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October 29, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

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Life Is Meals

A Food Lover's Book of Days

James and Kay Salter, illustrated by Fabrice Moireau

Alfred A. Knopf: 464 pp., $27.50

JAMES SALTER is one of the great bons vivants of our time; his novels and stories are full of the details of fine living, from watches to shirts, but most pervasively food. This book of days (with a slightly ominous quote from Alexandre Dumas: "I intend that my last work shall be a cookbook composed of memories and desires....") pays homage to great writers, great meals, great conversations and essential ingredients. Auguste Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin, Waverly Root, Alice Waters, James Beard and others are notably remembered; dinners in Sag Harbor with Jason Epstein, dinners at the Salters' house in Aspen, Colo., with Jorie Graham and other writers, snippets from the Salters' books of dinner-party details (kept for years) and recipes, of course (Tuscan meatloaf, figs in whiskey, chili con carne and many others), become so many tableaux in the reader's mind. Picture James and Kay Salter in Paris at the birth of their son, Theo, asking the doctor to wet the newborn's lips with Chateau Latour, like the ancient kings of France. The book is a safe haven, a bastion of civilization, protection from all kinds of heavy weather.

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A Stew or a Story

An Assortment of Short Works

M.F.K. Fisher, edited by Joan Reardon

Shoemaker & Hoard: 400 pp., $28

JUST when you thought you'd read every last word of M.F.K. Fisher's (you were sad, but then again, reading her over and over yields fresh pleasures), Joan Reardon, who was clearly harboring leftovers from her biography of Fisher, "Poet of the Appetites," serves a new batch of short pieces culled mainly from magazines. Fisher was happiest writing short, with her family's newspaper background and her no-nonsense approach to writing for money. Writing kept Fisher's pantry full and allowed her to make the meals for friends and lovers that we love to read about -- as we love dining in the restaurants (famous or off the beaten path) she reported on like no other food writer before or since. In these pieces, she describes the best stew she ever had, the finnan haddie that "lay the ghost" of all the bad finnan haddie she'd had to eat as a child, the essential qualities of a gourmet (enthusiasm and good taste), the inconsistency of California wines and the memorable relationship between two sisters, her friends journalist Janet Flanner and poet Hildegarde Flanner. She writes about food and its "intrinsic part in human love." We are immensely grateful to be reminded that the well of Fisher's work is a long way from running dry.

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Food & Booze

Essays and Recipes

Edited by Michelle Wildgen, illustrated by Nicole J. Georges

Tin House Books: 226 pp., $16.95

MOSTLY booze. Thank God. Maybe it's coming back. Or maybe it's just that, as Chris Offut writes in his contribution to this marvelous essay collection, "[t]here are two kinds of writers, you will hear people say, the ones who drink and the ones who quit." Then again, Offut's recipe is for baked possum; who wouldn't rather have a drink? Elissa Schappell, in "Ode to a Martini," quotes Dorothy Parker: "I like to have a martini / Two at the very most -- / After three I'm under the table, / After four I'm under my host." Lydia Davis, in "Eating Fish Alone" (one imagines a raccoon washing its paws in the river and looking anxiously about), provides a recipe for a smelly sardine sandwich. Sara Perry's essay on the apple is a walk in the park that begins with Eve, moves through Alice B. Toklas and ends with an uplifting recipe for pate brisee and several versions of pie. "My first loaf sucks," reports Matthew Batt in "The Path of Righteousness," on his efforts at sourdough bread ("a Quonset-shaped loaf of despair"). "I feel like a soiled, unfaithful, pathetic man" -- this after having attempted a "nice brown sauce," inspired by Julia Child. These essays are pure fun, pure joy, every last honey-colored, 80-proof, diet-be-damned one of them -- and excellent attitude training for the coming holidays.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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