The piles of new books that tower atop my desk are a bit embarrassing. When I’m seated, I cannot even be seen from the cubicle next to me. On more than one occasion, I’ve hoped that the neatly stacked piles won’t collapse and crush me. (What an obit that would be: death by cookbook.)
That’s the hazard of the cookbook flurry this time of year as publishers rush their volumes to press for holiday gift giving. For those who love books, this is the best time of year and definitely the most delicious.
For a taste of books that have made me hungry, read on and see if one suits your giftee.
For the reader who loves to burrow into a food book with as much enthusiasm as with a novel: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” by Edward Behr (Penguin Press, $35). Long before there were bloggers, Behr offered his thoughts on food in The Art of Eating, a journal he founded.
Here he examines 50 foods that he considers to be essential — acknowledging that not everyone will agree — and offers a bit of history and best preparation technique for each, all in his distinctively simple, elegant prose.
His list tilts East Coast (he lives in Vermont) and, occasionally, highbrow, with anchovies, caviar, cod, crab, oysters, sweetbreads and truffles among them.
But the remainder of the foodstuffs will be familiar to Midwesterners, with chocolate, honey, lettuce, pork and more that come under his microscope. It’s a delightful book with beautiful design and clever illustrations from Mikel Jaso that will make you smile (at least I did). No recipes, but plenty of insight.
For the reader who loves France: “The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons From Paris and Provence,” by Patricia Wells (William Morrow, $35). The former restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune has based her book on the cooking school she has run for almost 20 years in two areas in France.
“Read the recipe,” she states (we have to agree with that!) and then she takes us on a romp through her lessons, veering occasionally away from French food to include recipes for dishes (such as cold Vietnamese shrimp and noodles) from culinary lessons she’s taught while traveling in other countries.
For the reader from the Midwest: “Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food,” edited by Peggy Wolff (University of Nebraska Press, $19.95). The Midwest may have been home to much of the food industry, but there hasn’t been a comparable amount of reflection on the foods of the Heartland that, say, the South has received. Thirty writers take up the challenge in this compilation, with tales of the Minnesota State Fair, meatloaf, pâtè and Cincinnati chili.
Essays include those with Minnesota connections, including Anne Dimock, Lorna Landvik and Bonny Wolf. A few recipes expand on the stories, but this is a book for reading rather than cooking.
For the reader from a certain generation or the vegetarian on your list: “Moosewood Restaurant Favorites,” by the Moosewood Collective (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99). Back in 1973 when the Moosewood Restaurant opened its doors in Ithaca, N.Y., vegetarian food was at its most basic. This was long before there was talk of fair-trade foods and in the early days of yogurt in the United States. How times have changed in the kitchen.
In this book, 250 classic recipes from the restaurant’s past have been updated, from a quinoa vegetable salad to ratatouille and tofu burgers. So has the approach (there are fish recipes here, which probably didn’t appear in the early days). This is a warmhearted volume written with care and commentary that reminds us that organic and sustainability were once on the fringes of society.
For the cook who loves bourbon: “Bourbon,” by Kathleen Purvis (University of North Carolina Press, $18). From the food editor of the Charlotte Observer, this collection of 50-plus recipes shows that the beverage of choice is for more than drinking, though you’ll find the history of that in this volume that’s part of the exquisite Savor the South series. From Pecan Bourbon Balls to the mint julep, this is a book to enjoy, neat or on the rocks.
For the cook who loves Charleston: “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, $35). The Lee brothers focus on the South Carolina town where they grew up in an homage to the city and surrounds and the distinct foods that are part of its heritage. Old and new mingle, as do the historical and present-day photos in the book.
For the cook who loves pasta: “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B. Fant (W.W. Norton, $35). Consider this to be a user’s manual to pasta and the 150 sauces and soups that can be paired with them.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste