Books, But Not Just for Cooks
What we've read, loved, and cooked from this year
Unsurprisingly, everyone on our team loves to read. And we’re readers who love recommendations, as most readers do. So we’ve compiled some of our favorite books from this year — both food-related and non, some current, some not — in hopes that we can inspire you in your last minute gifting, or, even better, that you find something that you love. We’d love your recommendations in the comments, please — let’s start a book club! (Just kidding. Sort of.)
Books we’ve loved are below, and we also want to give a last bit of love to some of our friends who sell things: Burlap and Barrel for the best spices; Sitka Salmon for wild-caught, traceable seafood; Mr. Espresso for Mark’s favorite coffee; New West KnifeWorks for ridiculously beautiful kitchen knives; Masienda for all your tortilla needs; From Our Place for pretty, purposeful cookware; and Made In Cookware for a wok that Mark loves (plus plenty of other useful items).
And now, for the books …
We looked at (and I even read!) a lot of books this year, so I’ll focus on those by people we had on the podcast because if we liked a book, we tried to get them on; if they said no, they’re dead to me. (Not exactly, but …)
So. I’m of an age where I read about aging. And Frank Bruni’s The Beauty of Dusk was in a way the calmest, smartest, most reassuring book about losing your powers that I’ve ever read. It’s not a self-help book, but it helped me: I didn’t find it either depressing or uplifting; I found it true. And for that I appreciated it.
If you’ve never read Diet for a Small Planet, Francis Moore Lappe’s groundbreaking book, which is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, you should.
Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength is a graphic memoir that is not like anything else. It’s personal, insightful, funny, heart-rending. Bechdel is brilliant, and you can see it on every page. I’m not a graphic novel reader, and I’m way past comic books, but this got me, and I still look at it periodically.
Raj Patel is a friend of mine, and someone I’ve admired for fifteen years at least; his Stuffed and Starved was so far ahead of its time when it came out in 2008 that it’s still current. He’s the co-author, with Rupa Marya, of Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, which, again, is so novel and so different that even if its theories are a little far-fetched – and I’m not sure they are – it’s the most thought-provoking book of the year (2021, to be exact).
Finally – I could go on, but it’s not just me here – everything Barbara J. King writes is worth reading; she is our leading voice (there are others, globally, but among Americans she’s the tops) on the inner lives of animals. Her current work is Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, and it is about consciously cultivating the relationship we have — both as individuals and as a society — with other species. It’s fascinating stuff.
Out of curiosity, I just checked Goodreads, and I’ve read 19 books this year. I remember vividly a family friend saying, when we were little, “one of my biggest fears is that I’ll die without having read all the books I want to read.” And that resonated a lot for me — I share that sentiment! Reading (lots of thrillers), flipping through cookbooks, marking pages — the best escapism.
I am a big fan of Eric Kim (and we’re interviewing him for the podcast soon!). I find him incredibly charming and unpretentious, and the way that he cooks, and writes, is very meaningful — he draws on his upbringing and his love for his family and the food he ate growing up in such a sincere way. His book, Korean American, is a beautiful encapsulation of all of this. I’ve already made a couple of Kim’s recipes, and they’ve been wonderful, and if anyone is going to get me to make my own kimchi, it’ll be Eric Kim.
I got the Via Carota cookbook when we had Jody Williams and Rita Sodi on Food with Mark Bittman; it’s one of my favorite restaurants, and the recipes are beautiful and fresh, and most don’t have a list of ingredients that intimidates me, which is a big factor in whether or not I use a cookbook frequently. Excellent ingredients are key here, and I’ll use this book a lot when I’m cooking for friends.
Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean, wow. I was really inspired by Mark’s conversation with her on the podcast; I didn’t know much about Roden’s history, and her years-long practice of traveling, and meeting people, and collecting their recipes is really a dream. The Mediterranean Pantry Salad is what I want to eat for lunch every day.
