Gift Ideas for Cooks When a Dreidel Isn't Enough

Since Chanukah's not traditionally a gift-giving holiday (it's a minor festival trumped up to keep assimilation-minded Jews from celebrating Christmas, but I'll save that screed for another day), I typically don't bother making a wish list. As a kid, my loot usually consisted of dreidels and socks, which my brother and I once tried pinning over the fireplace. Santa wasn't fooled.

If I were in the market for gifts this month, I'd be thrilled to receive any of the following five books, and I bet most food lovers would feel the same way.

1. The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (W.W. Norton & Co. , 2010) by Amanda Hesser I wasn't a huge fan of Hesser when she chronicled her romance with "Mr. Latte" in a series of columns for The New York Times magazine, but I can't find anything not to like about the concept underlying her latest book, a compendium of recipes drawn from the paper's 150-year-old recipe archive. The dishes included -- more than 1,400 in all -- are an edible timeline of our nation's food fads, foibles and achievements.

2. Fannie's Last Supper: Re-Creating One Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook (Hyperion, 2010) by Christopher Kimball. This book somehow completely escaped my attention until The New York Times Book Review made mention of it this weekend. In it, Kimball -- best known as editor of Cook's Illustrated -- documents his effort to precisely recreate a meal that might have been served in his 1859 Boston townhouse when Fannie Farmer reigned as domestic taste-maker. His task's complicated immensely by ingredient sourcing and the sad fact that Farmer wasn't a very good cook.

3. One Big Table: 600 Recipes from the Nation's Best Home Cooks, Farmers, Fishermen, Pit-masters and Chefs (Simon & Schuster, 2010) by Molly O'Neill Fannie Farmer might have been hurt by Kimball's assessment of her cooking skills, but she'd have been scandalized by One Big Table, which is admirably free of the fusty gentility that was a hallmark of Farmer's work. The tremendously talented O'Neill traveled across the country to assemble this collection of plainspoken recipes from regular home cooks, creating a culinary portrait in the process.

4. The Sunset Cookbook: Over 1000 Recipes for the Way You Cook Today (Oxmoor House, 2010) I can't recall whether photographer Larry Sultan ever shot his staunchly suburban parents eating, but if he did, it's a good bet the Californians were feasting on baby artichoke antipasto and Baja fish tacos. While the word "today" appears in the title, the recipes in this cookbook were drawn from 110 years of fashioning a nouvelle Western cuisine.

5. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) Edited by Joan Reardon. It's probably futile to try to read Child's correspondence without hearing her voice -- or Meryl Streep's approximation of it -- in your head. As Child might say, no matter. One must press on. This chain of letters between Child and her dear friend shows both women to be lively, witty and incisive, while making the demise of letter-writing all the sadder.

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