David Kamp author of the definitive, not to mention best-selling, account of Americas metamorphosis into a nation of gourmands, The United States of Arugula must like us. Why else would he share an eloquently annotated list of his favorite books relating to New York food history? Okay, it may be that hes an overachiever, spilling with knowledge. Either way, we welcome his voice here on Grub Street.
Washington Square, Henry James (1880), and The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)
These arent explicitly food books, but I love the glimpses that Jamess and Whartons novels afford of New York eating habits, high and low, in the nineteenth century. In Washington Square, the busybody spinster aunt of the heroine, Mrs. Penniman, thinks it electrifyingly transgressive to meet up with her nieces forbidden lover at an oyster saloon in the Seventh Avenue, kept by a Negro. (Living in Greenwich Village as I do, I wish there were still oyster saloons on Seventh Avenue, Negro-owned or otherwise.) The Age of Innocence, set mostly in the 1870s, gives us the dowager Mrs. Manson Mingott, rendered as vast and august as a natural phenomenon by an adulthood devoted to nonstop Gilded Age banqueteering. Whartons gala meal scenes always seem to involve terrapin and canvasback duck two species that were nearly rendered extinct by the piggy Mrs. Mingotts of the world.
Dining at the Pavillon, Joseph Wechsberg (1962)
This is basically a light biography of Henri Soul, the penguin-shaped Frenchman who presided over the dining facilities of the French Pavilion of the 39-40 Worlds Fair in Flushing and parlayed that experience into opening Le Pavillon the restaurant that birthed a dozen more Le and La French places and catalyzed New Yorks emergence as a serious fine-dining city. Wechsberg was a New Yorker writer and epicure who had the foresight or maybe just the nose for a good story to capture Soul in all his Monty Pythonesque imperiousness before he croaked. Which, four years after this book was published, he did.
Bite, Gael Greene (1971)
Out of print but easy to find. I prefer this to Insatiable, Greenes tell-all memoir from last year. Its Gael in the moment, a collection of her early pieces from New York and the old Herald Tribune, when she first found her voice as a female Austin Powers who happens to love food as much as shagging. She finds the plentitude of Zabars erotic (!), cites a restaurant called Le Madrigal as the ideal extra-marital retreat of summer Manhattan, and is wowed by the Zum-Zum wurstbars really impressive range of sausagery. Yeah, Ill bet, baby! Awesome period jacket by Milton Glaser, too.
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain (2000)
Skinny Tonys current ubiquity on TV, bus ads, billboards, book covers, and, occasionally, in the kitchen has obscured what an accomplishment this book was, and how jarringly fresh it was in 2000. For too long, food writing had suffered from a chronic case of the twees. Then, out of nowhere or, more specifically, the so-so Les Halles on Park Avenue South this journeyman chef came along and cut right through all the rapturous-pastoral crap with something sharp, funny, and real. (The new spate of food bloggers owes much of its wiseacre voice to him.) Still, calling Emeril Ewok-like was just low.