There are basically two kinds of books: books that you buy for yourself and books that you buy for other people. The latter are often called coffee-table books, but that implies that they are large and lavishly illustrated, which is not always the case. It is neither size nor splendour that distinguishes the first group from the second, but simple practicality.
When it comes to cookbooks, a book meant for giving ought to have a certain measure of frivolousness. You might wrap up a copy of one of the basic bibles, but when it comes time to pull off the paper, your friends would probably be much happier to find one of the following tomes lurking beneath the ribbons.
The Complete Book of Spices by Jill Norman, 160 pages, Viking Books, $21.95.
This is the book I want for Christmas; I can't imagine any really dedicated cook not coveting a copy.
What sets this book off from the other spice compendiums is not only the encyclopedic nature of the information, but also the quality of the color pictures. A page is devoted to each spice, each lavishly illustrated with pictures of the spice in all possible forms--whole, dried, ground, flaked, etc.-- so you really get to see an image of what you are looking at.
If you have a friend who would be curious about anything from ajowan to zedoary--with detours through cubebs and screwpine, this is the book for him. The color is so brilliant that as you rifle through the book you can almost imagine the scent of spices rising up from the pages. It's like a visit to a wonderful spice bazaar--only this one even offers recipes.
The Taste of China by Ken Hom with photographs by Leong Ka Tai, 192 pages, Simon & Schuster, $29.95.
The China of tourists is not the China that real people live in. Tourist China is a land of great halls and endless banquets. Meanwhile the streets teem with people gulping noodles and racing their bicycles through the streets.
Ken Hom's China is the real thing. A man rides a bicycle down the street, wearing a suit with half a pig propped on the back of the bike. A little boy holds a huge, sticky cookie up to the camera. A healer sits on a blanket, his bones and roots and serpents spread before him. Baby ducklings cross a street, hundreds of ducks mill around a Canton market waiting for someone to take them home to dinner, and a young woman drives geese through fields of extraordinary green. Here is China in all its rollicking, crowded, noisy, delicious complexity.
This is the book to give a friend who prefers slurping noodles in a Monterey Park dive to supping upon lobster in a Beverly Hills palace. It is a book for people who love the scent of ginger, garlic and chiles, for people who can't--or won't--go to China right now but are curious about what life is like there. The pictures are enticing, the text is appealing--and the recipes are wonderful.
The Heritage of Italian Cooking by Lorenza de Medici, 256 pages, Random House, $40.
This is a book which practically cries out "Steal me"-- it disappeared from my office in less than a day. It's gorgeously illustrated with delicious old paintings and large enough to cover the better part of a coffee table. The food in the book is robust and appealing and makes you wish you were wandering around the Italian countryside. Don't give it to kitchen klutzes, however, for they may find themselves rushing out to the kitchen and right into trouble.
For Lorenza de Medici's recipes can be very sketchy. Consider that pie made of live birds. While de Medici very considerately brings the recipe into the 20th Century by conceding that it will work with birds that are no longer on the wing, the recipe calls for 12 quail, one carrot, one stalk of celery, a few potatoes, some flour, salt, pepper--and not a whole lot more. It seems more like the start of a recipe than a finished one. So while the book would be a very good present for an Italophile or an art-lover, you might want to throw in a good working Italian cookbook (one of Marcella Hazan's wonderful books, for instance), for good measure.
The Gourmet Garden by Geraldene Holt with photographs by Hugh Palmer, 192 pages, Little, Brown, $40.
Give this to a real green thumb; anybody else would find it deeply depressing. For here are the kitchen gardens of eight well-known British chefs, in photographs of such unearthly beauty that the owners of ordinary gardens could only be disheartened. Can ordinary people really grow figs this plump, grapes this purple, peppers this perfect in our very own gardens? The photographs in the book even manage to make red cabbages look as lovely as violets.
Palmer's photographs are so gorgeous that they look like 18th Century paintings come to life. It's all so dreamy that you feel you are wandering around a few enchanted gardens. But if you must come down to earth, there are real tips for gardeners and real recipes for cooks.
Sara Midda's South of France, A Sketch Book, 144 pages, Workman, $17.95.