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If you were to choose *one and only one* nonfiction food read, what would it be?

I know there are lots of threads on this subject, but they all make my head spin. There is simply an embarrassment of food writing these days, all with the exact same title: "Food Item A & Food Item B: A Search for Family/Meaning/Love in Exotic or Exotically Mundane Location X." Currywurst & Kugels: A German Jew's Search for Identity in Postwar Berlin. Chicken, Waffles, & Chicken & Waffles: Sunday Suppers at Granny Goo-Goo's Sugar Shack. Whatever. I'm sick of it before I've read it.

In short as an admitted snob I'll be blunt: I don't care how interesting the topic, I only want to read it if it's well-written.

What *one book* would you truly be willing to put up against the likes of Fisher, David, and to a lesser extent Ruhlman, Reichl and Pollan, be it memoiristic or academic?

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  1. "The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth" by Roy Andries deGroot, 1973, is a recounting of Mr. deGroot's visits to a small inn located in La Grande Chartreuse, a high Alpine valley.
    Many lovely and delicious meals and stories, well described settings and characters.
    I have read parts of it several times, and love to revisit.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Mrs M

      I'm with you, Mrs. M! "Auberge" is thoroughly captivating, and the recipes are also superb. Every one of today's writers pale in comparison, imho.

      It certainly made me want to go there, even though I know it doesn't exist any more.

      1. re: ChefJune

        I love that book as well. I mde the tomato soup once - took forever but was fantastic.

    2. I was very entertained (and sometimes really irritated - good lord, it's just pasta) by Bill Buford's Heat. Also Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything. These are not new books, but they're well-written, and I learned interesting things from both.

      3 Replies
      1. re: small h

        If I were to pick just one I'd go with Bill Buford's "Heat" as well. This was interesting, well written, and stands out in my mind among a sea of others that I've read as one of the best non-fiction non-cookbook books about food and being a chef. That being said "The Man Who Ate Everything", "Garlic and Sapphires" and "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" were all enjoyable reads too.

        1. re: Phoo_d

          I really enjoyed the portions of "Heat" that described Buford's experiences in the prep and stations at Babbo quite a lot. The trips back to small-town Italy less so, and his ruminations and historical investigation about the genesis of certain pastas were to me superfluous filler.

          Anyone bought and read Ripert's book about Le Bernadin yet?

        2. re: small h

          One vote against Heat, couldn't finish it.

          I am completely, completely sick of the personal culinary memoir - the idea that someone deserves your attention because they have so many years of experience eating (or cooking). Enough, enough! Either do it better than anyone else or save the stories for your family or people who really know you.

          That said, my literary appetite varies with the weather and other factors. My vote goes to How to Cook a Wolf at the moment, the revised version.

        3. I'll go with one of my more recent reads: "The Perfectionist" by Rudolph Chelminski. I was totally engrossed by that one. If you don't know it, it's the story of Bernard Loiseau who worked manically to achieve three Michelin stars and killed himself upon hearing rumors that he was going to lose one of them. (Not a spoiler, it is revealed in the first chapter, the book is about how he got to that point and what drove him as a chef)

          1 Reply
          1. re: ktb615

            That was a good read. Spoiler? what happened has been documented in many places. Loiseau was bipolar and took himself off his meds. A tragedy. He was a lovely man and a fabulous chef.

          2. I just finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle : A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. I thought it was very well written and thought-provoking.

            2 Replies
            1. re: CeeBee

              If you remove Ruhlman and Pollan, I would also go with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

            2. You had to ask, tatamagouche....LOL

              I just finished reading "Bottomfeeder: How To Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood" by Taras Grescoe. It's astonishing, eye opening and not only thought provoking but action inciting.

              "The good news is that there is a way to eat that balances conservation and health—even when it comes to the complex, multispecies cuisine that is seafood. And it can be done without leaving the oceans, or our plates, empty." TG

              3 Replies
              1. re: Gio

                Bottomfeeder reminded me a lot of a seafood version of The Jungle - I am much more aware of what I am choosing to eat and more appreciative of what I do consume.

                1. re: TampaAurora

                  End of the Line is actually a much better, more thoroughly researched version of what went into Bottomfeeder, if extinct fish are your thing.

