devouring the literary food world

I collect food books. Cookbooks dominate the bestselling lists but the literary world thinks of food writers as mainly providing dinner solutions. But look beyond cookbooks to discover a wealth of biographies of some of the stars of the culinary world, and well-written books that focus on food history and gastronomic topics. There’s a feast on the shelves to extend food knowledge and provide plenty of nourishment to ponder. Here are a few favourite titles from my collection that make for great winter-holiday reading.

The Perfect Meal by John Baxter (Harper Perennial) was recommended by a chef friend, and this book really is a feast. An expat resident of Paris, Baxter explores the idea of creating a banquet from the fast-disappearing ingredients and dishes that underpin classic French cuisine. In his quest to eat all these foods, he journeys all over the country describing his eating adventures.

One of the best gifts my sister ever gave me, Consider the Fork, A History of Invention in the Kitchen, is by Bee Wilson (Particular Books), a very talented English writer and food historian who explores the origins of kitchen tools and equipment. Her fascinating tales of such things as the egg beater, table cutlery, saucepans and kitchen measurements are told with wit, with many asides that give illuminating insights into our culinary world.

MFK Fisher is regarded as the doyenne of American food writing. Both An Extravagant Hunger by Anne Zimmerman (Counterpoint Press) and Poet of the Appetites by Joan Reardon (North Point Press) pull no punches on the complicated and almost scandalous life Fisher lived. I am not sure if I can ever forgive her for not revealing to her own daughter who her father was, but both books make fascinating reading.

There’s not a food writer who hasn’t been inspired by Elizabeth David. Writing at the Kitchen Table by Artemis Cooper (Michael Joseph) gives remarkable insights into her colourful life, especially the descriptions of the wartime adventures that subsequently led to her passion for food writing.

If you enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s novels you will be intrigued and challenged by her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Faber & Faber), in which she documents the year her family spent in the Appalachians, growing food, eating only local produce and examining everything about the food chain and the environment. I am full of admiration for a tale with so much passion and truth.

Food memoirs have become the rage. One of my favourites is Blood Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (Chatto & Windus.) Hamilton, a revered New York City chef, tells it like it is for women who have to deal with one of the toughest scenes on the planet. And another NYC hero, Marcus Samuelsson, shares the amazing tale of his life in Yes, Chef (Random House). Ethiopian born, and adopted into a Swedish family, he went on to open a starred Scandinavian restaurant in New York City before truly recognising his roots and creating a place in Harlem, the Red Rooster.

Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of the excellent Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, has a superb memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (Norton). She details her experiences as a student in China and how she dealt with unusual foods (she ate everything) and the highs and lows of living and embracing the culture and cuisine of this vast country. Highly recommended as we recognise the growing influence of this culture on our own food culture here in New Zealand. Lauraine Jacobs