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The Modern Library of Food (Not Cook) Books
September 25, 2007 10:06 AM   Subscribe

10 books every chef, home cook or gastrophile should have on their shelf.

(in random order)

1) On Food & Cooking -- Harold McGee
2) The Art of Eating -- MFK Fisher
3) Kitchen Confidential -- Anthony Bourdain
4) It Must've Been Something I Ate -- Jeffrey Steingarten
5) Tender at the Bone -- Ruth Reichl
6) The Tummy Trilogy -- Calvin Trillin
7) The Omnivore's Dilemma -- Michael Pollan
8) Down and Out in Paris and London -- George Orwell
9) Heat -- Bill Buford
10) The Physiology of Taste -- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
posted by geoff. (49 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love MFK Fisher so much that sometimes I get a little dizzy when I think about her and her writing.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:10 AM on September 25, 2007


No Larousse Gastronomique? In my mind, that and McGee are the only two food reference books you need. That and about 200 cookbooks.

This list is really biased towards books published in the last ten years.
posted by dw at 10:23 AM on September 25, 2007


These are non-recipe books. I think a proper term would be the philosophy of food.
posted by geoff. at 10:26 AM on September 25, 2007


What, no Mrs Beeton?
posted by flashboy at 10:28 AM on September 25, 2007


Larousse Gastronomique is not very good, as I suspect much of it hasn't been tested. I'm genuinely surprised it gets recommended, to be honest.

I'd recommend Bon Appetit 30-Minute Main Courses (Amazon) or any James Peterson books (Sauces, Essentials of Cooking, etc.) well before Larousse.

The recipes in Bon Appetit in particular are uniformly excellent and well-tested. Its margins offer excellent recommendations for pairings, and, from this, over time you learn which flavor pairings work better than others. The recipes themselves lend well to experimentation and modification.

I don't know that I would recommend Kitchen Confidential for cooks. It's better suited perhaps for gastronomists or people interested in a tasty autobiography.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is outstanding. A great read, especially if you liked Fast Food Nation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:34 AM on September 25, 2007


I like "I'm just here for the food" by Alton Brown. I love its sections on identifying cuts of meat, the approaches to cooking the different ones and useful things like how to choose a set of basic pots and pans for your kitchen. An approachable guide for people that like to understand why recipes are the way they are and bridging theory and practice.
posted by afflatus at 10:35 AM on September 25, 2007


Larousse is a great reference for finding out what ingredients you've never heard of are, but it's distinctly poorer at that than 30 seconds with a search engine.
posted by vbfg at 10:37 AM on September 25, 2007


These are books about food and the experiences of preparing and enjoying and contemplating it. These are not books about process or technique or specific recipes, hence the exclusion of Ms. Beaton et al. There are dozens of good how-to cooking books. This list isn't about that.

I've not read three of those. I'll look forward to finding them. The odd-man out there is the Pollan, in my opinion, but a negative opinion is a nice counterpoint. The exclusion of Larousse is borderline, I agree. It's a great food encyclopaedia.

My suggestions for the list:
- Iain (no-M) Banks, Raw Spirit, about the search for the prefect whisky.
- Taras Grescoe, The Devil's Picnic, about "forbidden" food.
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on September 25, 2007


Larousse Gastronomique is not very good, as I suspect much of it hasn't been tested. I'm genuinely surprised it gets recommended, to be honest.

I have a '61 Larousse, and it's still pretty helpful, even though cuisine has shifted radically in the last 50 years. And I don't use it to cook, since the recipes are 30,000 foot views (e.g put some flour in reduced butter, no idea as to ratios or quantities). That's what cookbooks are for. I've heard the 2001 revision is pretty awful, though.

Last Christmas I got an Oxford food reference, and I found it to be both long-winded and flat compared to the Larousse. It was like they were trying to be both Larousse and McGee at the same time and failing at both.

I like "I'm just here for the food" by Alton Brown.

I was going to say that, but it's kind of a cookbook as well as a reference book, isn't it?

