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gift books for foodies

by Stephanie Zonis

You need a gift for a favorite foodie. But they already have all the fine chocolate/cheese/olive oil/ wine they can handle, and their kitchen simply cannot accommodate one more gadget. How about a food book? If your foodie friend is anything like me, he or she is deeply inquisitive about what we eat and how we happen to be eating it in the first place. So here's a list of some favorites of mine, some new, some a bit older.

---Hot Sauce Nation: America's Burning Obsession, by Denver Nicks. Many books describe creation myths. But very few contain such myths that include the first man employing his genital glands to season food at a banquet. Denver Nicks dives into the evolution and history of hot peppers and brings to light some extraordinary information, including the fact that spicy foods as we know them did not exist in the Old World before 1493, because there was no capsaicin outside the Americas (China's Sichuan peppercorns, unrelated to chile peppers, produce a different kind of sensation in the mouth). The author reveals the origins of favorite hot sauces (including some that are exceedingly tough to find), provides information on the ever-controversial beginning of the Buffalo wing, and discusses the link between people who seek out unfamiliar experiences and a preference for spicy foods. Thoroughly engaging, quirky, and charming.

---The Turkey: An American Story, by Andrew F. Smith. Why do you need to learn more about turkeys, you ask? You already know about them. They were domesticated by the Aztecs. Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, instead of the bald eagle, to be the the national bird of the USA. Eat too much turkey at that Thanksgiving dinner, and those tryptophans will have you snoring in the armchair long before it's socially acceptable. And, of course, there's the great story of our Pilgrim ancestors and their first Thanksgiving celebration. But here's the thing: none of these stories are true. Really. I have never read an Andrew F. Smith book I didn't enjoy or from which I didn't learn, and this one is no exception. There's turkey history, information about how the modern turkey was developed as well as industrialization of turkey farming and processing, and historical recipes. A terrific read from a man who always does his research.

---Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America's Plant Hunters, by Amanda Harris. In the introduction to this book, Amanda Harris notes that, at the end of the nineteenth century, few Americans knew what a fresh orange looked like or how to peel a banana. The story of how these (and many other) fruits and edible crops came to American shores is a testament to the patience and devotion exhibited by a small group of people. For decades, David Fairchild and a handful or two of others traveled extensively and faced multiple perils, all in the aspirations of broadening the scope of American farming. By the time Fairchild and his colleagues had finished their journeying and gathering, they had introduced over fifty eight thousand plants to this country, almost all edible. Fairchild and his associates deserve far more recognition than they have received, and Harris does an admirable job of describing everything from governmental obstacles that threatened the future of plant hunting to accidental meetings that changed lives.

---Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller. Some years ago now, I tasted 100 different olive oils for an article. At that time, I found out something about fraud in the world of olive oil, but I didn't realize the scale of it until I read this book. Despite the best intentions of several organizations, it's still all too easy for consumers to be deceived about what they're buying. Mueller visits large-scale importers, small-scale oil producers, and almost everyone connected with the industry in between the two. The book includes a useful glossary, and I especially like the guide to choosing good oil. This will (and should!) make you think twice about that bottle of “extra virgin” olive oil you buy at the grocery store.

---Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World's Most Ancient Pleasures, by Paul Lukacs. The author has written about wine for more than two decades, and you can sense his enthusiasm and a willingness to delve deep into his subject through these pages. Did you ever wonder how wine in ancient cultures differed from today's vintages? Did you know that wine was originally considered a libation of the gods, priests, and the nobility? How and why has wine changed through the centuries? How are modern wines categorized? Lukacs even details a number of the diseases and pests that have threatened the industry over time, as well as the rise of the “varietal age”. Packed with great information and an entertaining read.

---Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, by Daniella Martin. I like to think I possess a good degree of curiosity about the world around me. But I don't know that I'm quite as curious as Daniella Martin, who, having started eating insects herself, has become a promoter of insects as part of one's daily diet. She hasn't gone off half-cocked here; there are compelling arguments presented for consuming bugs. They are simple and inexpensive to raise, they are prolific (to say the least!), they grow quickly, they require only a fraction of the resources needed by other animals we eat, they're nutritious, and Ms. Martin claims that most insects are delicious. While I don't agree with everything in this book, it made me ponder about how people expect to eat in the future. With a burgeoning population and resources that won't increase (at best) or will actively decrease (which is more likely), perhaps it's time for American attitudes about bug-eating to start changing. Ms. Martin reminds us that many other cultures eat insects on a regular basis (or once did so; insect eating declines as people become “Westernized”). Yes, indeed, there are some recipes, as well as a section about raising bugs at home and a roster of edible insects.

---Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, by Murray Carpenter. At some point in the 1990's, I attended a natural products trade show. To my surprise, I found an anti-caffeine group exhibiting there. I admired the determination of these folks, but I couldn't help feeling that this group faced a mightily uphill battle. Murray Carpenter explains exactly why so many people are dependent upon their daily caffeine. But this is more than just a chemistry lesson. You'll find history here; there's a look at the use of caffeine by athletes and military personnel; there's information about the production of caffeine and why this substance is so minimally regulated in the US; and you'll find a chapter, too, on the serious effects caffeine has on some individuals. If you can't function without your morning coffee or your daily sodas or that energy gel, you need to know more about the “most popular, least regulated drug in the United States”. Well-written, broad in scope, and, at times, distinctly unnerving.

---The Cranberry: Hard Work and Holiday Sauce, by Stephen Cole and Lindy Gifford. Consider the humble cranberry. Unless you drink cranberries in the form of juice, most people don't think twice about them until the berries enjoy a brief annual popularity around Thanksgiving. Like many other foods, however, cranberries have a rich history. Learn about pioneers in cranberry growing and processing, early tools and machinery and how they evolved and improved, antitrust actions, and labor organizers. The two largest groups of immigrants (from, of all places, the Cape Verde Islands and Finland) who ended up in the New England section of the industry are detailed, as is the public relations disaster of 1959 (no, I'm not going to tell you what it was; you'll have to read the book). A fine account of an often-neglected fruit.

---In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey, by Samuel Fromartz. “Obsession” has such negative connotations, don't you agree? Let's just say that author Samuel Fromartz has an intense preoccupation with bread and bread-baking, one which saw him travel extensively, question everything from varieties of wheat to mixing and kneading techniques to proofing temperatures, work alongside famous bakers and rogue farmers, and bake innumerable breads, all in search of that ideal loaf. I've been baking bread for decades, and Fromartz's techniques are radically different from those I was taught as a youngster. But his breads are different, as well. Most are dependent upon starters; these are more sophisticated than the loaves of my younger years, and I know I'll be trying my hand at some of the recipes scattered through these pages. There's a particularly intriguing chapter on celiac disease and gluten intolerance, including possible causes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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