Food -- the resplendent, the good, the bad and the ugly of it -- has entered the American literary mainstream in a big way. From Eric Schlosser's social discourse on the evil empire of fast food, Fast Food Nation, to Ruth Reichl's sensuous memoirs, Tender to the Bone and The Comfort of Apples, books about food are hitting the bestseller ranks with regularity. For those of us who like reading about food almost as much as we enjoy eating it -- to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart -- that's a good thing.
This year's crop of food books is an ambitious mixed bag (we're not including cookbooks here; that's another nine-course meal). Of interest to devoted foodies is bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain's follow-up to last year's blockbuster Kitchen Confidential. In A Cook's Tour, Bourdain, who says he "wanted the perfect meal" and "wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble," travels to the far corners of Cambodia, post-Soviet Russia, Japan, rural Mexico and many other exotic locales, drinking and eating in glorious excess.
In the interest of full disclosure, Bourdain confesses upfront that he is traveling with a film crew, shooting his adventures for an upcoming series on, gulp!, the Food Network. With practiced disdain, he chronicles the experience of being filmed, unfortunately detracting from the best portions of the book where he actually sits down to eat. Bourdain can be very funny -- in "How to Drink Vodka," referring to his hostess, he opines: "I was in love. If I could ever fall for a woman who reminded me of Broderick Crawford, it would be Sonya." And his knowledge of food is vast. A Cook's Tour is light and entertaining, but it won't leave you feeling you've learned as much about food as you have about the celebrity author's personal quirks.
Serious cooks will want a copy of Jacques Ppin's Complete Techniques on their kitchen shelves, if not to learn how to properly and effectively trim a rack of lamb then at least how to make perfect scrambled eggs (heavy cream and butter beaten in at the last minute). Organized in parallel strips of simple text directions and step-by-step photos of the famous chef's hands, Complete Techniques is both comprehensive and easy to use.
In addition to editing Gourmet magazine and writing her own books, Ruth Reichl has been busy in the past few years editing the Modern Library Food Series, a collection of treasured cookbooks resurrected from obscurity and reprinted in attractive paperback editions. Perfection Salad is a fascinating social history of the domestic science movement, a chapter of women's history ultimately responsible for everything from the nutritional breakdown of ingredients on packages to frozen TV dinners. Where Perfection Salad is academic in tone, the series' other new release, Clmentine in the Kitchen is as folksy and heartwarming as a Lasse Halstrom film. Set in pre--World War II France, it is the story of the Chamberlain family and their beloved French cook Clmentine, who introduced them to the joys of traditional French cooking and eventually moved with them to America. Filled with charming illustrations by Samuel Chamberlain, the book ends with a translation of extracts from Clmentine's handwritten cookbook, recipes that evoke the scents of garlic, thyme and rosemary and memories of a family trained by a master to love good food.
Of singular importance in the age of rapid globalization of food and food trade -- especially the rise of genetically altered seeds and biotechnologies designed to protect profits and international markets -- is Gary Paul Nabhan's book, Coming Home to Eat. Though we may be sympathetic to the message, few of us will actually go as far as Nabhan -- the author spent a year in his southwestern Arizona home eating only foods native to the region, defined by a 250-mile radius in all directions. In addition to filling his larder with turkeys and vegetables he raised in his own back yard, Nabhan scoured the desert for wild plant foods, borrowing from the collected wisdom of the Native American O'Odham tribe, and hunted wild animal foods including diamondback rattlesnake.
A prolific nature writer and an agricultural scientist concerned with the origins of foods, Nabhan writes both lyrically and clinically. We learn that the heart of the cholla cactus, when roasted over mesquite, tastes like asparagus, artichoke hearts and capers with a burst of lemon. But Nabhan is more concerned with the survival of family farms and local farm economies than with the aesthetics of food. And translating that to a global view of the future of the planet, he says, "The more we understand where our food comes from, the greater the chance there is that we can save the living riches of the natural world."
Many food lovers have jumped on this bandwagon -- the leaders and practitioners of the Slow Food Movement; Chefs' Collaboratives across America that support using locally grown, organic produce in restaurants; Community Supported Agriculture members and small farmers -- but few have explained the importance of knowing where our food comes from as eloquently as Nabhan. Coming Home to Eat is an important book for anyone who cares about food and the role of the consumer in the degradation of the planet.