IT MUST BE said: In the scope of literature, food writing is a minor genre. As popular as food books have become, no one is confusing most of them with "War & Peace" or "One Hundred Years of Solitude" — or even "Fifty Shades of Grey." There is nothing worse than the food writer who foolishly convinces himself that he is writing something akin to the Great American Novel. The smart food writer quickly realizes that she's just as likely to be praised for the recipes or the restaurant recommendation as for literary merit.
And yet there are those rare occasions when food writing does offer something more, something bigger, something deeper.
A few weeks ago, the James Beard Foundation — that august culinary organization — released a summer reading list of the top food books of all time, "Fourteen Great Reads for Food Lovers," selected by "a group of seasoned culinary publishing professionals."
I took a long look at their list. There are certainly a handful of classics I agree with, such as M.F.K. Fisher's "The Art of Eating" anthology, A.J. Liebling's "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris," Calvin Trillin's "Tummy Trilogy" and Gabrielle Hamilton's recent "Blood, Bones & Butter."
But by and large, the books selected were a bit of a yawn. For instance, I know that if you work in journalism, you're supposed to revere John McPhee, but I defy you to read "Oranges" without getting a little sleepy.
I was also surprised by some high-profile omissions. Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" didn't make it? Or "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan? Or even Ruth Reichl's "Comfort Me With Apples"?
"There are two schools of good writing about food: the mock-epic and the mystical microcosmic," writes Adam Gopnik in his recent book, "The Table Comes First." Essentially, Gopnik says that food writing must be either comic or lyrical and poetic, and you cannot mix the two.
"If we are reading, say, about Liebling's quest for the secret of how racasse are used in bouillabaisse, we don't want to be stopped to consider the melancholy lives of remote fishermen who seek them out," Gopnik writes, adding that if we are reading Fisher's "sad thoughts on the love that got away or the plate that time forgot, we would hate to find, on the next page, the writer handing out peppy stars in modish kitchens."
I agree with Gopnik, and though I perhaps gravitate toward the comic mock-epic, I also appreciate more lyrical treatments.
So in response to the James Beard Foundation's list, here's my own summer reading list of great food books that I love in some way and enjoy revisiting.
(Ecco Press, 2000)
We can clearly mark food writing before Bourdain and after Bourdain. This memoir of life in the kitchen made food writing cool, and his swaggering outlaw style probably launched more culinary careers than anyone since Julia Child. Food TV executives and culinary school admissions officers should send Bourdain a fruit basket every year.
"The Omnivore's Dilemma"
(Penguin Press, 2006)
Probably the only book of food writing that regularly turns up as required reading in colleges and high schools (perhaps with the exception of Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation"). Yes, it made Americans rethink the way they eat, but it's also a great read, full of humor and engaging knowledge.
"The Gastronomical Me"
(1941; reissued by North Point Press, 1998)
Fisher is the godmother of food memoirists. This is her best book, the one that still holds up seven decades after it was written. Her chapter describing the last meal on a train from Switzerland to Italy with her dying lover, as Europe descends into war, is perhaps the single greatest piece of food writing ever written by an American.
"Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris"
(1959; reissued by North Point Press, 1986)
Late in life, the great New Yorker journalist published this humorous and moving remembrance of a youth spent eating his way through Paris. It was his best book by far. It stands on the shelf next to Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" — and in many ways is far superior. "Though not a novel it has a novel's grip," wrote James Salter, noting "the unmistakable signature of a real writer: an entire book thrown away on nearly every page."
"Comfort Me With Apples"
(Random House, 2001)
I have my problems with the whole precious Reichl persona, but this book is essential reading. Honest, funny, sexy — it's a great depiction of the dawn of California's (and America's) burgeoning food culture and a food writer's vivid coming-of-age story.
"The Tummy Trilogy"
(1974-1983; reissued by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994)
Viewed through jaded 2012 eyes, Trillin's four-decade-old humor can seem a tad corny, but this collection of his three food books will charm you. If nothing else, its existence begs these questions of the JBF's "seasoned culinary publishing professionals": Why aren't more books like this published anymore? Why is there no 21st-century Trillin?
"Blood, Bones & Butter"
(Random House, 2011)
Beautifully written. Hamilton — chef/owner of Prune in New York — seems at times like the love child of Fisher and Bourdain. Bourdain calls this book "the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever." Enough said.
A food book in the same way that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a book about politics. Unable to find his favorite childhood candies, Almond's undertakes manic quest that's part memoir, part travelogue and all "candy porn." Of particular interest is Almond's funny chapter on local fave Goldenberg's Peanut Chews.
"Cooking for Mr. Latte"
(W.W. Norton, 2003)
Hesser has moved on to become America's home recipe guru (her "Essential New York Times Cookbook" is a must-have). But this often overlooked memoir-slash-cookbook has always been a favorite. It doesn't take itself too seriously. Consider this food-book beach reading.
"A Homemade Life"
(Simon & Schuster, 2009)
A charming, poignant memoir disguised as a cookbook. After her father dies, Wizenberg (who writes the popular blog Orangette), moves to Paris, gives up grad school and takes up new studies in the kitchen. Even the recipes approach the level of poetic form.
"The Sweet Life in Paris"
(Broadway Books, 2009)
Lebovitz, whose dessert books have garnered a rabid fan following, is a warm, down-to-earth writer with a razorlike wit. His short stories here (followed by recipes) will remind you of your funniest storytelling friend (one who just happens to live an amazing life in Paris and cook amazing food).
"The Accidental Connoisseur"
(North Point Press, 2004)
Probably the most entertaining and engaging book on wine ever published. Osborne's irreverent tour of vineyards in Europe and California pokes fun at — and holes in — this too-often pompous and joyless world. But you come away from this book with a deep understanding of why wine matters.
"Drink This: Wine Made Simple"
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
(Ballantine Books, 2009)
Let's face it: Most wine guides suck. This one speaks like a knowledgable friend who knows more than you, but doesn't have to be a snob about it. Perfect book for a newbie who wants to learn but has been turned off by wine education in the past.
This fascinating social history of 19th-century drinking single-handedly paved the way for the 21st-century cocktail renaissance. Cocktails are as traditional an American foodway as we have, and Wondrich recovers valuable cultural knowledge that had been lost because of Prohibition. And it's a great read, even if you're a teetotaler.