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Books on Food

TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 04:07 PM

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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    dagwood RE: TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 04:33 PM

    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. d
      dagwood RE: TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 04:36 PM

      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
        cinnamon girl RE: dagwood Jan 31, 2010 06:18 PM

        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.

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        A Train RE: TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 04:43 PM

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

        1. m
          middydd RE: TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 04:45 PM

          "What Einstein Told His Cook" by Robert Wolke.

          1. bushwickgirl RE: TommyJay Jan 26, 2010 05:03 PM

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

            26 Replies
            1. re: bushwickgirl
              Firegoat RE: bushwickgirl Feb 1, 2010 05:39 AM

              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
                buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 05:43 AM

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

                1. re: buttertart
                  Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 06:08 AM

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

                  1. re: Firegoat
                    buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 06:13 AM

                    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
                      Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 06:18 AM

                      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
                        Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 06:54 AM

                        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
                          buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 07:14 AM

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

                          1. re: buttertart
                            Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 07:24 AM

                            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
                              buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 07:26 AM

                              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
                                Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 07:28 AM

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

                                1. re: Firegoat
                                  buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 07:37 AM

                                  Bring White Lily flour!

                                  1. re: buttertart
                                    Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 12:08 PM

                                    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
                                      buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 12:56 PM

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

                                      1. re: Firegoat
                                        Firegoat RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 12:58 PM

                                        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
                                          buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 1, 2010 01:13 PM

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

                                          1. re: buttertart
                                            Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 2, 2010 04:10 AM

                                            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
                                              buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 2, 2010 05:07 AM

                                              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
                        Caitlin McGrath RE: buttertart Feb 1, 2010 06:05 PM

                        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
                          buttertart RE: Caitlin McGrath Feb 2, 2010 05:06 AM

                          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
                            Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 2, 2010 05:31 AM

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

                            1. re: Firegoat
                              buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 2, 2010 05:57 AM

                              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
                                Firegoat RE: buttertart Feb 2, 2010 06:01 AM

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

                                1. re: Firegoat
                                  buttertart RE: Firegoat Feb 2, 2010 06:20 AM

                                  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
                            JoanN RE: Caitlin McGrath Feb 2, 2010 06:52 AM

                            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
                              buttertart RE: JoanN Feb 2, 2010 07:03 AM

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

                              1. re: buttertart
                                JoanN RE: buttertart Feb 2, 2010 07:13 AM

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

                    2. buttertart RE: TommyJay Jan 27, 2010 06:08 AM

                      "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
                        Beckyleach RE: buttertart Jan 27, 2010 06:53 AM

                        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. Rmis32 RE: TommyJay Jan 27, 2010 08:08 AM

                        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. buttertart RE: TommyJay Jan 27, 2010 08:15 AM

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

                          1. mrbigshotno.1 RE: TommyJay Jan 27, 2010 08:31 AM

                            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
                              hobbess RE: mrbigshotno.1 Jan 30, 2010 05:53 PM

                              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
                                jmckee RE: hobbess Nov 1, 2010 09:55 AM

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

                            2. h
                              hudsonvalleyfoodblog RE: TommyJay Jan 31, 2010 08:32 AM

                              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. bushwickgirl RE: TommyJay Feb 1, 2010 01:14 PM

                                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
                                  Caitlin McGrath RE: bushwickgirl Feb 1, 2010 06:12 PM

                                  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. re: bushwickgirl
                                    lgss RE: bushwickgirl Mar 27, 2010 06:05 PM

                                    Check your local library!

                                  2. ennuisans RE: TommyJay Feb 2, 2010 03:38 AM

                                    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. l
                                      lgss RE: TommyJay Mar 27, 2010 06:15 PM

                                      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. kleine mocha RE: TommyJay Mar 29, 2010 05:08 PM

                                        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. l
                                          learning2wander RE: TommyJay Oct 31, 2010 05:14 PM


                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: learning2wander
                                            bushwickgirl RE: learning2wander Nov 1, 2010 03:18 AM

                                            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. f
                                            Fydeaux RE: TommyJay Nov 1, 2010 09:16 AM

                                            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.

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