Saturday, January 16, 2010

new to the FBTS bookshelf

Oh dear, it seems the long hiatus continues. Every now and then asriel and I will take some good pictures, and we're always making great recipes, but somehow there's a gap between doing those things and actually going onto the blog and posting about them. However, there have been good things going on in the world of FBTS, even though this post isn't about our cooking adventures. Instead, it's about one of my other favorite things: books.

I work a full-time retail job, and when there are no customers around I read pretty voraciously. In fact, I'm in and out of the public library so often that I'm sure they are extremely familiar with my face now, and are used to me coming in 3 times a week and checking out about 5 books each time. And, of course, because of my interest in food and cooking, I went through a stage where I was pretty much cleaning the library out of their stock of food-related books. It got to the point where my coworker would come in, look at what I was reading, and say "that's another food book, isn't it?". When I looked back on all the food books I read, I began to think, "wow, this would make a great blog post!".

Of course, I waited a long time to write the actual post. And I didn't actually write down which books I read, or anything about them while I was reading them. So last week, when I thought about writing this post, I came up with a list of just a few books (which I am about 85% sure is not the complete list of food books I read these past few months), and some scattered memories of what I thought about those books. So here you have it: what to add to your booklist if you're as into food as I am. :-)

I first read Bill Buford's Heat during my time in Italy (where I met asriel, incidentally). Since there were limits on how much I could pack for a several-month trip abroad, I wasn't able to bring many English-language books with me, and for a person who reads as much as I do the lack of reading material felt almost physically painful. Luckily, there was a small selection of books in English on a shelf in the campus center where I was studying, and Heat was one of those books. I remember enjoying it very much when I first read it, and when it came to mind earlier this year I decided to read it again. It's still a very good book, one that really captures the insanity and adventure of working in a restaurant (not to mention one manned by the infamous Mario Batali). What you really get from this book is a sense of the people you're meeting--sure, some of these characters seem larger than life, but the story is told in such a way that you believe it. Buford is a good storyteller in that way; the way he describes the personalities in the kitchens where he works, and in the way he describes life in those kitchens, you feel the whirlwind sense of pressure and excitement which he felt during those same experiences. Upon re-reading this book (with significantly more cooking experience under my belt than I had when I first read it) I was struck with both an appreciation for how things are done in large kitchens, and a sense of gratitude that I don't have to work in one. :-P

Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser, was one of those books where I liked the book but not the author. I don't know, something about Amanda Hesser made her seem like the kind of person with whom I would have trouble connecting. I want to say that it's because she's an elitist, but that's not quite it--I've never known anyone's differing tastes to get in the way of my ability to relate to them. I was just never sure I liked the way she looked down on non-foodie Mr. Latte's (as he is called for most of the book) less refined culinary tastes. Being someone who recognizes a time and a place for both fancy, well-put-together food and simple, unrefined food (and even fast food, every so often), I felt like Hesser would look down on me as well. She was like a friend who you get along with really well on most counts, but then she'll say something that'll really put you off. But what can be said for her is that she tells a good story, and she makes what sounds like some great food. Her tales from the world of a food writer, her misadventures in the world of relationships, and especially her anecdotes of what happens when those two worlds collide, make for a funny and well-written read. Just don't offer to take her to Panera afterwards.

I don't remember The Saucier's Apprentice, by Bob Spitz, being a bad book or even a nondescript one--in fact, I remember enjoying it. Unfortunately, it's difficult for me to conjure up a good review of the book, since I'm afraid it was near the end of a long line of food books, and I think I was a little overwhelmed by this point. However, other peoples' reviews were pretty bad across the board, and sadly only leads me to remember what I didn't like about the book. First things first: Bob Spitz complains in this book. A lot. His whole mission is to go on a tour of all these international cooking schools, where he hopes to glean some kind of enlightenment about cooking and about life. However, he spends only a short time at each place he goes, and he rarely seems satisfied by what he finds. Additionally, one wonders when reading this book if Spitz was setting himself up for disappointment. His expectations seemed to be such that they couldn't be fulfilled within the parameters he set for them, and you were left feeling like very little of what he saw was given a truly fair chance. It's difficult to be truly sympathetic to his appraisals of these cooking schools, when you feel as though his opinion was not very well-informed. However, I did take note of many of the recipes he included in the book, which were very good. And when Spitz did manage to get past his whininess, every now and then he offered up a very worthwhile insight. Not one to put at the top of your list.

The real gem of this whole collection is without a doubt Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. If each of these books was like a person you know, Ruth Reichl could be my best friend. Reichl and Hesser are both food writers, but while Hesser makes me feel like I would be uncomfortable eating in a restaurant with her, when I read Reichl's account of her attempts to dine out in disguise to avoid the special treatment food critics are given, I kind of wish she'd asked me to come (despite the fact that she doesn't actually know me). Reichl's book has humor and heart, and she creates a picture of the food world as someplace you'd want to be, even when she has bad experiences. I could read this warm, affectionate, and quirky book over and over.

Those are the most recent additions to my foodie reading list, and there are certain to be more--I've just put several new food books on hold. :-)

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