1. Pumpkin, by Cindy Ott
The time of year between roughly October 1st and December 1st is pumpkin season on porches and tabletops across the U.S. From jack-o-lanterns to pumpkin pie, we rejoice in the meat, seeds, skin, size, and beauty of the pumpkin. Cindy Ott takes her pumpkin affection a step further in Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. The book traces the pumpkin's history back to its uses in Native American cuisine and follows it through its slow transition onto the plates of early settlers who referred to the fruits as "pompions." Today, as Ott puts it, "The importance of the idea of pumpkin over its substance has completely outweighed the necessity of a [pumpkin-flavored] food's containing even a trace of the vegetable." In other words, pumpkins are so popular nowadays that pumpkin-flavored treats (as we've particularly noticed this season) are almost entirely disconnected from the original shape and taste of the pumpkin itself. If you're interested in sharing dozens of fun facts about pumpkins at your holiday parties this year, Pumpkin is a crucial read.
2. Anything That Moves, by Dana Goodyear
As foodie-ness continues to gain appeal—and simultaneously, backlash against it becomes more vociferous—the boundaries of what constitutes "good food" are being challenged. Dana Goodyear became interested in looking at how chefs, eaters, distributors, and farmers are navigating an increasingly daring food culture in the United States. In Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Cultures, she checks in with folks whose culinary mission is to expand the palate of American cuisine. From raw milk to bugs (spider sushi, anyone?), Goodyear tastes and tests with the most daring eaters she can find. The results are entertaining—provided you have a strong stomach.
3. Soul Food, by Adrian Miller
"What comes to mind when you hear the words 'soul food'?," asks Adrian Miller in the preface to his new book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. He posits that many folks think of fried chicken, boiled vegetables, lard, and other unappealing or unhealthy stereotypes of southern cuisine. Soul food has often been used as a scapegoat for poor health in black communities, which Miller argues is an incomplete and unfair picture of the reality of the black American diet. In Soul Food, he provides a compelling look at how soul food came to be and how its definition and perception has changed over time. Plus, he includes a few great recipes so you can try your hand at some lesser-known soul food classics.
4. Best Food Writing 2013, edited by Holly Hughes
I always look forward to the latest installation in the Best Food Writing series, edited by Holly Hughes. The anthologies always feature excellent essays on a variety of topics, from a meditation on seasonal eating to a rediscovery of a classic gingerbread cookie recipe. One of the stand-outs from this year's collection is written by our own J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, titled "How to Make Real New England Clam Chowder." Another of my favorites was Sarah DiGregorio's short, incredibly touching "When There Was Nothing Left to Do, I Fed Her Ice Cream," an intimate memory of feeding her mother Hoodsie Cups as she lay in a hospital bed. There are dozens more enjoyable pieces in this year's edition.
5. San Francisco, A Food Biography by Erica J. Peters
As a recent New York City-to-San Francisco transplant, much of SF's food history is as foreign to me as the local affinity for waiting on line (in line?). Luckily Erica J. Peters lays it all out in San Francisco: A Food Biography. The book covers the origination and growth of San Francisco, and details how the city became a foodie hotspot. My favorite section pertains to immigration patterns and how newcomers introduced their cuisines to American palates. Today's San Francisco provides a vast spread of culinary options—check out Peters' book if you'd like to find out the history of Ghirardelli chocolate, Mitchell's ice cream, and more of the city's staples.