Barbara’s Cookbook Gift Guide

This post really isn’t self-serving.

It is simply a response to reading the holiday cookbook gift guides in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.

In perusing the professionals’ lists, I saw quite a bit of overlap, particularly between the Times and the Post–to the point that I wonder whether or not they were guided by the same blitz of publication advertising and had not spent any time actually looking at the books. The Chronicle’s more eclectic list led me to believe that the author had actually stepped into a bookstore and done a bit of browsing before putting together her selections.

I mean, the other two lists were quite–well–predictable. A lot of old, comfortable names: Julia Child, Paula Wolfert, and Martha Stewart, along with typical chef’s tomes that are usually unuseable by mere mortals found their way into the gift guides. Very beautiful, photo-heavy works one is loathe to take into the kitchen, such as Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s near art-bookMangoes and Curry Leaves also feature prominately.

I thought that maybe I should put together my own list of worthy cookbooks that maybe aren’t getting as much attention as they deserve in the conventional press. While I am at it, I’ll throw in a few books that are about food, but aren’t cookbooks per se, but instead focus on history, sociology or science.

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing
Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn with a forward by Thomas Keller
Yep, right away, I go for something odd. This isn’t just a collection of recipes, it is an adventure in traditional ways of preserving meat. This is not a cookbook for folks who want instant gratification–the processes outlined in this book take hours, days, weeks or months, and if you screw up, you could kill someone with the result. (There is nothing more exhilerating than avoiding botulism.) The authors examine the dying art of traditional charcuterie–the making of fresh meat into something different and better–sausages, hams and bacon. (I bet anything that Dr. Biggles of Meathenge wants to get his hands on this book even more than I do, but if there was only one copy between the two of us, I’d arm wrestle him for it!)

Eating Korean: From Barbeque to Kimchi, Recipes From My Home
Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Here is a cookbook that combines the best of storytelling about food with precise, well-executed recipes. Lee gives the reader more than a glimpse of her past; she evokes the flavors, scents and colors of childhood through the memories of the dishes she presents in simple, yet elegant prose. Definately a book to read and cook from.

The Silver Spoon
Phaidon Press
I am not sure why this treasure only appeared on one of the afformentioned newspaper cookbook gift guide lists, but this massive tome promises to become a classic in the US, just as it has been in Italy for the past fifty years. This is the first time that this venerable cookbook, a fixture for generations of new Italian brides, has been translated into English, and the buzz in the food magazines is positive to the point that some of the authors sound fluttery with the vapors. There is good reason. Contained within the 1,264 pages are recipes from every region of Italy, collected back in the 1950’s. It is also apparently obsessively organized and cross-referenced to be as user friendly as such a gigantic volume needs to be. If someone on your list is a cook and loves Italian food, you cannot go wrong with this one. (Of course, everyone else in the English-speaking universe appears to want this book, so happy hunting!)

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers
E.M. Collingham and Lizzie Collingham

This one doesn’t come out in the US until December 16th, but I have been drooling over it for months since I saw it on Amazon UK by lucky chance. It is a history of the development of Indian food with special emphasis upon religious, sociological, economic and cultural forces and how they combined to create such a diverse, complex web of culinary traditions. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South
Ronny Lundy (editor)
This third in a series of Southern Foodways Alliance anthologies brings together poems, essays and stories about the food and culture (yes, culture, you heard me right) of the Applachian mountains. That’s where I am from, so of course, I am a mite curious to know whatall’s gonna be in that there book. It includes the lyrics to the Cornbread National Anthem, written by West Virginia singer/songwriter Tim O’Brian.

So–there are my top five picks for books that serious culinary nerds might want to find under some sacrificial pine tree on Yule.

What other books would y’all like to find tucked in a stocking come Christmas?


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  1. well, without and bias whatsoever, I highly recommend Digital Dish from This is a dynamite compilation of food blog writing from 24 different food blogs and will hopefully only be the first in a series – IF you all go and buy it!

    Comment by Owen — December 8, 2005 #

  2. I want Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. I fear my dining companion isn’t up for trying many of its preparations but I’m eager to read about them and wonder if my butcher can get me a quart of pig blood, should I need it.

    Comment by mzn — December 9, 2005 #

  3. how about:
    “The Complete Answers to the Universe”
    “Nirvana – a 21 step guide for the dysnomic”
    “How to do it your own way and survive!”
    “Zero to a rolling boil in 2.2 seconds”
    “Homebrew Nuclear Piles- Fission/Fusion powered fermentation systems”

    Well, you never said they had to be real books, just ones we would like to find in our stocking 🙂

    Comment by -=Bryian=- — December 9, 2005 #

  4. I even know someone else I can buy a copy for, Owen! My Aunt Judy! (Thanks for reminding me!)

    Nose to Tail was one of the ones I almost added, MZN–but, I figured I had already put on the list Charcuterie, so, I shouldn’t weight the list too heavily with meat.

    As for pig’s blood–try the largest Asian market you can find, in the refrigerated section near the meat. If there is a Lotte (Lotte is a Korean supermarket chain–as large as one of our Safeways, but all Asian food–the produce section is amazine) near you, they will definately carry it. I used to give tours at the local Lotte in Columbia, Maryland, so I know–I used to try and sqeak the gwailo past the gallon after gallon of pig blood, but usually ended up explaining it anyway.

    Not that it bothers me–but when you ride herd on twenty very American people in the middle of a market with many strange and sometimes (to typical American sensibilities) scary things, sometimes “just one more thing” is one too many.

    Thanks, Bry! I see that the snow foiled your plan to come visit the stove! That’s okay–I woke up and it is still here.

    Comment by Barbara — December 9, 2005 #

  5. Hehe… found this after doing my own kitchenware/cookbook recommendation list. There are so many cookbooks I’d recommend that I tried to just pick a small sampling of a wide variety… one or two pretty “coffee table” books for the people who go for that, one or two that seemed to be in the holiday spirit, and some that were just plain yummy favorites. I like your list; thank you for putting it out there for folks to see!

    Comment by Heather — December 9, 2005 #

  6. I tried to pick stuff that wasn’t on everyone else’s list in the universe!

    Glad you liked it–fwiw–I like your list, too, Heather!

    Comment by Barbara — December 9, 2005 #

  7. […] Anyone looking for cookbooks to give your kitchen-dwelling friends–as well as those who may need some coaxing to go near a stove–has no dearth of Favorites and Recommendations lists to consult this year, including Heidi of 101 Cookbooks‘ article for NPR and Barbara’s commentary on the big newspapers’ roundups at Tigers and Strawberries, a blog I recently discovered through the Food Blog Award nominations I urged you all to check out last week. I’ll leave the cookbooks to them and share instead my list of beloved books about food and wine. […]

    Pingback by Teich.Net :: All In » The Gift of Words About Food — December 11, 2005 #

  8. Barbara – I don’t know if you have a Costco where you live – but they are selling “The Silver Spoon” for $17 less than the suggested sale price. I bought it last night for $22.99

    Comment by Maureen — December 15, 2005 #

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