And I loved so many novels this year: Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (dreamy, spooky, beautiful), James Han Mattson’s Reprieve (utterly unique, thought-provoking as hell, weird in the best way), The House in the Cerulean Sea (adorable, sweet, so much fun). Finally, I gotta mention The Shining, which Nick and I both read and obsessed over this year, and although we both still love the movie, after reading the book, we both understood why Stephen King does not. The movie leaves out a lot (but the book doesn’t have Jack Nicholson, so call it a wash?).
I’m only realizing now that I didn’t read many new books this year — lots of old stuff, though.
For cookbooks, I got How to Cook Everything Fast, and I’ve been using it a lot. I also dug into the cookbooks in the Beautiful series — Mexico: The Beautiful Cookbook, China, France. They are outdated and uncool, but they break down each country by region and give the important recipes and history. I didn’t actually cook from any of them, but I like sitting on my couch and reading them. Amazingly, I found a dusty cardboard box with all of them under the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Manhattan side, a few years ago. It was one of the greatest scores of my life.
As far as food writing goes, I re-read some classics: everything in Jim Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch and a lot of the essays in M.F.K. Fisher’s collection The Art of Eating. One essay from that collection that stood out to me this time around was Meals for Me; she gets into all of the aspects of a good meal — the company, the lighting, the time of day, the room, the furnishings — in just a few pages. It’s instructive and beautiful.
I read a bunch of books about the sea last summer: Moby Dick; Eat Like A Fish, by Bren Smith; The Seaweed Chronicles, by Susan Hand Shetterly; and The Brilliant Abyss, by Helen Scales. The Brilliant Abyss opened my eyes to how vast and mysterious the ocean and the ocean floor are — we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the floor of the ocean. The Seaweed Chronicles and Eat Like a Fish made me feel completely certain that I was going to start a mostly-seaweed diet, but I don’t think I’ve eaten any all year. Seaweed does have loads of obvious benefits for the environment and our health, though.
I read gothic literature like Dracula and Frankenstein in October. Not food writing, but there is food in everything. You already know what Dracula was drinking and the monster in Frankenstein (Frankenstein is not the monster, he’s the scientist) happened to be a good forager.
Some other random non-food books I read: Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, about the coverup of a mining disaster in Mexico by the American company that owned the mine; Brothers on Three by Abe Streep, about a native American high school basketball team on a reservation in Montana; The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (the beginning made me want to live in Mexico City as a young man in the seventies). Right now I’m finishing up Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It’s the first time I’ve read DeLillo.
I like to go into the New Year with big aspirations that may or may not happen. I'm cool with that. Especially since, with cooking goals at least, reading recipes is just as satisfying to me as eating (and there’s no prep or cleanup). In 2021, my focus turned to global cuisines from utterly personal perspectives. (Some results from my explorations are here.) This year I'm mesmerized by deep dives into ingredients. Here are the first two books I plan to cook from in 2022.
The Miracle of Salt: Recipes and Techniques to Preserve, Ferment, and Transform Your Food, by Naomi Duguid
No one tackles single topics like Naomi Duguid. What I love about her books is the anthropological approach and cultural immersion she brings to the subjects, whether it's rice, flatbreads, or the food of Persia or Burma. Back in 1993 our paths crossed briefly when her travels intersected with a press trip I took through Tunisia; I was utterly in awe of the way she worked.
The Miracle of Salt offers the perfect ratio of information to cooking, and the book is punctuated with mini sections on salt traditions around the world. Perhaps this is my favorite feature and perfect for armchair travelers. Some fermented staples like miso — including an incredible-sounding version made from rye bread — are things I'll probably never make but love reading about. Ditto dry-cured meat and homemade sauerkraut. Though I certainly flagged a ton of things to try right away, inspired by the gorgeous photos of techniques, geography, people, and finished dishes.
