Books about food and drink have never had it better. After the Amazon-enabled cookbook glut of the past decade, people are finally opening up to the idea that recipes are not the only interesting part of writing about what we put into our mouths. The next few weeks (please not months) are an ideal opportunity to explore a field that, for all the work done by pioneers like MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David, has only really started to flourish relatively recently. This list is therefore long on 21st century picks; it presupposes familiarity with some of the genre’s heaviest hitters and attempts to reflect the sheer breadth of the work on offer in the modern nonfiction library — or, at the very least, to offer some interesting fodder for your next book club via Zoom.
Over the past few weeks, Ruby Tandoh has been using her social media channels to broadcast a serotonin-enhancing list of Good Food Things — the simple, relatable, affordable pleasures that we seldom remember to take the time to properly savour. This is Tandoh’s writerly project in miniature, and it received fullest expression in a 2018 book whose very title encouraged us to cut through all the bullshit — dietary privations, sinister vested interests, courgetti — and enjoy food as something inherently good and life-enriching. Tandoh is scathing about the things that need to be put right in order for us to all be able to do this; she is uniquely tender and tactile in her relish for the things still left unspoilt. I read the final pages of this sitting outside a local bakery on a stolen summer afternoon, eating one of my favourite childhood treats (a lemon tart) — seldom have subject matter and surrounding context come together so seamlessly.
Perhaps the most purely pleasurable book about wine ever written, this account of Bianca Bosker’s journey from clueless wine boor to certifiable wine bore is everything wine writing so seldom is: nimble, self-aware, funny. Covering everything from the so-called ‘PPX’ service bestowed on high rollers to the alarming science that goes into making every bottle of £6 supermarket wine taste like £6 supermarket wine, this is a fascinating peek behind a series of curtains that most of us only ever glancingly observe. By the end you might not know your ploussard from your poulsard (trick question! They’re the same thing!) but you’ll never look at wine — and the utter cobblers so frequently spouted about it — in the same way again.
The Flavour Thesaurus
You can’t teach intuition, but you can learn how an intuitive person thinks, and sometimes that’s nearly as good. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the cookbook industrial complex is that it has hard-wired in many domestic cooks the idea that recipes are not suggestions but rules — for anyone looking to break free from these strictures and get a little funky behind closed doors, Niki Segnit’s 2010 banger will be a vital touchstone. Much as modern batting in cricket has been about opening up the full 360 degrees of the field, so Segnit’s book opens up angles and combinations that would never previously have occurred to a right-thinking home cook — it’s occasionally alarming, but it’s mainly thrillingly liberating.
We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast
Jonathan Safran Foer
To put it lightly, Jonathan Safran Foer’s oblique, allusive style is not everyone’s cup of tea. But make it past the occasional eyeroll-inducing flight of fancy and there is an urgent, scarily relevant question being asked, and at least partially answered, here: how is it that we know that the way we eat is killing the planet, and yet we do nothing to change it? The data on how far humans have already gone along the path to their destruction is terrifying; the conclusion is only partly optimistic, asking not what we can do reverse our impact but demanding, instead, that do what we can to prevent what Safran Foer terms “the Greatest Dying”. A book to spur people to action even in the face of enforced inaction.
Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail
OK, yes, this is basically the Harold McGee book but for booze. But, on the other hand, how much more interesting does that sound? Arnold, a true polymath who founded New York’s Museum of Food and Drink, takes a forensic — at times exasperatingly meticulous — approach to cocktail-making, bringing all manner of fancy molecular gastronomy techniques in the service of creating a genuinely perfect drink. You can go off the deep end — you’ve certainly got time — but all that more casual drinkers should know is that the secret of the world’s best gin and tonic lies within (for truly casual drinkers: freeze the gin and glass, then pour gin, then tonic, then add ice, then garnish).
Blood, Bones and Butter
Yes, it’s a kitchen memoir partially based in New York, which means comparison with Kitchen Confidential is inevitable. But far from being just a gender-flipped version of Anthony Bourdain’s genre-defining account of life on the culinary front lines, Gabrielle Hamilton’s story, in her words, of the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef goes places, and does things, that mean it is worth consideration as a classic in its own right. There genuinely is blood — the messy viscera of relationships, personal history, workplace trauma. But there is also sprightly, pithy prose to savour, and evocations of places and tastes that can transport you from the four walls currently confining you to a New York kitchen, a French farmhouse, an Italian village when the August heat hangs heavy like a mantle. Bourdain himself called it “simply the best memoir by a chef ever”; he’s being modest, but only a bit.
First Bite: How We Learn to Eat
Got kids? Soothe the anxiety of how the lockdown is going to influence every aspect of their lives by reading up on how you can turn them into healthy well-adjusted mini-gourmands who eat their broccoli and sit politely at restaurant tables without turning the surrounding area into an edible Jackson Pollock homage. Not got kids? Enjoy reading this book, in silence. Last year’s The Way We Eat Now is also highly recommended — not least for its timely interrogation of the modern obsession with convenience foods, just as the supermarket supply chain threatens to break.
Sitopia is a book about food in the same way Moby-Dick is a book about whales or There Will Be Blood is a movie about oil — it certainly starts in that general area, but soon opens itself out into a meditation about pretty much the entire human condition, good and bad. Steel traces almost every aspect of 21st century malaise and ennui back to the catastrophic century or so that birthed the Industrial Revolution and modern agricultural practices; she is forceful in her contention that the only way to resolve our problems before it’s too late is to revert to the small, local model of food production and consumption that proliferated in pre-industrial society. So not at all relevant to what’s happening in London at the moment, then.
Table Talk: Sweet and Sour Salt and Bitter
It seems extraordinary to think that just a few years ago we lived in a world where AA Gill and Jonathan Gold were still at large. Much as it’s easy, and tempting, to suggest that they were responsible for two very different styles of restaurant criticism, in truth their basic fundamentals — a vast wealth of subject matter expertise, expressed in prose good enough to justify an entire newspaper subscription in its own right — were pretty similar. This ‘Best of’ compilation of Gill’s restaurant criticism feels as bitty as any ‘Best of’ compilation inevitably does, but it’s still a powerful reminder of what made him such a unique, thrilling force of nature — on this side of the Atlantic, at least.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
Category fraud! But a justifiable one, since at least 90 percent of what makes Samin Nosrat’s sort-of-cookbook such a bolted-on instant masterpiece has nothing to do with its recipes. Reading this from cover to cover is like going on an intensive three-week cookery course, only for about 1 percent of the cost and without ever having to leave your sofa. The TV show is, of course, excellent (and just as revolutionary in its own way) — but the book is genuine Desert Island Discs stuff. You will become a better cook after reading it — it’s as simple as that.