I was sitting here yesterday flipping through my copy of the amazing Molly O'Neill's latest,
One Big Table, an 800-page monster look at how we eat in the U.S. that took her about a decade of trowling from sea to shining sea in order to concoct. O'Neill is special to me. Because she is a great writer, yes; but also, because she was one of the reasons I thought making a living out of writing about food and drink was something that was even... possible. She came and spoke one day during a big lecture class I was taking at New York University. I was a print journalism student and, while I knew that writing was my first love, it never occurred to me that I could put it together with having grown up as the daughter of a butcher or my interest in food and flavors and how cultures meld and collide over such things. She turned on a lightbulb for me, and in that moment set the fate of someone she didn't even know was really listening to what she had to say. Really, you just never know how you affect people.
I started looking through all the books that have come my way this year--dozens and dozens of them--and pulled out the ones that I've really enjoyed, and, man, there were a lot of great books that came my way this year. The cookbook shelves can be a tough spot upon which to make a splash -- have you ever stood in your favorite local bookshop and felt overwhelmed by it all? I have. So to write something that puts a new spin on a topic or just approaches recipes in a way that feels classic before the ink even dries or touches people with its honesty and love for a subject is a pretty amazing accomplishment.
So without further ado, here's my list, in no particular order, of what I really liked -- because of its recipes, its words, its spirit, or all of the above:
One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking by Molly O'Neill. A very long, and very lovely, love letter to American home cooking via O'Neill's exhaustive reporting and palatable prose. She writes: "I've never known a food-obsessed person who did not have someone in a cotton apron--a grandmother or mother, an uncle, a father, a neighbor, a teacher--standing behind them who could turn an ordinary meal into an extraordinary one and make the world seem larger, full of heart, and bursting with possibility. But these American cooks had been forgotten over the past several decades as 'cooking' morphed into 'cuisine.' I wanted to find them and cook with them..." And so, in 600 recipes and countless frequent flier miles and gas-tank fill-ups, she did.
My New Orleans by John Besh. I have been a fan of this Louisiana chef for many years, and this beautiful book, written and arranged in a way that only a local boy could, is chock full of his love for his hometown. It's not just a mouthwatering look at one of America's best food cities, it's an important step in preserving and celebrating its culinary history, present, and future.
A Bird in the Oven and Then Some by Mindy Fox. For the love of fowl, go out and get this. Fox's recipes are inspired and inspiring--and crazy good. I'm calling this book an instant classic, setting Fox as one of our most promising and important cookbook writers of the twenty-first century. I'm really enjoying cooking my way through this.
The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders. I think this gets my vote for the prettiest cookbook of the year. The photos make it feel like a fairy tale, but Saunders great instructions and outstanding recipes have made a jam-shy cook like me want to dive head long into a bowl full of jelly.
Cooking with Italian Grandmothers by Jessica Theroux. To be filed under: The book I wish I wrote. After being awarded a fellowship to research Italian food traditions, Theroux spent a year traveling around Italy, researching, cooking, and eating with Italian women across 9 of Italy's culinary-rich regions from north to south. "This is a book about women and food and listening... My greatest hope is that this book will encourage you to pay the utmost attention to your life, and in particular to your food and the people around youl What you discover could change your life," she writes in the opening line of her intro. Amen, sister.
Punch by David Wondrich. Drink historian and whipsmart journalist Wondrich somehow manages to toe the line between scholarly study of what was once one of the world's most popular methods of presenting libations (which nearly slipped into total obscurity) and hilarious "guy walks into a bar..." drinking story. That he has managed to not only resurrect and overturn what was nearly forgotten is a labor that kind of takes my breath away at the amount of work that went into this. But he easily revives me with all the great recipes for kick-ass punch in here, so it's a good trade-off. I smell a (second) Beard award...
As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avid Devoto, Edited by Joan Reardon. I'm still reading this right now, but to see this friendship grow in a decade's worth of letters, from an initial fan letter to Devoto's husband from Child to exchanges on family, politics, personal dark moments of doubt, triumph, and the rest of what goes into life, isn't just a fascinating and heartening glimpse into the writer/editor relationship and the thoughts of one of America's most important culinary figures, but to celebrate (and, maybe mourn) the dying art of writing a letter.
Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners by Sara Moulton. I never gave Sara Moulton much thought before this book. I'm not a Food Network watcher, and celebrity chefs make me knee-jerk averse, but this book is such a great way to kick up everyday dishes into something more interesting. Totally loving the inspiration.
In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark. Clark's columns in the New York Times' are the kind of food writing I love -- stories interwoven with the act and art of home cooking. She is smart, and funny, and very, very talented.
The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone. Yay, clever Michele Scicolone, for making the slow cooker sexy again and showing us all that Ye Olde Crockpot is for more than white-bean chili. I have post-its on so many of its pages, I'm not even sure I could loan this out to anyone because it's in such constant rotation in my home.
For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose. This book crosses into so many wonderful worlds of interest -- history, botany, adventure, culinary curiosity; it's got it all. Wonderfully researched and utterly fascinating, the tale of how that little tea bag sitting in your mug right now got there to begin with is a great read to plunk down with on a chilly winter's day.
New American Table by Marcus Samuelsson. A more truncated version of O'Neill's idea, but from the incredibly unique perspective of a chef who emigrated from Ethiopia to Sweden to the United States. I love this book not just for its incredibly cool cornucopia of spice-kicked recipes, but for renewing my faith that the melting pot is alive and well, and as deliciously interesting as ever.
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours by Sarabeth Levine. I feel like I've been waiting for this book from one of New York's most treasured bakers for eons. Rizzoli did an amazing job making it pretty; Levine sugarcoats it all in wonderful, step-by-step detail, from ice cream to crumbles to her famous and fabulous preserves to muffins and, yum, so much more that I'm having a great time baking my way through.
Specialites de la Maison by the American Friends of France (1940). The reissue of this slim, hilarious, Francophile time capsule is a kooky little look at how the other half cooked (including absolutely precious bits of domesticity from Katherine Hepburn and Salvadore Dali--really). More fun than a barrel full of molded Jell-o.
I'd love to hear what you all liked this year, too, because we're not just reacting to what's presented to us; how and what we cook is a moment in time. A look at who we are and what moves us and makes us hungry and inspires us to get in the kitchen and bang around the pots and pans. And especially because this will be my last post.
"Food for Thought" has been cancelled, my friends. It has been such a great, fun, sometimes exhausting, always inspiring ride to write this every week (and I know my awesome, very talented co-blogger, Carolyn Grifel, feels the same, too). We do hope you've enjoyed it. Thank you to all of you who read and cooked along with us here (and a special shout-out to TiggerBear, our most loyal and devoted reader) -- we wish you many, many more great meals shared with the wonderful people in your lives, because eating with folks you like always makes a dish taste better. Like Molly O'Neill said in a recent interview: "Americans are doing more than making dinner when they're making dinner -- they're making their lives." Keep cookin' up yours.
Love and good dishes,