Alibi V.27 No.29 • July 19-25, 2018 

Books for Cooks

Five Books on Food

Alibi Food Editor’s favorite food reads

Twelve Recipes
Cal Peternell’s sweet and highly readable Twelve Recipes
calpeternell.com

It shouldn’t surprise you that we’re all about books here at Weekly Alibi. Even before I was working as the Food Editor, I loved reading books about food—both research-driven nonfiction and editorial essays from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher. Since it’s summer and, according to Instagram, the season for reading by the pool or on the beach, I figured I’d give my two cents on what’s worthwhile reading material. Here’s a list of some of my favorite food books in no particular order, all of which I return to for literary nourishment from time to time.

The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

This huge tome dedicated to the pleasures and processes of gastronomy is actually a collection of several M.F.K. Fisher books: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. I am listing this collection rather than one single title because that is how I read them and because it is impossible to pick which of her books I like best—all of her writing is able to satisfy a deep craving that I have no name for, a craving that even the described meal itself could not satiate. As she says herself in An Alphabet for Gourmets, “there is no question that secondhand feasting can bring its own nourishment, satisfaction, and final surfeit.” Fisher’s writing is full of warmth and delicious detail: the creaminess of perfectly cooked cauliflower in a Swiss chalet, the earthy taste of fresh tar pried up from a newly paved road (yes, really). She’s wildly intelligent but unpretentious in her approach to food, and to every other topic she touches on. Reading MFK Fisher will make you nostalgic for experiences you’ve never had.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

This collection of Colwin’s essays on cooking and eating are a delight to read. She writes about cooking in dorm rooms and comically small apartments as well as about some of her catastrophic failures and unlikely successes in the kitchen. In her essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” Colwin goes into some of her favorite “eating alone” dishes from back in her young, broke bachelor days—they almost all involve eggplant, which, as she says, is “the stovetop cook’s greatest ally.” Alternately, she talks about her standard feeding a crowd dishes: potato salad, lentil soup and chicken cooked any which way. In “Easy Cooking for Exhausted People,” she assures you that it is always fine to make stew for dinner, because it is always easy, filling and tasty. Scattered throughout with simple recipes and plenty of DIY wisdom, this little book will make you laugh out loud, then go into the kitchen to see if you have all the ingredients for black rum cake.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

On the dawn of becoming a father, the author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has a reckoning with his on-again-off-again vegetarian diet, his Jewish heritage and the moral ramifications of American meat production and consumption. To help his son make an informed decision about his own diet, Foer puts on his reporter hat and goes into the belly of the bloody and grossly unsustainable beast that is the meat industry. Unsurprisingly, what he discovers is stomach-churning. While this moving and excellently researched book isn’t exactly light reading, it should be required reading.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka

Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese agriculture reformer, follows up his cult classic One Straw Revolution with this text on global desertification and how farmers can (and should) combat it. Inspired by a visit to the American Southwest and witnessing the widespread effects of over-farming, erosion and climate change, Fukuoka prescribes a radical solution: Plant as many different seeds as possible, then see what grows. His “do-nothing” approach to agriculture was developed over his many years working as a microbiologist specializing in plant pathology and then his subsequent “dropping out” of the scientific world to tend his family’s farmland. Despite his dire analysis of the state of the planet, Fukuoka’s solutions for combating desertification are hopeful and simple.

Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell

Yes, this is technically a cookbook and thus falls a little outside the scope of food nonfiction that I’ve arbitrarily set as my boundary here. But it is also such good reading that it is more often on my nightstand than in my kitchen. Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell originally put together this book as a “how to cook” guide for his son going off to college, and each loose and informative recipe in the book is filled with a father’s gentle guidance and the occasional cringeworthy dad joke. His advice on how best to dry a bunch of freshly washed herbs is my favorite: “Give it a preliminary shake, and then drip as little as possible on the floor as you walk quickly outside. Swing the bunch by the stems, flick it like a whip, spritz the sidewalk, the yard, the dog, the world.” If you need to be reminded how joyful and tender cooking can be, turn to Peternell.