My Secret Cookbook Gems

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After yesterday’s cookbook slaughter, I thought I’d steer the blog to sweeter waters and talk about a subject I’ve never addressed on the blog before: my secret cookbook gems.

No, I’m not talking about books that I actually cook from. Those would be my favorite cooking cookbooks and you can find those on the lower right hand corner of the page under the heading “The Amateur Gourmet Recommends.” These books, my secret cookbook gems, are the ones with the most sentimental value: the ones that I cherish the most, the ones I’d grab first if the apartment was on fire.

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The Great Cookbook Purge of 2009

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Nobody likes moving. It’s a daunting process: first you have to find boxes, then you have to find packing tape, then you have to put all your stuff in the boxes and then you run out of packing tape and then you find you have more stuff and you need more boxes, etc, etc. It sucks.

Which is why, a few days ago, I found myself staring at my cookbook collection. I was on the couch and there it was, across the room. Six giant Ikea shelves of cookbooks, collected from five and a half years of food blogging. And like a bolt of lightning, a thought singed the inside of my brain: “Do I really need all of these cookbooks? How many do I really use, really?”

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David’s Sweet Life

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Several years ago, when I went to Paris, I rode the Metro from my teensy hotel in the 80th arrondissement, to meet a food blogger I admired but had never met, Mr. David Lebovitz. As I came up the stairs (or was it an escalator?) I beheld a vision: there, standing before me, was a smiley man holding what looked to be the world’s largest picnic basket. David toured me around and I made a video, which you can watch here (sorry for the song choice! (what was I thinking??)):

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On Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life”

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“Write what scares you.”

That’s the kind of directive you’ll get in college creative writing classes, interactive online workshops and, believe it or not, grad school. You’ll get it from the old pros and you’ll get it from frustrated young upstarts: “write what scares you.” David Lindsay Abaire is a prolific playwright with many hilarious plays under his belt, “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” among them. But it wasn’t until a mentor advised him to write what scared him most that he wrote what many consider his greatest play, “Rabbit Hole.” He was duly rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

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On Craig Claiborne’s “A Feast Made For Laughter”

How does a Craig Claiborne become a Craig Claiborne?

The best part of Craig Claiborne’s autobiography, “A Feast Made for Laughter,” a long out-of-print book that I picked up at Bonnie Slotnick’s used cookbook store in the West Village, is that the man himself–a man whose impact on American gastronomy is undeniable, whose tenure at The New York Times set the bar for all food journalism and criticism that followed–is that he himself doesn’t know.

It’s a brave book, a searing self-study, and yet it never fulfills its promise: how does a boy from Sunflower Mississippi, who notoriously shared a bed with his father when his family lost all their money, whose teacher called him a sissy in front of the whole class for not playing sports, whose relationship with his mother was so fraught that he eventually cut all ties with her completely become the preeminent food authority in the United States? How does a boy who’s so poor he walks to school every day, mortified that someone he knows will offer him a ride, go on to eat a $4000 dinner that makes the front page of The New York Times and is ultimately denounced by the Pope?

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Belated Book Review: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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The soup dumpling was balanced cautiously on my spoon, the twisted top bitten off and, as I stared into the murky, steamy depths of broth, I was struck by the gray lumpy brain-like matter in the middle. Struck, not because it was unfamiliar—soup dumplings at Grand Sichuan are almost monthly staples of our diet—but because, suddenly, after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” that lump of pork conjured forth images of tortured pigs, in crowded pens, their tails cut off to a stump so that other pigs won’t chew on them. Was this the meat of a factory pig? Would I, by biting in, be complicit in its tortured death? I drowned the dumpling, and my quandary, in gingered soy sauce and bit in quickly.

Eat fast and don’t think. I gobbled it up, like a good American.

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On Phoebe Damrosch’s “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter”

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It takes a great deal to make me burst out laughing in the middle of a coffee shop. First of all, I suffer from some social anxiety: I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself (unless I’m making horror movies on the internet) and I often give dirty looks to those who carry on obnoxious cell phone conversations or cackle loudly as I try to write my memoirs while sipping frothy cappuccinos. But yesterday, as I finished Phoebe Damrosch’s fantastic new book “Service Included,” I broke out of character and burst out laughing. It happened on page 179 and it may be the most shocking sentence I’ve yet encountered in a food book. I can’t repeat it here nor, for that matter, can I repeat it anywhere: it’s filthy. It’s something a customer says to Phoebe when she’s a captain at Per Se, one of New York’s (if not the country’s) most illustrious and renowned restaurants. The context alone would make any irreverent comment hilarious, but this particular one–well, I’ll let you get there yourself. It still makes me laugh just thinking about it.

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