What does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.
In my book group, we start by eating dinner, catching up, and then we turn to our discussion. Our suppers are pot lucks, and despite no planning, they’re always delicious: someone made a soufflé for our discussion of Madame Bovary; another member brought panacotta one hot summer night. Eating is not only a wonderful way to bond, but also to be exposed to new tastes and cultures. And over the years I have learned that books about food are just as satisfying.
Take Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. Hamilton is the chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Prune here in New York and her memoir reveals that she is as adept with a pen as she is with a skillet. She traces the path she took from a teenager who loved helping her father roast whole lambs over a spit to the kitchens of prize-winning (as well as unknown chefs) in France, Greece, and Turkey, where she learned about both cooking and hospitality; and to working side by side with her Italian mother-in-law in Italy, where love of food is their bond and shared language. What emerges is the portrait of a woman finding her way with her family, in her profession, and on the page. It’s almost as if Mary Karr had the chops of a chef or Anthony Bourdain had penned a powerful family story.
One of my favorite “foodie” books is Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef. He takes you to the Culinary Institute of America where he observes the rigorous certified master chef exam; my heart raced as the clock ticks away as several chefs compete over the course of ten days. Later, Ruhlman works at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, and we see a professional restaurant kitchen working at full throttle, creating and perfecting the dishes that rocketed Keller to the very pinnacle of his field. It’s a gripping—dare I say thrilling—read as he shows the emotional grit and epicurean talent needed to reach the top of America’s culinary world.
Over the course of three books, Ruth Reichl has chronicled her life in connection to food. Starting with Tender at the Bone, she explores her childhood when she discovered “food could be a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.” This remains a constant during her years as a chef and food critic, which she also writes about in Comfort Me with Apples and in Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl’s memoirs are spiced with humor, warmth, great portraits of chefs and the meals they create.
What these authors share is the ability to make you walk in their shoes, whether at the stove or in a foreign country. As they orchestrate fabulous meals or navigate personal terrain, I’ve found they make me hungry, wanting to cook, and in that spirit I share Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe for braised chicken legs with shallots and vinegar from her new House Beautiful column. I think I’ll try it for my next book club meeting!