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Top Ten Food Books

A small sample from my favourite books about food

A small sample from my favourite books about food

The CBC book club asked on their website for readers to give suggestions of their favourite books on food and have posted a list of the compiled results.  Their list struck me as interesting because there are a few authors whose books I enjoyed (Child, Kingsolver, and Pollan), a couple that I wish I knew more about (How to Cook Everything and Hot Sour Salty Sweet) but in general I think the process probably suffers from usual pit-falls of democracy: Tastes are too vanilla and people vote for the last thing they read about.

Here I submit my top-ten list of books about food (one is about wine but it’s my list):

  1. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee: Absolutely no book is more often referenced by other serious, thoughtful books on food than On Food.  Alton Brown was the first (in my experience) but to the list can be added Ruhlman, Corriher, and Pollan.  That’s good company.  For every food geek that has wondered why something happens or questioned some article of food orthodoxy this should be the first (and often the last) reference.
  2. New Best Recipe by Editors of Cook’s Illustrated: Every 20-year old guy living on his own for the first time is given a “how-to-cook-everything” cookbook.  Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is great (and if I could only cook one cuisine for the rest of my life it would be French), Joy of Cooking is more encyclopedic and I don’t know quite enough about Bittman’s How to Cook Everything to comment on it but Best Recipe is most useful.  By offering more detail (and  a back story) for the recipes that North Americans are actually likely to cook every week you can’t beat the mileage you’ll get on this one.
  3. The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten: I’ve written before that I can’t stand Steingarten on tv but in print he is entertaining and engaging.  I love reading about his search for perfection whether he’s looking for espresso machines, steakhouses, or baguettes in Paris.  Along with John Thorne (honourable mention and with whom I believe Steingarten has a geekie food writer rivalry) Steingarten’s writing about food can, I think, stand on its own as an example of good writing even if you don’t like cooking.
  4. Man Who Ate Toronto by James Chatto: I like eating in restaurants and I live in Toronto.  This book should be on the shelf of anyone who eats in Toronto restaurants and wants to know what has been good and, more to the point, on the shelf of anyone who wants to open a restaurant in Toronto and needs to know what has come before.  It looks from the Chapters website as if an updated edition is due out in April of next year.
  5. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: Bourdain’s alright when he’s off travelling somewhere but that translates better to the screen.  Cook’s Tour the book is, for me at least, too gimmicky and self-referential.  It’s more a insider’s guide to the show than a good, standalone read.  On the other hand this collection of his stories from the days when he actually cooked instead of just getting drunk on far-flung beaches is legendary.  Bourdain created and owns the mini-genre of restaurant kitchen tell-alls and did so well at it that I think others who might have written similar books (and succeeded) figured that KC had already covered all the bases.
  6. Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: This book that started the 100-mile-diet-for-a-year fad is a great read.  An excellent balance between argument and experience.  I like that it includes her entire family’s perspective on the year-long experiment.
  7. A Fool And Forty Acres by Geoff Heinricks: I like project cooking and reading about it.  What about project could be as great as starting a winery from scratch in Prince Edward County?  One of the online synopsises of this book compares it to Peter Mayle’s writing about Provence.  That’s apt (and not just because of the similar cover design) and I’ll add that for readers in Canada this book can be enjoyed without feeling that debilitating envy for the weather in the south of France.
  8. Heat by Bill Buford: Amazing anecdotes about working in Mario Batali’s kitchens.  This book is worth reading solely for the story about Mario drinking wine by the case.  Great look at how kitchens think about reviewers too.
  9. Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Bryan Polcyn: I can understand why not everyone owns a copy of this book (especially vegetarians, but that’s the only thing I understand about them) because it is specialised and somewhat technical.  Both of those reasons are why I like Charcuterie so much.  It balances perfectly between introduction and expert guide so that anyone who wants to try their hand at this very delicious type of food preparation really only needs this one book.
  10. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart: I’ve reviewed this one here on Food With Legs.  It’s also a single subject cookbook but bread-making is slightly more universal than meat-curing–for reasons that are beyond me.

My honourable mentions include Alton Brown’s books (but especially his first I’m Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0); everything by John Thorne because he writes and more importantly thinks, with unequalled clarity about food; Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series that eloquently connects what we eat to how we grow or raise it; and Fergus Henderson’s two books that helped make it alright to eat tripe and snouts, again.

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  1. mochapj says:

    I love How To Cook Everything – it’s one of those great reference books like “The Joy” that comes in useful when you least expect it.

    If you liked Animal Vegetable Miracle, you’d probably enjoy Tim Stark’s Heirloom: Tales Of An Accidental Tomato Farmer. It’s an amazingly endearing tale.

  2. Stumbled across your blog, as A Fool & Forty Acres popped up in it. Glad (and surprised) you found it worthy of putting in your personal list of cookbooks to counter a CBC one. Rather an honour, from my perspective.

    Marked your December duck page to read tomorrow, as duck is my pork (I don’t eat pig or shellfish…but let JK hang & smoke pork whenever he wants in my smokehouse). From what I see here, you’re very well balanced between text and photos…all too lacking in some foodie pages.


  3. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Geoff, and my pleasure on mentioning A Fool and Forty Acres. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent daydreaming about your book.

    Hope you enjoyed the duck posts. I keep telling people how surprised I was at how easy it is to make really tasty duck prosciutto. Now’s a great time of year for giving it a shot and I imagine it could only improve with a little smoke.

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