Thursday, January 04, 2007

Best of 2006: Food Books

In 2006, I went on a binge of reading food-related books, not all of which were published in 2006.

My favorite by far was The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Useable Trim, Scraps, and Bones by Anthony Bourdain. It’s a collection of Bourdain’s columns and articles that ran in publications in several different countries. Bourdain is a chef who gained fame by writing “Kitchen Confidential,” an engrossing, funny, foul-mouthed memoir of his checkered career in restaurant kitchens (and probably my all-time favorite food-related book). He has since gone on to be a food writer and TV personality with a devoted following.

This was one of those books that made me wish I were still in a book group, because there would be a lot to discuss. While I enjoy and admire Bourdain’s writing immensely, he does tick me off from time to time. My biggest beef (so to speak) is his disdain for fat people, going so far as to write a snide little essay telling fat people not to eat so much at McDonald’s. As someone who has struggled with my weight for more than 30 years, I may be a tad thin-skinned (and that’s the only part of me that’s thin, ha ha) about this issue. But from what I can tell, Bourdain eats a lot (particularly high-fat meat dishes), travels a lot, and works out very little. My hunch is that his lean physique may have as much to do with his genes as with his eating habits. Plus the guy is a chain smoker, former drug addict, and a heavy drinker. Who the heck is he to make judgments about anyone’s lack of restraint?

Then there’s the melancholy essay recalling the seedy Times Square of yore, with its drugs, crime, and porn, as if it were vastly preferable to today’s tourist trap. Bullshit, was my immediate response. I made my first trip to New York City in 1983 and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I visited Times Square last year, and while I still don’t like the area, it is vastly better now. In the back of the book he gives his updated reactions to the columns in the book – and pretty much recants that particular essay. (Speaking of which, the best way to read the book is to read each essay and then flip to the back of the book for his current thoughts about the essay.)

Anyway, this negativity is really nitpicking. Bourdain is a witty, intelligent writer with a knack for telling a good story and putting food into a larger context.

Runners up:

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. The appeal of this book is that the author wasn’t happy with her life and she dared to try something new, bold, and ambitious. She decided to cook all of the recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, in a year, and keep a blog describing the project. She did all of this while working at a mind numbing secretarial job. Some recipes were delicious and others were a disaster (and, of course, it’s the disasters that make for the best stories). She ended up gaining quite a following and getting a new career as a food writer. Although I didn’t buy a few aspects of the book, Powell is an entertaining writer who tells a good tale.

It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten. He’s a former attorney, the food writer for Vogue Magazine, and the arrogant judge who appears on many episodes of Iron Chef America. This is the second collection of his essays. Some of them are laugh-out-loud funny – the essay on his quest to make a perfect pizza had me in tears. Sometimes his subject matter is a bit too arcane for me, but I have to admire his curiosity and intelligence about all things related to food.

Honorable mentions:
Fat Girl
by Judith Moore (not technically a food book)
Heat by Bill Buford
My Life in France by Julia Child
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

I’m always looking for interesting reading material. If you have a favorite food-related book, please leave a comment!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved Anthony Bourdain's, "Kitchen Confidential," but haven't read, "The Nasty Bits," yet. I'm going to start his other book, "The Bobby Gold Stories," tomorrow. (I'm getting my wisdom teeth taken out) Anyway, I agree with you; he has no right to pass judgment on anyone else. I've seen shows where he's eaten so much that he becomes physically sick. He must have incredible metabolism.
As for Times Square, I recently visited New York City for the first time in November. I felt very safe there, and everything seemed really interesting. I'm not sure what it used to be like. I'd love to visit Manhatten again.
You should read, "Garlic and Sapphires," by Ruth Reichl. I just finished it, and it's great.
-Emilie

Tracy said...

Emilie,

Good luck with the wisdome teeth! I had mine taken out years ago -- not much fun.

Times Square in the 80s had porn places everywhere and the people around were pretty scary. I agree that it's safer now but the prices of everything in that area are ridiculously jacked up.

I read "Garlic and Sapphires" and I agree that it's very interesting. I'm not sure I would've had the guts to go out in public as completely different characters. Ruth Reichl is quite a writer, especially when it comes to describing food (which I find to be very difficult). I read one of her two memoirs, but I can't remember which one! Maybe finishing up her books will top my reading list for 2007. Thanks for the recommendation!
Tracy

Anonymous said...

Do read Ruth Reichl's other books-Tender At The Bone and Comfort Me With Apples. I think they are better than Garlic and Sapphires.

Peter Williams said...

Marco Pierre White's, White Slave is being released in the US this year ... he puts Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential into perspective. White was the original kitchen "jerk". I'd use harsher words if I could. There is a critical part in the book where he dresses down a young Gordon Ramsay ... the chef I considered up to now as being the reigning chef/jerk.

It kind of raises the question ... does a succesful chef have to be abusive to have a succesful restaurant?

We've reviewed both White's, White Slave, and Bourdain's, The Bobby Gold Stories (mentioned by an earlier poster) at The Open Critic and neither come off with flying colours.

I for one will be interested to see what the reaction to White Slave will be.

In any event, it might be worth putting on any list of must reads for 2007. Especially for those interested in food writing.

Regards, Peter Williams

Tracy said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Peter. I'll look for "White Slave."

The Open Critic site looks really cool. I'll have to spend some time checking it out.

Peter Williams said...

Please do check out The Open Critic ... we're looking to create an active community of people who appreciate good literature and have something intelligent to say about it.

Which leads me to offer you an invitation ... if you'd like to post a review, we'd love to see it ... one of the thoughts Trevor and I have had is to write about cookbooks as autobiography ... it seems that they tell readers / users a lot more than just the mechanics of cooking, but about the authors themselves ... we've also been hoping to receive multiple submissions about the same book, so if for instance you have read The Bobby Gold Stories or Kitchen Confidential and would like submit a review, we'd love to see it ... or for that matter, any other reviews of food writing you've posted or written. You can get in touch with me at "peter at morainebookservices.com"

In any event, I'm glad you liked what you saw so far with at The Open Critic.

Regards, Peter Williams

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