Here’s my grandmother on the beach in Cape Cop with a good book and a sack lunch, circa 1946. My grandfather would have just returned home from Paris, where he was stationed during the war. To this day, she is every bit as stylish and always has a good book within arm’s reach. Which got me thinking about summer beach reads. I’ll post soon on some favorite “literary” fashion contenders, but in the meantime my friend Sorina has put together an excellent reading list of chef bios and cookbooks, just in time for the start of summer. I’ll be packing my beach bag posthaste. Thanks, Sorina!
SORINA’S TOP FIVE FOODIE BEACH READS
Lollygagging on the sand with a good book, as the surf beats against the shore and an assortment of children and pets scurry around happily engaged is my dream summer scenario. And from where I’m standing, reading chef biographies is just about the most fun you can have without chugging absinthe. Here’s a quick roundup of some essential chef bios and lovely cookbooks that you can stash in your beach tote along with sunscreen:
My Life in France (2006), by Julia Child
This sentimental, beautifully written memoir charts Child’s journey from bored hausfrau in 1940s Paris to French cooking authority and media maven in the States. It stands as the standard by which all cooking memoirs shall be measured against. Child’s “Yes, you can!” message subtly seeps out from every page. It would be corny, unless it weren’t so utterly inspiring. Child was 36 when she signed up for lessons at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and found her vocation in life. Her knack for the adorable anecdote—such as her recounting a first meal in France as an uncouth American lass (with memorable descriptions of oysters slurped off the shell and sweet farmer’s butter smeared on freshly baked baguettes), or the hilarious story of her Parisian cat getting erotically charged and giving her love bites while she attempted a French accent over the telephone—is magical. This book struck me as a lovely, fully humanistic poem about life, love, and cooking. I finished reading it and realized I had fallen for its author. Hard.
Heat (2006) by Bill Buford
Fiction editor of the New Yorker decides one fair day to ditch his plum job and enlist as a lowly plongeur in the kitchen of Mario Batali’s Babbo NYC restaurant. The resulting diary of his experiences became a series of riveting New Yorker articles, which eventually coalesced into this book. We descend along with Buford into a Hadean realm of spattering grease, un-PC macho behavior and brain-shattering tedium that involves slicing root vegetables and abuse that makes Nazi interment-camp berating look like dancing the minuet. (PS: You get some top dish along the way: Apparently, Batali can put away a dozen wine bottles in one sitting.) Buford’s blend of objective reportage and emotional testimony makes this the ideal go-to tome for anyone who really wants to know what working in the kitchen of a haute-cuisine American restaurant is really like. Halfway through the book, Buford zips off to a tiny provincial town in Italy to learn first-hand the art of butchery at the elbow of Florentine master butcher Dario Cecchini. The ensuing chapters are perfectly informative—but also hilarious, moving, and profound. The critic inside my brain says this effort is couple of books or more awkwardly joined in one package. The person who adores writing and food relishes Buford’s chronicle of a Dante-worthy journey. A grown man who dares to pursue his passion against all reason is a sexy, beautiful thing.
Julie and Julia (2005) by Julie Powell
I stumbled onto this cookery diary with the best of intentions to worship it. Premise: Powell, who holds down a job as a drone at some nondescript Manhattan enterprise, lives in Brooklyn and attempts to cook her way through Julia Child’s 524 recipes included in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She blogs about it, and voila—snatches book contract and Hollywood passport. (Meryl Streep is going to play Child in a forthcoming big-studio adaptation of the book, opening in August.) Powell has an engaging voice but her perpetual self-berating, aw-shucks attitude grated my nerves after the first 20 pages. She’s a crap cook, her kitchen is pitifully ill-equiped, and one day she discovers maggots under her cutting board. Et caetera. Still, somehow, the meals she produces from Child’s recipes all have magical qualities much enjoyed by her guests. PLEASE, lady! Still: I admire Powell’s skill for turning this cute personal improvement project into a profitable franchise. Ideas—as a wise man once said—are worth millions.
The Devil in the Kitchen (2007) by Marco Pierre White
If you can demonstrate to me that there’s a more entertaining haute cuisine chef than Marco Pierre White, I volunteer to scrub your dirty dishes clean for the next 12 months. This working-class Brit with the loutish temperament of Dennis Hopper tripping on uppers nabbed 3 Michelin stars in his 20s and became the youngest chef to be awarded the honor. His memoir is a hideously fun chart of that journey. White worked, lived, and played hard. Contempo cookery stars such as Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali apprenticed under him and took his abuse—only to rise later as respected chefs on their own. White’s haute-French cuisine joints—starting with legendary Harveys in London—have been landmark joints of sophistication, wit and excellence. It’s all the more remarkable since White never set foot in France until his 30s. This laugh-out-loud volume devotes an entire chapter to White’s infamous practice of customer cock-slapping—with a full retelling of the iconic episode of him receiving an order for French fries and charging the unfortunate customer $500 for it. White, who, back in his ’20s, looked as fatalistically glamorous as Arthur Rimbaud, charms even at his most churlish. This is a brutally honest, rude, and delicious read.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food (2009) by Moira Hodgson
My first reaction to this memoir was that it’s strictly for devout readers of the New York Observer, where Hodgson is now a resto critic. By that I mean it struck me as terminally snobby and borderline obnoxious. Hodgson’s personal history of privilege—she sailed on the Normandie ocean liner back in the ’30s! In first class! Just like Marlene Dietrich, natch!—turned me off big-time, initially. Hodgson can’t seem to help herself name-drop—a function of her being a diplomatic brat, I guess. Still, she has some lovely-written passages in here about her discovery that her daddy was a spy—oopsie daisy!—and her love of cooking suckling pig… I half-heartedly endorse it because Hodgson IS a pretty wonderful writer. But invest in it at your own peril.—Sorina Diaconescu