Book-Hungry Mother
December 9, 2008 2:23 PM   Subscribe

[Xmas Filter] I'm doing my Christmas shopping, and I'm a bit stuck on what I need to get my mother. She likes culinary-cultural history books, preferably with recipes. Suggestions?

She's been really into these books for a while now, and I was hoping to get some suggestions. She's gone through Salt, Cod, and all the other Mark Kurlansky books, as well as Lizzy Collingham's Curry and David Kamp's The United States of Argula.

She has also been a fan of food memoirs like Tender at the Bone as well as travel books with a strong culinary bent. You get the idea. So, any suggestions?
posted by Weebot to Shopping (40 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Buford, Heat. Best food book I've read in a long, long, long time.
posted by googly at 2:27 PM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

*pulls up chair, sits down*

I have Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini book, which is more of a straight-up cookbook based heavily on her blog. Her writing is wonderfully disarming. She's got a second book, Edible Adventures in Paris, that is more of a travelogue of the city of Paris with emphasis on restaurants and markets, but there are also recipes therein.

There's also M. F. K. Fisher, who was featured previously and is also rather fun to read, I thought. I have her How To Cook A Wolf, which was about food on a budget.

I am a rabid fan of the Travelers' Tales line of travel books, and they've done four food-themed collections, two of which further take a women-and-food focus -- Her Fork In The Road, A Taste Of The Road, The Adventure Of Food, and the simply-named Food.

Then there's always Julie and Julia, which was a blogger's effort to cook through Julia Child's entire "The Joy of French Cooking."

That's a start, anyway.

That'll start you off for a while, I believe.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:35 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I heard about this one on NPR not too long ago and was interested.
posted by sanka at 2:35 PM on December 9, 2008

A nifty little book I ran across recently is "Alone In the Kitchen With An Eggplant". Not a cultural history (although it is largely about living in New York) exactly, but a series of essays on 'living and dining alone'. It does have recipes, but it's not really a cookbook. It's a fast read and pretty fun (though there are some downer essays). The Amazon search also revealed all these books in the same genre. I cant speak to the quality of any of them, but perhaps it may spark a notion for a gift.
posted by elendil71 at 2:42 PM on December 9, 2008

Elizabeth David, definitely. Julia Child's last book, My Life in France is also something she'll probably enjoy.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:42 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Almost forgot - the Library of America's new American Food Writing anthology would probably point her to lots of other good books.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:45 PM on December 9, 2008

I enjoy the same thing, kind of, and was given the Household Searchlight Cookbook. It is full of wacky olde tyme recipies that I find charming, if slightly gross.

Note: not so good for actually cooking, mostly as a cultural cookbook relic.
posted by hybridvigor at 2:48 PM on December 9, 2008

I got this one a couple of years ago. I particularly enjoy the story of how they got the Russians to accept the devil's fruit (the potato).

Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' a Gift to Young Housewives
posted by i_love_squirrels at 2:50 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you want to try the fiction book angle, try Bread Alone. It has some rather tasty baking recipes in it.
posted by eralclare at 3:03 PM on December 9, 2008

Aromas of Aleppo is a really lovely cookbook of Syrian Jewish food, with lots of history and cultural knowledge, too. It is primarily a recipe book (70%?), and the food is amazing.
posted by foodmapper at 3:11 PM on December 9, 2008

Response by poster: Ironically, my mother rarely ever makes any food based off the recipes in the books. She just likes to have them, I suppose. She's somewhat of an odd creature sometimes...
posted by Weebot at 3:15 PM on December 9, 2008

The Medieval Kitchen is a great book. It has social and cultural history and is a fascinating read even if you don't ever cook a thing from it. Italian cuisine before tomatoes - vegan food for saints' days - sweet and savory mixtures inspired by the spice trade - four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie - this book has it all. Sample recipes with annotation. Amazon link.
posted by expialidocious at 3:26 PM on December 9, 2008

People took my two, The Medieval Kitchen and Julie/Julia - for what it's worth, I have never laughed so hard as when I read Julie and Julia. The lobster part is completely priceless.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:30 PM on December 9, 2008

"Little Heathens" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish - growing up in the midwest during the depression, growing and raising your own food. Mostly a lovely book.
posted by andreap at 3:31 PM on December 9, 2008

I'd give her The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories.

My mate and I found this book completely fascinating. It's written by a woman who trained as an anthropologist, and every recipe is accompanied by an essay giving the historical and environmental background, as well as the context in Wilder's work.

I learned a lot about food in general reading this book and thinking about the epic struggle to feed oneself and one's family in an age before the advent of the (destined to be brief) superfluity we are now experiencing, but enjoying surprisingly little, when you consider the persistent, aching hunger of our recent ancestors.