Larousse is a great reference for finding out what ingredients you've never heard of are, but it's distinctly poorer at that than 30 seconds with a search engine.

Until I found myself in possession of an iPhone, I didn't have access to a search engine in my kitchen.
posted by dw at 10:49 AM on September 25, 2007


I want books on the experience, philosophy, and savoring of poop. Cause that's all this food is going to become.
posted by anthill at 10:55 AM on September 25, 2007


Also, echoing the comments in the linked article, the James Beard's, Beard on Food and Julia Child's My Life in France are really worth a look. I liked Salt, by Mark Kurlansky, as well, but it's a bit dry.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on September 25, 2007


I like "I'm just here for the food" by Alton Brown.

I was going to say that, but it's kind of a cookbook as well as a reference book, isn't it?



A great reference book! The book is, well, exactly like his show; lots of useful stuff about the science of cooking as well as recipes.

I'm not too familiar with most of the others, but then I tend to focus on actual cookbooks rather than books ON cooking. Obviously I gots me some larnin' to do.
posted by elendil71 at 10:58 AM on September 25, 2007


Aaarrrgg! A "best of" list! Can't... not... look...

OK. Well, that list is a little silly. Haven't half of those books come out in the last ten years? Will people really still be reading "Kitchen Confidential" and "Heat" in another ten?
posted by gwint at 11:02 AM on September 25, 2007


Since the author didn't, will someone please defend the inclusion of 'Down and out in Paris and London'?

Do the wasting starvation scenes tickle some foodie schadenfreude?
Or is it like, "I may have never gone a day without 3 square, but I know what it's like 'cause I've read D&O in P&L."?
Or is it something else entirely?
posted by kickback at 11:11 AM on September 25, 2007


The Larousse is also heavily tilted towards French cooking and ingredients. It's not going to help you much if you're wondering what the difference might be between, say, various forms of choy greens. Still, it's settled more than one dinner-table query between my girlfriend and me over, for example, the canonical definition of a Paris-Brest pastry (where a search engine query would usually turn up the bicycle ride that inspired the pastry) and it's an impressive cock to swing around in front of one's foodie friends.

I do second James Peterson's Sauces book as a great, though intimidating, reference. However, a little part of me laments the absence of Elizabeth David, whom I'd still recommend over MFK Fisher.
posted by bl1nk at 11:15 AM on September 25, 2007


kickback -- my guess goes towards including a token British writer to diversify an unabashedly American list.
posted by bl1nk at 11:17 AM on September 25, 2007


A friend working at a women's magazine would get these kind of stories assigned to her, and the number of whatevers was always set in advance when the story was assigned, not based on anything factual.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:19 AM on September 25, 2007


The Paris part of the Orwell book is about being a plongeur (dishwasher) in a bunch of third-rate restaurants. I took it as a Kitchen-Confidential-in-1900 sort of way. And, of course, the London part of it is about eating garbage.

It's an interesting choice. The Art of Eating, and Fisher's earlier book, especially, How to Cook a Wolf, also deals with food in times of poverty, and I think more effectively. Orwell shows what it's like to be on the very bottom of the food chain though.
posted by bonehead at 11:30 AM on September 25, 2007


kickback - yeah, I wondered about that as well. Presumably it's there because of the plongeur section - where Orwell works as a kitchen assistant.

Or, maybe D&O just belongs on every top-10 list. I could be convinced of that. Such a great book.

On preview - "I'm crushing your head! I'm crushing your head!"
posted by bonecrusher at 11:32 AM on September 25, 2007


I've given up on recipe books. I buy them and find I like two or three recipes per book. Plus I like pictures. Pictures of the finished product, pictures of the intermediate steps and even pictures of ingredients.

