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Staff Picks: Books That Make Us Food Lovers

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 16, 2012 7:00PM

Photo by clarkmaxwell.
Lots of us can point to books that helped to make us who we are. For food lovers, this often means a treasured cookbook, a tome of kitchen wisdom, or just a novel that happens to have really great dinners in it. In today's Staff Picks, members of the food staff reveal the books that made us into food lovers and the books that remind us why we keep eating and eating. The (slightly unexpected, to their editor) passion in these entries makes it clear how important reading is to the joy of food.

Amy Cavanaugh - The Food of A Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America, Mark Kurlansky.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration funded the Federal Writers’ Project, an economic recovery program that hired unemployed writers to pen travel guides and other books. One of their projects was America Eats, which was going to be a book about what Americans were eating across the country. Writers ate at automats, learned to make lutefisk, and went to maple sugaring parties, then wrote about it. Then World War II began, and the writing was sent to the Library of Congress archives and ignored for decades. Kurlansky unearthed the submissions and published them in this book. The Food of a Younger Land explores what I find so interesting about food—the traditions and social aspects, how it varies by region, and its role in everyday life. For me, it was part fun history book and part lament at the demise of regional variance in cuisine and rise of fast food. It’s worth a perusal if you’re interested in food, history, or the evolution of American culture.

Anthony Todd - Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

What a ridiculous pick, I know! You were expecting Kitchen Confidential or The Art of French Cooking, I'm sure. But this book came much earlier, and has more to do with (I suspect) a lot of food lovers' passion than they realize. Think back to these books - what do you remember? I remember pig butchering, harvesting maple syrup, hunting, giant dinners in the farmhouse, hoarding wheat to get through the winter. All of the best scenes were about eating, about carving a living out of the land. Especially for those of us who grew up to have a passion for local eating, these books can't be left off of the list.

Molly Durham - My Life in France, Julia Child

Julia Child's "My Life in France" was a book that read to me like a love letter to food. You can own all of her cookbooks but once I read this book I understood how deep her love for food goes, and it's infectious. The book chronicles the time in her life when she fell in love with food and all the possibilities it held: personally, socially and culturally. It also showed how she started out being as clueless as anyone else, and never took herself too seriously.

Roger Kamholz - Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, David Wondrich

It takes knowing that a golden age of American cocktails has already come and gone to really appreciate and cherish the one we’re enjoying now. Imbibe!, by historian and Esquire contributor David Wondrich, opened my eyes to our country’s rich and rollicking history of mixed drinks, which stretches as far back as the colonial era. The hero of the book is “Professor” Jerry Thomas, a man who achieved celebrity status through his bartending wizardry. He’s credited with creating dozens of classic drink recipes (many of which appear in the book), publishing the first cocktail recipe guide (way back in the 1860s), and basically comporting himself astoundingly. Among other flair, he wore diamond-studded clothes and worked the bar with pet rats perched on his shoulders. Turns out, cocktails were America’s first great contribution to world cuisine. And Wondrich’s jocular writing style seems to speak of the period in its own language, which makes reading the history of that great contribution nearly as much fun as drinking it.

John DiGilio - Stone Soup, Buddhists of the Deep Spring Temple

It's a simple, little tome that holds a profoundly large place in my heart. Stone Soup was a cookbook published by the Buddhists of the Deep Spring Temple in Pittsburgh, PA. A collection of meatless recipes, sprinkled with musings on Zen practice, I have been carrying it around the country with me for many years now. It was while exploring Buddhism with these good folks in my mid-twenties that I first realized just how delicious and diverse vegetarian cooking could be. I would go on week-long retreats and sit in silence for hours almost as much for the amazing, healthy meals as I did for the peace and stillness of mind that the meditation provided. From hearty breakfasts to light soups to stick-to-your-ribs pasta and veggie dishes, this book had it all and presented it with a gentle respect for life and those who nourish it. Every time I open it's well-worn pages, I can still hear the words we would chant before every meal... "Taking food and drink, Vowing with all beings, To rejoice in zazen, Filled with delight in the dharma". The recipes still bring me great peace of mind and tummy.

Caitlin Klein - Grandma's Recipes

When my mother's family bought a typewriter in the early 70's, she offered to type and organize all of her mother's handwritten recipes into a proper cookbook. My grandmother wasn't sure, but when my mom insisted and suggested that it would be good for her typing, my grandmother relented. What resulted is my most loved cookbook - pages of thin, lined paper, painstakingly typed out by my mother's fingers. Many of the recipes are hilarious 60's fruit-and-jello creations and yes, there is a chapter dedicated to boiled meats, but I learned to make sauerkraut, Christmas cookies, and homemade cake from this book. I have treasured family memories stored on its pages. I think that it is tradition and a sense of home that gives cooking its true meaning.

Anthony Todd - Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

I'm the editor, so I get two books. I first came across Colwin's book at age 19. I had devoured all of her novels, but had no idea that she had also been a long-time columnist for Gourmet magazine. Colwin died far too young in 1992, but her legacy lives on through two essay collections (a sequel, More Home Cooking, was published after her death). She eschewed fancy gadgets, over-wrought presentation and complicated recipes in favor of dishes that nourished body and soul. She wrote about nursery food, tea parties, making beef stew and cooking in charity kitchens. Her most famous essay, "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," has become an oft-reprinted classic, and I often find myself Alone in the Kitchen with her book on a gray day, looking for inspiration.