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Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Food Writer's List of 10 Essential Food Books

Posted By on Thu, Dec 10, 2009 at 5:12 PM

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As much as I'd like to assemble a Top Ten Food Books of 2009 list, I'm so far behind in my reading that I'd struggle to compose a Top Ten Food Books of 2008 list. Best I can do for this year is two books. First, Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan. It's a cookbook, but you can -- and should -- read it cover to cover. It's a fascinating, hilarious and, yeah, profane look into the life and work of arguably the hottest young chef in America.

Second, Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen by Jason Sheehan. Sheehan is the restaurant critic for Westword, our sister paper in Denver. He's a fantastic writer: I read his reviews every week even though I've never been to Denver and don't foresee a trip there any time soon. His memoir is a hilarious and, yeah, profane (notice a trend in my tastes?) look at his career as a cook in some truly seedy joints and his eventual transition into being a restaurant critic.

But 'tis the season for making lists -- and holiday shopping. So if you're looking for a book or two or ten to give to the foodie in your life, here's a list of what have been the ten essential books in my own development as a food writer.

Reference Books

These books are the best of both worlds: Not only are they vital references for the reviews I write, but they are also the sort of books I can pick up again and again knowing that, even if I browse only a few pages, I'll learn something new.

The Professional Chef
: This is the textbook at the Culinary Institute of America, and it's priced like a textbook ($70). But for the money you get a reference guide, an instruction manual on kitchen technique and a cookbook. As a writer, I find the first 300 or so pages the most useful. There you'll find full-color photographs illustrating (to provide just a couple of examples) the different cuts of meat or the different species of fish.

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Larousse Gastronomique: The maman of all culinary references and, at $90, undeniably an investment. Still, can you put a price on 1,200-plus glossy, illustrated pages that encompass almost everything there is to know about French cuisine (recipes included)? Each successive edition -- I have the 2001 version, but a new edition has just been published -- has broadened the focus to include more of the rest of the world, but much of this book's charm is getting lost in the vivid descriptions of French dishes rarely seen in America, the biographies of great chefs and anecdotes such as this, from the entry on rodent: "Thomas Genin, cook and organizer of the first culinary competition (1884-89), considered rat meat to be of excellent quality."

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