The hungry mind

Los Angeles Times

Maybe it was one Rachael Ray cookbook too many, but when a memoir called “Last Chance to Eat” by an author I had never heard of landed on my desk, I picked it up and didn’t stop reading until I had finished two more food books with more writing than recipes.

Since coming up for air, I notice I am not alone in my craving for meat over glitz. Of the last six review copies publishers have sent me, exactly one is credited to a face way too familiar from the Food Network. The others are all serious writers tackling diverse topics with all the attributes you expect in superb cooking: skill, imagination and flair bordering on sorcery.

Even more surprising, these kinds of books are capturing audiences the way Emeril did in the early days of tele-food. “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky, has sold a quarter of a million copies so far. That’s the kind of number you would expect from “Kitchen Confidential,” the Anthony Bourdain expose that some credit with setting publishers off on what amounts to a literary truffle hunt over the last five years. But Kurlansky never posed with a knife on his cover, nor went on to bite heads off bats (or was it snakes?) on TV.

Walk into any bookstore and you’ll see more evidence of this encouraging trend in an age of celebrity. Food books are not just likely to be showcased front and center. They are also titles that could not be further from “365 Ways to Cook Ground Beef” or even its successor, “How to Cook Everything.”

The teaser table of “new nonfiction” at a Borders the other day held a memoir built around baklava, an overview of honey called “Robbing the Bees” and the latest installment in the story of Ruth Reichl, “Garlic and Sapphires” — all arrayed alongside the more predictable books on finance, self-help and celebrity.
At Cook’s Library in Los Angeles, owner Ellen Rose rattles off five titles of “what people are reading” to me, and only two are cookbooks. The others are Alan Richman’s “Fork It Over,” a collection of his witty essays on food; Diane Jacob’s how-to for wannabe Richmans, “Will Write for Food,” and “Poet of the Appetite,” Joan Reardon’s biography of the late MFK Fisher.

But her store carries many, many more choices intended to be savored anywhere but alongside a stove. “There are so many better books being written,” Rose said. Publishers have moved beyond the pedantic, and Fisher, Elizabeth David and A.J. Liebling are no longer seen as the only real writers in food town.
Many of Rose’s customers come in and “want the next ‘Kitchen Confidential,’’’ she says. And by that they don’t mean another chef’s variation on Upton Sinclair’s expose “The Jungle,” but simply a good read that teaches them something about an activity every human engages in, and not just for mere sustenance. No wonder publishers admit they are also looking for another Bourdain, or another Ruth Reichl, whose three memoirs have sold like Big Macs.

Both those authors have acquired larger-than-mortal personas, but no longer is that a requirement. Kurlansky’s first book, “Cod,” has sold 200,000 copies, which would be impressive for a name chef’s cookbook.

Some food books include recipes, but most don’t, which gives them broader interest, thereby yielding them better positioning in bookstores, out of the cookbook cul-de-sac, and potentially more lucrative sales.

Beyond the memoir and the expose, there are many ways serious writers are tackling food, including single-subject histories (“Spice,” “Vanilla”), biographies (“Cooking for Kings,” on Careme; “The Perfectionist,” on Bernard Loiseau, the French chef who killed himself after losing his third Michelin star), overviews of popular phenomena (“Finding Betty Crocker,” “Cook-off”) and, most surprisingly, popular science.

Anyone who wrote off food books as the equivalent of romance novels, with recipes to be read in bed or travel via armchair, should be amazed to see how much interest there is not just in food but in how food works.

Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” was first issued in 1984 and sold so steadily that Scribner published an updated version late last year. Beth Wareham, editor of the revised edition, says 100,000 copies are now in print, after four months. The book has done so well, she says: “We raised the price. By $5.”
McGee’s gift is to make the chemistry, history and context of food so clear and compelling his chapters can be read as easily as a novel. But Ellen Rose said he is also capturing a new and growing audience of young cooks who want not just recipes but real understanding of how cooking works. “It’s really caught on with the young Hollywood actor set,” she says. “A whole slew of 20-somethings want to learn how to cook, and they buy that book.”

Unlike Bourdain and Reichl, McGee is not a food professional, which makes him an even better example of the sea change on the publishing front. Most of the “new” authors are actually nobodies to the Food Mafia, as the tight circle of food writers and professionals in this country is mockingly known. A historian has written the just-issued biography of Alexis Soyer, “The People’s Chef,” while “Finding Betty Crocker” is by a video producer, Susan Marks. Mark Kurlansky, who produced two hits with “Cod” and “Salt” that were written as history, calls himself a “reluctant food writer,” according to Maya Baran, marketing director at his publisher on both books, Walker & Company.

Angela Miller, a literary agent in New York, sums up the shift by saying: “A lot of people who don’t write recipe books have strong feelings about food. We’re seeing more general nonfiction writers who want to write about food.” She adds: “It’s been accepted that food is part of culture,” and, even better, “an intellectual part of culture.”

