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This group of twelve books is an eclectic mix of food writing and recipes; some classic and some obscure. Although at least a few of these may now be out of print, any of the titles I recommend can likely be picked up at a library or you can look for them at yard sales, used-book stores, and flea markets.
The Cook's Tales by Lee Edwards Benning (1992; The Globe Pequot Press). This is a fun book that, as the subtitle tells you, is all about the Origins of Famous Foods and Recipes. It's arranged alphabetically from apples to zuppa. Benning's style is casual and light as he busts myths and sheds light on dozens of foods, including creme brulee and peches melba. We also learn about the origins of cookbooks, which now-famous recipes were originally considered flops, and the history of Thanksgiving. Informative, easy-to-read stories and recipes too. Recommended for the curious.
The Art of Fine Baking by Paula Peck (1961; Simon & Schuster). Do you know Paula Peck? She was a beloved and much admired food writer and cook of her day and even taught for James Beard's school. This book is often considered her best, and it's one of my most treasured cookbooks. The recipes cover cakes, cookies, tarts, appetizers, and more. Peck was determined that her readers would find success in the kitchen, and her tips include information on high-altitude baking, how to use your oven properly, how to store your baked goods, and how to decorate your cakes. This is a must-have for any serious baker. Highly recommended.
If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales from Chefs & Restaurants by Dawn Davis (1999; Penguin Putnam). In the late 1990s, thanks in part to the Food Network, the number of celebrity chefs seemed to grow exponentially. Along with this trend came a desire to know more about the kitchen side of restaurants and the personal lives of the famous cooks. Davis's collection of stories gives us the inside scoop about what it takes to be a professional chef, from apprenticeships to schools to the rigors of a restaurant kitchen. She interviewed Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, and others, who share their journeys through the profession. Davis includes recipes as well as advice on how to manage a successful restaurant. Recommended for foodies.
French Country Kitchen by Ann Hughes-Gilbey (1983; Artus). I picked this book up when I lived in the UK because I absolutely adore the photos of rural France and the wonderful flavors of the everyday dishes. This book contains my favorite clafoutis recipe along with a few meat dishes we like. I love reading about how to create dishes I'll never actually make myself, such as eels in that creamy green sauce you can get in Belgium. Even though I love this book, I'm not quite sure I can recommend it to the casual cook.
M. F. K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans by Joan Reardon (2008; University of California Press). Two words: Fisher and Reardon. For me, I need not say more. This biography of Fisher focuses on the many places she lived and cooked in California and France. Fisher usually emphasized simplicity and making do with what you have. Photographs, paintings, and recipes round out the text. Recommended for all Fisher fans.
Molly Katzen's Sunlight Cafe by Molly Katzen (2002; Hyperion). Yikes. I totally forgot I owned this book. I bought this because I love Katzen. Thus I'm sad to realize I never cooked out of it and never even really read it. Oops. It's a 300-page cookbook full of breakfast recipes: muffins, eggs, cereals, grains, and more--all vegetarian. Recommendation: unknown, but I plan to read it soon.
The Blue Point Bar & Grill by Sam McGann (1997; self published). The Blue Point is (or was the last time I was there) a great restaurant on the Outer Banks in Duck, North Carolina. Good friends of mine gave me this signed cookbook for a present, and for that alone I cherish it. Fortunately, although it has the quirks of a self-published book, the recipes are good and easy enough to follow. It's organized by season and even includes sample menus. Recommended for those who like regional cookbooks.
The African Cookbook: Tastes of A Continent by Jessica B. Harris (1998; Simon & Schuster). Truly covering the immense scope of flavors from north to south and east to west, this book is a great resource for cooks who like to venture out of their normal routines. I love reading the text and being transported, through food and photos, to another world. Most of the recipes are surprisingly simple but deliver on flavor. Recommended for the adventurous.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventure in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000; Bloomsbury USA). Do I really need to tell anyone about this book? I own the paperback edition and remember devouring it once I got it home from the store. Bourdain's story of his rise from a wannabe to a major New York chef is fascinating and well written. It was one of the first foodie books to cross over to general public. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?
Food for Friends by Barbara Kafka (1984; Harper & Row). I am a big fan of Kafka's. I like the way she writes and I like her food sense. This is a general cookbook for casual entertaining that I've turned to again and again. Unfortunately, some of the dishes have become dated, and I'm amused to see that she had to explain how serve guacamole and tabbouleh. Probably not worth tracking down unless you have an interest in food history or want fail-safe recipes for the food of the 1980s. I'm glad I own it.
Grill Book by Kelly McCune (1986; Harper & Row). This is a beautiful book with an incredible range of dishes you can make on the grill. I bought this because I fell for the pretty photos. I don't think I've ever cooked out of it. The focus is on charcoal grilling rather than gas. Recommendation: unknown.
Thyme & The River Too by Sharon Van Loan and Patricia Lee (1993; Graphic Arts Center). This cookbook returns me to the Pacific Northwest, where I was lucky to live for a couple of years. The recipes come from the Steamboat Inn, located in southwest Oregon. (It's a lodge that caters to fly flisherman.) I love the photos, the artwork, and the food. My favorite recipes come from the breakfast, lunch, and picnic sections (muffins, tarts, sandwiches, hearty salads), although the desserts and dinners are also appealing. Recommended for foodies who like regional cookbooks.