My top 5 food-themed books
June 27, 2011
(translation of Une Gourmandise) by Muriel Barbery
This was a beautiful book, once I knew how to treat it. I started reading it for plot, which was a mistake. There is one, but it’s only a skeleton to hold together a series of reminiscences related by a dying food critic. The critic is a horrible person (which we find out through the chapters in the words of his family and associates), but his love of food is very real, and the descriptions he gives are lyrically beautiful. It’s a strange juxtaposition of the of narratives of others which make you hate the man, and the beautiful memories he has of his favorite food experiences as he struggles to remember a forgotten taste that he wants to experience just one more time.
Once I started reading more slowly, and for the descriptions rather than the action, I loved this book. There are wonderful stories about his food memories — childhood summer days at the beach, culminating in his father’s passion of fresh grilled sardines, a chance meal at a farm house after he gets lost on the way to a restaurant, the satisfaction he finds, without eating a bite, from watching a man prepare a simple lunch with unhurried, loving care as if he were preparing a five star meal.
This is truly eating with attention, appreciation, and love, the way the French do. Despite the man being such a jerk, he has a lot to teach about what food should mean.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
by Barbara Kingsolver
A fascinating and impressive biographical story about when the author and her family moved back to a family farm in Virginia, and pledged to live on only local, in-season food. Kingsolver discusses the economic and environmental costs of shipping out of season foods from distant places, as compared to eating local food when it is in season, and preserving food for leaner times. She describes the difficulties her family had adjusting to doing without tropical fruit in the middle of winter, and waiting for the first spring crops to begin eating green vegetables. There is an abundance of interesting detail on what it takes to run a small farm. She discusses a plethora of vegetables, heritage chickens and turkeys, harvesting and canning, and interacting with other local farmers.
Written by famous food critic Ruth Reichl about her work as a critic in New York city, this book not only has some great descriptions about food, but also much interesting information about what is involved with being a food critic. Reichl wore different disguises each time she went out to review, since she was already well known from her work on the West Coast, and the New York restaurants were on the lookout for her. Her description of a hidden, off the beaten path sushi restaurant run by a master chef made me want to try sushi again after 24 years. I was never a fan, despite having tried it a few times, but her description was so vivid, I could taste the sushi, and found that I had a craving for it. (Luckily the place I went to with some friends was divine, so I found that I am indeed, now a sushi fan).
Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris
Primarily a mystery/human relationship story set in occupied France during World War II, the entire book is interwoven with a passion for food. The narrator’s mother, while troubled and unhappy in many ways, is passionate about food, and creates a diary with descriptions of the enchanting dishes she makes. Years later, the narrator returns to her childhood home, and carries on her mother’s tradition of cooking, while slowly revealing answers to secrets she has lived with her entire life. Many of Harris’s books are rich with food descriptions, and she has a wonderful way of weaving a mysterious tale.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain
A bold, sometimes raunchy, always amusing autobiography of life in the culinary industry. Bourdain tells stories about cooking school, coming up through the ranks, and the exhausting demands on people working in a restaurant. There are many hilarious anecdotes that you want to share with everyone while you are reading the book, as well as some excellent tips on how to ensure you order the best, freshest food on the menu (the seafood tips are the best). A warning to vegetarians: go in with a sense of humor, and ignore his comments on the subject – the rest of the book is worth it.