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Food and Celebration: A Reading List from Open Book Night

Last month when we gathered for Open Book Night, our theme was food and celebration. Oysters came up several times as well as some fictional meals that were far from celebratory. We heard about favorite cookbooks and food memoirs and a few titles readers really enjoyed that had little to do with food but fit the mood. We hope you’ll find something you’d like to read on this list and suggest your own “food and celebration” titles in the comments below.

Open book Night at Mid-Manhattan Library meets on the second Friday of the month and you’re invited! This is a time for avid readers to get together and swap book recommendations. Our next Open Book Night meets on Friday, December 9 at 6 PM. We hope you’ll join us and share your favorite “Winter Reads.”

Food History

Big Oyster
For a unique perspective on New York City history, one reader recommends The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky. He shared a number of interesting things he learned about the once ubiquitous New York oyster, available on almost any street as well as at tonier establishments like Delmonico’s, and exported by the ton to Europe until the pollution in our waters killed off the majority of the oyster beds. Our reader also appreciated Kurlansky’s earlier work Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and mentioned two other favorite New York books: Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World, which tells the story of Dutch Manhattan and the Steven Millhauser novel Martin Dressler: Tale of An American Dreamer, set in an ever expanding 19th century Manhattan.
For more on the history of oysters in New York, including links to 19th century restaurant menus, see this post from the History Division.
Balzac's Omelette

New Yorkers were not the only people who loved oysters in previous centuries. The great 19th century French novelist Balzac was known for extreme coffee consumption when working, and apparently he also loved oysters, which he consumed by the hundred when in the mood. In Balzac's Omelette by Anka Muhlstein, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, the writer  traces the development of what we now know as restaurants and offers a portrait of French food and culture in public and in private, in the city and the country, through the penetrating works of Balzac. In a paraphrase of the gastronome Brillat-Savarin, she notes that one could say of Balzac: “Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are. ”


Food in Fiction

The Dinner


Jessica recommends The Dinner by Herman Koch. A sharp-witted story of an evening meal shared between brothers and their wives at a fancy restaurant begins by analyzing the atmosphere and food, but sets the tone for how this family lives life in general. The protagonist's view will force you to look at situations from a different angle.


Debt to Pleasure


I recommend The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, a deliciously dark satire of epicurean memoirs. Our narrator Tarquin first appears to be a witty, cultured, highly opinionated character with a superiority complex, but it develops that he’s a bit more than that. The revelation of his true nature makes for an enjoyable if somewhat sinister read.

Like water for chocolate


During our discussion, a couple of classic food fiction titles were also mentioned. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, is a beloved magical realist tale of food, family, and passion set in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, complete with recipes. Another reader noted the importance of food as it relates to family and cultural identity in Amy Tan’s novels, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Joy Luck Club.


Cookbooks and Food Memoirs


Veronica recommended Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende. She appreciated this combination of recipes and memoir from a great writer. Veronica noted that Allende portrays food as a way to communicate, and she offered this summary of the book’s message:

“Live, Love Life, and eat!”



Another reader heard about Anthony Bourdain’s latest, Appetites: A Cookbook, in an interview with the author on Fresh Air. She noted the family centered aspect of the chef’s latest cookbook, which includes recipes that he cooks with and for his nine year old daughter.  



modern art ccookbook

Jessica also recommends The Modern Art Cookbook by Mary Ann Caws, which looks at the culture of food through the lenses of modern artists and writers. Seamus Heaney's poem "Oysters" is paired with Henri Matisse's Still Life with Oysters, while a recipe for Lee Miller's Sesame Chicken for Miro comes with the anecdote that "[she] wanted to amuse him by giving him dishes unknown in Spain." This book makes cooking and eating a pleasure to read about.

Some other favorite sources for recipes that the group mentioned are:  Cook’s Country, Lidia Bastianich, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and Bon Appetit magazine, which is availble in the Library's new magazine app, Flipster

More Reader Recommendations

Land more kind than home

Ilene recommends A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. She found the book “emotionally powerful” with characters that “weren’t all good or all bad.” She explained that “the main character was a young boy (9), who, in fear of being punished and without realizing the impact of his silence, could be seen as to blame for bad things happening.” Ilene also appreciated the setting, a small town in the southern United States, the type of place she had no personal experience of but but could witness through reading.

Astronaut wives


Jennifer recommends The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel, a highly readable nonfiction book that “confronts the world of women along with gender roles at the start of the space program in the United States.”




warren buffett way

When a practically-minded reader recommended The Warren Buffett Way by Robert G. Hagstrom, Jr., which examines the successful investment strategies of Warren Buffett, clever readers in the group noted that the words “buffet” and “stock” connected the selection to our food theme. This investor’s guide was originally published in 1994. The third edition, published in 2014, is available at NYPL as an e-book.

Thanks to everyone who joined us for Open Book Night on November 18. We had a lovely time talking about books with you and appreciate your great recommendations! Readers who come to listen and hear recommendations for books they might enjoy are also most welcome at Open Book Night. Check out these other reading lists to see books recommended at past Open Book Nights. We hope to hear your reading recommendations at an Open Book Night soon or read them in the comments below. 


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