Appetite: 3 recent food books pique our palates

Dive into Twain's Feast, Hungry Town, and the Sunset Cookbook

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These three books (one factual journey, one memoir, one cookbook) have two things in common: they're all new this year and centered around food.

TWAIN'S FEAST by Andrew Beahrs -- Andrew Beahrs, an East Bay local, displays his affection for the great Mark Twain in this thoroughly researched book. Twain's Feast explores the history of foods Twain waxed eloquent about that are either gone entirely or slowly making their way back into the American landscape.  Experiencing food and coffee in his European travels "as tasteless as paper", Twain found American cooking of his time "generous", "genuine", "real". Of course, the prairie hens he grew up with, fresh possum and raccoon, New Orleans' sheep-head and croakers, and the "heaven on the half shell" of San Francisco's own oysters and mussels, are largely extinct or rare nowadays.

The book is, yes, a poignant ode to the pre-mass-produced, homogenized, dangerously grown American "food" we now know. It's also a hopeful challenge to the reader, worded gently in the epilogue: "... choices about what we eat help to determine which American landscapes survive and thrive."

There are many worthy stories here, both for the Twain aficionado and food historian. What I came away with, besides a reminder to support the craftswomen and men making food and growing animals with care (which we're heavily blessed with in the Bay Area), was Twain's insataible passion for robust flavor, a hunger to drink life to the dregs. I relate to the way he eats... and heartily writes about it.

As Beahrs says, "... Twain's love for a dish was inseparable from his love of life." Amen.

HUNGRY TOWN by Tom Fitzmorris -- Make no bones about it, I have a mad love affair with New Orleans, a city you hear me go on about often enough. Naturally, I ate up (no pun intended) Tom Fitzmorris' new Hungry Town, a leading Nola restaurant reviewer both in print and on the radio for decades.

He knows the city's food scene intimately: its history, key players, essential recipes (included in the book), and the post-Katrina struggle that has brought the culinary magic of the ultimate Southern city back to even greater heights (and more restaurants) than before the storm. His post-Katrina assessments are honest insights into just how torn apart families and businesses were, including his own. But he unabashedly claims: "Food Saves New Orleans".

I value his commitment to Creole and Cajun as the "default" styles of cooking in New Orleans, essential to the city's future. He states: "The genius of New Orleans cooking is not that we cook better than anyone else. It's that nobody in the world cooks our local specialties - except when they consciously imitate us (usually badly, I've found). The day that our food fails to be flagrantly distinctive... is the day we become Anywhere, USA. That's also the day I'm leaving town."

THE SUNSET COOKBOOK -- Cooks take note: 10/19 is the release date of the massive, 1000+ recipe tome that is the latest edition of the Sunset Cookbook. It's a fine one. Not only are the clean, bright photos dangerous to peruse on an empty stomach, but the book manages to be both approachable and widely comprehensive, with sections on every aspect of a meal you can think of from bread to cocktails to preserves and pickles.

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