Eat, drink and nourish the soul with these 10 inspiring reads.
Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend by Meryl Gordon (Grand Central, 528 pages, $36.50)
Bunny Mellon created the White House Rose Garden for her friend John F. Kennedy. Married to the fifth wealthiest man in the country, the avid gardener wore Balenciaga couture even to dig in the dirt—the designer made her custom gardening togs.
Meryl Gordon, the author of Mrs. Astor Regrets and Phantom of Fifth Avenue (about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark) delves into the daily life of the grand hostess who made Kennedy’s favourite corn soup. The opening meal takes place in August of 1961 as the Kennedys arrive by motorboat from their nearby Cape Cod summer home. Mellon provides the family respite from the Cold War crisis anxiety with a ‘simple picnic’ at her beach house.
She advised Mrs. Kennedy on everything from redecoration to gala dinner planning and dignitary meals. As Mrs Kennedy wrote to Mellon after a White House luncheon for the president of Chile: “Now even de Gaulle would think Versailles a bit tacky if he came for dinner here.”
The Inviting Life by Laura Calder (Appetite, $30)
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to see friends more often, this is the book to read. Grand hosts like Bunny Mellon can no longer flourish in these times, but the gracious one can. “Standout entertaining doesn’t begin with a butler and three-star canapés, but with a state of mind, something that more or less anyone with the will to do so can adopt.”
The bestselling Canadian cookbook author Laura Calder trained at Le Feÿ in France and in this encouraging guide to hosting, discusses the how-to practicalities as well as the philosophy. From figuring out what kind of host personality you are – seated dinner, buffet, canapés/cocktail party – to planning meals and table seating. All of it to maximize enjoyment. And that the nervousness that comes with hosting is a good thing because it suggests we know we’re dealing with something in life that matters.
There are reassuring lessons about what cannot be bought: “imagination, a generous spirit, a genuine interest in other people, a willingness to be vulnerable, and an ability to put people at ease.”
The Wines of Gala by Salvador Dalí (Taschen, 296 pages, $77.95)
This lavish reprint of the Surrealist’s eccentric 1978 manifesto on viticulture is organized not by region but by sensation and effect. A glorious art book for when you’re feeling like the effects of chapter seven: Wines of Generosity.
The Bloomsbury Cookbook (Thames & Hudson, 384 pages, $46)
“A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Food was central to the Bloomsbury set and this extensively researched book gathers biographical anecdotes, paintings and ephemera along with recipes by the hosts and their guests — from ballerina Lydia Lopokova’s sorrel soup to Virginia Woolf’s delectable scones. It’s a dining room of one’s own.
Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 384 pages, $34.95)
Cult following English cook Patience Gray, who died in 2005, is the most influential food writer most of us have never heard of. She lived a wild and provocative life in the Mediterranean, developing her philosophy of cooking and life — eating deliciously along the way.
As an early advocate of foraging, preserving and of slow food, the food writer and author of the 1986 modern classic Honey from a Weed (thank her for making pesto and arugula staples!) was a major influence on Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, who writes the introduction. In tribute, this long overdue biography on the food heroine should live on the shelf alongside Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher and Laurie Colwin.
The Grammar of Spice by Caz Hillebrand (Thames Hudson, 224 pages, $39.95)
This abecedary of the seductive and at times violent history of growing, transporting and acquiring spices pairs each one with an ornamented reproduction of 19th century surface decoration patterns. This is as much a book on design as it is of inspiring flavour.
Unforgettable by Emily Thelin (Grand Central, 336 pages, $45.50)
A biographical cookbook of Paula Wolfert, the indomitable culinary legend who, since 2013, has been public about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Fifty of the food writer’s iconic dishes are mixed in with moving biographical portions, the result of Wolfert spending time with her former Food & Wine editor Emily Thelin.
They used cooking, recipes and flavours as triggers to help retrieve food and life memories (bonus: appendices provide helpful dietary advice and other health tips tailored to dementia). Wolfert had many far-flung and unforgettable culinary adventures: She began as a Greenwich Village Beatnik, then worked under Dione Lucas and James Beard, and spent time in Tangier under the wing of Jane and Paul Bowles exploring her insatiable curiosity about the culture of food and later, popularized Moroccan and Mediterranean cooking in North America.
All that and great recipes for cassoulet à la Toulouse and Balkan ajvar. “Proust had madeleines; Paula Wolfert has eggplants.” A bittersweet cookbook that will make you cry and hungry at the same time.
What She Ate by Laura Shapiro (Viking, 320 pages, $36)
The relationship to food is a lens for considering the life and times of six famous women, while making a meal of culinary biography. For Helen Gurley Brown it’s a torment of self-denial (her problematic body image is internalized misogyny and meant she survived on tuna salad and vitamin pills).
For Rosa Lewis food is nourishment and ambition, whereas Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t initially care about food – her White House was known for its awful meals. This is in part because the official housekeeper was simply a friend of hers who needed a job but wasn’t much of a cook, but Shapiro suggests Roosevelt was also serving up her rage to her philandering husband in the form of food.
The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 272 pages, $32.50)
Literary celebrity Clifton Fadiman was a mainstay on the radio game show Information Place. He also had a passion for collecting wine. His journalist daughter considers the roots of his oenophilia in this absorbing memoir, and a household where grapes were prized as highly as words.
Nobu: A Memoir by Nobu Matsuhisa (Atria, 224 pages, $34)
Nobu Matsuhisa’s memoir is as much about his Japanese cuisine as about the life lessons and entrepreneurship that lead to his Hollywood hotspot restaurants.
Nathalie Atkinson is a Toronto freelance culture writer and film critic; follow her on Twitter at @Nathat and on Instagram at @Jadedjournalista