I have a very big bookshelf… this is a work in progress.
This is my favorite collection of food writing so far. I’ve read a number of food writing anthologies and Molly O’Neill has picked out some great writers and the short but interesting history of food in America is well represented from Thomas Jefferson to Anthony Bourdain. Well known writers like Ruth Reichl and M.F.K. Fisher get plenty of page time, but other lesser-known writers and cooks have their say too. If I ever get a chance to teach a class on Food Writing, this is most certainly one of the “textbooks” of food writing I will put on the reading list. What I like most about the book is that O’Neill has chosen writers who are not writing about simply the food itself, but the gamut of meaning that eating and cooking encompasses. The “Food” in Food Writing is less important than the “Writing,” and O’Neill has chosen some damn good writing.
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn
Here’s the thing I realized while reading this book: food (and any of the myriad ways to think about food) is a sturdy metaphorical vehicle. The intangible qualities of life, the things we really want to talk about most are the most difficult things to articulate. And so we resort to metaphor—Kathleen Flinn goes on a journey, one where her feet are put to the fire at Le Cordon Bleu, and in the process she learns something about herself. This is the basic narrative architecture of any good story. Learning to eat, learning to cook… In the reflection of that big chef’s knife it is US we see looking back. And if said knife is very sharp? Well, read the book. It’s a rather easy read, but sometimes I like reading like I like my men: fun and fast.
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
Pure, unadulterated pleasure reading this man’s books. This was the first one I read. I was a waitress and beer wench for many years. He nails the nail square in the head regarding the “Seedy Underbelly” of restaurant life. Still, to this day I think it’s restaurant life more than anything that intrigues me about cooking. The drama, the politics, the art, the suffering both in the kitchen and in the front of the house. If you’re looking for a fun introduction into books on food, this is it.
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, Edited by David Remnick
This is a lovely selection of writing from the New Yorker. Writing from the giants, like M.F.K. Fisher, John McPhee, Malcolm Gladwell, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Italo Calvino for God’s sake. It’s a mighty little tome. It sits on my bedside table, and I routinely pick a new piece to read before bed.
After that, for us, the thought of nuns called up the flavors of an elaborate and bold cuisine, bent on making the flavors’ highest notes vibrate, juxtaposing them in modulations, in chords, and especially in dissonances that would assert themselves as an incomparable experience—a point of no return, an absolute possession exercised on the receptivity of all the senses.
-Italo Calvino, “The Jaguar Sun”
Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
This isn’t light reading, but it’s damn interesting. This well researched book discusses the history, anthropological significance, cultural import, and socio-economic value of food. It’s food writing for academics. I’ve read quite a few of these kinds of books on food, and this one is informative and engaging at the same time, a difficult feat for any academic writer.