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The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook ()

Food, Glorious Food: Three Books with Bite

by Betsy Block
Jun 30, 2008

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An Omelette and a Glass of Wine Alice Let's Eat Bite, primary image Betsy Block

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"Three Books ..." is a new series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

For years I thought the only way to indulge in my favorite pleasure — food — was to eat it. Then I discovered food writing and found a way to have my cake without sneaking even one bite. Here's the recipe:

Take great writing, fold in luscious descriptions of anything edible, and voila. Plus, food writing is not only satisfying, it's also calorie-free — a definite plus in bathing-suit season. A glass of lemonade, my hammock and one of these three books lets me savor page after tantalizing page without so much as stepping foot in a hot kitchen.

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'The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, by Alice B. Toklas, paperback, 304 pages

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is about love, too, although a less trumpeted one, between Toklas and Gertrude Stein. It's also a history lesson about living through two world wars. The lively prose makes even wartime rationing sound enticing: When the women can't get meat, fish, butter, eggs or milk, Toklas ends up keeping crawfish at home; once draped in a butterless Bordelaise sauce, they become the star attraction at literary lunch parties.

But it's the chapter called "Murder in the Kitchen" that won my heart forever. Who wouldn't fall in love with a book that contains scenes of a carp being smashed on a dock, slammed with a mallet and finally, slashed with a knife before the killer collapses on a chair to recuperate, smoking what must have been a black-market cigarette.

These three books with bite keep me away from the stove and out of the heat. Let someone else slice, dice, chop and whack this summer. Nothing could be cooler than that.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

'An Omelette and a Glass of Wine'

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David, paperback, 320 pages

To me, Elizabeth David is the M.F.K. Fisher of Britain — another literary lioness who loves playing with language as much as food. I'm thinking of chapter titles such as "Syllabubs and Fruit Fools" or "Pleasing Cheeses." This is a woman who helped put the narrative into food writing. Some say her work seems dated, but to me, that's part of her charm.

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine was published mid-century — and there were food Nazis then, too. We're treated to David's refreshingly scathing voice when she mocks a man who was outraged by a recipe for lobster: It had "scandalously" been set ablaze in whiskey when everyone knows that cognac is the correct spirit to use. She follows this story with a recipe for lobster sauce using a dash of anisette. It sounds divine.

'Alice, Let's Eat'

Alice, Let's Eat, by Calvin Trillin, paperback, 192 pages

Calvin Trillin is refreshing and uproariously funny as he writes about his quest for sustenance in Alice, Let's Eat. Trillin's tastes lean toward low country rather than hifalutin — think Creole calalou, fried oysters and a side of spicy greens — but mostly he just likes "more, please," which is probably why his wife, Alice, tells him he needs to go on a diet right before he heads out to eat at his favorite soul-food restaurant.

One of my favorite things about Trillin — in addition to his everyman persona — is his adoration of his wife. She is both the book's straight man and its heroine, busily keeping her gourmand husband in check.

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