Restaurant Review - Word up

Six standout books to sate a smorgasbord of appetites

Struggling with last-minute gift ideas for foodie friends and family? Or feeling the call of the kitchen yourself whilst in the eye of the holiday torrent? Look to the bookstores: It's been a particularly juicy year in the world of food publishing.

New releases include a blockbuster behemoth, a revised classic, a spate of books by renowned Southern chefs and food writers, and a collection of essays from one of the nation's more formidable restaurant critics. These six books cover a wide sweep of tastes and price ranges, but they each make for nourishing reading — whether you're cranking up the stove or not.

"Our goal was to give you a book with every recipe you would ever want," states the solitary quote from Ruth Reichl on the back of The Gourmet Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, $40). Ambitious words, but nothing short of what you'd expect from the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and the former restaurant critic for the New York Times. As editor of the cookbook, Reichl's goal was both to annotate the best recipes from the magazine's 60 years and to offer a Joy of Cooking for the new millennium.

The cookbook attracted its share of immediate detractors, who felt the bon vivre of the magazine's original cookbook has been replaced with a patronizing tome that rings a jaded, commercial tone. Here's what I know: The recipe for chestnut stuffing, which I made for Thanksgiving, was unanimously praised by my guests.

And when I panicked because a homemade mayonnaise I was attempting from another cookbook refused to emulsify, I flipped open the Gourmet book and its clear directions for mayonnaise worked brilliantly. Outrage was also vented about the pale yellow recipe titles that were hard to read in the book's first printing. Well, scandal's over: My copy has bright, pleasant orange titles. My gripes number few: This volume is a worthy investment. I welcome it to my already bulging shelves of cookbooks.

Speaking of Gourmet and outrage, I remember when the magazine came out with its list of top 50 restaurants in October 2001 and named Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham the fifth best restaurant in the country, but not one Atlanta restaurant was mentioned. But that was before I'd eaten at Highlands. Now that I have, I get it. Frank Stitt, its chef and owner, loves and understands Southern foods in a way few cooks do. He marries gorgeous, indigenous ingredients to French technique with wondrous results. His food is neither pretentious nor overblown. The spirit of his cooking is eloquently captured in his first cookbook, Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill (Artisan, $40). You probably won't do a ton of cooking from this book. It's restaurant food. But the photos, by renowned food photographer Christopher Hirscheimer, are sumptuous, and the book is filled with Stitt's short, engaging essays on food purveyors and traditions. This one'll look mighty handsome on your coffee table. And if you do want to cook from it? Try the uncomplicated, sublime recipe for spoonbread.

I discovered Highlands Bar and Grill this past summer while in Birmingham for the annual field trip sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance. SFA has just published its second astute and often witty collection of essays by some of the South's most articulate culinary watchdogs. The focus is Topic A: barbecue. Much of Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue (The University of North Carolina Press, $17.95) is culled from lectures and papers read at the SFA's 2002 symposium in Oxford, Miss., which addressed every conceivable aspect of the South's signature way with meat. Atlantans will want to take particular note of John Shelton Reed's essay, "Barbecue Sociology: The Meat of the Matter," wherein Reed delivers his gauntlet-tossing line: "Every time I look at Atlanta, I see what a quarter of a million Confederate soldiers died to prevent."

Raised voices, sarcastic barbs and passionate epistles are standard fare at the SFA's symposiums, but the barbecue conference was particularly heated. Its attendees took solace in the extraordinary food prepared by fine Southern cooks from all over the region. I was particularly soothed by Karen Barker's blackberry breakfast pie, served at brunch on the last day of the symposium. Barker and her husband, Ben, own Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., one of the finest New Southern restaurants in the country. Her new book, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker's American Desserts (The University of North Carolina Press, $29.95) is full of recipes that have the same down-to-earth charm as that breakfast pie. This is not a restaurant cookbook. It's a functional collection of familiar treats with snazzy tweaks like blueberry shortcakes, banana pudding cream puffs and chocolate chunky brownie bars. I have a penchant for homemade ice cream, and Barker's recipe for caramel ice cream created one of the silkiest batches I've ever produced.

Ever really meditate on ice cream? The history of it, the formula of ingredients needed so it will freeze correctly? Harold McGee has — on ice cream and dozens of other kitchen topics. His 1984 classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Loore of the Kitchen (Scribner, $35) was the first book to usher cooks into the scientific realm behind food with an accessible, engaging voice. Food geeks have been waiting 10 years for the update to McGee's seminal book. Last month, the revised edition was finally published, notably thorough and thicker with knowledge. If this doesn't sound at all interesting to you, mosey down the cookbook aisle and pick up a copy anyway. Flip through the pages. It's likely you'll gaze upon a topic — coffee, breads, why foods have the colors they do, recognizing fresh fish — and find yourself absorbed. McGee, who holds a doctorate in English literature, has a lyrical style that slyly draws you in to these seemingly archaic topics. P.S. This book is truly useful. If something goes wrong with your cake batter, you can grab McGee and understand why so it doesn't happen again.

Maybe, though, you just need a fun read to bury yourself in and mentally escape the family during an endless holiday gathering. Alan Richman's Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater (HarperCollins, $24.95) will whisk you right away. Richman, the long-contributing food writer for GQ, has a budget — and a job, frankly — I covet. He gets to travel the globe and write snarky pieces about the food he eats. He shows up in celebrity chef restaurants and then rails on the chefs for not being present. He travels France and mourns the demise of great temples of gastronomy. He weaves into his essays the life between and during meals: the destructive nature of politics, the heartbreak of watching parents grow old, the memories of young love, the surreal experiences of war. He's also hilarious and adept at getting himself into strange situations. Recounting the story of being asked to "select" a girl at a seedy bar in Shanghai, Richman notes, "My girl was an Asian Alicia Silverstone, which meant she was very pretty and going to fat." Ouch! But zingers like that sure keep the pages turning.


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