May 17, 2006
Summer reading

As food editor at The Bee, I get an average two to four books a day – cookbooks, wine books, food anthologies and the like. A few get added to our library at The Bee. Some get reviewed in Wednesday’s Taste section. Most get donated to libraries and benefit auctions.

Right now, 30 new books are stacked on and about my desk as I ponder what to do with them. They include a cookbook by Meredith Brokaw, wife of retired NBC-TV newsman Tom Brokaw, about how they eat and entertain at their Montana ranch (“Big Sky Cooking,” Artisan, $35, 224 pages). I don’t know if we’ll review that one, though I do look forward to testing the recipe for “Tom’s sunset margaritas.”

Big Oyster.JPGMark Kurlansky, who has a knack for making fascinating copy out of ordinary culinary topics – his earlier works include “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “Salt: A World History” – is back with “The Big Oyster” (Ballantine, $23.95, 307 pages), an historical survey of the development of New York City as seen through its oyster culture.

I really don’t understand much of the art of Ralph Steadman, but I do appreciate how the wine labels he does for Bonny Doon Vineyards leap out grotesquely from store shelves. Steadman is a wine enthusiast, and he’s now out with his second book on his travels through the world’s wine regions, “Untrodden Grapes” (Harcourt, $35, 246 pages), in which he alternates his wild art with essays on the wines, customs and people he meets on his treks.

And speaking of Ralph Steadman, the label he did for Bonny Doon’s Cardinal Zin zinfandel is one of more than 100 strangely diverting labels that collector Peter May has assembled in the oddest wine book of the year, so far. His “Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World” (Quirk, $16.95, 256 pages) not only is a gallery of provocative wine labels but the stories behind them, along with tasting notes on the wines within the bottle. The Marilyn Merlot of the title refers to a series of California wines, while Naked Grape is a range of French wines. More controversial labels include an Italian wine with a portrait of Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini; wines called Rude Boy and Rude Girl, whose labels are printed with temperature sensitive ink that fades away at certain temperatures, stripping him of his shorts, she of her dress; and an Australian semillon whose bare-breasted Queen of Clubs couldn’t be exported to the United States until artist Anelia Pavlova tastefully covered the subject’s chest.

The Smithsonian Institution has sent along uncorrected proofs for a book almost certain to become a best seller during the year-end holidays – “How to Feed an Army: Recipes and Lore from the Front Lines” by J.G. Lewin and P.J. Huff (Smithsonian, $15.95, 192 pages). Recipes from the Revolutionary War (hoe cakes) to Operation Iraqi Freedom (“zesty rotini pasta salad...a nice picnic or barbecue dish”) are among the more than 100 dishes in the book. There’s slow-roasted rabbit from the War of 1812, pineapple chicken from the Vietnam War, and chop suey hash from World War I. Most recipes are presented in two formats – one “for an army of 100” and one “for an army of 10.” The book is to be published in August.

Food books can be artistic, sentimental, inspiring and helpful, but rarely are they funny, unless they’re written by Robb Walsh or Calvin Trillin. Wendy McClure, however, is more humorist than cook, and as she helped her parents clean out their basement a few years ago she came across a plastic file box filled with Weight Watchers recipe cards from the 1970s. She recognized them right away as the raw ingredients for an outrageously funny food book. And now it’s been published, “The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s” (Riverhead Books, $12.95, 121 pages). You can’t cook from this book but you sure can laugh. All she’s done is reproduce the front of each card, then jotted alongside her witty take. Here’s the card for Swiss stew, a casserole of indeterminate red meat and green peas, and McClure’s aside: “Um, Heidi? I have some bad news. It’s about your goats.” Here’s the card for “perfect pizza lunch,” and McClure’s quip: “It’s provolone on tomato puree on white bread, which makes it neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘pizza.’ And I bet you could lose the ‘lunch’ part, too. Literally.”

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