Looking for the basics? The opening section, “The Salt Larder,” includes extensive descriptions and nomenclature; there's also a full glossary at the end of the book. There are economical but excellent sections on salt chemistry and geography and harvesting techniques. Duguid makes the food surprisingly accessible, however: All the recipes call for salt by category — sea, pickling, kosher, for example — rather than specific colors or varieties, and they list up front any special equipment needed.
The salted herbs and condiments toward the beginning of the book top the list of things to explore immediately — like maybe before the New Year. Plenty of time later to make one of the kimchis from the interesting and authentic options here. Or a brined pork roast, to dip my toe into curing. A couple of simple but intriguing chicken recipes sound perfect for later this winter. And I'm looking forward to brining cherry tomatoes next summer.
The good thing about the recipes for finished dishes is that Duguid encourages you to make your own ingredients — miso, anchovies, olives, kombu and the like — then use them to full effect. Or feel free to go ahead and just substitute good quality purchased components. Which means I'll be making Warming Bean Soup with Salt-Preserved Lemon and Miso in the next couple weeks, while scheming the Corned Beef Roast — parboiled before moist-heat cooked in the oven — for Saint Patrick's Day. Oh yeah, there are beverages too. I don't know when I'll get to the totally unexpected and delicious-sounding desserts, like Bretton Salted Butter Cake and miso ice creams. But I’m sure I will.
Masa: Techniques, Recipes, and Reflections on a Timeless Staple, by Jorge Gaviria
Jorge Gaviria — who founded Masienda, a retail and wholesale company "on a mission to connect more people to the culinary and cultural richness of the Mexican kitchen" — is on a quest for the perfect masa. That's the corn dough used to make tortillas, tamales, sopas, pupusas, and more. The result of his work is Masa — a cookbook captured best by its tagline above. Like The Miracle of Salt, this dive is deep.
I frequently make tortillas and other dishes from dried masa (the shelf-stable flour available in supermarkets and online), regularly enjoy heirloom pozole (whole grain Gaviria brilliantly describes as "masa in development") and have even fooled around with grinding fresh nixtamal (kernels treated with alkaline water). Yet I am a mere caterpillar nibbling through this corn maze of a book, energized by the possibility Gaviria will soon morph me into a butterfly.
The book is organized as an academic course with both lecture and lab components. After Masa Basics (explanation, ingredients, and tools) comes a fabulous overview of masa history, then into the practicum “From Kernel to Masa: The Process,” followed by dozens of recipes. Here's how to shape, cook, and fill all the masa dishes we want, with the added bonus of hip applications like tempura batter, waffles, cookies, and sourdough bread.
Plus, every few pages provide a fresh epiphany: the nuances between table and frying tortillas, how to evaluate the "smush" of the dough, the traditional and modern tools to best grind and cook the masa, and the basics of fillings and toppings. Here too is the out we were hoping for: Directions for how to use masa harina to make the universal doughs and adapt the recipes. Not saying, dear Jorge Gaviria, that someday we won't join you and try making and grinding nixtamal from kernels — just maybe not tonight.
I absolutely love Via Carota so I really want to get that cookbook. Did you find that their recipes had extremely long ingredient lists? Everything there is so delicious that I always assume that they're complicated but maybe not?!
Diet for a Small Planet was one of my very first cookbooks! I bought it in 1972 at the age of 17, and it was a game changer for me. The content is even more important than the recipes and is still relevant today. As for new cookbooks, I'm having a lot of fun with "Bittman Bread". On the light side of fiction, I've been reading Louise Penny's "Chief Inspector Gamache" series. Her food descriptions throughout the books are tantalizing and delightful. For more thought provoking historical fiction, I recommend "The Island of Sea Women" by Lisa See. It focuses on a group of Korean women divers on Jeju Island over the course of several generations, and how their matriarchal "haenyeo" system clashes with a changing culture forced upon them through war. The story and the history were both fascinating. And, yes, there was food!