The Gift List: Beer, Cheese, Meat & More
Our picks for the best food books that sport a local connection
by Clare Leschin-Hoar

This year may have been a tough one for the environment (hello, oil spill!) and the economy (recession hangover, anyone?), but there’s still a bright spot worth beaming about, and that’s the array of outstanding books that crossed our nightstands this year. Got an avid reader on your gift list? If so, we’ve got some real gems to share.

Let’s start with two tasty treats that make us ridiculously happy: beer and cheese.

In Great American Craft Beer, Cambridge-based Andy Crouch plays tour guide through our American craft-brewing renaissance. Don’t know your Hefeweizen from your India Pale Ale, a Porter from an Imperial Stout? Crouch introduces you to American masters of malt in what feels a lot like a travel guidebook. Here Crouch guides you by style and flavor, while accompanying you with generous pours of beer history and meaty (yet interesting) explanations of beer styles. Sections devoted to “Mellow and Malty,” “Robust and Rich” and “Heavenly Hoppy” include plenty of photos and labels to identify craft beers, information on the brewers, recommended glassware and valuable notes on whether the brew is available year-round or seasonally. Crouch portends that there’s a beer out there for everyone, and we agree.

List price: $22.95 (or approximately two Pretty Things Jack D’Ors)

Part of what makes Immortal Milk so charming is that this ode to cheese is not written by an industry insider. (Not that we didn’t enjoy Gordon Edgar’s Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, because we did.) Rather, what we savored most was Eric LeMay’s personal journey through fermented, stinky, creamy, aged, washed, crumbled and even sometimes illegal versions of milky goodness.The majority of the book was written while LeMay lived in Cambridge. Words of affection for Formaggio Kitchen (which was the source of inspiration for the book to begin with) or for cheeses like Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog are spread generously. LeMay brings us along on his quest to find out if “terroir taste different when you’re in that terroir” as he heads upMont d’Or with his girlfriend to sample the best Morbier he’s ever had, followed by a gooey, delicious VacherinMont d’Or. The narrative here is personal, insightful and passionate, and we think it will be treasured by any cheese lover on your list.

List price $22 (or less than one pound of Comtè Marcel Petite)

While Crouch and LeMay express passion for beer and cheese, noted journalist Paul Greenberg takes us on a more serious journey in his important book Four Fish. Here Greenberg whittles our voracious appetite for seafood down to four fish that have lengthy and consequential ties to humans: salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. Chapter by chapter, Greenberg keeps us on the line as he examines the complicated history and possible fate of our last wild food. He explains the progression of fish farming, highlights the decimation of magnificent bluefin tuna and guides us through the sea change of once-abundant wild salmon through today’s mammoth-sized hatcheries and industrial hatching facilities. Plenty of facts laid out in the book are grim, but overall, Greenberg’s message is not one of despair. “Never write off the wild ocean. It can always surprise you,” Greenberg says in the epilogue.  If you’re interested in wild fish, this is a captivating story, and we give it a nod as one of the best books we read this year.

List price: $25.95 (or about 2½ pounds of wild Coho salmon)

The massive late-summer egg recall reinforced the uncomfortable but superbly laid-out message in Daniel Imhoff ’s CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, and that is: Size matters when it comes to the treatment of the animals we rely on for food. Imhoff collected the voices of the most important thinkers in our nation’s sustainable food movement, including Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Fred Kirschenmann, Dan Barber, Eric Schlosser and more. Individual chapters examine our relationship with the confinement operations that produce intensively farmed beef, pork, chicken, fish, dairy and eggs. It addresses the environmental and social impact intensive farming has on local communities, and asks us to think about its ugly reflection on our own humanity. To be blunt: This is a monster-sized book of animal monstrosities.  Many of the nearly 400 photographs are deeply dark and disturbing. And while we appreciate the message, we think that “inyour-face” approach isn’t necessary. Instead, we think the smaller-sized paperback version, The CAFO Reader, gets the meaty message across without the heart-wrenching photos and awkward size.

List price: $21.95 (or about 3½ dozen pasture-raised farm-fresh eggs)

Cooking and science are in the throes of a steamy romance here in Boston. This fall, Harvard gathered the likes of Ferran Adria, Jose Andres and others to teach “Science and Cooking” to sell-out crowds.  The geekery continues with long-time Central Square resident Jeff Potter’s excellent book Cooking for Geeks. If you’ve always wanted to know the “why” behind everyday cooking rules, or why your trial and error phase too often ends in error, this book is for you. Sure, it has some pretty good recipes, but what we like best are Potter’s explanations on things like: why cracking an egg on a flat surface is preferable to cracking it on the side of the bowl; the difference between whisking and stirring; the secrets behind chemical leaveners such as baking soda and baking powder. Be still our hearts: He even pulls together a grid of the six flavors—bitter, salty, sour, sweet, umami and hot—and breaks down ingredients by cultures—Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Latin America and Southeast Asian. Who does this?  Someone who embraces and celebrates his inner geekiness and applies it to food. Pass the pocket protector, we’re smitten.

