of the late-1840s. It is still cited as the definitive history of this tuber (as shall be revealed in other volumes in this section). It is British historiography at its best. It won’t come as a surprise that the potato is one of my most favorite foods. I like it in all of its numerous forms.
Andrew F. Smith. Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
I doubt any reader of these reviews will be surprised that I am a bona fide popcorn lover. So finding a serious scholarly book about this subject was a pleasant surprise. And this is for sure a scholarly book, written by an author who teaches culinary history. He traces the many speculations about where popcorn came from. Of the many species of maize, it seems like the one that is popcorn is one of the oldest. Exactly how these small, very hard kernels became a widely enjoyed food is not clear. They first became a popular food item in 19th century America, but the real take-off occurred with the emergence of movies. Movie theaters in the first half of the 20th century became the primary place for consuming popcorn. Hot buttered popcorn became a movie staple. The emergence of TV in the 1950s and 60s threatened this, but popcorn companies turned their attention to pushing popcorn for home consumption, with special attention given to how it could be made conveniently. One huge breakthrough was the emergence of microwave technology. He also traces the emergence of Orville Redenbacher as a major supplier of gourmet popcorn. In the 1990s popcorn was criticised for being unhealthy, what with all the butter, salt, and oil that often accompanied it. He ends by wondering if popcorn’s hay day has passed. But we are 20 years past the publication of this volume, and my informal impression is that it is doing just fine. My Whirley Pop popper with their kernels, canola oil, and popcorn salt makes wonderful popcorn every time. Perhaps oddly enough, I don’t like sweet popcorn, despite growing up with Cracker Jack and being exposed to popcorn balls, sweet movie popcorn in England, and kettle corn at sporting events. My preference is salty popcorn. The second half of his book is a huge collection of historical popcorn recipes, an interesting collection that shows all the different ways popcorn had been consumed.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. History of Food (2nd Ed.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
The original book was published in French in 1987. I own the first English translation, published in 1992. This new second edition, acquired recently, adds much interesting material. This is not so much a book to read from cover to cover as a reference source for the origins of the things we eat. I regularly look at it for insight into why we eat what we eat. Written in French, it has a decidedly Francophile tilt, but what’s not to like, as that’s one of the greatest cuisines on the planet. A few samples of section titles will give you a sense of the contents: The holy war of cassoulet, Fat oxen and prosperous butchers, Butter: the cream of the milk, Cereals as civilizers, From porridge to beer, Wine and God, The history of pork and charcuterie. Well, you get it. And the prose of the English translation, which I believe captures much of the feel of the French original, has such observations as (taken from a section on Mushrooms and Fungi): “I have not yet mentioned truffles, but I have not forgotten them; that would be unforgivable. Those ‘black diamonds’ will take their place in the section on charcuterie below, in the context of the traditions of Gaul and the Périgord area, for the truffle, like certain other luxury foods, did not achieve fame until the time of the Roman conquest.”