my favorite food reads, julia child's life in france, and the 'how not to cookbook'

i love reading food books. i love personal accounts and memoirs by famous chefs and food critics, and especially by ambitious, funny, and self-deprecating amateurs that just love food. i love food-related non-fiction like works on the history of salt or the changing role of sushi in america or how cooking made us human. i love books on sustainable eating and real food and what organic really means. and of course, i love cookbooks. i have a few cookbooks on my bedside table – not primarily to read the recipes, although i do sometimes and they make me very hungry – but because my favorite cookbooks are full of juicy anecdotes and back stories and useful tips like how to spit roast a salmon or build your own grill out of a trash can (okay, that’s a very specific cookbook).

to share some of these favorites, i’ve started a page of good food books including all these different categories, which you can find under ‘food reads’ on the side of the blog.  i was inspired to create a dedicated book page because of two recent book encounters i want to share: my life in france by julia child and the how not to cookbook project by aleksandra mir.

warning: there’s a lot of writing coming up, but you’re only going to click  if you like reading in the first place, right?

book #1: my life in france.

i was reminded of this book, one of the two which inspired the movie ‘julie & julia’, after julia-child-my-life-in-franceseeing the film last week at an early screening held by the publishers.  i had already read and loved the story of how julia child, an awkwardly tall american who could barely chop an onion, became Julia Child, master of the art of french cooking, television cooking star, and beloved gastronomic icon.  it was actually the first book i read when i moved to london and julia’s joyously entertaining and endearingly human tales of food and life from paris to marseilles to oslo to germany and all the way back to cambridge, massachusetts helped me feel just a little bit better about finding myself in a brand new country knowing practically no one.  it’s fascinating reading about her first bites of a life-transforming sole meuniere, her trials and tribulations at Le Cordon Bleu, her tireless and unyielding dedication to her magnum opus of a cookbook, and especially her moving and inspiring relationship with her husband, paul child. these are also some of the best parts of the movie thanks to a stunning acting performance by a spot-on meryl streep. shockingly tall and seriously poufy-haired, streep whoops and trills her way from a brand new parisian resident with practically no cooking experience but a passion for eating on to the celebrated cookbook author years later with a genuinely warm and amazing portrayal of child’s distinctive voice and mannerisms.  i’d love to watch an entire movie based on just this book; honestly, i could have done without the whole julie powell side, although it’s interesting to consider how her experience has influenced the world of food blogging.  if you love food, read the book and go see the movie just for julia child’s story and for meryl streep. oh, and go for the butter. butter plays a starring role too. and chocolate. and boeuf bourgignon. you’ll be very hungry afterwards, i promise.

book #2: the how not to cookbook.

i found out about this hilarious, giggle-inciting, belly-laugh-inducing, wise, and hownottocookbookwonderful cookbook/art project on a great blog called edible geography via my equally wonderful cousin lexi.  the cookbook is a compilation of 1000 bits of cooking wisdom gained from cooking disasters submitted by real people from around the world, compiled by aleksandra mir. not only is this a fantastic idea, but it’s publicly funded and free to download! i kid you not.

i spent a good portion of last night erupting with spits and screams of laughter while poring over the submissions, split into helpful and highly entertaining categories like ‘bread,’ ‘family,’ ‘dating,’ and ‘burns.’  i quite literally rolled on the floor giggling, although to be honest i was already lying on the floor.

some quotes are ridiculous. some are actually quite useful. some are meaningful, some are incredibly simple, some i don’t agree with at all. as a whole, it’s an incredible display of collective thought, humor and wisdom for the kitchen and even sometimes for life in general. here are some of my absolute favorites:

‘When baking a rich and fruity Guinness Cake for its allocated 2 hours, do not forget to check the oven’s settings. Make sure the setting is on oven rather than grill—this will save you having to evacuate the hotel.’ (this is good solid advice although it might be more relevant if i had a hotel)

It may seem macho to use a hand-whisk in place of an electric whisk. Do not be tempted, especially when the recipe says to whisk for fifteen minutes. She will not be impressed and you will look like a fool.’ (i can just imagine the poor guy whisking for a good hour while his date looks on scornfully from across the kitchen)

When baking a turkey, do not forget to take out the bag of innards. It is not an appetizing treasure to find on Thanksgiving.’ (i love this person for using the phrase ‘appetizing treasure’)

‘Do not be a cookbook slave. Trust your imagination, and never think ingredients to be irreplaceable.’

and

‘Do not follow recipes, unless for cakes. Experiment and learn by trial and error. You will love them like your own. And maybe others will too.’ (i’m a big fan of those two. couldn’t agree more)

‘When heating a croissant in the microwave, if you have left it in too long and it has gone hard, do not assume that another 3 minutes will sort it out. It will not and the fire brigade prefers toast anyway.’ (so helpful!)

‘Oh my God, never confuse plastic food trays with cookie sheets! Baking casualty!’ (i don’t even want to know what that oven looked like afterwards)

‘Do not put hot beverages near your hard drive or else you might have to replace your hard drive.’ (wisdom we should all keep in mind)

Do not store cookbooks in the oven.’ (i am curious as to the story behind this one)

‘Do not just crack a raw egg into a bowl of semi-hot vegetables and rice and hope that it will cook up and taste like bibimbap in a hot stone bowl. It is simply not possible.’

and

‘Do not use a plastic spoon to stir cheese sauce. It can melt and sometimes people do not notice until after they have eaten it.’ (both very helpful, and both things we might never ever discover on our own)


‘Do not surrender to any dish you are cooking. If something fails, do your best to rescue it.’
(i like this as a war cry of the kitchen)

‘Do not think that it is impossible to burn the house down making a salad. Do not put an egg on to boil and go out into the garden to pick some vegetables, accidentally locking yourself out. Do not assume that others will be back before dinner and then decide to go to the library for a couple of hours, consequently forgetting about the egg. Do assume when you come back a few hours later you may find a fire engine and clouds of blue smoke bellowing from the house, and a pan that has boiled dry and melted. Avoid salad.’ (AMAZING)


and last but certainly not least: ‘Do not scare your Haggis immediately prior to preparation. Frightened Haggii develop goose bumps with small clumps of acidic residue underneath, which in turn reacts on contact with Neeps. The reaction knackers your sauce, leading to the dreaded ‘Sassenach’ situation. ‘ (i’m…speechless. did i mention this book was commissioned in scotland?)

if i could have submitted my own advice, it would have read something like this: ‘Do not make a baking soda and vinegar volcano and then decide to turn it into cookies. Adding green food coloring, several cups of sugar, and rainbow sprinkles will not all of a sudden make this combination into a delicious dessert.’

i could cut and paste about 990 more, but i’ll let you go download it for yourself. i promise it’s the most entertaining read you’ll encounter for quite some time…

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