Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Five Nonfiction Books for the Frugal Foodie

Sweet readers, this week’s a little out of whack with the ant situation. So, instead of today’s regular post, I thought I’d offer up a few of my favorite nonfiction food books. They’re fairly standard reads amongst chowhounds, and don’t concentrate specifically on healthy, low-budget cooking, but all have wonderful qualities nonetheless. I wouldn’t hesitate suggesting them to anyone. (Er, which is why they're here.)

If you’ve ever perused these guys, or have any ideas for good reads, please go crazy in the comments section. After all, reading is FUN(damental).

In no particular order…

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
I never considered myself a particularly daring eater, or imagined cuisine as a huge part of any vacation. But Bourdain helped change that. Cook’s Tour is about food and culture – namely, how discovering one is key to understanding the other. He describes Vietnamese food in such a way that I can’t believe I’ve never been. There’s a reverence not present in Kitchen Confidential, too, which balances Tony’s occasional bouts with ennui and annoyance.

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
On its own, In Defense of Food is a really neat guide for everyday eating. As a companion to the more analytical Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s invaluable. It counters OD’s occasionally relentless skepticism with optimistic solutions, as well as simple, vital messages. (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) Read it first if you can.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
I plowed through this book years ago, and it’s a tribute to its effectiveness that I’ve rarely stepped into a fast food restaurant since. Having worked at both McDonald’s and Wendy’s, I knew about the food prep and employee relations, but the mass production methods used to keep prices down … great scott. (P.S. If you are parent to a socially concerned teen, this will absolutely rock his/her world.)

Heat by Bill Buford
Buford took a year off to learn how to cook under Mario Batali, Marco Pierre White, and various butchers and pasta-makers all over Europe. The result is Heat, which perfectly captures the fascination, frustration, and triumph facing novice denizens of the kitchen. Dude can really write, too, which helps.

I’m Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown
If you can imagine Good Eats in print, I’m Just Here for the Food is for you. Half cookbook, half science manual, you won’t find better explanations of the physical and chemical processes involved in getting a meal to the table. It’s Wired for foodies, or Cook’s Illustrated for nerds.

Also of note

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Reichl’s kind of like an eccentric aunt who dresses up, goes to fancy restaurants, and ruminates on their merits for page after page. Funny, warm insider's look at big-city food criticism.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Though it can get a bit dry, OD’s a must-read for those interested in how our food industry can possibly function. Factory farms are scary, scary things.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Hilarious, hyperbolic behind-the-scenes glimpse into the everyday running of a restaurant, by the man himself.


Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
I’m about halfway through so far. It’s okay. Julie can definitely write, but the book seems more about her crappy apartment than the food. Still, I can relate to the crappy apartment parts. And I WILL be seeing the movie. Meryl Streep as Julia Child, yo.

Would like to read, but haven’t gotten around to yet

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver

Food Matters by Mark Bittman

How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table by Russ Parsons

What about you guys? What are you reading? What are your opinions on the books mentioned? Do tell.

(Photos courtesty of Chrismasto, NY Bookworm, and Spill.)

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Amanda on Maui said...

I'm currently reading "How to Read a French Fry" by Pollan and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." I checked out from my library again "Gear for Your Kitchen" by Alton Brown, and I also checked out "I'm Just Here for the Food."

Jess said...

Wow... I've actually read everything on your list! Yay me! Good choices all around. I'd add just about anything by MFK Fisher, especially How to Cook a Wolf-- how to survive hard times and keep your love of food and eating intact.

KMAYS said...

I read Julie and Julia over the holidays and enjoyed it for a fun, food-related read that wasn't super-serious. I just put In Defense of Food, Fast Food Nation, and Animal Vegetable Mineral on hold at my local library since I just finished my first year of grad school. Fun summer reading!

Anonymous said...

I read Julie & Julia a while back - a pleasant enough light read. Yes, she talked a lot about her apartment as well as her TV watching (chiefly The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as I recall). To this list, I'd add Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, if you can get them. They're more collections of entertaining short stories with the occasional recipe thrown in, than cookbooks per se and hold well up to re-reading. Mikeinkansascity

debbie koenig said...

Great list! One author who's missing: Nigel Slater. Just about anything by him is worth reading.

Anna N said...

First-time commenter, so first of all: great blog! I like cooking cheap vegetarian food and my inner list-maker loves your roundups of tips, recipes, links, etc.

I'd highly recommend Climbing the Mango Trees, Madhur Jaffrey's memoir. It's interesting to read about her food memories and food in post-independence India, and she included some of her family recipes in the back. All the ones I've tried have been great.

Also, I liked Animal Vegetable Miracle but found it a little... self-righteous, I guess. And gimmicky. For a more laid-back approach to entirely local eating, I liked This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. It can get off-topic, but it has nice simple recipes and all kinds of great gardening tips scattered in there. If you're like me, it will make you want to buy land and start planting a garden immediately. Gussow gradually came to grow all her own vegetables, it wasn't anything gimmicky, and she doesn't preach.

