It wasn't too many years ago when food writing meant, ipso facto, cookbook writing. As food systems have gotten more complicated, as diners become travelers in search of great meals, as many of us get woozily nostalgic for the foodways of our forefathers, food writing is quite literally all over the map. Yes, you could get your favorite foodie one of the hot cookbooks of the moment (Bone Broth Diet, yada yada), but why not lard the tree this year with the kind of delicious food books best enjoyed curled up with a mug of cider and a plate of holiday cookies?
Best Food Writing 2015, edited by Holly Hughes (De Capo Press, $15.99)
This is like a chocolate sampler every year, a potpourri of some of the smartest food writing from the gambit of publications. This year's is especially wonderful, with a number of essays that read like science fiction. Essays are divided into rough categories, the first of which ("The Way We Eat Now") caused me to murmur "whoooaa, no wayyyyyy!" until my spouse threatened defection. There's the science behind Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte, the quest for fake meat with the right "chew," and eggs made in a laboratory that yield a nearly flawless omelet. Further along you'll find aspirational "all of the world's problems could be solved if only we cooked" essays, along with some truly hilarious bits, as in John DeVore's earnest assertion: "The Taco Bell Cool Ranch Doritos taco shell is the most important invention of this century."
Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Guide to Sustainable Meat, by Barry Estabrook (W.W. Norton, $26)
His 2011 bestseller Tomatoland was an absolute knockout: an investigative look at the trials and struggles and collateral damage in bringing decent, flavorful, edible tomatoes to market. Based on his 2010 James Beard Award-winning article in Gourmet magazine, it became a seminal work about the politics of agribusiness. Well, he has done it again. He goes deep to tell the story about how "Big Pig" does it (cut to the chase: it's cringey-awful), but also how raising pigs respectfully can yield happy farmers and animals (and thus, it is posited, tastier meat). So, buy the book, but then for extra style points, slide in a voucher for Estabrook's Food for Thought lecture Jan. 25 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (University Student Center, Sixth Avenue S; 7 p.m.). No one but you needs to know the lecture is free.
A Life of Spice, by Monica Bhide (self-published, $10.99)
I need to preface this one by saying that I was a pupil at one of this engineer-turned-food-writer's coaching sessions a couple of years ago and her savvy, upbeat mentoring was enormously buoying. This book of essays is assembled from pieces on her blog and stories she has written for national and international magazines, covering a range of topics — culture, family, love, identity, faith and writing — all of it liberally interspersed with short profiles of common spices like sage and fennel. Much of it funny and poignant, Bhide's sixth book paints pictures of her relationship with her two sons, tells the tale of her father's escape from Multan during the Partition of India, and reveals every cook's insecurities in essays like "Why We Are Afraid to Cook," a tale of the terror of making pad Thai.
Cocktail Noir, by Scott Deitche (Reservoir Square Books, $24)
This is a homegrown effort, Deitche a mob aficionado who hails from the mean streets of St. Petersburg. An appealing little square book, it would make a perfect accompaniment to the gift of a great bottle of hooch. There are chapters that are practical ("The Well-Stocked Home Bar"), but much of it chronicles the bars and the drinks of famous wise guys, both real and fictional. Fun fact: Real-life gangsters and straws? Fuggedaboutit, too girly. You'll learn where to road-trip to toast the famous gangster bars (locally, that would be the Columbia Restaurant, Castaways and the Dream Bar on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa), what Raymond Chandler kept in his desk drawer and how to make Lucky Luciano's preferred Manhattan (well, by way of Boardwalk Empire).
300 Sandwiches: A Multilayered Love Story . . . with Recipes, by Stephanie Smith (Zinc Ink, $26)
Much has been made of Ruth Reichl's new My Kitchen Year, the story of holing up to lick her wounds after Gourmet magazine shut its doors in 2009, but I've had enough of her tell-all style. For a fun food memoir, pick up this sandwich saga. Smith made her boyfriend a turkey and Swiss on white bread and then he jokingly intoned, "Honey, you're, like, 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring." Game on. The ensuing blog stirred the waters in feminist circles. ("He can make his own dang sandwiches!" — in fact, her boyfriend was dubbed "the worst boyfriend on the Internet" by bloggers, and that's saying something.) But far from being Stepford Wifey, Smith's journey is a funny, meaningful one. Plus, there are a lot of good sandwiches involved.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.