Monday, July 26, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Food Reads

Every now and then someone asks me “How did you learn to cook?”.

The answer is simple. I learned to eat.

Now it is true that, as with so many of my polymathematical endeavors, I immediately excelled in the eating part. Gifted, I was. And am. Slightly too gifted, hence the size (tho diminishing slllllooooooooooooooooooooowly and with great effort) of my tush. But nevertheless, I was always a good, if odd, eater. For my tenth birthday, I requested Duck with Cherry Sauce. Which is almost like the hot dog/pizza/mac and cheese all my other friends were having.

Once I figured out that I liked to eat, cooking was a natural next step. I wanted to be able to do for myself. What I wanted, more than anything, was an Easy Bake Oven. The fact that I never got one is probably related to the Snoopy Sno Cone maker incident, and the fact that after one as-directed use, I skipped the ice completely and just drank all the colored sugar syrup in about two days. I’m sure my parents assumed that the SSC was some sort of gateway toy, and if they fed my habit (and my gullet) with the Easy Bake Oven and all of its light-bulb-baked delicacies they’d soon find me nodding on a street corner snorting Lik-m-aid packets and mainlining Razzles.

But deny a girl an Easy Bake Oven and she will quickly discover that in the kitchen is a REAL oven, and that the possibilities therein are vast and delicious.

My grandmother, Jonnie, is a great cook, and since she lived downstairs for several of my formative years, I could always go hang out at her house and help her cook things. She was a trooper, even letting Little Sister and I have a go at pulling taffy in her Snowbird Miami apartment one winter after I read about it in a Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy book. I think it was the idea of buttering my hands that was really exciting. But the taffy was pretty good, too. Jonnie let me borrow cookbooks to read like novels, and we could always talk recipes. Still can.

I guess it is that perfect storm of reading books with interesting food in them, and reading those first cookbooks that helped me figure out how to cook. The “food books” inspired me, and the cookbooks made me learn technique, proportion, and the way food works. So I thought for this post, I would share some of my favorite food reads, delicious books where food is an extra character. Next week I will share some of my fave cookbooks!


Adventures on the Wine Route, by Kermit Lynch
This one was a gift from Charming Suitor, and I devoured it. Wine and food in France. Delish. And really informative for the newbie wine enthusiast.

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
Even better than the movie. Chocolate transforms a tiny puritanical French town.

Tender at the Bone/Comfort me With Apples/Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
The former Editor of Gourmet Magazine remembers her own food awakening. Funny and poignant memoirs.

Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jabar
Wonderful novel about a chef, with equal passions for food and love.

French Lessons, by Peter Mayle
Really, anything by Peter Mayle. Provencal and inspiring.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival
Amazing Mexican delicacies and a tender love story.

The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher
If you buy only one book on this list, you need go no further. Who I am as a cook, an eater and a writer are all steeped in these pages.

Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
A look at one of the most enimatic of the rock star chefs.

The Soul of a Chef/The Making of a Chef/The Reach of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman
I can re-read these books over and over. Beautifully written and unbelievably compelling.

Heat by Bill Buford
A fun look behind the scenes with Mario Batali. If all you know is Molto Mario, you don’t know nuthin’!

Toast by Nigel Slater
A coming of age story with food. Hilarious and touching.

The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner
Hilariously funny and honest look at a journey to find the perfect dinner.

The Man Who Ate EverythingIt Must Have Been Something I Ate , and by Jeffrey Steingarten
My favorite food curmudgeon. He snarks better than anyone, but his praise can be equally effusive.

Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
It’s Tony. Full stop.

Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch
A fun look behind the curtain at Per Se.

The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin
Simple and fun essays, great read.

I hope you will share your favorites in the comments section, and don’t forget you have until Midnight (CST) Thursday night to enter the fabulous CONTEST!

Pre-order your copy of GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, then forward your confirmation e-mail to me: staceyballisinfo at gmail dot com. (if you already pre-ordered, you can still send in your confirmation e-mail or a screen shot of your account showing the pre-order) Each book you pre-order will serve as one entry. Enter as many times as you like!

The winner will receive:

Moonspoon Wooden Cheese Board with Spreader

A simplehuman Large Sink Mat

A Tupperware Mini-Chopper

Two Skoy Cleaning Cloths

Freshvac LunchPac, cloth lunch carrier with Freshvac container

Salt Traders Sarawak Pepper and Salt Pearls combo for grinders

Steven Raichlen Crème Brulee on the Grill Kit


A limited edition GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT apron!

Contest open till Midnight on Thursday July 29, and the winner will be announced on the blog on Friday July 30. Order early! Order often! Tell your friends!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. How about:

    Laurie Colwin- anything by this wonderful food writer

    Gastronomical Me - the first MFK Fisher I ever read. Wonderful.

    My Life in France - Julia Child's memoir of how 'French Cooking' was written and finally published, and a heartwarming glimpse into the great love story she shared with her husband.

  2. I ditto My Life in France, which I read as a complement to Julie & Julia. Wonderful book.

    I just finished The Reluctant Tuscan, a memoir by Phil Dorn, writer of The Wonder Years. Very interesting look at how food plays such a huge part of Italian culture.

    I also just read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver this spring which was an interesting look at being a "locavore" before the term was popular.

    Born Round by Frank Bruni was also great though not about food so much as his life-long obsession with it.

  3. A Homemade Life-Molly Wizenberg
    Mediterranean Summer by Chef David Shalleck
    I love books on eating and cooking.