NOTE TO UNCLE MIKE: PLEASE DON’T READ!
Every Christmas when I was growing up, my mom would select a wrinkly wrapped gift from under the tree, shake it a bit, and say “Hmmmm, I wonder what this could be?” She knew what it was, of course. We all did. It was the annual bottle of Vitabath, the bath bubbles that came in the green and white ridged bottle that my dad gave to her every year. (Only my mother could stretch out an 8-ounce supply of bubble bath for 12 months.) I am such a sucker for the Annual Gift Tradition — not only because those gifts tell stories and connect us to holidays past and all that good stuff, but because they save a ton of think work if you’re on the giving end. It’s thoughtful giving on autopilot.
Some annual gifts can be downright inspired. Andy’s Uncle Julian used to give Aunt Patty a vintage cordial glass every year — none of them were the same, but he had an eye for that stuff, and when he broke out a bottle of Chateau D’yquem, it was always amazing to see how well each tiny glass of Sauternes looked next to the other. Then there’s Uncle Mike (yes, it’s practically law that uncles are the best gift-givers) who buys a few cases of wine every year, then divvies them all up for his brothers and nephews. In exchange for that wine, we have our own mini annual gift ritual — we give Uncle Mike whatever cookbook seems to be the cookbook of the moment. In the past we’ve presented him with Canal House Cooks Everyday, Zuni Cafe Cookbook, Jerusalem, and Amanda Hesser’s updated version of the classic The New York Times Cookbook, to name a few.
So here’s a dilemma that can be filed under “Cup Runneth Over” category: What cookbook do I get Uncle Mike for Christmas this year? Though the holidays are always blockbuster season for cookbooks, 2014’s offerings seems to be particularly awesome and I’m genuinely stumped. Uncle Mike is an adventurous cook, not afraid of an obscure ingredient, and happy to spend a whole day working through a seemingly impenetrable Diana Kennedy recipe, or hunting down dried guajillo chili peppers, or picking persimmons from the tree in his backyard. Not kidding. Here are a few options out there — what do you think?
Prune, by Gabrielle Hamilton. Modeled after the recipe binder buried on a back shelf of every restaurant kitchen, this is less a cookbook than a giant fleshed-out restaurant menu. If you like to read recipes as much as cook them, Hamilton’s famously authoritative-bordering-on-cranky instructions will clinch it for you. (Plus: That Cider-braised Chicken recipe of hers? INSANE.) Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi. From the author of Jerusalem and Plenty, comes more ultra-inspired vegetarian meals. I always flip through his books and think the same thing: “I wish I could eat like this every night.” Heritage, by Sean Brock. This one is not for the faint of heart. The man responsible for not just the Charelston restaurant boom (Husk, McCrady’s, etc.) but for redefining southern food beyond shrimp and grits, delivers a paean to local, southern ingredients. Baking Chez Moi, by Dorie Greenspan. I think of Mike more as a cook than a baker, but he’d respect the meticulousness of the recipes from the legend herself. Bar Tartine by Chad Robertson, Cortney Burns, Nicolaus Balla Recipes from the San Francisco restaurant that is the darling of chefs and food editors everywhere. The Slanted Door, by Charles Phan. A long-awaited collection of recipes from the famous San Francisco Vietnamese restaurant.
Or maybe I should go all meta on him and get him Phaidon’s Cookbook Book, shown way up top, a tribute to 300 years worth of our favorite recipe compendiums. It’s about time someone gave cookbooks the art-book treatment!
PS: In case you’re wondering, he already owns Dinner: The Playbook and Dinner: A Love Story. Well, considering he’s been one of our most loyal supporters over the years, at least I think he does. If you’re still reading this, Mike… 1) Hey! Didn’t I tell you not to read this? and 2) Thanks.