Summer books should be entertaining page-turners. Who wants to get bogged down in obtuse economic theory or convoluted political arguments while stretched out on a beach towel or curled up in an Adirondack chair?
Fortunately for food lovers, there’s a whole crop of fun reads out this year that explore the culinary world. You don’t even have to be a cook to enjoy these memoirs. Here are my choices:
Spoon Fed, by Kim Severson (Riverhead Books, 2010, $25.95).
Kim Severson, one of the best food journalists in the country, has been at the New York Times since 2004 but she began building her reputation at the San Francisco Chronicle six years earlier. I’ve always admired her as an excellent reporter with a great eye for the stories that define our times. She’s also an engaging writer with a cheeky sense of humor.
Severson’s memoir traces her life from alcoholic despair in Alaska to domestic happiness in Brooklyn with a wife and young daughter. Yet, like many journalists, she seems more comfortable writing about other people than plumbing her own emotional depths. Self-deprecating humor is more her style than self-obsession.
So it should be no surprise that she’s used her life story as the context for illuminating profiles of her mother an some of the most prominent women in the food world, from Marion Cunningham to Marcella Hazan. The subtitle, “How Eight Cooks Saved My Life,” is a bit melodramatic but I’m willing to forgive that in the face of such charming stories.
Oh yes, there are recipes, too. I’m itching to make the Gumbo Z’Herbes inspired by Leah Chase – maybe in September.
52 Loaves, by William Alexander (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010, $23.95).
William Alexander is a man who redefines obsession. When he gets his teeth into a project, he doesn’t let go until he’s exhausted every comic possibility.
He chronicled his quest for the perfect garden in “The $64 Tomato” (Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006). Now he’s pursuing the Platonic ideal of bread. He wants to recreate the life-changing artisan bread, complete with crisp crust and holey interior, that he still remembers from dinner in a New York restaurant.
The book opens with Alexander – an IT manager by day – preparing to sow his own wheat for the loaf of his dreams. In the course of a year, he consults bread experts, bakes a new loaf from scratch every weekend, enters his bread at the state fair, builds an outdoor brick oven, and braves airport security to take sourdough starter to an ancient monastery in Normandy.
Along the way, he blends encyclopedic detail of the history and science of bread making with laugh-out-loud accounts of his exploits. Even readers who aren’t as fascinated as Alexander is with every nuance of great bread will enjoy his tale.
Amateur bakers may learn something, too. As a sort of epilogue, Alexander gives detailed instructions for building your own levain, or starter, and creating several variations on pain de campagne, otherwise known as peasant bread.
The Butcher and the Vegetarian, by Tara Austen Weaver (Rodale, 2010, $23.99)
Don’t let the cover fool you. This book is not your typical romance novel. It’s the story of Tara Austen Weaver’s flirtation with meat.
A lifelong vegetarian, Weaver was advised by doctors to eat meat to cure an unidentified ailment that had led to chronic fatigue. She takes us with her to the butcher’s shop while she tries to make her peace with the idea of eating animals.
Although this could be a heavy, moralistic tome, Austen turns it into an often humorous and lighthearted journey through a world of crown roasts and barbecue that feels exotic to someone raised as a vegetarian. Confirmed carnivores will learn something about the meat industry as well.
Austen is generous, funny and very likable. Her story will grab you from the first chapter and keep you reading until she makes her decision about what she should eat for health and happiness. I just wish she had shared her recipe for Syrian meatballs.
Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain (Ecco, 2010, $26.99)
The cover photo tells you everything you need to know about Anthony Bourdain’s life ten years after the publication of the best-selling “Kitchen Confidential”: He may be fingering a knife, but he’s wearing a suit and tie.
Bourdain no longer cooks for a living in the sweltering, hectic, macho kitchens that he celebrated in his earlier memoir. Now he writes, serves as a judge on “Top Chef” and stars in the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations.” He’s remarried and become a doting father.
So, if you’re expecting another wild ride of drugs and sex, you’ll be disappointed for the most part. Bourdain is the first to say he’s sold out. Although, he still writes in the frenetic, profane style of a culinary Hunter S. Thompson, lobbing F-bombs left and right, he’s lost some of the energy he drew from life in professional kitchens.
This is not so much a memoir as a string of essays. I could pass on his rant about Alan Richman, the food critic of GQ magazine. But his blustering account of what it feels like to be a father is truly touching and his profiles of David Chang of Momofuku fame and Justo Thomas, the cook who fillets fish at Le Bernardin are some of the best material in the book.