“I was an editor at Simon & Schuster in the early Eighties when food was looked down on; it was marginal,” Miller says. But once Frances Mayes’s “Under the Tuscan Sun” and Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” struck platinum, she says, editors became much more receptive to food narratives, as she calls them.

Ellen Rose recalls that when she opened her shop 15 years ago, the few serious food books being published were “really intellectual, reference books.” Today big publishers will put publicity muscle behind the right title, books such as Jeffrey Steingarten’s “The Man Who Ate Everything” and Anne Mendelson’s “Stand Facing the Stove,” on the history of “Joy of Cooking.” And the wave shows no sign of peaking.

“Somehow food is being brought into a broader context than what we eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Maya Baran says. “There are undercurrents.” She is busily acquiring biographies of celebrity chefs gone for centuries and “desperately hoping they sell so I can keep acquiring them.”

Jane Dystel, another New York literary agent with a fat roster of cookbook authors, sees another phenomenon at work with recipe-free books. “Two or three years ago I was at an IACP conference where this was a very, very big subject,” she says. “After that everyone goes back and does memoirs instead of cookbooks. I’ve been seeing that over the years in general: I think in general people like to read about people, so if that can be part of learning how to cook . . . .”

No wonder stores are well stocked with not just memoirs of food professionals, including those of Jacques Pépin, longtime restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, British food writer Nigel Slater and restaurateur Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, but also of amateurs out to tell their own stories a bite at a time, as in “Fried Butter” or “The Language of Baklava.” The literary quality is often high enough that they warrant reviews in major publications.

Many of these books will be summer reading for Ellen Rose’s customers. “A lot of people come in and stock up on paperbacks when they’re going on a cruise or off to Europe,” she says. While they’re away, “they can’t cook, so they read.” Others will be recreational reading for empty-nesters: “People who can’t cook anymore want to read.”

And some will be picked up by Food Mafia wannabes, books such as Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte” (fantasy primer for a food writer) and “Soul of a Chef,” Michael Ruhlman’s recounting of his year at the Culinary Institute of America (calling the next Thomas Keller). Rose says Sheraton’s “Eating My Words” sells because “if you want to be a restaurant critic, that is the blueprint.”

But Rose will also be catering to “readers,” the kind who she said are as likely to spend time on “A Meal Observed,” Andrew Todhunter’s exhaustive ruminations on Taillevent in Paris, as on Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” If it were fiction, “A Meal Observed” could not be more writerly.

Todhunter’s previous books were on extreme sports and climbing, which apparently makes him a publisher’s dream. Scribner’s Wareham, for one, sees a big void in food books on science but believes “it’s hard to find a really good writer.”

“When people are going to write about food they adopt this precious, gooey voice,” she says, and also “get too caught up in minutiae.” Cookbook writers trying to write nonfiction, she says, are “like Michael Jordan playing baseball — it doesn’t really translate.”

Too many books, Wareham says, are “recipe headnotes gone bad and gone long.” “Also, there’s a perception that food writing doesn’t have to be very good, and it does. It’s the same standards you judge a novel by.”

Lee Stern, cookbook buyer for Barnes & Noble, notes that many of the books that most exemplify the trend toward recipe-free treatises were not targeted for the food audience.

“Kurlansky’s ‘Cod’ and ‘Salt’ were actually history books,” he says, adding that a forthcoming tome on ice meets the same criterion. To name two other best-sellers Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” was filed under culture and Patricia Volk’s “Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family” shuffled off to memoirs.

“Publishers like to hedge their bets, with seven subjects listed on the cover,” Stern says. “But a book has to be in one place in the store.”

Only when it is first published does it have a shot at a front table, and only when the chain decides it has “wide popular appeal.” No food book will set sales records if its audience is too narrow; everyone wants the equivalent of “Sideways,” the art house movie that hits the multiplex.

“Maybe 50 percent” of all books on food wind up segregated off in the cookbook aisles at Barnes & Noble, Stern says, particularly those that are “restaurant dish-dirt” books, such as Jeremiah Tower’s memoir, or “pure food memoirs — Ruth Reichl’s, Jacques Pépin’s — that are entirely on their life in food and not much else.” Books on “food in a culinary context,” such as the several now out on honey, or Mort Rosenblum’s takes on olives and on chocolate, also wind up there.

But the less obvious books have the best chance at breaking out of the confines of food and hitting the best-seller list. Baran noted that her Carême biography “did not get reviewed in many food publications — general interest media sold that book.”

Both Stern and Wareham cited Julie Powell’s forthcoming book, an outgrowth of her Julie/Julia blog that is due this fall from Little, Brown, as a model for a food narrative. Wareham sees it as a metaphor for dealing with unhappiness in life; Stern says it crossed over so agilely that “we haven’t decided where to go with it.”
“It’s a memoir, but it’s structured around cooking every recipe in ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ he says. “It’s a story and an idea that will have interest that transcends interest in food and food writing.”

“As far as the consumer goes,” Stern says, it doesn’t matter if a book is about food. “If it’s a good book or a good subject, it sells.”