                  1. re: condiment

                    Fish which will become extinct is a very real issue. That's why I was so interested in what Taras Grescoe had to say about what is happening in our oceans today. His book is throughly referenced chapter by chapter, fact by fact. What he speaks about impacts our lives every day and will for generations to come.

              2. Mark Kurlansky's Cod: the Fish That Changed the World.

                There's a reason that half the general-interest non-fiction books in the last 10 years have ripped off Kurlansky's formula - he essentially invented the strategy of viewing broad swathes of history, in this case the discovery of America, through an extremely narrow prism. His history of New York City as seen through the oyster trade is almost equally compelling.

                2 Replies
                1. re: condiment

                  Thanks so far all! Kurlansky of course...been meaning to read him forever but haven't yet.

                  1. re: tatamagouche

                    His Salt: A World History is a great read.

                2. Sorry, but I couldn't, wouldn't, choose only one. And since you've already chosen at least two, I'll do the same.

                  “Blue Trout and Black Truffles” by Joseph Wechsburg

                  “Between Meals” by A. J. Liebling


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: JoanN

                    Ah, I've read the Wechsburg. Fine indeed.

                  2. My favorite is Ruhlman, and I've recommended his "Making of" "Soul of" and "Reach of a Chef" series on this board. But I recently went oldschool on a plane flight and trip, reading a collection by Calvin Trillin, and enjoyed it a lot.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: nosh

                      "Villas at Table" by James Villas (you can't go wrong with essays entitled "The Lordly Spud," "In Search of the Perfect Restaurant," and "I've Never Had Enough Caviar." Oh, and I know you only wanted one, but I have to mention Calvin Trillin's "The Tummy Trilogy;" hilarious and mouth-watering. Both books are Chowhounder must reads.

                      1. re: SDgirl

                        I'll second Calvin Trillin, and since the OP asked for one book, I'll go with the first of the trilogy, American Fried. Thirty years later I'm still looking forward to my first trip to Kansas City and a visit to Arthur Bryant's Barbecue.

                      2. re: nosh

                        Read the 1st two; have not read Reach of a Chef...will do.

                      3. <What *one book* would you truly be willing to put up against the likes of Fisher, David, and to a lesser extent Ruhlman, Reichl and Pollan, be it memoiristic or academic?>

                        I am noticing that posters are completely ignoring your question. IMHO the secondary names, along with others mentioned such as Steingarten, while often interesting reading don't hold a candle to the likes of Fisher and David... (imho, of course). DeGroot does.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: ChefJune

                          I definitely want to stress that I'm talking the best of the best, not just the best of the latest. My very concern is that there's SO MUCH out there! Until the market took its turn (see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/25/boo...), any one of us probably could have pitched a book idea according to the title formula in the OP.

                          Since I haven't read most of what's been mentioned so far, I've been acting on the assumption that respondents did understand the key distinction I was making, and will continue to unless there are retractions (or arguments that end with a winner). But ChefJune, your understanding of my question is correct.

                        2. Calvin Trillian's Feeding A Yen. There are so many foods that I ate overseas and in New Nexico that I just can't find here in Maine.

                          1. Splendour in the Grass, stage version. Permission requested for a bit of lattitude.

                            1. anything by the immortal Edna Lewis (the original Alice Waters), and of course Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: annabana

                                With, of course, the caveat that Lewis's recipes often don't work. Amazing books; just make sure to cross-reference what you intend to cook.

                              2. As one who definitely focuses on cookbooks for the pleasure of reading, there's one volume that stands so far above the rest that I am surprised that it is not more often seen or discussed. My vote goes for Paul Bertoli's wonderfully crafted book, "Cooking by Hand". It is such an incredible integration of one man's love of tradition, life, family, culture, philosophy, and ultimately dedication to cooking as almost an aesthetic, in it's full philosophical sense, pursuit

                                It doesn't hurt that he is obviously a very gifted writer. He draws you in with his emotional attachments to food, be it through childhood memories of care packages sent by an Uncle from Italy full of homemade salumi, or hearing in the old country stories of pasta so good that all it needs is a simple dash of olive oil, or with his touching open letter to his newborn son who will one day read about and appreciate the profundity of the present he received when he was born: a set of traditional aceto basalmico barrels in diminishing size for aging vinegar. Initially full of vivid fruit and youth while in its largest barrel, the ripening vinegar will no doubt slowly diminish in volume while increasing in complexity and depth as they both grow older, until they are both of advanced age wherein the vinegar that essentially grew up with him now just occupies the smallest of the barrels. Within lies an elixir so precious as if it were made to consecrate the crowning achievement of having reached old age.

