Washington Square, Henry James (1880), and The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)
These aren’t explicitly food books, but I love the glimpses that James’s and Wharton’s 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 niece’s 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. Wharton’s 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 Soulé, the penguin-shaped Frenchman who presided over the dining facilities of the French Pavilion of the ’39-’40 World’s 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 York’s 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 Soulé in all his Monty Python–esque 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, Greene’s tell-all memoir from last year. It’s 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 Zabar’s erotic (!), cites a restaurant called Le Madrigal as the ideal “extra-marital retreat of summer Manhattan,” and is wowed by the Zum-Zum wurstbar’s “really impressive range of sausagery.” Yeah, I’ll bet, baby! Awesome period jacket by Milton Glaser, too.
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain (2000)
Skinny Tony’s 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.