BOOKS THAT WHET YOUR APPETITE
This has been a funny season for readers who are foodies on the side, or foodies who are readers on the side. First came "Julie and Julia," the bombshell movie, which I have yet to see in spite of the admonitions of my neighbor, friends, etc. With the film came a burst of enthusiasm for all things Julia Child, especially her classics "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," a pair of volumes which take pride of place on my cookbook shelf. But then, in a perverse culinary turn, the publisher of Gourmet Magazine said this literary staple of the food world would be no more. I'd like to posit some reasons why Julia is up and Gourmet is down, as well as suggest some other terrific books that bring the love of eating and the love of reading together.
For starters, Julia Child was more than a cook; she was a personality who, no matter how famous she became, never lost sight of what she was about -- food. Gourmet Magazine, on the other hand, is a publication that used to focus on recipes and eating, albeit rather fancy eating. In recent years, however, it assumed a cosmopolitan audience that dined and traveled as much as it cooked. You could thumb through it searching for something that you could make in your own kitchen and end up feeling that your were the only schmuck who still stood in front of a stove, while the smart set either went out or ordered in. I don't know about you, but I look at a food magazine for the recipes before anything else. Ditto with fashion magazines: I don't expect them to serve as a primer on international affairs, solve my relationship problems or enhance my career. But enough already.
It's clear that a huge audience exists for reading about food, and bless the book industry for offering as many variations on this theme as there are palates to receive them. Here are the main food groups, as it were:
1. FOOD IN FICTION. Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate" is a model in this category, and I've searched the current crop of fiction looking for its likely sequel. My favorite of the bunch is ""The Various Flavors of Coffee," newly out in paperback, by Anthony Capella. No recipes here, but such evocative writing! Capella's story features a penniless poet who's enlisted by a coffee merchant to describe his wares. In the process, it captures the sights, sounds and smells of London, Britain at the height of her powers, Africa under the heel of European powers, and the suffragette movement -- as well as my favorite beverage.
2. FOOD AS PERSONAL HERITAGE. Gesine Bullock-Prado's memoir "Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman's Sweet Journey from Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker" has a lot of things going for it. For one, the recipes, many of them inspired by her German-Austrian background. For another, the fact that she's the sister of Sandra Bullock, providing a pertinent contrast: While her sister was making it big in front of the cameras, Bullock-Prado worked behind the scenes in film development and hated the shallowness of Hollywood. So off she and her husband went, to Vermont, where life turned out to be sweet in more ways than one. In a phrase, this is a book about reinventing yourself by going back to what you really love.
3. FOOD AS CULTURE. Great food writers of the past are never out of style, which explains why Everyman's Library has just published a new version of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's "The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations of Transcendental Gastronomy." Too heavy for you? Then try "Why Italians Love to Talk About Food: A Journey through Italy's great regional cuisines, from the Alps to Sicily," by Elena Kostioukovitch. This is a book for the serious foodie, covering Italy and its flavorful cooking step-by-step, with a sense of the natural resources and cultural backdrop that brought particular ingredients and dishes to the fore. The glossary of terms means you'll never again have to be ignorant of the meaning of such terms as alla cacciatora (browned in oil with rosemary, garlic and red pepper, then braised in wine) or in carpione (roasted, then marinated in vinegar).
4. FOOD FOR THE COOK. While avoiding recommendations for straight cookbooks, I'm not adverse to mentioning a guide as personal as Judith Jones' "The Pleasures of Cooking for One." Jones, of course, is the well-known editor who has spent more than 50 years editing other food writers for Knopf as well as writing her own books. After her husband died, she challenged herself to eat well alone, and this book reflects a lifetime of knowledge while providing a strategy and recipes for doing so. Even for households of two, her formula holds, and her ideas can help bring the joy into cooking for yourself or a mostly emptied nest.