Books for cooks

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It's been a tough year. As the financial fallout of 2009 continues, very few gift-givers are feeling confident enough to splash out on big-ticket items, nor is there a race to get those top-dollar restaurant reservations. All of which makes it a perfect moment to give cookbooks for the holidays: They're relatively inexpensive and they'll keep home cooks safely cocooned, exploring the boundaries of the pantry rather than the limits of their bank accounts. So, don we now our vintage aprons (also a nice cook's gift, by the way) to recommend a few.

A couple of notes on selection: First, my list of recommendations was almost twice as long as what I could include here; a cruel edit was necessary, but I will be posting the leftovers daily on Salivation Army ( Second, I saw no reason to stick strictly to new releases, though several are included. Some of these books were published a few years or even decades ago; thanks to e-commerce, we can now plunder back catalog for the best instead of just plumping for the latest/"hottest" — and used books make an easy (and cheap) gift.

Books for beginners

I Know How to Cook (Ginette Mathiot, Phaidon), first published in 1932, has been called the French Joy of Cooking. The 2009 version is an encyclopedia of French home-kitchen lore, thoughtfully translated and updated by popular blogger Clotilde DuSoulier (chocolate and containing nearly 1,500 recipes and plenty of extras, like a list of "menus by celebrated chefs" and a section on preserving meat, vegetables and fruit. It was exquisitely designed by Sonya Dyakova, with charming illustrations, many full-color photos and a dust jacket that unfolds into a frame-worthy poster. Am I likely to cook pike quenelles or calves' brain loaf tomorrow? No (though I will work my way through the profusion of simpler recipes). Will I be paging through this book and daydreaming menus for years to come? Absolutely.

The sad demise of Gourmet magazine isn't really soothed by Gourmet Today (edited by Ruth Reichl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) — it can't replace Gourmet's gorgeous photos and travel features. Still, this hefty, handsome book of more than 1,000 recipes is a comprehensive look at modern American cooking, taking in ethnic influences and the new focus on fresh and/or local ingredients.

Hanukkah starts at sundown tomorrow, so if you order Jewish Cooking Boot Camp: The Modern Girl's Guide to Cooking Like a Jewish Grandmother (Andrea Marks Carneiro and Roz Marks, Three Forks/Globe Pequot) immediately, you (or your lucky recipient) may be able to fry the latkes yourself. This is not the kind of cookbook that gently insists you grind your own spices; shortcuts like McCormick Season All, Miracle Whip and raspberry Jell-O are featured ingredients. But hey, it's also got extras like a "Chanukah Playlist" for the kitchen that includes J Dilla, Nas and 3rd Bass. Energetic, practical and witty.

Yes, chef! The celebrity option

On the flip side, once-naked chef Jamie Oliver would never let even a home cook get away with McCormick Season All. But his take on "the good life" of gardening and eating close to the earth is so common-sense, so relaxed, that kitchen nerves don't intrude. Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life (Hyperion) is arranged by season, with dishes corresponding to what's growing, and it's beautifully designed, stuffed full of color photographs and anecdotes.

Getting a table at one of David Chang's mini-empire of New York restaurants — Momofuku Noodle Bar (named for the inventor of instant ramen noodles), Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar and Ko — was THE foodie boast in mid-to-late 2009. His creations had a rock & roll swagger to them, a kind of why-the-fuck-not looseness wedded to serious skills that blew diners' minds: the infamous eight-pound pork butt-and-oyster bo ssäm, the kimchi egg "McMuffin," cereal-milk-flavored soft-serve … but the whole empire grew out of a passionate fixation on ramen. Momofuku (Clarkson Potter) serves up the recipe for that finely honed bowl of noodles, as well as the formative journey of an obsession.

A Twist of the Wrist: Quick Flavorful Meals with Ingredients from Jars, Cans, Bags, and Boxes (Nancy Silverton, Knopf) ain't no whiskey-tango Sandra Lee "semi-homemade" slop. Silverton's book is a repository of sophisticated recipes for grown-ups comfortable in a kitchen. Those without a Top Chef viewing habit probably need not apply — but cooks ready for a challenge will find their labors considerably shortened by the use of jarred, canned and dried products. Silverton's index of expert product recommendations alone is worth the price of the book.

Eat their words

Someone once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Happily, this is not at all true of writing about food. In fact, eating and cooking inspire many writers to their dizziest heights. (And as anyone who's tried to review a restaurant knows, describing food while avoiding pedestrian commonplaces is the most difficult of writing tasks.) Many writers not known chiefly as gastronomes have a sideline, like a secret vice. The late novelist Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Harper Perennial) is a combination memoir and cookbook. The chapter "Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant" is a classic of the genre — warm, funny, empowering and delicious. In 2006, Penguin Books published Sound Bites: Eating on Tour With Franz Ferdinand (Alex Kapranos). The musician and one-time sous-chef's short, sharp, cool journal is a wonderful gift for anyone hitting the age where the thrills of the nightclub give way to those of the table.

Other writers found their métier and stuck to it: No discussion of food writing is complete without at least a passing reference to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, the grande dame of the culinary memoir. The Art of Eating (M.F.K. Fisher, Wiley) collects her best-known work into 784 pages of delicate-yet-direct prose. The progression of her life (or lives) is mirrored in the march of volumes here, from inexperience to tempered wisdom. All women should read The Gastronomical Me, a story of awakening senses; anyone feeling the financial pinch will glean much from How to Cook a Wolf, written during the food rationing of World War II. Fisher's lively translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's 1825 treatise The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (Everyman's Library) is also unsurpassed; for serious epicures, the pair would make a fine gift package.

"Ode to Pepper Vinegar" was the poem that brought Kevin Young to our food-centric notice, but the whole of Dear Darkness: Poems (Knopf) is saturated with the foodways entwined in his Southern childhood … a elegiac symphony of black-eyed peas, catfish and maque choux, funeral casseroles and church barbecues.

Oranges (John McPhee, Farrar Straus Giroux) is a perfect gift for any Floridian … or any Northern relative who looks forward to a bag of Florida citrus around December. Lion of the narrative nonfiction genre McPhee traces the "botany, history and industry" of oranges with a clear, humorous style and devotion to synecdochic detail.

Bites by mail

Gourmet is gone, and Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, et al. are perfectly nice but a bit … unchallenging. For those seeking a more creative food magazine, subscriptions to the quarterly "journal of food and culture" Gastronomica are available at The Summer 2009 issue included an article on eating with your hands (with this quote from the Shah of Iran: "Eating with a fork is like making love through an interpreter") and an exploration of food racism on Stormfront, a white-supremacist "online community." Meatpaper (, a magazine of "art and ideas about meat … `more` metaphors than marinating tips," has a narrower focus and is more visually oriented (and more jokey) than Gastronomica, but equally intellectually stimulating.

No slight art

"Based upon extensive research done by the Future Laboratory into ‘Future Food' developments," CrEATe: Eating, Design, and Future Food (Gestalten Press) is more academic journal than cookbook. Thought-provoking chapters on package design, manufacturing, food activism, and societal and environmental issues are interspersed with stunning, full-color photographs and nimble graphic design.

Eat Love: Food Concepts by Eating-Designer Marije Vogelzang (BIS) is a record of Dutch culinary conceptual artist (and Vimeo darling) Vogelzang's works on ideas of consumption and nourishment. Like the best performance art, her pieces ("from seed to poop") are more heart than brain, appearing simplistic and cute but slyly providing food for thought.

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