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The Gift of Grub 

Six books on food that celebrate our humanity

There's a common truism among restaurant critics that only gets mentioned aloud when we talk among ourselves at conferences and such: When reviewing restaurants, we prefer to bring along interesting folks who want to talk about something other than the food we're eating.

Why? Because talking about food alone is boring. Certainly, a beautifully prepared dish causes a stir in both the palate and the intellect. But a large part of what makes a meal an engaging experience is the people, circumstances and ideas around which it takes place.

The same is true of great food writing. If people wrote cookbooks or essays on truffles without any personal or cultural context, they'd be as appetizing to read as a stale bran muffin. It's the passion simmering behind the words that draws us in -- the obsession for a flavor from childhood, the unspoken heartbreak or treasured memory behind a recipe. The best food writers invite us into the life that's been lived around the food they've consumed, or the method they've devised for making superlative fried chicken.

Here are six recently published books on food that brim with spirit. Any of them would make thoughtful gifts (One week to Christmas and haven't bought a single present? I'm so right there with you). Or check them out for yourself. Rich with humanity and often humor, they're entertaining (and in some cases, instructive) reads any time of the year.

A ripple of curiosity and rage ripped through the culinary community this summer when word got out about California Dish (Free Press, 2003, $25), Jeremiah Tower's memoir, which predominately focuses on his part in the rise of "California cuisine" and the American food movement in the 80s and 90s. Tower, who was chef/owner of San Francisco's celebrated Stars, has a nasty case of the snarkies. The pages of this book are filled with bitchy anecdotes about prominent figures in the food world, particularly Alice Waters of Berkeley's renowned Chez Panisse (Tower was instrumental early on in defining the restaurant's groundbreaking philosophy). Despite his often-implausible yarns, this one's a page-turner. The prose is surprisingly elegant, and the menus Tower has recorded through the years and annotated here tell their own evocative story.

Calvin Trillin, long of The New Yorker magazine, is one of America's wryest voices. His writing covers the gamut from politics to travel, though it's been awhile since he's published a book of food writing. Feeding A Yen (Random House, 2003, $22.95) finds Trillin tracking delicacies that he lists on his Register of Frustration and Deprivation -- those favorite dishes rarely seen outside their place of origin that he can't find in New York City. Of his register, he notes, "On gray afternoons, I go over it, like a miser who is both tantalizing and tormenting himself by poring over a list of people who owe him money." Trillin's sly observations make you chuckle constantly. Feeding is a quick and gracefully quirky read that leaves you craving more at the end of its 197 pages. (If you're a newcomer to Trillin's work and you find yourself hooked, check out his Tummy Trilogy, a compilation of his first three books on food.)

Fans of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential who are jonesing for more insider scoops on the restaurant biz should check out Leslie Brenner's The Fourth Star (Three Rivers Press, 2002, $15). Here's the premise: In 1999, Daniel Boulud, one of New York's finest chefs, opened Daniel, his largest and most luxurious venture to date. The incoming restaurant critic for the New York Times, William Grimes (who, by the way, is leaving the position at the end of this month), gave Daniel an unexpected three stars. The book follows the goings-on of every aspect of the restaurant from January to December 2000. It tracks Boulud's attempts to up the ante on Daniel's quality to woo Grimes and attain his critical fourth star. Halfway through the book, you realize there isn't much narrative drive to the story. Brenner instead uses her words like a director uses a camera to film a documentary. Although there are many scenes involving screaming chefs in mid-service panic, the lens focuses on a spectrum of cast members, from a new bartender inventing a cocktail to the cheese buyer attending a tasting. By turns frenetic and academic, the book certainly succeeds in capturing the utter craziness and selfless teamwork it takes to run a restaurant.

As a born and bred Yankee, I'm always trying to find new avenues into the minds of Southern cooks. I found no conduit more compelling or beautiful this year than The Gift Of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock (Knopf, 2003, $29.95). The weight of this book just feels good in your hands. Then you crack it open to find page after page of lucid stories and recipes offering clean, definitive takes on Southern classics. Much of the charm of this masterful work comes from the unique, blended culinary styles of Lewis, an octogenarian from Virginia who is legendary in the food world, and Peacock, an Alabama native who has become one of Atlanta's most celebrated chefs. There's something here for everyone: an incredibly creamy mac-n-cheese for purists; stuffed whole red snapper for the adventurous; simple, pure vegetable dishes and roast chicken for tentative cooks. Fans of Peacock's cakes, served at Watershed in Decatur where he is executive chef, will be happy to know that the recipes in the book are faithful renditions of the restaurant's versions (yes, that includes the Very Good Chocolate Cake).

Jeffrey Steingarten is a force of nature. As the food writing community's most extreme and articulate sleuth, the fun in reading him comes both from his witty words on his objects of obsession (Parmesan, steaks, chocolate) and from the lengths he will go to find the answers to his burning gastronomic questions. Perhaps my favorite essay in his latest collection, It Must Have Been Something I Ate (Knopf, 2003, $15), is "Personal Pizza." Steingarten is gripped with recreating the high-intensity heat generated by real pizza ovens. The lengths to which he will go to fool his home oven's thermometer gauge, and ultimately rig a grill to reach his desired temperatures to cook pizza, are hilarious and awe-inspiring. He's never apologetic about his fixations, either, which makes him even more of a fascinating character. This collection is easy to pick up anytime. It's perfect company for when you're schlepping through airports on your way home for the holidays.

Though cooking at home is something I enjoy, it's the rare occasion these days when I do (and truth be told, I'm happy to dine out most of the time). But when I read the introduction to Marion Cunningham's Lost Recipes (Knopf, 2003, $22), I knew I had to get myself back into the kitchen. Cunningham is the eloquent champion of home cooks, and her words remind us of the spiritual and communal rewards of preparing food for our family and friends. This is the book I'd give to beginner cooks. The recipes are sophisticated yet friendly, without too many ingredients or complicated instructions. That's not to say accomplished cooks won't find plenty to savor. I gathered a few friends together, and we made Southern green beans, Welsh Rabbit (mustardy cheese sauce on toast ... mmmm) and maple mousse. It was all easy to prepare and delicious to eat. Even the design of the book is thoughtful: There's a pocket for your own recipes and notes, lest they become lost as well. Cheers to Cunningham for reminding us that home cooking can be neither drudgery nor a time-consuming hassle.

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