Read excerpts from the interview below, and listen to the full episode here.
Tenderheart: A Book about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds by Hetty McKinnon
What makes this book terrific is, first of all, it's all vegetable cooking. We all want as much vegetable cooking in our lives now as we can possibly get. This is a book that's just alive with charm. It's doubles as a memoir and my family has delighted in eating everything that I've tried. So in our search for ways of living virtuously on vegetables, without depriving ourselves of pleasure, this book, "Tenderheart" really does the job.
The Cookie That Changed My Life by Nancy Silverton and Carolynn Carreno
Nancy’s backstory is amazing. She worked at Michael’s in LA. She was the first pastry chef at Wolfgang's Spago in 1982. Then she co-founded La Brea Bakery, and in a horrible twist of fate, sold it and put all the money with Bernie Madoff—which ended really badly. She restarted her career, and it's been thriving.
This is a book I wish I had done. It's corn muffins, angel food cake, chocolate chip cookies, scones—the American repertoire. But she really went back and rethought it in a very intelligent, professional way. For example, she thinks angel food cake is sort of a horrible, tasteless foam. So to solve the problem, she actually creates an angel food cake with a greased pan that collapses on itself and has a little chocolate in it. She creates something totally different. It's that kind of fresh approach that very few people have. It's not just that the recipes work, they're really well thought through.
Best Food Writing
Endangered Eating by Sarah Lohman
This book is about all of the varieties and all of the good things that are vanishing from our table. Lohman has a wonderful chapter on apples, and deals with everything from sugar to salmon as well. It's one of those books that teaches us good lessons, but doesn't moralize at us too tiresomely. I greatly enjoyed it.
The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading by Dwight Garner
This will explain who Dwight Garner is: the thing he’s concerned about most every day is attempting to shrink the hours between the morning’s last cup of coffee and the evening’s first drink. That's how he sees the entire universe. At seven o'clock he starts with the martinis—his wife drinks wine—and they play a game which I actually just bought called Spite and Malice, which is a form of dual solitaire with the whole point of it being even if you lose, you try to irritate the other person.
So this is a life that started with sauerkraut with sliced-up franks as a kid, and a horrible American version of egg foo young. And now he is just in love with food. Throughout the book he uses many quotes, but I particularly like this one from John Updike about food: It never bites back, it is already dead. It never tells us we are lousy lovers or asks for an interview. It simply begs, "Take me." It cries out, "I’m yours."
Dwight Garner is an absolutely marvelous guy and this is just a fabulous book.
Ultra Processed People by Chris van Tulleken
This is a book I wrote about for The New Yorker and it makes a pressing case. In the piece I wrote, I raised some skeptical issues about whether it's really true that the food our grandparents ate was always virtuous, that in fact, if we break down olive oil and salt bacon into their preservative properties, I'm not sure that they are necessarily more wholesome than the things we eat now. But van Tulleken certainly demonstrates that a lot of what we eat now in mass market food is not good for us. It's a useful and alarming book.
An Alphabet for Gourmets by MFK Fisher
I was walking down the street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when I saw on a table of secondhand books, a book by the wonderful MFK Fisher which I did not know. It's called "An Alphabet for Gourmets." It has wonderful drawings by Marvin Bileck. It comes to us from the 1940s, and is just what it claims to be. It is an alphabetic book—"E is for Exquisite." "F is for Family." "K is for Kosher." "L is for Literature." "N is for Nautical," and on and on.
In each place, we get one of those exquisite, melancholy little essays of which Mary Fisher, as her friends called her, specialized. It was a delight to find; I've discovered it's been reprinted a couple of times in the last 20 years, so I was blessed to find the original edition. What can I say? It's just a delight to add to any cook's library.
An Invitation to Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey
I just interviewed Madhur Jaffrey for Milk Street Radio. At age 90 she is funnier, has more personality and enjoys life more than the two of us put together. She's had this amazing life which started in India. In the summers they'd move up north and they'd have these picnics in these hidden valleys with waterfalls. And they would put what they call "sucking" mangoes—sort of second-rate mangoes that are used just for their juice—in the cold water. At the end of the picnic, they would cut off one end and suck out the juices.
She won the Best Actress award at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival. She went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She has almost 50 citations in terms of being an actress. And a year ago, she appeared in a rap video with Mr. Cardamom. She was absolutely fabulous. She has a quote about Indian restaurants that says, "These establishments invariably underestimate both the curiosity and the palate of contemporary Americans." And what she has done is to go way beyond that into Indian cooking, even 50 years ago. So here's someone who was trained as an actress, wrote many, many books—I think almost 30 of them—and I think still has one of the seminal books on Indian cooking.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.
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