This year’s holiday banquet includes a spread of books that are fit for feasting: two gorgeous coffee-table extravagances, a fascinating window into the culinary culture of 1940s Paris and a pair of visually appealing stocking stuffers.
Barton Seaver’s American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea is a stunner. Seaver, a fine chef who was at the forefront of the sustainability movement, has published multiple cookbooks. His latest encyclopedic tome is part cookbook; part photo-journal studded with a variety of vintage ads, black-and-white photos and gorgeous full-color images; and, above all, a paean to the fishers and harvesters of one of America’s major food sources. Seaver, who lives in a Maine fishing village, makes a strong case for treating seafood and its procurers with the same respect as farmers and their heirloom tomatoes. The ancestors of these frontiersmen of the seas made the British settlement of the first American colonies possible. The two-page discussion of the often dissed catfish alone will convince you of Seaver’s passion for the ocean and its bounty.
TOAST OF THE TOWN
Peter Liem’s Champagne is for those who are seriously enchanted by the bubbly elixir. Billed as “the essential guide to the wines, producers, and terroirs of the iconic region,” this is an armchair oenophile’s delight. Liem provides a detailed description of the best champagnes from not only the better-known French areas such as Epernay and Reims but also the small villages and single vineyard producers. A former critic for Wine & Spirits magazine, Liem goes through the history and mechanics of champagne production (biodynamics, tank fermentation and crayères, the astounding chalk cellars 100 feet below ground dug out by the Greeks and Romans and now used for aging) and then dives into appreciating individual blends, vintages and their blenders. Liem doesn’t limit himself to the expensive sparklers, either; his evaluations range in price. As an extra bonus, the box set includes seven reproductions of vintage maps of the regions, the sort you could frame or decoupage onto the wine bar—or put travel pins in, if you’re really showing off.
Justin Spring’s The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy is an erudite, extensively researched evocation of a moment in time when a half-dozen brilliant Americans converged in France in the mid-20th century and illuminated the culture of French cuisine for audiences back home.
Spring’s subjects are a fascinating group: the already corpulent World War II correspondent A.J. Liebling; the secret CIA spy and cooking icon Julia Child; the self-effacing M.F.K. Fisher; the artist-turned-rustic food chronicler Richard Olney; the opportunistic Alexis Lichine, who was raised in Paris but had based his wine business in New York; and Alice B. Toklas, the longtime partner of Gertrude Stein who was, in a way, the liaison between these five characters and the famous Lost Generation of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Toklas’ knowledge of food had perhaps the most poignant beginning, because it was rooted in the shortages of the war and her straitened circumstances after Stein’s death; her cookbook was in part a task to shake off grief. It’s notable that none of the six figures featured here, with the arguable exception of Lichine, were food snobs; they celebrated regional, homey and haute dishes with equal relish. Spring has also layered in smart and pointed profiles of other writers, critics and contemporary celebrities, looking back on this period as a short-lived love affair between Americans and French fare that was curtailed by political unrest, new ethnic fads and, curiously, an infamous, unabashedly gluttonous $4,000, 31-course meal, replete with caviar and song birds, eaten by New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne in Paris in 1975 to the criticism of many.
COCKTAILS AND CATS
Around the World in 80 Cocktails by Australian bartender and writer Chad Parkhill packs in more fascinating historical trivia than most of the season’s cute cocktail book offerings, and the retro travel poster-style illustrations by Alice Oehr are a real pleasure. Head to Spain for a fruity Sherry Cobbler, which makes a cameo in a Charles Dickens novel, or read about Bolivia’s national spirit, the floral singani, while sipping a llajua cocktail. This would be a fine gift for a holiday host or well suited for placing atop a home bar tray.
(Reprinted with permission from Distillery Cats, copyright © 2017 by Brad Thomas Parsons. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Julia Kuo.)
More whimsical, and certainly more unusual, is Distillery Cats: Profiles in Courage of the World’s Most Spirited Mousers by James Beard Award-winning writer Brad Thomas Parsons, who offers up the tales of the felines who guard the grains in distilleries around the world, with lovely sketches of the cats courtesy of Julia Kuo and 15 delicious cocktail recipes as well. What is particularly sweet is the number of the cats that are strays, rescues and self-appointed welcoming committees. If you choose to pick up a bottle from one of the 31 American artisanal distilleries and breweries listed, you will have a first-rate feline host to greet you.