                                So he pulls you in with his stories, but also with his clear dedication to get to the core of what it takes to get the most out of his ingredients. The food he talks about in his book are not fanciful creations meant to impress by a self-aggrandizing originality or boldness of thought; rather they are honest tastes brought back from old traditions, created perhaps only a few generations past when people still took the care to use that most extravagant of cooking ingredients: time. In fact he opens his book with a most appropriate quote from Elizabeth David: "Good cooking is trouble".

                                A true aesthete of taste, he takes you along on his own personal, almost zen-like journey to find, for instance, the secret to that pasta so good it only needs olive oil - this is of pasta that tastes of the grain - a pasta so good that it starts with it's ingredients in its most humble form - as grain itself, carefully selected and considered, then painstakenly hand milled and turned into flour.

                                Reading through his words you will begin to see the world of taste through his eyes, and similarly begin to acclimate to his unique sense of timelessness that pervades his writing. In other writers hands it may seem indulgent to spend a major section of the book on nothing more than the pleasure of seeing a tomato twelve different ways. The only other comparison I can make is with Mas Masumoto's "Four Seasons in Five Senses: Things Worth Savoring", whose almost singular topic is the peach; it will forever change how one looks at a simple peach. And as in Masumoto, one may never look at their ingredients in quite the same way once having experienced reading Bertoli's book.

                                Where before I had none, now I find my kitchen with no less than three manual grain mills, and a vinegar jar wherein I produce my own red wine vinegar. I am sure that I am not the only reader of his book that has been so influenced, and if this intrigues you in any way, perhaps you will find yourself travelling along on a very similar journey.

                                Indeed, "good cooking is trouble"...

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: cgfan

                                  Note: if the fact that at its core "Cooking by Hand" is a cookbook will disqualify it, (but note: it's very much as literature-oriented a cookbook as one might find...), then the above referenced "Four Seasons in Five Senses" by Mas Masumoto is highly recommended. The latter is most definitely literature, a beautiful work of non-fiction.

                                2. OK, to pick one: The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin, since it's available in a one-volume edition. There is no more entertaining, thoughtful, satisfying book about food in my library.

                                  1. "Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (Scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiar bene)" by Pellegrino Artusi. Probably the first modern cookbook, written by a gentleman amateur who put together a very comprehensive and in his mind, the final word on seasonal eating, digestion, and food philosophy. It's really an enjoyable book- especially when you consider that to write it meant that Artusi had to violate the rules of comportment prescribed for a Victorian-era gentleman. He never actually performed the cooking himself, but rather assigned his maid assistant to do the "research for him."

                                    1. Reichl.

                                      Oh! also, Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch.

                                      1. Cheating a bit: The Time-Life Foods of the World series. It was my education in matters culinary. My mother subscribed to it as a gift for me (I was in my teens at the time it was coming out). Receiving a volume was a big event for me. The books are well-written and very engaging - the Indian, Japanese, and South American volumes were particular revelations to this English/Irish southwest Ontarian girl.
                                        If a recipe collection is permitted, the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery: it's a bit dated (in a nice retro way) but it has recipes from just about everywhere. Another cornerstone of my culinary education.
                                        The other book that sent me down this path was James Trager's Foodbook: I remember it fondly but haven't laid hands on it lately.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: buttertart

                                          I agree on Artusi, David, Fisher (especially French Provincial Cookery) and the Time-Life series (the one on Spain-Portugal really gives you the feel for Franco-era, cloistered Spain) but I would submit MFK Fisher's translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin...

                                          1. re: penthouse pup

                                            I love the Time-Life series. Probably the last time that a food writer would have been paid well for a gastro-journey to a specific country to document in very good detail the food and particular settings in which it's consumed. I imagine that the writer of The Cooking of Italy was able to expense-account his cigarettes, sunglasses, and Alfa-Romeo convertible rental with no problem. Also good as a historical document: apparently all anybody wanted in 1960's Europe was a nice cold aspic for lunch...

                                        2. Someone noted Trillin (hhoray!), but I'm little surprised no one mentioned any books by Alford and Duguid.