For the past month I've been clawing my way out from under a mountain of new food and drink books strategically published in time for the holidays, when many folks are concerned with peace on earth, what to buy, and what to eat—not necessarily in that order. I'm going to vouch for my favorites here; the rest (including half a dozen more Chicago-related titles) will be covered on our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
HOW'S YOUR DRINK? COCKTAILS, CULTURE, AND THE ART OF DRINKING WELLM
Eric Felten Agate Surrey | $20
Published by an Evanston firm, this witty history by the Wall Street Journal spirits columnist is the most entertaining title of the lot. Each chapter weaves together anecdotes and recipes to illustrate the history and cultural influence of the cocktail—an American invention—from the Brandy Smash, dreamed up by a Boston merchant in the early 1800s to jump-start his West Indies ice-shipping business, to Agent 007's corruption of the classic martini and the rise of "girly" drinks. Which isn't as recent a phenomenon as Sex in the City fans might expect: in 1961 a young Chicagoan named Virginia Wantroba sued for the right to drink a grasshopper after the state raised the female drinking age to 21.
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO ITALIAN FOOD
Gillian Riley Oxford University Press | $35
The third volume in what promises to be a classic series on world food and drink. Riley, a British food historian, displays the same combination of exhaustive scholarship and English drollery that made Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (1999) both indispensable and a blast to read. The factoids are endless: ambergris, the perfumy effluvium from sick sperm whales, was once used as an ingredient in appertivi; medieval Italian followers of Hippocrates believed that cumin could impart a scholarly pallor to students who'd been playing hooky. If nothing else, the beguiling descriptions of products like salame d'oca (goose salami) and vignarola (a legume-based Roman spring vegetable antipasto) show how much Italian food has yet to make it to the New World.
BEYOND NOSE TO TAIL: MORE OMNIVOROUS RECIPES FOR THE ADVENTUROUS COOK
Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers GellatlyBloomsbury USA | $35
The sequel to 2004's The Whole Beast, in which Henderson, chef-owner of the London restaurant St. John, not only made a robust case for the moral virtues of eating every bit of animal but also made it look delicious and fun. In his impish prose ("Imagine gazing into the eyes of your loved one over a golden pig's cheek, ear, and snout") he offers another round of offal, game, and utterly English dishes like venison liver, veal tail and pea soup, pot roast bacon, or pig's trotter and prunes, then turns the second half over to his pastry chef for puddings, sweets, and breads.
THE ELEMENTS OF COOKING: TRANSLATING THE CHEF'S CRAFT FOR EVERY KITCHEN
Michael Ruhlman Scribner | $24
The Cleveland food writer set out to assemble a reference for dedicated home cooks and culinary students modeled on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. While the resulting glossary of cooking terms is as handy as it is extensive, I'm more inspired by Ruhlman's 46-page introductory essay, "Notes on Cooking: From Stock to Finesse," which gently admonishes cooks to perfect their fundamentals and make the "extra effort that puts something beyond the edge of excellence"—the goal that separates great chefs like his mentor Thomas Keller from the rabble. You'll never want to open a can of broth again.
Simone and Ines Ortega Phaidon | $39.95
The art-book publisher's latest foray into food porn is the first English translation of a classic Spanish collection of family recipes that was originally published in 1972. It's a mammoth and beautiful object, illustrated with photographs and hand-colored drawings. The simple traditional recipes—which get an introductory endorsement from Ferran Adria—go way beyond the likes of tapas, gazpacho, and paella to present a broad picture of domestic Spanish cooking, from artichokes stuffed with serrano ham to capon stuffed with pears to Portuguese salt-cod fritters.
LAURA WERLIN'S CHEESE ESSENTIALS: AN INSIDER'S GUIDE TO BUYING AND SERVING CHEESE
Laura Werlin Stewart, Tabori & Chang | $24.95
This isn't the first primer on how to buy, serve, and eat cheese, but it is the most user-friendly I've seen. Werlin devotes a chapter to each style (semisoft, surface ripened, washed rind, etc), defining them and describing their appearance, flavor, texture, and aroma, then offering detailed notes on major varieties, storing, and tasting. Recipes are included for each style. This is an excellent primer for the beginner and a dependable reference for anyone else.
A GEOGRAPHY OF OYSTERS: THE CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE TO OYSTER EATING IN NORTH AMERICA
Rowan Jacobsen Bloomsbury USA | $24.95
Oysters aren't as endlessly diverse as cheeses, but perhaps even more than wine they can be identified and appreciated according to the geographical and physical characteristics of their place of origin. Like Werlin, Jacobsen seeks to demystify a vast subject, first breaking down North American bivalves into their five species, then mapping out their differences along the coasts and in international waters. Armed with this kind of intel it's no sweat to distinguish a Cuttyhunk from a Kusshi.
KNIFE SKILLS ILLUSTRATED: A USER'S MANUAL
Peter Hertzmann Norton | $29.95
Hertzmann, a former surgical tool designer, offers instructions on cutting all manner of plant and animal flesh that border on the pedantic—there are even separate instructions for lefties and righties. But there's probably no basic kitchen skill more worthy of obsession than the one that puts your digits at risk. Each step is illustrated with detailed line drawings that could come straight out of Gray's Anatomy.
FANTASTICO! LITTLE ITALIAN PLATES AND ANTIPASTI FROM RICK TRAMONTO'S KITCHEN
Rick Tramonto Broadway Books | $35
The superchef with Jesus on his side issues another lovely volume, this time focused on Italian sandwiches, antipasti, and small plates, from the simple (rapini with garlic) to the fanciful (razor clams casino) to the labor-intensive (stuffed zucchini blossoms).v