List price: $34.99 (or about the price of a low-end kitchen scale plus a good balloon whisk)

We’re going to boast a little about our own special spot on the bookshelf.  Earlier this year, Edible Communities foundersTracey Ryder and Carole Topalian pulled together their first hardcover, Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods.What we love most about the book is that it’s a collection of touching stories that spotlight real American heroes: our farmers, fishermen, food artisans, chefs and others. It’s more than just a glimpse into how our food travels from where it’s born, hatched, caught or grown to our waiting dinner plates. As Tracey writes, this book celebrates the local food movement through the eyes of those who are so deeply involved and those who have been touched by the Edible publications. Divided by regions, the book opens with our own home space, the Northeast, starting with a close-up look at our city’s beloved Allandale Farm. Chock-full of profiles and vivid photography, Edible nourishes us even further by stocking the back of the book with mouthwatering seasonal recipes.

List price: $29.95 (or about the cost of a one-year subscription to Edible Boston)

It was a given that once New York Times reporter Kim Severson pronounced butchers the indie bands of the culinary world, someone would come along and write a profile book of some of the personalities that give the profession its razor-sharp heft.Marissa Guggiana did just that in the newly released Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s

Best Butchers. Guggiana traveled the country in search those passionate about the art of butchery. Boston’s represented by the spectacular talents of chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa restaurants; chef Robert Grant fromThe Butcher Shop; and butcher Ron Savenor. Each provides a small, thoughtful essay in the book sharing their personal connection to the whole animal. We think the recipes that go along with it are pretty great too, even if we leave the actual making of a pig ear terrine to Bissonnette.

List price: $37.50 (or about 14 pies worth of leaf lard, or grass-finished beef tenderloin carpaccio for six)

Cookbooks written by twoMartha’s Vineyard locals caught our attention too. The first belongs to cooking instructor and private chef CatherineWalthers. Soups + Sides is a follow-up to her previous book, Raising the Salad Bar, and is just as nourishing.Walthers explains flavor enhancers like leeks and Parmesan rinds, and provides recipes that don’t always start with stock. “I try to save homemade stock for the soups that need it the most,” she says. Soups are matched by a side dish: a gorgeous purée of beet soup with barley, watercress, apple and feta salad; or a red lentil soup paired with chickpea burgers with yogurt sauce.

List price: $19.95 (or about the price of two organic chickens)

Like Walthers, Susie Middleton makes us eager for veggies in Fast, Fresh & Green.While you will find recipes that include items like avocados or artichokes, overall the cookbook does a good job in staying true to seasonal, local New England flavors. Our mouths watered plenty at some of Middleton’s combinations, like the vanilla and cardamom–glazed acorn squash rings; or carrots sautéed in olive oil, with garlic, Kalamata olives, fresh mint and toasted almonds; or the Tuscan kale with maple, ginger and pancetta. Middleton’s recipes may keep the ingredient list to a minimum, but that doesn’t mean she shortchanged us on flavor. For anyone who really loves and appreciates their veggies, Middleton’s cookbook is a keeper.

List price: $24.95 (or about the price of five 5-pound bags of organic potatoes)

For the oenophiles on your list, we recommend Jonathon Alsop’s approachable Wine Lover’s Devotional. Alsop is the founder and executive director of the Boston Wine School, and teaches wine classes throughout the city. This is a book that encourages a slow and savoring pace. Designed as a daily minder, each day of the week is assigned a theme: Mondays focus on the language of wine; Tuesdays explore varietals; Fridays spotlight winemakers. Alsop encourages embracing wine and the language that accompanies it without any intimidation.  We liked the recipes with wine pairing suggestions, and regional tutorials.

List price: $19.99 (or about the price of a bottle of delicious California Chardonnay)

Local darling Joanne Chang will lure your sweet-toothed loved ones with her first cookbook, Flour.Mouthwatering recipes for cookies include favorites like homemade Oreos or Black Sesame Lace. Cakes and breads are noteworthy too, but let’s be candid about this: It was the chapter devoted to pies and tarts that made us swoon.Whisper them out loud with us: apple and quince tarte tatin; toasted coconut cream pie; or an ooey-gooey carmel-nut tart. Pass the milk, would ya?While Chang dispenses handy baking tips and sprinkles substitution suggestions throughout the book, what she really teaches us is how to transform everyday ingredients like butter, sugar, eggs and flour into sophisticated, satisfying treats.

List price: $35 (or a little more than a six-inchMidnight Chocolate Cake from Flour Bakery)

Freelance writer Clare Leschin-Hoar is a sucker for a good story. Catch more of her work at www.leschin-hoar.com.

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