It seems that every third book that crosses our desk these days is about the growing, selling, preparation, or consumption of food. With consumers clamoring to learn more and more about this stuff that gives them nourishment, publishers are turning out book after book on the topic to keep hungry readers satisfied. We've rounded up some of the best of the lot.
The Nasty Bits
by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury)
Since shooting to moderate fame with his 2000 exposé Kitchen Confidential, Tony Bourdain has already chronicled his rise to Food Network celebrity-dom in A Cook's Tour. His cobra-heart- eating, Ramones-loving, chain-smoking persona is now familiar to many—and carried off with such charisma that one suspects there'd be a clamor to read his grocery lists. Enter, then, The Nasty Bits....
This collection of magazine and newspaper articles written for assorted publications over the last five years is not Bourdain's best work, but it exhibits all the confidence and swagger of a star no longer needing his audience's approval, and as a result, it's quite fun.
The Nasty Bits includes a braggish tract on the best place to buy smack in Manhattan and an LA Times piece arguing that when Robert Downey Jr. starred in Ally McBeal it was probably depressing enough to send the actor into rehab for a second time. But the most enjoyable parts of the book detail Bourdain's various gorge-fests at the expense of the publications he wrote for. A piece on Las Vegas, for example, owes an acknowledged debt to Hunter S. Thompson in the outright obscenity of its decadence.
The author is clearly a little confused over what to do with his celebrity, and he mentions more than once that his "next book could tank"—but for now, Bourdain appears to be smoking while he's got 'em (at least in literary terms). MATT DAVIS
The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan (Penguin)
In Michael Pollan's newest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, the author goes to great pains of research in an attempt to unmask the secret history of the food we eat.
In each of the book's four sections, Pollan follows a meal from its earliest origins until the moment he eventually sits down to enjoy the food. There are four meals to be eaten: one from McDonald's, another from Whole Foods, one from a sustainable "beyond organic" farm, and one in which Pollan takes his meal entirely in his own hands. In the book's final section, Pollan sets out to hunt and gather an entire meal for himself, which requires him to fire a gun for the first time.
It's the second section though, with its focus on Whole Foods and the booming industrial organic food business that is sure to give most readers pause. Pollan does a great deal of investigating and traveling to "organic" farms—some run as part of regular industrial farms—to find that, though many benefits are there, it's not exactly what we think of when we hear "organic." In the end, the real dilemma that Pollan highlights is that of a well-informed, conscientious consumer: What are we really willing to spend—morally, financially, and globally—to get good food? M. William Helfrich
by Bill Buford (Knopf)
Heat has been widely praised for its "unmasking" of celebrity chef and Food Network darling Mario Batali, but the scope of Bill Buford's latest book reaches far beyond anything so simple.
Buford was assigned to profile Batali while on staff at the New Yorker, but the chef wound up catalyzing either an epiphany or mid-life crisis for the writer, depending on how you see such things. Buford quit his job and toiled, unpaid, in Batali's kitchen for nearly three years before sitting down to write about the experience.
Buford's reportage skills lend themselves perfectly to not only the fast-paced atmosphere of the kitchen, but also the intricacies of describing foods and flavors. When he goes to Tuscany to learn about pasta, for example, he manages to write originally about this over-hyped carbohydrate—I savored the passages about good ravioli recipes and their relationship with death, marveling that the metaphor didn't feel forced.
But for me, the book's greatest strength lies in the author's celebration of the relationship between truly amazing food and the lunatics who make it. Buford's run-in with the clearly psychotic Marco Pierre White, who degenerates into a sputtering, quasi-autistic mess at the taste of some poorly cooked game, is topped only by his attempts to reconcile the madness of a whopping-handed, Dante-quoting butcher with the superb quality of his meat: "My problem, Bill, is that sometimes I have too much passion." You get the idea. MATT DAVIS