The 18 Best Food Books of 2012


Hey, it’s been a pretty good year for food books! Among the hundreds of new cookbooks, essay collections, and food memoirs that we read, here’s a handful that really stood out:

Eat the City, Robin Shulman (Crown)

This lovely essay collection was one of my favorite books of the year: Elegant, fascinating stories about New York’s culinary geography with rich portraits of the people — past and present — who have taken part in its food production. There’s so much depth and information here, but it’s such a pleasure to read.

Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon)

Never mind that the cloth-bound cookbook is full of dreamy half-thoughts and near-impossible-to-produce recipes (involving colostrum, for example). These eccentric recipes and spreads of fairy tale-wilderness photography are the closest many of us will get to dining at Nilsson’s hideaway in Sweden, and it makes for quite a trip.

The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green)

Fermentation in all its forms — pickles, bread, booze — has experienced a kind of revival in professional and home kitchens, and no one has done more to help us understand its history and science than Katz, champion of all things fizzy, moldy, and good. This isn’t just a DIY guide (though it’s a very useful, in depth-DIY guide), it’s also a manifesto.

The Hungry Ear, Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury)

Do poets make good dinner companions? Kevin Young thinks so. Though as Dwight Garner pointed out in his Times review of the book, Young could have explained more about his process when picking the 150-odd poems here, but that doesn’t take too much away from this compact collection. It’s an excellent gift for the literary food lover, and an ideal book to have sitting on your bedside (so the last thing you read before falling asleep can be Adrienne Rich on peeling onions!).

Japanese Farm Food, Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel)

Nancy Singleton was a California girl who fell in love with a six-foot-tall Japanese farmer named Tadaaki Hachisu, married him, and began a new life of collaborative cooking and seasonal farming in Japan. Her cookbook documents the last 23 years with stories and contemporary recipes, rooted in the traditions of the Japanese countryside.

Ripe, A Cook in the Orchard, Nigel Slater (Ten Speed)

Slater is a fantastic writer. There’s something about his descriptions of plums and figs that puts you in the mood to cook and care for people, and to eat. Though this enormous book about the fruit trees and berry bushes in his London back garden was out already in England, the 2012 American Edition (with cup and spoon measurements for the scale-averse!) gets it on this list.

Jerusalem: A Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed)

This cookbook does justice to an exciting, complicated city. Both the authors were born in Jerusalem — one on the Jewish side, the other on the Arab side — and became friends and long-time colleagues later on in London. The writing is honest, the photography is beautiful, and the recipes, like so many of Ottolenghi’s, have an effortless, natural feel.

Dirt Candy: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant, Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey, and Grady Hendrix (Clarkson Potter)
Cohen’s New York restaurant has a sense of humor and a lot of heart when it comes to smart, refined, vegetarian cooking, and her lovely comic-book-style cookbook does too. But this isn’t just a collection of recipes. It’s the story of how Cohen and her team worked extraordinarily hard to launch a successful, tiny, vegetarian restaurant in New York City.

Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny Rosenstrach (Ecco)

With Rosenstrach’s food, it’s less porn and more pragmatism. The author has been keeping a food diary for the last 14 years, writing down everything she makes with and for her family. Here are those notes with the recipes. Though the book centers on the ritual of the family meal, and the importance of sitting down together to dinner, Rosenstrach doesn’t edge into food-scold territory.

Lucky Peach (McSweeney’s)

We know this isn’t a book, but this quarterly food journal has been consistently delivering some of the most exciting food writing, interviews, and design all year long. And it’s the kind of magazine you actually want to read from cover to cover, you know, like a book. If you don’t already have a subscription, consider one for 2013.

The Mile End Cookbook, Noah and Rae Bernamoff (Clarkson Potter)

Mile End Deli is of my favorite places to eat in the city and their modern, Jewish-American cooking defines what New York food culture is getting up to right now. This rich, slim cookbook tells the story of how Mile End came to be, offering recipes for the deli fundamentals, like smoked meat and pickles, but also for everyday home cooking and holiday specials.

Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy, Kate Hopkins

A smart, rambling meditation on the history of candy that dips a little into the food memoir genre without feeling formulaic or turning into a confection: Hopkins also explores the darker side of the sugar industry, initially supported by slavery, and reports on how corporate candy-manufacturers work now. She is the food blogger behind The Accidental Hedonist and covers a lot of ground here.

Canal House Cooks Every Day, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer

Hamilton and Hirsheimer do things their own way, producing all their own writing, recipes, photography, and design for Canal House Cooking, their magazine. This big, hardcover blockbuster is probably one of the dreamiest cookbooks of the year, with recipes for rustic, soulful food and photography. Subscribers to Canal House will find some (though not all) new recipes here.

The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook, Tom Douglas (William Morrow)

These sweet and savory recipes from Dahlia Bakery in Seattle aren’t for fussy, unattainable little pastries, but for the hearty, American stuff like gigantic scones, drizzled with icing, and monstrous eclairs, each one a shaped a little differently than the next. You can totally bake these! (Precision is involved though, like in the recipe for “worth the effort” puff pastry, which encourages a lot of folds and the use of very good butter.)

Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well, Sam Sifton (Random House)

What a wonderful, concise guide to the greatest food holiday of the year. Sifton takes us through the meal’s prep, cooking, and cleanup, which extremely useful tips on when to start drinking, how to set the table, and what to do with leftovers.

Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Naomi Duguid (Artisan)

Duguid’s stories and photos of Burma, which she has been visiting since 1980, are wonderful. The book is a useful introduction for anyone interested in a visit to Burma and can be flipped through like a travelogue, but it’s perhaps more valuable as a collection of well-researched and tested recipes that show us the depth and richness of Burmese food culture.

Vintage Cakes, Julie Richardson (Ten Speed)

Richardson is the owner of a bakery in Portland, Oregon, where she came across a filing cabinet filled with old cake recipes, left by a previous tenant. She began tinkering with these and other recipes from friends and family, eventually putting her research together in this sweet, simple book. The carefully updated classics like the butterscotch-cream roll-up, and the blackberry-chocolate icebox cake, are seriously exciting.

Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, Jesse Griffiths (Welcome Books)

Like many hunters, Griffiths is also a butcher and a cook. Here, he covers doves, boar, deer, and squirrels, among other animals, showing us how to best to find them, and take them apart. The point is, of course, to turn them into something delicious (like venison neck osso buco or smoked catfish terrine). Photography is stunning and a touch graphic — field dressing large animals is hard, dirty work.