It’s official: Summer is here! Which means you’ve earned the right to skip work for a day, hunker down in the hammock, pour yourself a cool beverage and read a good book. For me, that usually means Carl Hiaasen, Jim Harrison or Hunter S. Thompson. But I also love the way that great food writers have been tantalizing taste buds and brain cells since M.F.K. Fisher and Elizabeth David. For food-writing junkies like myself, this summer feels like Christmas in June thanks to an abundance of outstanding books about restaurants, food and cooking'and the people behind them.nn
Like falling in love and car crashes, most of my most memorable meals have been quite unplanned: A lingering lunch at a roadside bistro in the Luberon; brick-oven pizza, cold RosÃ© and dancing to the Gypsy Kings at a marina cafÃ© in St. Martin; fresh crab croquettes with hot sauce and Brahma beer on the beach in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. You get the idea. But if you want to remove luck, fate and chance from the equation, you’d better make a reservation at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., where there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as a less-than-perfect meal.nn
Thomas McNamee captures the magic in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution. As McNamee chronicles Alice Waters’ culinary adventure from the launch of Chez Panisse in 1972 through an opening night in 2006, he manages to do enough “dishing” to keep the reader entertained through this nearly 400-word homage to Waters and her vision. Christened these days as pretty much the saint and savior of American cuisine'which, of course, she is'it’s fun and refreshing to learn that not everything about Chez Panisse and Waters over the past 35 years has been perfectly PC and enlightened. And half the fun of this summer read is peeking behind the curtains at Chez Panisse and into its past and present, warts and all. Plus, how many food books can you think of that name-check rock critic Greil Marcus?
But the all-time culinary-name-checker award has to go to Gael Greene, the mother of all New York City restaurant critics, who dishes the dirt in Insatiable: Tales From a Life of Delicious Excess. Along with being the best account of New York City’s haute-cuisine heyday, Insatiable sizzles as much as any Harlequin bodice-ripper. Greene confesses to “a certain compulsive bedability,” and doesn’t mind naming names. Along with details of delicious dinners, Greene recounts bedding the likes of Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and even Elvis'and I don’t mean Costello. Some have found Insatiable to be smug and self-serving. Maybe. But it’s also an at-the-table account of an exciting and incendiary couple of decades in the great dining halls of New York City, an era that is unlikely to ever be repeated. Gael Greene is Madonna to Ruth Reichl’s Doris Day, and Insatiable is delectable deck-chair reading.nn
Smoking a ciggy (he allows himself two per day) and nipping on a vodka mini in Ketchum, Idaho, last week, the great Jim Harrison mentioned Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life as one of his recent favorite food books (he hates the word “foodieâ€). Barbara Kingsolver? I’d never read her, but when Jim Harrison speaks, I listen. Kingsolver writes, “Woe is us, we overfed, undernourished U.S. citizens'we are eating poorly for so very many reasons.” So what does she do? She takes matters into her own hands.nn
Embarrassingly aware of the carbon imprint the Kingsolver family is leaving on the planet living a typical American life of consumption in the Arizona desert, the Kingsolvers return to their Appalachian roots and spend a year living very close to the land. They grow, raise and store nearly everything they eat for that year, and what they can’t raise themselves'like beef and lamb'they procure from local ranchers and growers. Sounds a lot like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, right? But where Pollan depicted a nearly impossible attempt to live off the land, Kingsolver’s humorous, brilliantly written account of living low on the food chain comes across as eminently doable. I’ll be reading more Barbara Kingsolver from here on.nn
The sleeper of this summer might be Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor From Farm to Table. As most of us get farther and farther from the sources of our food, we’ve forgotten how to do fundamental things like what to do with a fresh artichoke, how to store potatoes (not in the fridge), how to keep green beans green and, yes, how to pick a peach. This is all the stuff your grandmother and great-grandmother knew about fresh food but forgot to tell you: A very practical guide to selecting, storing and using dozens of fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus, Parsons offers up more than 100 recipes like grilled corn and arugula salad, sugar snap peas & shrimp with chive mayonnaise, and asparagus risotto. My copy is already splattered with tomato pulp.nn
Finally, what could be better in summer than fresh-shucked oysters? Just in time comes The Hog Island Oyster Lover’s Cookbook, by Jairemarie Pomo. I am awful at identifying oysters and can’t normally tell a European Flat from a Cockenoe and continually mix up my Hama Hamas with my Pickle Points. So the next time I wander into the Oyster Bar, I’ll be armed with Pomo’s helpful handbook, along with my own stash of habanero mignonette, just one of the 40 or so recipes in this fine resource.nn
Now, hit the hammock!
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
tBy Thomas McNamee
tThe Penguin Press
tBy Gael Greene
tGrand Central Publishing
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
tBy Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
How to Pick a Peach
tBy Russ Parsons
tHoughton Mifflin, 432 pp.
THE HOG ISLAND OYSTER LOVER’S COOKBOOK
ttBy Jairemarie Pomo
tTen Speed Press