Recipe blogs are uniquely well suited for this:
The Pioneer Woman Cooks
Simply Recipes
Smitten Kitchen
What We're Eating
Jaden's Steamy Kitchen

As for the philosophy of cooking and eating- that's for after when I am full and immobile.
posted by srboisvert at 11:35 AM on September 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wow. I haven't read, or even heard of, any of those. Thanks geoff, I think I'll try to make at least a few of those part of my fall reading list.
posted by sotonohito at 11:36 AM on September 25, 2007


Glad to see the Omnivore's Dilemma on this list. Everyone should read that book. But -- "gastrophile?" Is that a real word? It sounds like someone who wants to molest my digestive tract.
posted by tom_r at 11:39 AM on September 25, 2007


I'm neither a foodie nor a cook, but I loved all of Ruth Reichl's books and Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain and Reichl are marvelous storytellers, and their stories just happen to center on subject of food. Heat is on my wishlist.
posted by kimdog at 11:50 AM on September 25, 2007


The Paris part of the Orwell book is about being a plongeur (dishwasher) in a bunch of third-rate restaurants.

A couple of third-rate restaurants and a rather first-rate hotel. The major insight being that there wasn't actually that much difference back of house.

Bourdain also cites Orwell as an influence.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:00 PM on September 25, 2007


I have read (and loved) several of the books in this list and in the comments - my favorite authors mentioned here are M.F.K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl. To this list, I would add the recently published Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. What she's done is edit a collection of pieces about cooking and eating alone written by food writers and/or writers who happen to be into food, including Laurie Colwin (the title of the book is taken from a piece in her book Home Cooking), M.F.K. Fisher, Nora Ephron, Jonathan Ames and the like . I really, really liked it.
posted by mewithoutyou at 12:18 PM on September 25, 2007


My top ten would have to include The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation.

Also, The Essential Cook Book: The Back-To-Basics Guide to Selecting, Preparing, Cooking, and Serving the Very Best of Food is a fantastic resource on pretty much everything (meat cuts, fruits, grains, equipment, etc.), but despite the title, contains relatively few recipes.
posted by slogger at 12:19 PM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


These books should be banned from the shelves of all Mefites. Every single one of them is an instruction manual for overthinking a plate of beans.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:21 PM on September 25, 2007 [4 favorites]


I can't wait to read Heat - Buford's pieces for the New Yorker are my favorite contemporary food writing.

The Physiology of Taste is a fascinating read - not only for the considered opinion on properly stuffed quail, but for glimpses of what constituted the good life in the eighteenth century.

I agree that Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf is a terrific read, but more about resourcefulness in times of universal shortage than about individual poverty. But everything she wrote was terrific.

If you've read and liked Omnivore's Dilemma you'll also probably like his The Botany of Desire, which has two fascinating chapters on human taste and agricultural technique (Apples and Potatoes).

As for cookbooks, I like them only if they're organized in such a way that I'm learning about a cuisine or approach, not just how to make a specific dish. A friend recently clued me in to Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables, in which each chapter full of preparations is organized around a specific fresh vegetable, so that you can use the book to cook in season by starting with an abundant ingredient. Each has a long introduction full of natural and cultural history.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on September 25, 2007


I think Giving Good Weight by John McPhee stands with several of these, even if only the title essay and Brigade de Cuisine are about food. Those two essays are outstanding.

I don't really think the Orwell belongs, although I love the book.

No Elizabeth David? No Waverly Root?

The list makes me wonder, actually, how deeply the has read into the literature.
posted by OmieWise at 12:24 PM on September 25, 2007


Will people really still be reading "Kitchen Confidential" and "Heat" in another ten?

I'm surprised people are still reading them now.
posted by Dave Faris at 12:25 PM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


*how deeply the blog author> has read into the literature.*
posted by OmieWise at 12:25 PM on September 25, 2007


shit
posted by OmieWise at 12:26 PM on September 25, 2007


That said, I think Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook is a much better book than Kitchen Confidential. At least with the former, you learn something, and you'll still be able to order hollandaise after you've read it.
posted by Dave Faris at 12:27 PM on September 25, 2007


The Physiology of Taste is a fascinating read

I particularly like the version translated by Fisher herself. Her glosses are a great 20th-centrury commentary on Brillat-Savarin's 19th-century writing.
posted by bonehead at 1:04 PM on September 25, 2007


I also love Michael Ruhlman's books, The Soul of a Chef and The Making of a Chef.

