My reading list has recently been crammed with books about food. The books noted here are interesting, informative, or amusing. I encourage you to read each one.
John McPhee is one of America's best essayists. He's long been associated with The New Yorker magazine, but he's best known for his works on geology and nature (Coming Into the Country, Assembling California, Pine Barrens, Encounters With the Archdruid), and his book that showed just how easy it is to get the information necessary to build an atomic bomb (The Curve of Binding Energy). In 1967, McPhee published his second book, Oranges, which looks at the orange industry and how it changed from its inception as a fresh fruit business to its then-current state as feeders to juice concentrate factories. McPhee looks at the land, the history, and the husbandry of orange groves. I had not been aware that citrus trees, like grapes, are grown on a root stock. The root stock is rarely the same as the upper part of the tree since the best foraging root stocks produce awful oranges. As a consequence, oranges in Florida (at least in 1967) were grown primariy on lemon tree stock while lemons in California were grown primarily on orange stock.
I'd like to see an update to this book. Orange juice in 1967 primarily meant frozen reconstituted OJ. In the book, McPhee acknowledges this as he visits with the inventor of the successful concentration process. The fresh fruit market and fresh juice market were anemic comparatively. I'm sure today the fresh markets would be more important. This short volume is worth a quick read if just to see how much things have changed since 1967 and to get a feel for how that glass of Minute Maid made it to your table.
I've been reading Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen for months now, and I expect to be reading it for the rest of my cooking life. McGee created an instant classic in 1984 when he published this book that gets into not just the how's but the why's of cooking. Alton Brown is said to be a big fan of McGee's books, and you can see how On Food and Cooking might have inpired the mad scientist and entertainer in Brown.
The book runs through food science in a simple way that assumes basic intelligence on the reader's part. This isn't a book to skim lightly on the subway, but neither is it one that requires hours of interpretation. McGee explains the mysteries of food science by getting down to basics.
Why do egg whites foam and how do they work in a cake to provide structure? What roles do fats play? Why is dark meat dark? How do pit fruits like Peaches and Apricots differ from "false fruits" like strawberries? And most importantly, McGee tells us what the answers to these questions should mean to our approach to cooking these foods.
There's a little bit of chemistry and physics in the book, but the approach is that of a cook, not of a biochemist. If you liked tinker toys, watch "Good Eats" on the Food Network, and took stuff apart as a kid, you'll love this book. If you want to understand how to make your souffle rise, and how to cook a perfect steak, this is also the book for you. It isn't quite as entertaining as watching Alton Brown do his Mr. Wizard meets Julia Child impersonation, but it's a good book to have around, even if you only read a chapter a week. Once you've read it, you'll go back to On Food and Cooking to confirm facts, clarify theory, and learn more about the food you cook.
I'm mad at Vogue. Not only am I male and not in the fashion industry, but if I were female, I doubt I would be the kind of person who read Vogue. As a consequence, I hadn't read Jeffrey Steingarten until just recently. The Man Who Ate Everything is a collection of Steingarten's columns from the swank fashion magazine that showcases his wit and knowledge about all things food.
The title is a reference to Steingarten's first assignment for himself as a food writer. Everyone has food prejudices, and Steingarten's included aversions to kimchi, organ meats, Indian desserts, and blue foods. One by one, Steingarten found ways to enjoy all the foods he thought he despised, with the possible exception of Indian desserts and blue foods.
Steingarten writes to make you laugh as often as he does to educate. I enjoyed particularly his trip to the lab where the fat substitute Olestra (of "anal leakage" fame) is made, and where he surreptitiously fried potato chips in a big vat of the stuff, much to the chagrin of the PR people who were supposed to be watching him.
This is a book for casual browsing as the volume is chopped up into individual essays of a few pages each within themed chapters. I had a little trouble reconciling with Steingarten's attitude towards vegetarianism, but I had the same problem with Anthony Bourdain, and I ended up enjoying his first book, also.
I do actually hate Steingarten, of course, since he gets paid to travel to sample great foods in Vienna, Japan, New Orleans, France, and other parts of the globe. If you decide to retire, Jeff, do give us a call, won't you? Just kidding about the hating you part...