HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >


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?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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.

              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.

                    2. "Near a Thousand Tables" by Felipe Frenandez Armesto is a serious work on the history of food primarily in Europe that is enjoyable to read. For single-topic books, "Gastropolis" - essays by various writers on the food of New York, from the indigenous people's diet until food today, is a great book on food and eating in New York City, "Milk" by Anne Mendelson is fascinating (includes recipes, but is of a food history bent - and it was she who wrote the chapter on indigenous foods in "Gastropolis"), and Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery on the obvious topic through history are all well worth seeking out.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: buttertart

                        Years ago, I taught an entire semester course based on "Eating In America" byWaverly Root, and I'd still recommend it for an excellent, thorough overview of the culinary history (including the rise of the food industry) of the United States. "Much Depends on Dinner" by Margaret Visser takes an "ordinary" meal and traces the origins and evolution/history of each item on the plate. She has a similar book about table manners and customs: Rituals of the Table. For a fascinating look at the rise (and fall) of the Domestic Science/Home Economics field, and it's incredible influence on mainstream U.S. eating patterns, Shapiro's now classic "Perfection Salad" deserved its inclusion the Modern Libary food series. Likewise, Revolution at the Table:The Transformation of the American Diet, by Harvey Levenstein, explores similar turf, but with a broader focus.

                        All these books were tremendously exciting and wonderful additions to the field of culinary history when they came out a couple of decades ago--when I was in graduate school, studying Foodways---and the fact that most are still in print is proof they're still valuable reading, today.

                      2. I find Michael Pollan's work both informative & entertaining. His approach to food seems eminently reasonable. I recommend
                        "The Botany of Desire"
                        "Omnivore's Dilemma"
                        "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"

                        1. You should also have a look at the Food Media and News board - there are several related threads.

                          1. Maybe not exactly what you want here but "Bull Cook" by George Herter is kind of a fun read. I don't know if everything in the book is for real but George Herter sure as hell thinks so!

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                              I really loved United States of Arugula by David Kamp, who focused on the different personalities that shaped and influenced gourmet food revolution from Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, Alice Waters, etc.. That single chapter on Alice Waters was much more interesting and informative than reading that entire biography of Alice Waters by McNamnee.

                              McGee's book is more like a reference book, instead of something you read through.

                              I'd also recommend Cook's Illustrated because they go through all the various steps they took to arrive at their recipe- the'll say we tried cooking it at 450 degrees first, but this is what happened and why we don't cook at that temp.

                              1. re: hobbess

                                I loved the Kamp book. Great fun, well written, and extremely knowledgeable.

                            2. I'm sure someone has mentioned it but I enjoy reading anything by Michael Ruhlman

                              Being from New York I also enjoyed "The Big Oyster: History on the half shell" by Mark Kurlansky. It covers the history of the oyster in NYC and the Hudson River area. Amazing to see the destruction that pollution can cause. He also has books on Cod and Salt and several other food books. They are on my list but I haven't read them yet.

                              1. This is just a great thread, all these wonderful books to read and I have no money right now! Anyway, it's good to have these books referenced for future reading; looking forward to that! Thanks, all who posted here.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: bushwickgirl

                                  Also check out this thread with a wider scope, because its OP was looking for nonfiction, non-cookbook food-oriented books in general, and got around a million great suggestions: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/605961

                                  1. Bob Scher's The Fear of Cooking did a great job in getting me past the apprehensions early cooks have when they (we) feel tied down to the details. His most memorable, to me, advice was that "Recipes are written for people who already know how to cook." His approach is to think about ingredients first, then worry about bringing them together:
                                    The passage on that web page reads very dryly compared to the book itself, which is very casual, and very forgiving.

                                    1. Thanks, to the person mentioned "Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits" by Amal Naj! Can't seem to find the post back. Interesting book.

                                      1. I can't believe no one has mentioned M.F.K. Fisher yet. There is a trade paperback that has a collection of some of her best writing, including "How to Cook a Wolf."

                                          1. re: learning2wander

                                            A very useful link and quite comprehensive, although I did notice a few omissions. The lists serve to point out all I haven't read; I need to pick up my reading pace. Thanks for posting it!

                                          2. I am about half-way through Mark Kurlansky's Food of a Younger Land and I am finding it to be fascinating. There are recipes, but it is mainly food lore and tradition, and a fair bit of storytelling. It was compiled from unpublish writings that were done by members of the Federal Writers Project, part of the WPA.