I haven't seen any "Best Holiday Food Gifts for 2014" lists out there in cyberland, have you? And don't you think it's crazy that nobody has put together a rundown of the greatest cookbooks of the year? Have no fear, I have you covered with a prodigiously researched, 175% evidence-based, breathlessly peer reviewed Top 15 list of holiday gifts for the voracious food freak in your life. Special thanks to Abby Ruettgers of the great cookbook and kitchen store Farm and Fable in Boston for her expert advice on this list. In no particular order, here goes:
Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry (W.W. Norton & Company): I don't throw around this characterization lightly, but Cathy Barrow, the blogger and author better known as Mrs. Wheelbarrow, changed my life. Without her Washington Post Charcutepalooza project in 2010, which brought together hundreds of adventurous cooks and bloggers to try their hand at home curing meats, I might never have tried my hand at food writing and enjoyed a whole bunch of adventures as a result. Subtext there is that the curing meat I hung from the ceiling in every corner of my house that year didn't scare my then-girlfriend away, which was just another proof point that I needed to marry her (I eventually did). Just as important, I might never have found a good way to embrace the ethos of homemade, handmade food preparation and preservation that Barrow espouses in Practical Pantry. From garden to jar, Barrow shows that pickling and preserving are nothing to be afraid of, unless delicious food and the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the plot or farmers' market year-round terrify you. The book contains wonderfully written overviews of the science behind preservation, as well as recipes for every great thing that can be smoked, jarred, cured, or otherwise saved for posterity. It is an absolutely wonderful gift for anyone who cares deeply about food.
Whiskey: Just because the hype has reached hilarious levels doesn't mean you should stop drinking whiskey, does it? Rather than selling your kidney for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, look at the liquor store shelves a bit differently. First, see if good booze stores in your city are buying private label barrels from Four Roses or George Dickel, like my old friends from Schneider's of Capitol Hill in D.C., and selling them for $50 or under. Second, get your hands on mid-range, good for every night bottles like Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage ($25-$35), Wild Turkey 101 Rye ($35-$45), Wathen's Single Barrel ($30-$40), or Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel ($30-$40). Third, splurge a tiny bit on an interesting bottle like Redbreast 12 Irish Whiskey ($50-$60) or Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese Whiskey ($70-$80). Fourth, drink.
The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin Press HC): Dan Barber, the visionary chef and advocate behind Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, pulled together decades of his research, travel, and experimentation for this meticulous monster of a book about how to transform the food landscape. Even with all of Barber's mind-blowing stories on the science of food, technology, and other futuristic approaches, the message seems a bit closer to ground: the practices and products that our ancestors relied on, which got swallowed up by industrial agriculture and mass production, are the blueprint for a healthier, more sustainable future. That message is not without controversy, as Barber admits in his overview of the Green Revolution and related issues like pesticide use, but it's an important one to consider. This is a book for someone who wants to go a step further in their understanding of food, farming, agriculture, and ecology.
Sow Some Seeds: Whatever size or shape domicile you or your loved one live in probably has a spot for planting, so think about gifting a seed catalog this year. Whether you pull the trigger on some packets or not, browsing through the abundant varieties of heirloom herb and vegetable seeds is a fun activity. For my money, the best collections are kept by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, D. Landreth Seed Company, or the Seed Savers Exchange.
Food: A Love Story (Crown Archetype): Comedian Jim Gaffigan's answer for people who ask why he wrote a book about food: "I'm a little fat." If that isn't something a whole bunch of Americans can relate to, I don't know what is. The book is full of hilarious anecdotes, including the one about the guy walking around a Walmart in Indiana drinking a cup of KFC gravy and the story of the stupidity of vegetables.
Spice in Your Haus: As my family has learned, an annual holiday gift card to Penzey's Spices or The Spice House is an easy way to make me as happy as the eight-year- old version of myself getting a big batch of Micro Machines. Most of the spice sellers are carrying much bigger inventories of exotic and international spices than ever before, so it's a great gift that goes a long way.
Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes (Chronicle Books): The highly-anticipated first book from Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, the duo behind Bar Tartine in San Francisco's Mission District, is another great gift for the person in your life who likes to go deep in the kitchen. Just like Cathy Barrow's book above, this one has some amazing pickling recipes, with other highlights including spice mixes and gorgeous vegetable dishes. It's no big surprise that Balla and Burns have built a cult following, and this book will ensure the cult grows.
Japanese Kitchenware: The website of Korin, a venerated Japanese maker of tableware and knives, is candy land for the food obsessed. Everything from high end cutlery to soup bowls and tabletop yakitori grills is available for reasonable prices.
Mallmann on Fire (Artisan): Argentinean chef and gaucho impersonator Francis Mallmann achieved mythic status in gastronomy in part thanks to his amazing first book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, and he has followed it up with a stylish, accessible text recounting his travels around the world barbecuing in different countries and cultures. Co-written with Peter Kaminsky, another food world legend, the book perfectly captures how beautiful and refined "campfire" food can be, while also stunning photography to show how landscape and food are intertwined in a way that no other cookbook I've seen has achieved.
Baking Steel: My pizza game has never been the same since I bought a super-conductive piece of steel, made famous by Nathan Myrhvold in Modernist Cuisine, from Stoughton Steel. Get ready for blister-black, crispy crust that is hard to screw up. The best dough recipes I've found are from Franny's in Brooklyn, Sullivan Street Bakery's "no-knead", and the Roberta's mix.
Mexico: The Cookbook (Phaidon): With its psychedelic pink cover, this mammoth cookbook might cause your coffee table to collapse under pounds and pigment, but there's a lot more substance inside than style. Compiled and edited by respected teacher, chef, and activist Margarita Carrillo Arronte, the book has minimal photos and illustrations, but the majority of the recipes are simple and accessible, making it a great book to use to wow the guests at your next dinner party.
The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food (Ten Speed Press): Charles Phan is a pioneer of Vietnamese food in America and his Slanted Door in San Francisco may be the most famous restaurant of the genre in the country. He came to the cookbook game late, releasing his first, Vietnamese Home Cooking, in 2012. That first book is a bit easier to grasp in your home kitchen, but this latest text is a sophisticated beauty in its own right. I tested the bun rieu (spicy crab and tomato vermicelli soup) recipe and was bowled over by the funk, the fire, and the layers of flavor.
Heritage (Artisan): The first book from Charleston chef Sean Brock caused a sensation, which I wrote about in my blog on The Huffington Post here.
Anova Sous Vide Machine: Admittedly, this one is a bit ambitious and not so cheap, but sous vide technology for the home has gotten so simple that an orangutan could cook you hangar steak.
Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed (Ten Speed Press): Part manifesto, part health text, part recipe collection, this book is an excellent change of pace for the overly carnivorous (me). It's also delivered at just the right time, as diners and chefs are paying more and more attention to inventive and flavorful vegetable dishes. And boy does Terry deliver on that front. The spice mixes, sauces, and vegetable entrees in the book are both simple and packed with character.
GIVE: And finally, if you're in the giving mood, check out the Good Food Org Guide from the James Beard Foundation and Food Tank. The guide includes the names and activities of food-focused nonprofits doing amazing work in every state in America.