Summer reading for me this year has a common theme: food. When I left on a week's vacation, I had four books started with no end in sight.
I started reading Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (Broadway Books, $23.95) after I sat next to the author at a luncheon in Philadelphia. Inspired by the travels of her grandparents to Japan, she spent a year in Kyoto, Japan, studying tea kaiseki, the cooking that accompanies the formal Japanese tea ceremony.
Although she observed the choreographed rituals of this culinary discipline, she also explored modern Japanese food. She describes in great detail her visits to Japanese restaurants, specialty shops, and supermarkets. She learned how to conduct herself in public from buying a drink from a vending machine to wiping her hands with the moist washcloth in a Japanese restaurant. Studying tea kaiseki had impacted her life by teaching her patience. For anyone working, living, or traveling in Japan, this could be a handy book.
Meanwhile, I was reading Julia Child: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prudhomme (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95). The author, who was married to Paul Child, died in 2004. Co-author Alex Prudhomme is Paul Child's grandnephew. The memoir details Mrs. Child's years as a budding chef. In 1948, newly wed, she moved to Paris with her diplomat husband whom she had met while on wartime duty for the OSS in Asia.
The couple's contemporaries in Paris included Bumby Hemingway who married Byra "Puck" Whitlock; Julia Child was the matron of honor. Bumby was Jack Hemingway, son of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Hemingway Mowrer. The Childs spent their first Thanksgiving in Paris at a cocktail party at Paul and Hadley Mowrer's apartment.
Mrs. Child, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, writes: "When I wasn't at school, I was experimenting at home and became a bit of Mad Scientist. I did hours of research on mayonnaise." She recounts the 10 years it took her to collaborate with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to fruition in 1961. Adapting French recipes for the American cook, testing recipes, finding a publisher, compressing the cookbook to 732 pages, and working with editors was formidable.
The Japanese tea ceremony and Julia Child's research on mayo are a far cry from Mario Batali.
But there I was with a third book - Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95). Heat is the chronicle of Buford, an author by trade, as he trained at Batali's three-star New York restaurant Babbo. The book is about Buford's kitchen adventure and Batali's rise to culinary fame interspersed with the intricacies of food from handmade Italian pasta to what constitutes short ribs.
Upon returning, I am still winding my way through What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating by Marion Nestle (North Point Press, $30). Award-winning nutritionist Ms. Nestle has been a champion of food-industry reform.
Being an informed consumer is no easy matter with today's food industry. There are so many choices; for example, Ms. Nestle writes about milk, dairy foods (raw and cooked), and yogurt. She also tackles dairy substitutes like margarine and soy milk. The fish counter has a plethora of issues from methylmercury, fish-farming, fish-labeling, and safety and sustainability. She covers them all.