We've tried a few of the recipes-- some of them were hard-- and I'd say this book has played a significant role in transforming us from people with an occasional sense of the numinous qualities of some foods into full-blown food worshipers.
posted by jamjam at 3:32 PM on December 9, 2008

I read a good review of Hog and Hominy : Soul Food from Africa to America, that seems like it would fit the bill.
posted by dipolemoment at 3:35 PM on December 9, 2008

How to Eat Supper is a lot of fun.
posted by dogrose at 3:42 PM on December 9, 2008

I'd recommend the Sarah Edington cookbooks. The Captain's Table:Life and Dining on the Great Ocean Liners would tick all the boxes you've mentioned. Edington also did a couple of historical cookbooks for the National Trust, though they're more your traditional cookbook than "recipes plus".

I also really enjoyed Taste of Britain. It's more an encyclopaedia than anything else, but if you're looking for a complete food reference for modern/trad British (and Victorian/Edwardian North American) food & food techniques, it makes for an interesting read.
posted by Grrlscout at 3:54 PM on December 9, 2008

Laurie Colwin was a terrific novelist, who wrote a food column in Gourmet. They've been compiled in 2 books: Home Cooking & More Home Cooking. I just got a copy of Mark Bitman's How to Cook Everything, which looks like great reading. If she doesn't already have a subscription to Cook's magazine, that would be a good choice.
posted by theora55 at 4:07 PM on December 9, 2008

Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser. A little light on recipes, but graceful writing. She delves into the history of each ingredient in a typical meal: chicken with rice, corn with butter and salt, lettuce salad with olive oil and lemon, and ice cream.

Inside this Book excerpt on Amazon.
posted by maudlin at 4:39 PM on December 9, 2008

Cooking for Mr. Latte was a fun, easy read, broken into short essays with recipes at the end. And Julie and Julia was fun to read as well - the Julie/Julia books mentions a time when the author of Cooking for Mr. Latte comes over for dinner!
posted by kidsleepy at 5:00 PM on December 9, 2008

If your mother has a good sense of humor, Eat Me by Kenny Shopsin is an absolute gem. It's got great stories and eccentric (but delicious) recipes.
posted by dbiedny at 5:26 PM on December 9, 2008

I'm a big fan of Guo Yue's 'Music, Food and Love'. He's a Chinese flute player and it's the story of his childhood growing up during the Cultural Revolution. I've tried a few of the recipes and they've turned our really well, and I found the book to be a great read. It's kind of like a lighter version of 'Mao's Last Dancer' if you've read that - only with food. It might be hard to find in the US (he lives in London now) but you can definitely get it from Amazon. (Don't get confused - there's a CD available as well).
posted by Emilyisnow at 5:29 PM on December 9, 2008

The best food writing, I've encountered, bar none, is by John Thorne. A Pot On The Fire won a James Beard award, and for good reason. I would also recommend Serious Pig, if your mom is into American foodways and culinary anthropology and a Pollan-esque food's-eye-view of history. John Thorne is the way to go.
posted by LimePi at 5:34 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, about Reichl trying to dine in various disguises to get an unbiased opinion for her job as a food critic. I also enjoyed her previous book Comfort Me with Apples.
Julia Child's memoir My Life in France, is replete with lip-smacking descriptions of food and gives one real insight into the process of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
To continue the French theme, I loved French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle. One of those books I picked up on a whim and really made me wish I could get on a flight to France tomorrow.
And since this is for your mother, what could be more appropriate than In My Mother's Kitchen: 25 Writers on Love, Cooking and Family. Perhaps not as well-written as the other books, but I couldn't imagine anyone not being at least somewhat touched by it.
Finally, how about the memoir of the doyenne of Indian cookbook authors, Madhur Jaffrey -- Climbing the Mango Trees. A well-written, if somewhat self-indulgent account of a privileged childhood in India, with all the good food that entails.
posted by peacheater at 5:49 PM on December 9, 2008

I really dug Jacques Pepin's memoir. It talks about his childhood as well as his collaborations with Julia Child.

I second the Fuchsia Dunlop book mentioned by sanka. It's really fabulous and gorgeously described.

There is always, of course, the obligatory Bourdain mention. She would probably like A Cook's Tour and The Nasty Bits more than Kitchen Confidential, as they're more travel-heavy.

The Amateur Gourmet is written by MeFi's own Adam Roberts. It's funny and sweet and gets to the heart of why people should cook.

The Zen of Fish is an interesting look at the history of sushi and follows a class at a sushi academy in California.
posted by calistasm at 6:13 PM on December 9, 2008

My Life in France is Julia Child's memoir focusing on learning to cook at Le Courdon Bleu and writing her first cookbook.

