Seeing as it's almost Thanksgiving, I figure that, in 2007 terms, I'm already behind with my annual List O' Stuff You Might Want to Buy Someone Who Likes Eating and All Such Trappings. What better way to rectify that then with the following collection of books, all carefully selected to satisfy most any manner of food-inclined folk.
For foodie newbies, or those who think that food writing has to be either bland or boring (or, in the case of Paula Deen's oeuvre, just plain kitschy): Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, a picturesque -- and picaresque -- yet still compulsively readable companion book to his popular Travel Channel series. Now, don't get me wrong: Bourdain might not even be the best there is at what he does -- straightforward, uncensored travelogues with a big ladle's worth of humanity -- but he's still a damn good writer when you reduce his sauciness. To boot, his myriad TV appearances will make this an easier sell to the uninitiated.
Not to be confused with the (still interesting, if effin' sad) Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row by Ty Treadwell (one poor sap requested -- and received! -- a dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, a can of Franco-American spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake), there is Melanie Dunea's My Last Supper, featuring the hypothetical "last suppers" of some 50 chefs. (Bourdain, in fact, poses near-nude with only a cigarette and a beef bone. Like, from a cow). Jacques Pepin probably sits closest to my heart, choosing a crunchy baguette and Béylon oysters. However, Laurent Tourondel chose a Krispy Kreme doughnut, which I can also get behind.
To her credit, author Sally Schneider, in her wonderful (if sparsely illustrated) book The Improvisational Cook, doesn't suggest cutting corners and throwing the cupboard into a given dish just for the sake of experimentation. Her advice is much like what any music (art, writing, etc.) teacher worth his or her sea salt might suggest: Learn the tools of the trade and the compositional basics, get them down, and then begin tearing the whole thing apart and starting over if it so moves you. Schneider encourages cooks to not merely copy a recipe, but understand how and why it works. Armed with this knowledge, you may then begin to substitute ingredients, learn to think (and buy) organically, and cease being controlled by the words on the page in favor of what's stewing in the pot, which, Schneider suggests, will always teach you more than pretty gastroporn pictures and Xeroxed index cards can any day.
On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee is underknown in a lot of circles (the big-time food world not one of them). This is likely because McGee, who sometimes comes across as a nebbish little philosophizer/chemist, isn't what folks like to see on Food Network. But self-righteous (and often, just plain wrong) folks like Alton Brown owe their very existence to this man. (Not to pile on, but everything Brown does has been done first, in more detail, and moreover more elegantly, by McGee. Thomas Keller, Paula Wolfert, Jacques Pepin wouldn't lead you wrong, and neither would this humble schmuck.)
And finally, no matter your background (or gender/sexual preference, etc.), I give you Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power by Psyche A. Williams-Forson. Building shows us that socio-academic works (thus the colon-ed title) about food can tell us about the world by extension (we all eat -- how are we alike? Or different? What do we do with the ecosystems we live in? How does what we do not eat tell us just as much as what we do?) but about ourselves: both what we were and can be. Featuring postcards, photos, literature, advertisements (often racist in nature), stills from television and movies, and even Chris Rock's comedy, Building is almost a downhome take on the world-in-a-grain-of-salt works of a Mark Kurlansky (Cod). And yet, it's better, more immediate -- or, at least, more immediately important.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com, among other publications.