Kitchen Confidential was enjoyable to me mainly because it accorded so completely with my own experience of kitchen work, which before the appearance of that book, was a world known only to people who had been inside it. My mom read it and said "I think it was pretty exaggerated;" my response, after a few years of side jobs in restaurants, was "not at all." It's not great literature, but it's an evocative, accurate depiction.
posted by Miko at 1:11 PM on September 25, 2007


Bourdain's book is also good if you need inspiration for becoming a pirate.

Really.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:22 PM on September 25, 2007


And furthermore... oh, Dave Faris. Come on. "Heat," I can understand the disappointment, but Bourdain's book is awesome and -- if Miko and all my professional cook friends are to be believed -- highly accurate.

The audiobook, by the way, is even better. We just finished it driving to Maine earlier in the month... (Gordon Ramsay's audiobook of "Humble Pie" is similarly superawesome)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:25 PM on September 25, 2007


People who knock Bourdain's book are usually forgetting the parts where he visits other kitchens (Veritas, the sushi place at the end) and does a compare/contrast with his own, and comes away realizing that some people can do it without the Ramones blaring and people screaming.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:41 PM on September 25, 2007




I enjoyed Down & Out, a good read. Makes you appreciate that you're not fighting over a piece of bread with your roomate...
I'm looking forward to reading some Julia Child, even though I am neither American nor French, it sounds good.
posted by teststrip at 2:57 PM on September 25, 2007


Don't get me wrong -- Kitchen Confidential is an entertaining read, no doubt about it, but I think it wouldn't make the cut if I were producing a list of the 10 Must Have food books, is all. Omiewise is right -- it's curious how Elizabeth David has sort of fallen out of favor. And there's no James Beard, either. I mean, Bourdain is entertaining, but he's not worthy enough to hold Escoffier's sweat rag.

I think McGee is the only author on that list that indisputably belongs on a top 10.
posted by Dave Faris at 4:07 PM on September 25, 2007


I don't see The Joy Of Cooking. I'd put that on a list of 1 Must Have Book.
posted by kafziel at 4:44 PM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


My husband got Heat on audiobook, and the author's voice added a lot to the story. I'd also second Soul of the Chef, especially to anyone who liked Heat, since they follow a similar pattern of a writer learning to be a chef.

I think I've got all of these. My husband joined a cookbook club and at last count had over 200 food related books.
posted by saffry at 5:09 PM on September 25, 2007


Isn't a gastrophile someone who makes love to stomachs?
posted by Eideteker at 5:47 PM on September 25, 2007


I buy cookbooks at discount bookstores or places like Marshalls/TJ Maxx/Homegoods [same corporation]. Mainly for the pictures.

However, I just received Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking", and it's frickin' awesome! Two small things I've been excited to learn from this book are;

To make perfect white rice, use a ratio of 1.7:1 of water to rice.

-and-

The reason [unprocessed] melted cheese feels "gritty" is that the lactose crystals haven't emulsified. To emulsify them use something like sodium citrate [sour salt -often confused with citric acid] or TSP [tri-sodium phospate, the crap you use to clean/prep walls before painting].

As I am highly unlikely to use TSP from Home Depot in my food, I am lazily looking for food-grade sodium citrate, so I can make homemade "Cheez-Whiz" or "Old English" [a chip-dippable cheese food, stable at room temperature] out of regular cheeses.
posted by ill13 at 5:55 PM on September 25, 2007


I would also suggest "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris," by A.J. Liebling. The man ended up eating himself to death, but, boy, could he write.
posted by adgnyc at 5:58 PM on September 25, 2007




On Food and Cooking is one of the greatest books ever written on any subject. Nice to see it on a list.
posted by milquetoast at 8:09 PM on September 25, 2007


another foodie blog www.2foodies2dogs1budget.com
posted by sjk at 12:57 PM on September 26, 2007


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