You know those cooks who say they read cookbooks like novels? Well, there's plenty to keep them reading this season, thanks to the bounty of biographies, autobiographies and other books about luminaries in the food world. They include:
"Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution" by Thomas McNamee (Penguin, 380 pages, $27.95). This chronicle of the now-famous Berkeley restaurant and its even more famous participant is a fascinating account of the food revolution that began in the '70s and which has seeped into everyday cooking. Although Waters often receives the credit, McNamee makes clear that the restaurant and its philosophical evolution were clearly a collaborative effort.
Waters obviously wielded great influence with her strong will and uncompromising demand for perfect ingredients. This book is as much a history of the restaurant as it is of Waters, who went on to use the Chez Panisse soapbox to try to change the world of food.
"Julia Child" by Laura Shapiro (Lipper/Viking, 184 pages, $19.95). For those who know Child's story, there are no surprises in this slim volume: Unfocused thirtysomething meets foreign service officer in China, marries and is stationed in Paris, where she learns to eat, writes a cookbook that is published when she is 50, moves back to the United States and becomes one of the first TV cooking stars. Yet the book is a charmer, whether you're new to her history or not, because of Shapiro's skillful writing.
"The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food" by Judith Jones (Knopf, 304 pages, $24.95). Jones was the editor behind many cookbook masterpieces, including Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She also was the editor who brought Anne Frank's diary to U.S. readers. One would expect that Jones would have fascinating stories to tell about her many years with those she helped to become high-profile writers, yet her memoir falls flat. Her stories are stilted. There is less meaningful reflection than there is a simple accounting of those she edited. Jones leaves us wanting to know more about her remarkable life.
"Backstage With Julia: My Years With Julia Child" by Nancy Verde Barr (John Wiley & Sons, 285 pages, $22.95). This is a gem of a book that took me by surprise. Why would we want to hear about the author's days as assistant to Child? Because we learn more about Child. I was skeptical before I started the book, but Barr's stories about her role behind the scenes with Child (at TV tapings, at home testing recipes, on vacation in France) pulled me in. And I like Child even more, having read Barr's book.
"Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink," edited by David Remnick (Random House, 583 pages, $29.95). Over its 80 years of publication, the New Yorker has always offered stories and cartoons featuring food-related themes or people. In this eclectic collection, we find an early biography of Julia and Paul Child in a story from 1974 by Calvin Tomkins. Anthony Bourdain chronicles his restaurant tales in a piece from 1999. M.F.K. Fisher talks about tripe in 1968; A.J. Liebling looks at appetite in 1959. Calvin Trillin dwells on bagels in 2000. While writing about food, they also are writing about themselves, of course. There is food-related fiction from the likes of Roald Dahl, John Cheever and Louise Erdrich, and cartoons with food themes (which make the book fun to page through). This is a must-have for the cook who wants more than recipes to read.