Cookbooks and books of food writing are stacked around me. For the most part, these books prove to be a passing fancy. Very few make the cut to my permanent kitchen bookshelf, reserved for cookbooks, or to my office bookshelf, reserved for food writing.
This year, a few contenders for the permanent shelves moved into my house. The first is The Food of a Younger Land, edited and illustrated by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead Books, 397 pages, $28), which I reviewed in August.
The second is Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton & Company, 336 pages, $16.95). The British never fail in providing the best of sociocultural travel and food writers. Some of my favorites include the journals of Sir Samuel White Baker, who traveled the Nile in the 1800s, and the books of Peter Mayle. Dunlop is one of these keen observers. She moved to China in 1994 to enroll in the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. In this memoir, Dunlop writes of Chinese society, the Chinese palate and indigenous dishes, and draws conclusions about the way Westerners approach Chinese cuisines: "Texture is the last frontier for Westerners learning to appreciate Chinese food ... Think, for a moment, of the words we use to describe some of the textures most adored by Chinese gourmets: gristly, slithery, slimy, squelchy, crunchy, gloopy. For Westerners they evoke disturbing thoughts of bodily emissions, used handkerchiefs, abattoirs, squashed amphibians, wet feet in wellington [sic] boots, of the filching shock of fingering a slug when you are picking lettuce." Intermixed in the narrative are recipes: one for the exotic stewed bear's paw, another for the ubiquitous congee. Shark's Fin is moving to my permanent food writing shelf.
Singular subjects often prove the most memorable. Kurlansky's comprehensive Salt: A World History is one such history. Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages with 120 Adventurous Recipes That Explore the Riches of Our First Food (Knopf, 352 pages, $29.95), by Anne Mendleson, is another. Mendleson takes a lengthy historic and cultural look at the use of milk and its products. In her discussion of salted or unsalted butter, she clarifies labeling: Sweet butter now means butter without salt, but it should mean butter made from sweet cream, European-style butter usually refers to butter with a butterfat content higher than 80 to 81 percent found in American butter, and there's whipped butter, which she dismisses with the exception of Russian butter made in Vologda. The diverse recipes in the butter chapter include home-churned butter and buttermilk; ghee; nit'r kibeh, an Ethiopian spiced clarified butter; and beurre blanc.
What did we do before Iron Chef? In Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (Continuum, 272 pages, $24.95), researcher and librarian Kathleen Collins takes the reader from the first food shows in the 1940s, through the rise of Julia Child and Graham Kerr, and finally to the "Modern Period," 1993 until now. She writes that one of the first Food Network shows was Emeril Lagasse's How to Boil Water, which, understandably, wasn't received well since simultaneously PBS was broadcasting Julia Child's Cooking with Master Chefs. Then Lagasse had Child on his show for a New Orleans-styled crawfish boil in which he showed her how to suck the head of the crawfish, and BAM, people tuned in. Network executives who had stacked their programming with how-to-cook shows realized viewers liked to eat and watch more than they liked to cook. The idea of food porn developed into shows featuring entertaining personalities.
Food personality is what has propelled David Chang, the chef and owner of the Momofuku brand restaurants in Manhattan: Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar and Ko. Now he has teamed with Peter Meehan to write Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, 304 pages, $40). This cookbook and personal food history is the latest in the printed monuments to American restaurants of the moment. However, the wildly entertaining writing (with a fair amount of profanity) reveals Chang's honest approach to food and home cooks. In the headnote for Frozen Foie Gras Torchon, Chang writes, "But seriously, I really have no idea why anyone would try to a make a torchon of foie gras at home ... But for those who won't be deterred by common sense, here's our recipe." Chang's recipes are complex (instructions: remove the nipples from the pig skin; ingredients: transglutaminase, aka meat glue), but then his restaurants are not mere noodle shops. Adding to the appeal of Momofuku are the stunning photographs of Gabriele Stabile. Slurp.
Peter Reinhart, a Charlotte-based, James Beard Award-winning author, Johnson & Wales University instructor, and local restaurateur (Pie Town, 710 West Trade St.), has recently introduced his latest book: Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day (Ten Speed Press, 208 pages, $27.95). Reinhart distills his 50 recipes into breads that can be made in a "no-time" and has included pastries as well. Reinhart pronounces his biscuit recipe as the "best" ever, weighing in as being a "flaky" kind of guy -- as opposed to "tender." Who can resist flaky?
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