You don't have to be a total food geek to appreciate the many wonderful books written on the art of gastronomy. (Of course, some might argue that using the words "art" and "gastronomy" in a single sentence automatically qualifies you as a food geek). Beyond the ubiquitous, how-to-cook-everything cookbooks, there are beautiful and witty works of prose that all share a common ingredient in our curiosity for the "Meaning of Food" -- that it connects us to those people, places and memories that we care about most. Following is a list of my top five "Books I Would Read Even If I Wasn't A Food Geek."
THE ART OF EATING. M. F. K. Fischer is widely acknowledged as the creator of the genre we now call "food writing." This collection of essays by Mary Frances Kennedy Fischer is more autobiographical and historical than anecdotal. In each story she weaves her love of food and passion for cooking and illustrates our most basic needs of love, food and security through portraits of family members and even some culinary advice to World War II housewives plagued by food shortages.
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF TASTE, OR MEDITATIONS ON TRANSCENDENTAL GASTRONOMY. First published in 1825, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's book is the most civilized discourse on food ever written, and the masterpiece by which most subsequent works are measured. This book offers Brillat-Savarin's witty and elegant meditations on cooking, eating, sleep, dreams, exhaustion and even death (which he defines as "the complete interruption of sensual relations"). His genius is in the examination and discussion of all things food-related; he proclaims: "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star."
A COOK'S TOUR. A chronicle of Chef Anthony Bourdain's travels around the world in search of the perfect meal -- "perfect" having nothing to do with "upscale" or star ratings, but instead the ideal combination of food, atmosphere and company. Immensely entertaining, he takes us on James Bond-ish adventures with attitude and wit -- eating sheep's testicles in Morocco, smoked fish in the frozen Russian countryside, deep-fried Mars Bars in Glasgow, and the still-beating heart of a cobra in Saigon.
THE TUMMY TRILOGY. A three-books-in-one collection of Calvin Trillin's wickedly funny essays written during a 15-year gastronomic journey in search of down-home and authentic cuisine. Not a connoisseur as much as an extremely enthusiastic eater, Trillin conveys with slow-burn, deadpan humor ("I'm here to tell you that compared to a monkfish, the average catfish looks like Robert Redford") his encounters with everything from dangerous bagels to boiled deer penis.
DELIGHTS AND PREJUDICES. I consider this to be James Beard's greatest work: The title alone is so simply delicious. A classic memoir-with-recipes, it chronicles his ascent to fame (beginning with the first TV cooking show, I Love To Eat), his sage observations, likes and dislikes on markets; restaurants; food people (such as his cantankerous food-muse mother), ingredients diverse as the potato and truffle, and meals across the world. It's fascinating to follow how the "Dean of American Cooking" developed his palate and passion.