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Devouring Books on Food 

A leisurely literary excursion

Lei i libri li divora (she devours books) was the way in which, since I was a child, adults described my relationship with books. Regular bedtime for my brother and me was at 8:30 p.m. Of course, I did not go to sleep that early: I read under cover, literally. When the situation was right, I made a tent with my blankets and read underneath it using a small lamp. Concealment was necessary to avoid detection, which would have occurred had my mother seen the light under my bedroom door. Reading after dinner was my first act of rebellion.

Browsing a bookstore and choosing a book is a pleasure I have been indulging since an early age. Sometimes I know what I want and ask for it, but often I let chance offer suggestions. I love both new books and books that have been around for a while. They provide a different experience when touched, smelled and read.

On a recent visit to Northtown Books in Arcata to purchase a gift, I allow myself to spend some time looking at books on food. Photography has acquired an important place in cookbooks, and makes some of them a feast for the eyes, like A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis, part-time head chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, with photographs by Christopher Hirsheimer. The title reminds me of the summer days of my childhood when a platter of ripe figs denoted the season, and provided one half of combinations like prosciutto with figs and figs with bread.

I see a copy of Food Matters, A Guide to Conscious Eating by Mark Bittman on display and I interpret this fact as a sign of destiny. I enjoy Bittman's New York Times column, The Minimalist, and I am interested in reading more on his ideas on "conscious eating" and how he translates those ideas into the "more than 75 recipes" of the book. Holding a newly purchased book in my hands still gives me the same pleasure I felt as a child, when I asked for books as gifts and would know, by touching the wrapped object and feeling the shape of the spine and the fore edge, that my wish had been granted.

An errand to run in Eureka is an excellent excuse for more book browsing. Inside Eureka Books, I let my eyes wander along the shelves until they make contact with something that sparks my imagination, like Dinner with Tom Jones, Eighteenth-Century Cookery Adapted for the Modern Kitchen, by Lorna J. Sass, a nicely illustrated volume published in 1977. I studied English literature for four years in college (in Italy) and the very first novel we read in my first course was Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, first published in 1749. I disliked the assignment so much (long book, difficult language) that I had erased what I read from my memory; however, it is not good to be angry at such an esteemed book, so I decide to become the owner of Dinner with Tom Jones as a way of making peace with it. I may be making Yorkshire Pudding soon.

On the bottom shelf of the books-on-food section, there are cookbooks produced by organizations. I ask Scott Brown, Eureka Books' co-owner, about their popularity, and, as part of his answer, he shows me the Humboldt County portion of that collection. As an aside, it is a good idea to share your interests with the personnel of the bookstore, so they can direct you to the location where you can find food for your passion.

I smile at the pages of Seafood Cook Book by Commercial Fishermen's Wives of Humboldt, a booklet that includes not only recipes but also methods for handling different types of fish, crab and shrimp, all illustrated with drawings by Joan Figueiredo. A strong act of will allows me to stop browsing (for today) and walk to the front desk to wrap up my expedition.

In a third vignette, I visit Omnivore Books on Food, which opened last November in the San Francisco neighborhood called Noe Valley. At Omnivore, new, antiquarian and collectible books share the shelves.

When faced with a vast assortment of choices, I become subject to a crippling dilemma: too much stimuli, too many bound objects of desire. During my second pass around the store, the title of a small brown volume catches my attention: Movable Feasts. The title page details: A Reconnaissance of the Origins and Consequences of Fluctuations in Meal-Times with special attention to the introduction of Luncheon and Afternoon Tea, by Arnold Palmer. The book was first published in 1952 and the copy in my hands is a reprint from 1953. Starting in college, I have read fiction by authors from Jane Austen to Anthony Trollope to Charles Dickens to Henry James. I noticed the different, and changing, organization of English meals, but never read anything on the subject. Palmer thus introduces the topic of afternoon tea: "The growth of business and businesslike habits [...] was not well received by the stomach. English internal engines, designed for refueling every four and a half hours, begin to labour when asked to run for six hours at a stretch. Once again wives and mothers took the situation in hand and found the remedy. They invented Afternoon Tea." It is difficult to resist the appeal of such witty prose and so the charmer becomes mine.

Among the books on cheese, I single out Cheese Cookery by Helmut Ripperger, published in 1941. I cannot leave a book on the shelf that features "spaghetti al dente con burro," a version of my childhood beloved pasta al burro e parmigiano (see "Table Talk," Jan. 10, 2008). By specifying "al dente" in the recipe title, Ripperger takes a stance against cooking spaghetti "in a fashion which makes an Italian shudder," in favor of "boiled just enough, not too much," so that "its consistency can be felt with the teeth" (a.k.a. al dente).

I finalize my acquisition, then step out into the sunny San Francisco afternoon, step back into standard time and space, a little bewildered at first, as always happens when I come out of a bookstore. I touch the newly purchased food for thought (and reading) stored in my bag and smile to myself. Electronic books? Thanks, but no thanks.

Northtown Books:

Eureka Books:

Omnivore Books on Food:

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Simona Carini

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