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Books on Food

Can you recommend some non-recipe based books that focus on history, science, and processing of food? Think Alton Brown, but perhaps with a bit more history and a bit more of a storytelling element.

Also, I'm good at following directions but I'd like to know WHY I am doing some of the things called for in the recipe, i.e. why must I leave the pork shoulder in the fridge overnight prior to putting it in the oven for six hours? Why do so many recipes call for a 350 degree oven rather than 340 or 360?

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  1. If you want to know the "why", the book you MUST get is Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen." He's at times funny, but it's definitely more science than storytelling. Alton Brown swears by it.

    1. Oh, and on oven temp, that's just generally for the benefit of the home cook. It really doesn't make that much of a difference if it's 340 or 360, outside of a few minutes cooking time. (in most cases, obviously. there are some baking recipes that require exact temps.) In a professional kitchen, you're usually just looking at a "hot" oven (400+), a "medium hot" oven (300 - 400), or a "low oven", (under 200).

      1 Reply
      1. re: dagwood

        Thanks Dagwood. I'm always on about this. The author had to cook it at some temperature so arbitrarily chose one. Low, medium or hot are the main distinctions: not 350 or 375.

      2. I really loved "Heat" by Bill Buford. Great storytelling there, plus some history and "why" questions answered about Italian food.

        1. "What Einstein Told His Cook" by Robert Wolke.

          1. Food in History, by Reay Tannahill. She also wrote Sex in History, but that's for another board.

            26 Replies
            1. re: bushwickgirl

              I enjoyed both "Heat" and "Food in History," as mentioned above. (I also enjoyed "Sex in History")....
              Another book, that while it is a cookbook with recipes, has a fascinating history of how different recipes appeared and evolved in this century is "The Ameican Century Cookbook" by Jean Anderson. I can't remember how many times I've picked this book back up to read for enjoyment. I've even tried a few of the recipes.
              http://www.amazon.com/American-Centur...

              1. re: Firegoat

                That (the Anderson) is a great book. She is one of the least-sung giants of American cooking in general.

                1. re: buttertart

                  I'm glad to hear that buttertart. I really like her writing style and that book in particular.

                  1. re: Firegoat

                    Her other books are great as well - the recent Love Affiar with Southern Cooking is a lot of fun and the Portuguese book is a must-have (inspired me to go to Lisbon on holiday a few years back). She deserves to be better-known.

                    1. re: buttertart

                      oooo I'll have to go look for those. She's so easy to read and so informative. Just really has a neighborly style about her. Oh I just read the publisher's weekly review for the Southern Cooking book... it sounds like it would fit the bill here as well.

                      1. re: buttertart

                        okay I got so excited reading the review of the southen cooking book, I called the bookstore where I still have a gift card left and yes! they have it in, I reserved it and am picking it up this afternoon.

                        1. re: Firegoat

                          You are a person after my own heart. If you like the American Century you'll really like this one too.

                          1. re: buttertart

                            Seize the day! I'm going to go fetch it in an hour or so and hold it back for late tonight as a reward when I get all my boring nasty work done. I can't wait.

                            1. re: Firegoat

                              Isn't it fun to have something like that in reserve as a reward. I know exactly whet you mean. I'm sure you'll really enjoy it.

                              1. re: buttertart

                                Plus I'm moving back north of the Mason/Dixon line this weekend... it will give me something to play with

                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    I hope you're happy. I now have the Southern book! I "peeked" in it while at the stoplights on the drive home. I LOVE it. I can't read it yet because it s a promised reward when i get things done but..... I can't wait. It is already better than expected. Thank you for the recommendation.

                                    1. re: Firegoat

                                      Good on you! You have a great reading and cooking experience ahead of you.

                                      1. re: Firegoat

                                        I also think this is why cookbooks will never die regardless of the media available. It is sitting there in it's plastic wrapper..... and I want to read it soooooo much. People who just spew out recipes.... sure that can go online. People like Anderson who make you learn the history and care about the people behind them. That is priceless. I can't wait til tonight!

                                        1. re: Firegoat

                                          I surely hope you're right. There is nothing like a book of whatever sort, is there?

                                          1. re: buttertart

                                            Just the appetizer section alone was worth the price. Such good reading.... Thanks again for turning me onto this one, it is going to be a favorite. (which is saying something as I have about 300 cookbooks now... and that's after weeding a bunch out for a move)

                                            1. re: Firegoat

                                              I'm very pleased you're happy with it. It's one of my favorites of my collection which is somewhere around 700 books by now. And there are more Jean Anderson books for you to discover!

                      2. re: buttertart

                        I remember Sara Moulton used to say on her show Cooking Live how great she thought Jean Anderson was - she often used recipes of JA's on the show - and how she would have loved to have her on, but JA was much too shy and humble to be willing to be on TV.

                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                          Jean Anderson is a wonderful writer and her recipes always work. Unlike most of the people in the food business it would seem she is not a tireless self-promoter (but her achievements warrant much greater attention than they get). In the "glory days" of Family Circle (I think, it may have been Woman's Day, late 70s early 80s) you used to see the occasional article by her and they were always swell. I met her very briefly at the Fancy Food Show in NY in the 90s - she was very charming and was obviously pleased when I told her that we had gone to Lisnon to eat because I was so taken with her Foods of Portugal book. Which it made me very happy to ba able to tell her!

                          1. re: buttertart

                            I would love to eat with her and Lynn Rosetto Kasper. Okay, and Anthony Bourdain just because.

                            1. re: Firegoat

                              Idea for thread: cooking celebrity dream date. Although at least one of the people I admire is far less cuddly and charming at a book signing than her books would lead you to believe she would be.

                              1. re: buttertart

                                Go start the thread, I want to know who your non-cuddly dream date is

                                1. re: Firegoat

                                  It was Madhur Jaffrey actually - she writes in such a breezy and warm style but was rather frosty in person. Have to think about dream date.

                          2. re: Caitlin McGrath

                            Add me to the fan club--and let's not forget "Jean Anderson Cooks." It's full of recipes I've been making over and over again for decades.

                            I had the pleasure of working with her on a couple of projects. One story I must tell. We were getting together for dinner in the latish 80s on someone else's dime. She suggested we go to a new restaurant called Rakel. She'd heard about this great new chef. It was an outstanding meal and I made note not to forget the name of the chef. It was Thomas Keller.

                            1. re: JoanN

                              That is a great book - the peach soufflé is to die for. You have certainly had an interesting career!

                              1. re: buttertart

                                Never tried the peach souffle. Sticking a post-it in the book right now. Thanks.