Let’s all stop being coy and fess up, shall we? The truth is, even those of us who work with cookbooks, write about cookbooks, collect cookbooks — heck, even write cookbooks ourselves — don’t actually cook from cookbooks.
As food has morphed ever more into a pop culture fixture, cookbooks — with their lush photos, their provocative prose, their tempting, come hither recipes — have become the porn of the food set.
So it is with this mindset that I made my picks for the best food books of 2013, the ones I would hope to get or gift this holiday season.
“The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook,” ($45): Do-it-all cookbooks — the sort that try to cover all the culinary bases — are pretty been there, done that. Smart consumers know quality often is best in niche experts.
The folks behind America’s Test Kitchen are the happy exception. So is their new book, a comprehensive introduction to the art of cooking simply and well.
Some 2,500 photos walk readers through 600 painstakingly tested recipes, leaving little room for error whether you’re baking a chocolate chip cookie or trying to master beef Burgundy.
“Reasons Mommy Drinks” by Lyranda Martin Evans and Fiona Stevenson ($12.99): If foul language and parenting-by-alcohol are things likely to offend you, give this book a pass. But if you have embraced your potty mouth and understand that a good drink can make far more tolerable the terrible twos right on through those horrible teens, then you will love this tiny book of cocktail recipes (and the parenting horrors that inspired them). My only complaint? Daddies drink, too.
“The Taste of America” by Colman Andrews ($29.95): Colman Andrews has succeeded at something that shouldn’t have been successful. He has written a reference book that reads like a storybook.
His anthology of 250 classic American foods — some ingredients, some products — is a fascinating way to taste our nation’s collective menu. From Goo Goo Clusters to boiled peanuts, he tells the story of America through its food.
“Notes From the Larder” by Nigel Slater ($40): Nigel Slater is a master of the journal-cum-cookbook format. He has an elegant simplicity of language that transports you to his garden, his kitchen, his table.
His recipes are simple, yet deftly draw you in. It doesn’t hurt that the photography is splendid.
“Smoke &Pickles” by Edward Lee ($29.95): Edward Lee earned his fame on Season 9 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” but he earned his credibility for his brash, yet respectful reimagining of Southern cuisine.
A Korean-American who grew up in New York, Lee’s only connection to the South was a road trip. But he fell in love with the culture and its food, and it shows in his cooking.
Like his Louisville, Ky., restaurant 610 Magnolia, his first cookbook, “Smoke &Pickles,” is a delicious amalgam of his cultures.
Pulled pork gets sauced with bourbon and black bean paste. A T-bone gets marinated with lemongrass, Asian sesame oil and peanut oil. Anyone who loves Southern cooking will want this book.
“Mast Brothers Chocolate” by Rick Mast and Michael Mast ($40): Over-the-top odes to all things chocolate are tired format usually built on precious, fussy recipes that rarely inspire.
This book is different. The Mast brothers have written a book of delicious simplicity, filled with recipes so evocatively photographed and clearly written, you will cook from it.
Start slow. Try the chocolate soda. Then the chocolate crunch. No need to thank me.
“Eat Drink Vote,” by Marion Nestle ($18.99): The politics of food and diet can be a dense slog for all but the most committed of foodies. But Marion Nestle, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on food policy, has written a book that doesn’t just inform, it entertains.
Sure, there are plenty of stats and history and discouraging tales of food systems gone bad. But Nestle has paired all that with hundreds of comics and cartoons that bring those issues humorously home.
It’s odd to say, but readers will laugh hard as learn the sad truth about all that is wrong — and some of what’s right — about the way America eats.
“Kitchen Things” by Richard Snodgrass ($29.95): Don’t be fooled by this book’s cover, which sells itself as “an album of vintage utensils and farm-kitchen recipes.”
That sounds kind of boring, and the recipes are amusing, but secondary. This book’s appeal is in its gorgeous black-and-white photos of old-school kitchen gadgets.
Richard Snodgrass actually makes things like measuring spoons and meat tenderizers look sensual. The text is a pleasant blend of history and humorous back-and-forth between Snodgrass, his wife and his mother-in-law, from whose kitchen many of the gizmos come.
“The Art of Simple Food II” by Alice Waters ($35): Alice Waters makes the simplest of foods seem revelatory, even celebratory. This book, a follow to her 2007 “The Art of Simple Food,” does what so few true cookbooks seem able to these days — it inspires and makes you want to cook, to explore ingredients.
Not because of whiz-bang sci-fi gastronomy or because of celebrity or any other trendiness. It’s because Waters embraces food as a beautiful thing unto itself.
“L.A. Son” by Roy Choi ($29.99): This is the man who gave us the Kogi food truck, the Los Angeles-based Korean taco mashup credited with taking the food truck movement respectable. His beautiful book (published under Anthony Bourdain’s imprint) is two parts story (Choi’s coming up), one part recipe (his OMG crazy good creations, like ketchup fried rice).
You may never cook from this book (though the recipes are eminently doable), but it won’t matter. It’s a fun flip even if all you do is drool.