I enjoy reading cookbooks cover to cover but once in a while it's nice to read something with more character development and less volume measurements and oven temperatures. Thankfully, switching from a recipe to a novel doesn't mean you have to stop thinking about food because there are a ton of great food-centric books out there.
These five books aren't the be-all end-all of foodie books, they're just the ones that I'm most likely to pull out of my collection again and again (I'm a chronic re-re-re-reader of books) and force upon my loved ones.
So in no particular order here are the top five foodie books from my non-cookbook book collection:
When I first bought this book the lady who rang it in for me told me that it was the only book that her book club was able to unanimously agree was amazing. Since then I've read it at least five times and I know I'll be picking it up again soon. You follow Fuchsia as she arrives in China as a student and first begins to learn about Chinese food culture. Her story spans many years as she eats her way through the different regions and her descriptions are vivid and mouth watering. The story explores the cultural differences not only between Western and Chinese food and customs but between the regions within China. Fuchia starts out eating everything that is put in front of her in the name of adventure but ultimately continues to eat those foods out of enjoyment as her personal tastes begin to aline with Chinese culture. She is the first Westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, she dines with dignitaries and street vendors alike, and she watches in horror alongside her Chinese friends as some regions of China become horrifically polluted and the food tainted. You end up craving dishes and flavors that you have never tried before and mourning the loss of cities in regions that you've never visited.
Toast is the story of Nigel's childhood told in proper foodie fashion with each incident and memory strongly connected to food. Nigel has a lot of nostalgia surrounding the English brands of food and candy of his childhood and he paints a clear picture of day to day life in 1960's suburban England. As he grows up he seeks refuge from his family troubles in cooking and by working in kitchens. His book documents all of his firsts: love, loss, and (of course) fine dining experiences. It's written in a way that makes you want to read parts (or all..) of it out loud to someone else so that they can enjoy it too.
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and this book is well researched, well documented, and amazingly well written. I wasn't sure what to expect when I bought it because I just randomly grabbed it so that I'd have something to read on the plane. What I discovered was a wealth of information about where our food comes from, why food labels say the things they do, and why we eat what we eat. The book is organized as if you are walking through the aisles of a grocery store, addressing each aisle and food group in turn. She covers nutrition, marketing, manufacturing, and much much more. I found the information about food lobbyists incredibly interesting especially when she goes into specific case details.
The best part of this book is that she isn't trying to sway you one way or the other (aside from the usual "we should eat in moderation") so the book doesn't preach but instead just presents you with interest fact after interesting fact about how the food gets to your table, why you might have chosen it, and which farmer or lobbying group has a vested interest in your purchase.
Can I even say anything about this book that hasn't been said before? It's a foodie bookshelf staple that will fascinate and horrify you as you follow Anthony in his (mis)adventures in the often skeezy culinary kitchen world. Drugs, sex, and food..food...food all described in such a way that you can almost hear Anthony's voice telling you the stories. I have to admit that I have a favorite chapter which I will read if I don't have time to read a whole book: Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown. I'm a sucker for anything about baking bread and it doesn't hurt that Adam is one of the most bizarre characters in the book (which is saying a lot). I enjoy Bourdain's other books but Kitchen Confidential blows the rest out of the water.
This book shouldn't really count because only the first half is a narrative and the second half is recipes. I'm including it anyways because:
A) Peter Reinhart is the god of bread (and bread books) so I'm already biased towards anything that he might publish
B) Everybody loves pizza
Rienhart begins his search for the perfect pizza with a trip across Italy with his wife and they visit all the recommend pizza places possible before they return to America. One thing that I really enjoy about Rienhart's books is that he respects and admires the European baking traditions but also gives a lot of much-due credit to North American bakers and the current revolution that is happening as bread bakers continue to experiment with bread making techniques to produce distinct and innovative breads. American Pie is no exception and after Reinhart returns from Italy he spends an entire year in the company of other pizza hunters traveling to all the popular pizzerias across America. He is up front about his personal taste preferences but also travels and eats with pizza lovers with different ideals so you get a number of opinions about each pizza place.
The second half of the book consists of recipes for pizza dough, sauce, and toppings written in the typical Reinhart manner with lots of technique instructions and variations for each recipe. If you're buying this book for the recipes I really wouldn't skip the story because gives a bit of history and explanation for why he chose the recipes that he did. Plus why miss the chance to read more about food?