Jeffrey Steingarten has a few books out of his culinary essays originally published in Vogue.
posted by dreaming in stereo at 6:42 PM on December 9, 2008

Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren is exactly the thing. It's a fascinating book about what foods were in style (mainly in the US) in different decades.
I remember my mother making strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar for parties when I was a kid--turns out that was a big thing in the 70s!
There are also recipes included. I make the 1940s chocolate pudding cake all the time.

Another great book on food history is From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals, by Barbara Haber. It's pretty much what it says on the tin (as they say).
posted by exceptinsects at 11:32 PM on December 9, 2008

I'm a big fan of The American Heritage Cookbook, a terrific mix of cultural history, contextualized recipes and vintage illustrations which went through at least a couple editions from the 1960s on.
posted by Scram at 11:46 PM on December 9, 2008

This past summer, I really enjoyed The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, about the history of Chinese food in the United States. It was written by a Chinese-American woman, Jennifer 8. Lee, who includes some of her own story in the mix (but not so much that it becomes a lopsided memoir).

It's funny, it's startling, and it's a great read. No recipes per se, but lots of information and history that you'd never guess.
posted by fantine at 12:16 AM on December 10, 2008

Jeff Smith "Our Immigrant Ancestors" series
posted by nax at 5:41 AM on December 10, 2008

There's lots of terrific suggestions above, but another one I'd add to the list is Susan Pinkard’s wonderful A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800 (Cambridge, $28). Although it sounds like it'd be a bland textbook, her take on the evolution of French culinary approaches and customs, many of which are still with us, makes for fascinating reading. And recipes for authentic meals from the time period are included.

Another book I've been telling everyone about that'll listen to me (and even those who won't) is Pauline Nguyen's absolutely wonderful Secrets of the Red Lantern, which is about a Vietnamese family's exodus to Australia. Mouthwatering recipes, yeah, but her family's story is begging for a movie adaptation. Very well written, and it damn well better make some of these year-end best-of lists. Just a terrific book.
posted by Atom12 at 5:51 AM on December 10, 2008

Food: The History of Taste is quite interesting. If she's read a lot of food history books, it might be a bit 101 for her, but the variety of illustrations is engaging, and the book is quite lovely.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:54 AM on December 10, 2008

Seconding John Thorne. Mouth Wide Open (his newest) is also quite good, as are Outlaw Cook and his newsletter, Simple Cooking. Pot on the Fire is my favorite of the bunch.
posted by silentbicycle at 8:04 AM on December 10, 2008

Oh, also -- John Thorne is very good at recommending other (frequently obscure and/or historical) culinary writing, and would probably give your mother plenty of other sources to chase down.
posted by silentbicycle at 8:05 AM on December 10, 2008

Carol Field's books are a lovely blend of food writing and regional Italian recipes. In Nonna's Kitchen is filled with stories of cooking in post-World War 2 poverty and from home gardens or foraging, and the recipes are stupendous. Celebrating Italy is probably more text than recipes, with stories and related recipes for national/regional/local feasts and celebrations.

I am also tremendously fond of Elizabeth Ehrlich's memoir Miriam's Kitchen, which uses cooking as the narrative thread for a story about the author's relationship with her mother-in-law and her path to observant Judaism. Ehrlich shares many of her in-laws' stories about surviving the Holocaust, so it's also their memoir one step removed. [Note: it's a good thing your mom doesn't make the recipes, as the Amazon reviews point out that a lot of them are a bit off.]
posted by catlet at 8:07 AM on December 10, 2008

I just went to a lecture by the author of Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. The book is quite well-written, and has a devastatingly good recipe for eggnog, among other things.
posted by Lycaste at 8:21 AM on December 10, 2008

Any of the cookbooks cum travelogues of Duguid/Alford. The New Yorker ran a good article about them just recently. Beautifully photographed and some great recipes as well. My favorites are the ones on rice and flatbreads.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:31 AM on December 10, 2008

Lobscouse & Spotted-Dog, a cooking companion to the Aubrey/Maturian novels of Patrick O'Brian. Cooking and eating unusual dishes in the galley of the British sailing ships is a pleasant recurring theme in these novels.

You may know these novels from the recent Hollywood movie, starting Russel Crowe, Master & Commander.

Great stuff!
posted by Mephisto at 11:17 AM on December 10, 2008

i_love_squirrels's Classic Russian Cooking suggestion is a good one if your mom probably won't try to make the recipes, since the measurements are all wonky and tend towards huge.

Part of what makes it so interesting is that it's basically instructions on how to run an estate. It assumes, for instance, that you'll want to make a "10 pail barrel" full of vinegar.

It's very interesting though- a real window on a long-gone way of living.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:23 PM on December 10, 2008

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