Book Bites – Part II

January 10th, 2008

We continue our eclectic roundup of books that have crossed our desk over the past year.

The Art of Simple Food
The Art of Simple Food
Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution
Alice Waters

Clarkson Potter (October 2, 2007); 416 pages; $35.00

Perhaps because Ms. Waters herself has been more visible than usual,* a lot of reviewers were expecting this book to be a louder manifesto. There seems to have been anticipation that the founder of Chez Panisse would present us with a declaration more reminiscent of a 1960’s UC Berkeley anti-establishment rally than this quiet, but no less insistent or impassioned, call for responsible food production, preparation, and consumption.

What we have is an iconic book for the new cook or for someone who already cooks but wants to capture the essence of food through Alice Waters’ lens. Given the number of books replete with sensuous photographs and recently published by other celebrity chef-restaurateurs, those who eat with their eyes and collect cookbooks are bound to be disappointed by The Art of Simple Food. It’s not a flashy book. No macro shots of micro-greens; in fact, no photography at all—just painstakingly delicate line-drawings by another member of la famille Panisse, Patricia Curtan.

Will this book accomplish the author’s goal—to help her readers learn how to shop, cook, share, and love food? Absolutely—but book-sellers are going to have to work a little harder until enough people literally get Alice Water’s message

“that the underlying principles of good cooking are the same everywhere.Those principles have less to do with recipes and techniques that they do with gathering good ingredients, which are the essence of cooking.”

Ms. Waters lays out the reasons to plant gardens, shop locally, and support local farmers. She exhorts her readers to join her

“delicious revolution, one that can reconnect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for all our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime.”

*Note: See our review of the recent biography:Alice Waters and Chez Panisse The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by James McNamee

As Monty Python used to say, “And now, for something completely different!”

Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook
Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook
Explosive Flavors from the Southwestern Kitchen
Bobby Flay

Clarkson Potter (October 16, 2007); 288 pages; $35.00

We could not ask for a better example to contrast with Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse than to juxtapose her with the flamboyant Bobby Flay (photography by Ben Fink) and his Mesa Grill.

Everything about the book and food is intense. From the larger-than-life photos with gorgeous props to the elaborate mis-en-place and multi-step recipes, you know this is food as theater. You can almost smell the mesquite, hear the sizzle of the grill, and feel the heat (there’s a Scoville scale for rating chiles). Or is that glow and warmth coming from the foot-lights? Local food? Fuhgeddaboudit—this is New York, so you might guess that the ingredients for a Southwest fusion-menu were not gathered by Native Americans foraging in Central Park.

But like many who finally got great seats to Phantom of the Opera or Cats, the diners who got their table in the exuberant Mesa Grill want something more than an Amex receipt by which to recall the experience. A splashy book like this fills the bill. The ambitious may actually cook from it—for the recipes are well-organized. While Alice Waters is writing for the home cook, Bobby Flay is scaling-down genuine restaurant food, whose execution at Mesa Grill depends on a legion of prep artists. Not many home cooks are going to do Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters with Mango Vinaigrette and Red Chile Horseradish or Sixteen-Spice Chicken with Cilantro-Pumpkin Seed Sauce when they want to whip up dinner after a day at the office. But if they love the process, they’ll love this book, and their friends and families will love them for preparing this food.

Does this sound like a refrain? Maybe Bobby and Alice should share some space after all—on both the stove and the shelf.

Disclosure: Clarkson Potter sent us both of these books for review

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