DEO said...

Good choices! I just finished Garlic and Sapphires, and really liked it, but I have to say I prefer Reichl's first book, Tender at the Bone, which is more about home cooking and her life before she broke into all her enviable careers. I also second the commenters on MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf and Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking -- in fact, I wrote almost an entire post on my own blog earlier today, extolling the joys of Home Cooking (and home cooking). Thanks for the food lit post!

The Economical Epicurean

Cat Scott said...

I recently read Mindless Eating, which isn't so much about food as much as it is about eating. Mmmm... eating....

The author tells you everything you thought was obvious about changing the way you eat, but somehow (probably through "science" and "experiments") it's convincing enough to make you actually change your habits. It's practical, lighthearted, and informative.

Can't wait to read Alton Brown's book. I often want to take notes when his show is on (which is a bit weird) so now I won't have to.

-cat (long time reader, first time commenter)

Sarah said...

One food book that I adore is Miraim's Kitchen". The author is Jewish and writes about her mother-in-law's ( a holocaust survivor) cooking. It is wonderful but be prepared to be starving while you read it. The recipes are fantastic as well.
I also love John Thorne. His latest book is "Mouth Wide Open" He writes about his exploration of foods, where they come from and what they mean to him.
I second anything by MFK Fisher and Laurie Colwin-delicious.

anja3582 said...

I don't know if you've tried Terro ant killer yet, but it always worked for me. And trust me, I had 'em bad one year when I was in college. Good luck.

caostaff said...

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan - good, lightweight compared to The Omnivore's Dilemma, whic changed my life, no joke.

I’m Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown - good for nonreaders, like an illustrated On Food.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain - fun, easy read

I would also recommend Julie Sahni's Indian Cooking, which is both educational and full of good recipes - I've become pretty good at Murgh Masala.

I've not read but heard good things about Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking.

And, though not a book, Cook's Illustrated Rocks!!

Alex said...

Julie and Julia was too neurotic for me. I did get her food as a primeval sexual force though. Made me want to make the steak.

Food Matters is more cookbook rather than book. I like the idea of vegan until 6 p.m., but it isn't feasible right now.

c.r.a. said...

I love reading food books and I think your suggestions are great ones.

A couple more that I really liked:
American Food Writing, edited by Molly O'Neill
(This is a collection of food writing, and in addition to being great on its own, will also give you new authors to try).

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen
Both an excellent food book and an ode to New Orleans.

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel
A fascinating photo-essay book that explores what families eat around the world.

Thanks to everyone else for the suggestions, I'm excited to check them out!

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

I just put In Defense of Food and Fast Food Nation on hold at my library. I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival!

Heather said...

I second Fast Food Nation, it is a real eye opener, especially the parts about how the government influenced post WWII food production.

Reading Nasty Bits right now and not totally loving it. Kitchen Confidential is a much better book.

Lucky said...

Funny, I just did a review on Angelo Pelligrini's The Food Lover's Garden. It's a big hit with me!

I read the Julie/Julia blog as it was unfolding so I liked the book.

If you like the Kingsolver book check out Plenty by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon.

And my I'm sorry about the ants. I have an infestation now, but they have had the good grace to stay in my bath tub, where I can wash their carcasses down the drain.

Megan said...

Julie & Julia; Garlic & Sapphires; and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are all very good reads!

I just finished Under the Table - a great story about the inner workings of culinary school.

Corrie said...

I've read several on your list and also liked Real Food by Nina Planck.

Elizabeth said...

I loved all of Michael Pollen's books and would recommend them to anyone. I also highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I liked Julie and Julia, I thought the writing was very good. I plan to take Kitchen Confidential on my upcoming vacation. I would also recommend Gluten-Free Girl.

Kristi Wachter said...

I read Julia Child's My Life in France a few weeks ago and loved it. (Which reminds me: they've just put up some of her shows at PBS video: http://www.pbs.org/video/program/1073557581/. Yay!)

Michelle said...

You must read Laurie Colwin's "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking" - the essays are wonderful and the recipes are also nice.

Harold McGee "On Food and Cooking" is the ultimate in food science geekery.

Shana said...

You can skip Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. I was disappointed, because I'm a big fan of Kingsolver's fiction. However, she was way preachy in this, and a little holier-than-thou.

Daniel said...

I'd definitely be curious to hear your thoughts on Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. She's a really good writer, and the concept behind the book sounds interesting.

Casual Kitchen

SometimesKate said...

John Thorne is probably my favourite food writer. I own three of his books, and they're all fantastic. He used to have some great bits on his old website that never made it to the new one.

I discovered the Julie and Julia blog before I read the novel. Her blog is much better. I'm not sure why, but the novel just bugged me. Probably because she dramatized things I didn't figure needed dramatizing.

Kris said...

Kate, that's a great point about J&J. I finished it a few days ago, and some of her experiences didn't seem to merit the reactions they produced. It was a little much after awhile, seemingly over nothing.

That said, I do appreciate her obvious affection for Julia. The last part was probably my favorite.