New wine books used to be a holiday staple, but these days, wine talk has been replaced by sophisticated (and occasionally cultish) culinary chat, haute beer debates and retro cocktail repartee--all easily indulged tastes when it comes to your gift list.
TOUR THE TABLE
Though playful in tone, and packed with the wordplay that (among other critical tropes) he both tweaks and enjoys, Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food is no mere “The Man Who Ate Everything and Then Considered It Philosophically.” It is more a sort of literate confessional, a series of meditations on cooking and, inevitably, consuming. Locavores, carnivores, gourmets and gourmands, historians, commentators, chefs and cooks all have their say, alongside Gopnik’s epigrammatic musings. What distinguishes dining from eating? What is morality (i.e., “who” or what should we eat) and is indulgence a sin? What is taste, the importance of the table or the value of tradition? And how did the restaurant, a relatively modern invention—created in Paris, just before the Revolution—become not simply a cultural icon but a kind of cult?
Much of The Table Comes First originated as pieces for The New Yorker, where Gopnik has glittered for a quarter-century, so this is a feast best consumed in discrete courses. Gopnick’s encounters with London snout-to-tail maven Fergus Henderson and the great Catalonian innovators behind elBulli, Ferran and Albert Adrià, are fascinating; his quixotic mission to prepare an entirely locavore, only-in-New York dinner is unexpectedly funny. His comments on food and wine critics are at once acute and sympathetic. And, of course, the writing is a pleasure (“the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar”).
If Gopnik’s book is the menu de degustation, Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac is a lovely trifle. Written by the Paris-born, New York-based biographer Anka Muhlstein, and translated from French by Adriana Hunter, it uses quotations from the writer deemed a French Trollope (a pun he would have enjoyed) to portray a city and culture evolving alongside the restaurant. (Muhlstein and Gopnik disagree on a few facts, but they have historical sentiment in common.) Balzac’s characters eat in real-life cafes or in private homes, and the provenance of the fare, as well as its quality, reflect the new egalité (or not). The book’s French title is “Garçon, un cent d’huitres” (Waiter, a hundred oysters”); though Balzac ate almost nothing while working, between novels he could have given Diamond Jim Brady a run for his bivalves. Lovers of France, food and literature will find this a welcome gift.
IN SEARCH OF SUDS
The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover’s Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation, by Christian DeBenedetti, is an exuberant, if arbitrary, “Route 66” of a jaunt through brewpubs and craft breweries. It is also a series of snapshots of brewers (including the famously unruly and charming Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head) and worthy but beer-less landmarks (New Orleans’ Central Grocery of muffaletta fame)—a sort of beerlover’s verbal Viewmaster. There are detours into history, regulatory scuffles, brewpubs lost and found and more. The descriptions of various brews are almost amorously tasty, and will doubtless inspire lovers of microbrews to add some names to their “must try” lists.
CHEERS TO COCKTAIL HOUR
Brian D. Murphy’s See Mix Drink: A Refreshingly Simple Guide to Crafting the World’s Most Popular Cocktails is a Mr. Boston’s for beginners that looks like the prototype for a smartphone app. Each recipe is loaded with “intuitive icons” (shapes of the bottles, implements, garnishes and glasses required) that act out the drink-making process, plus an illustration of the glass filled with proportional layers of ingredients (see illustration). The additional pie charts—a Black Velvet clearly illustrated as three ounces of stout and three ounces of Champagne in a flute is also displayed as a 50% brown, 50% tan circle—have the virtue of displaying a calorie count, 96 in this case. While most of the recipes are classic, some are perhaps more “app-propos.” His rendition of a Ramos Gin Fizz uses egg white powder and makes no mention of orange flower water, its characteristic flavoring. And while Murphy feels the need to explain what a blender does, he doesn’t define many of the additional ingredients, such as orgeat syrup or orange bitters, that may be less familiar to newbies. Still, the lively presentation is likely to help wean the junior “Mad Men” off chocolate martinis—a worthy cause.