"" What's She Eating Now?: 10 Great (Food) Books to Check Out

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

10 Great (Food) Books to Check Out

Summer came so late this year that it seems almost unfair that there are only a few short weeks remaining. Hopefully you will be carving out some time for yourself to enjoy the beach, the country, the Highline or any of New York’s wonderful parks but to do so properly, you’ll need a good read to escape with.

While I have reluctantly embraced the internet as a pretty worthwhile invention, to me there is nothing better than holding a real book with actual paper that has a properly weighty feel in my hands. I love the hollow clapping sound I hear when I pick it up and slap its back. I love groping for the top right hand corner of the page so I can quickly turn it to see what happens next. And if the book is in some way about food, all the better.

So if you’re still looking for a good book to carry you through the last vestiges of summer, here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

  1. The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin. I am going to go out of the gate strong with one of my all-time favorites. And truth be told, I am cheating a little in selecting this tome as it is actually a collection of three of Trillin’s works: American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings. In this trilogy, Trillin eschews haute cuisine in hot pursuit of America’s most treasured local delicacies. As he puts it in the forward, “[I don’t want] the place you took your parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. [I want] the place you went the night you came home after thirteen months in Korea.” Although written in the late 70s and early 80s, Trillin’s deep admiration of simple local flavor is an ideal to recall in today’s culinary environment of molecular gastronomy, fussy plating and celebrity chefs. He is a master story teller who is both wildly hilarious and at times inadvertently touching. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting his friends and family through the meals, and quests for meals, that he describes so wonderfully in this book. My paperback copy is well worn, yellow, creaks like an old lady running a fifty-yard dash and if you want to borrow it you will have to pry it from my cold dead hands.

  1. The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin. There are only a handful of times that I became deeply saddened when I finished a book, knowing that I would miss its company. At the end of this one I literally cried. Jacques Pepin has had a tremendously fascinating life and equally impressive is the manner in which he shares it here. Candid, funny, at times heart-breaking and always charming, this beautifully written memoir selflessly shares Pepin’s amazing and unpredictable journey. His passion for food and his zest for life are simply infectious. The Apprentice just might be the most unpretentious book by or about someone who has no reason to be modest.

  1. My Life in France by Julia Child. Its hard to think of Jacques Pepin and not think of Julia Child. Perhaps you are Julia-ed out by the movie and the wake of Julia-related everything it has stirred but this book is a true gem. Getting to know Julia Child through its pages was a delight and perhaps more so, an inspiration. Child found her calling later than many and was well into her 40s before she achieved any professional success at all. If a dowdy middle-aged house wife living in a country where she doesn’t even speak the language can do it, so can you. I bid you bonne chance, however, finding a copy without Meryl Streep and Amy Adams on the cover.

  1. Cooked by Jeff Henderson. While we’re on the topic of inspiration, Chef Jeff Henderson went from selling crack, to PMITA prison, to executive chef at Café Bellagio. This book is about hitting bottom and starting fresh, with some good food stories along the way. A guided tour through the unfamiliar world (at least for me) of rock slinging and street thuggery is an engrossing bonus.

  1. Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. Next up is Ruth Reichl’s memoir about her experience as the restaurant reviewer for The New York Times. This book is a

    simultaneous view into the life of a food critic—the ultimate dream job that is far more demanding than it seems—and the personal journey of Ruth Reichl during this challenging stint. Reichl has an amazing ability to describe characters to the point that you feel like you really know them. I adored the portrayals of her late mother’s friend Claudia, her co-worker Carol, famous foodie Ed Levine and the various personas she creates in order to review restaurants unrecognized. A light worthwhile read complete with some easy recipes for the home cook.

  1. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. A lot of people classify this as a business book. I view it more as an autobiographical walk through Meyer’s career, peppered with sound advice distilled from lessons learned and applicable to nearly any walk of life. Danny Meyer’s approach to life and business is rooted in common sense and compassion. The restraint it took to not buy this book for my last boss was like going to Blue Smoke and just having a salad.

  1. Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen. This book is a little guilty of sharing the same formula that many behind-the-scenes chef books do these days: cutting your teeth as a chef is hard; there is a lot of sex and late night boozing, and at the end of the day I grew up and became the chef I wanted to be. That said, Jurgensen’s tale is well written and entertaining, a perfect beach read.

  1. The Ramen King and I by Andy Raskin. Ok, this book doesn’t have a ton to do with food. Its much more about a guy’s quest to become a better person, but it is definitely engrossing and there are some good scenes that take place over meals of both sushi and ramen. Andy Raskin is a very loveable loser cum stand-up guy and if you’re in the midst of some soul searching this one might speak to you.

  1. Heat by Bill Buford. A professional writer by background, Buford crosses the line from observer to, as the subtitle of the book reveals, “kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany.” His four-year journey starts with a trial run in Mario Batali’s Babbo kitchen and ends in the shop of Italy’s Mr. Miyagi of butchers. Along the way we get both memoir, and biography of Batali and some of his mentors including Marco Pierre White, all told with the finesse of a New Yorker staff writer. Fascinating stories about some fascinating people.

  1. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. No list would be complete without the book that initiated the whole genre of chef tell-alls. Bourdain’s ‘adventures in the culinary underbelly’ are candid, witty and irreverent. Some of it will make you hungry, some of it will gross you out, all of it will entertain you. You’ll also notice almost every food book that comes out these days has a quote from Bourdain on it. That’s because he’s the grand poobah of kitchen bean-spilling. So if you haven’t read it yet buckle your seatbelt and get ready for Mr. Bourdain’s wild ride.

There you have it but by no means is this list exhaustive. I tried to include suggestions for those new to food books as well as those who devour them like Joey Chestnut to a pile of hot dogs. So if you disagree with my selections or would like to share some of your faves please comment below. I hope you enjoy your summer reading, even if it's on a Kindle.


  1. Having grown up on California, one of the books on my short list to read is In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast Food Chain That Breaks all the Rules. In spite of their reasonable prices and rapid expansion over the past decade, they've managed to maintain their focus on consistent high quality food. I still visit an In-N-Out each time I fly back to Cali.

  2. Good list Jess. I've read 4 out of the 10. Definitely will have to check out the other 6. Setting the table is one of my favorite books, not just for restaurants but business as well. Keep up the great blogging!

  3. I don't know if this counts, but another book on my list is Who Moved My Cheese? It's not exactly a book only about food, but it does mention cheese in the title.

  4. hi Jessica, great blog. Can I request a similar top ten list of your favorite food films?

  5. Thanks for your comment, Allen! Top ten food movies is a tough one but a solid request nonetheless. I have 12 round trip hours of driving to do this weekend so will think on it and put it in the queue! Keep coming back to visit, I'll get something up there for you soon!

  6. I'm reading "My Life in France" by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme right now. It makes me want to move to pack my bags and head to Paris. Julia Child shows that you can take on new adventures no matter how far along you are in your life.

    Amy Le