'Cooking is easy if you know how to read," writes novelist and short-story writer Ellen Gilchrist in the coda to The New Great American Writers Cookbook.
Although gardeners spend countless hours salivating over seed catalogs, you'll never hear anyone say that gardening is easy if you know how to read. But, like off-season gardeners, cooks plow through cookbooks and food magazines for vicarious victual sustenance, whipping up fantasy meals that don't require them to get their hands dirty.
Recently there has been a bumper crop of cookbooks targeted at bookworms. Many of these literary-themed cookbooks are better at providing food for thought than for the table, making them especially appealing to armchair cooks - people who would rather flip pages than flapjacks.
"The New Great American Writers Cookbook" is a quirky collection of down-home, expedient recipes edited by Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner. It focuses on Southern authors who are more literary than culinary. For the most part, it's a stretch to call them "Great American Writers" - and a leap to call them gourmets.
The book abounds in Southern staples such as gumbo, collard greens, and corn breads, with many recipes written in the form of entertaining narratives. Ingredients include ketchup, Lipton's onion soup mix, and Coca Cola. Gish Jen suggests packaged wonton skins for her Mom's Shrimp Wonton - "unless you lack frustration in your life."
William Harrison's Timber Rattler Stew requires a big fat rattlesnake, while Stewart O'Nan's Flannery O'Connor Chili calls for boneless peacock - although he concedes with tongue firmly in cheek that "Yankees can substitute chicken. Real Yankees like Mr. John Cheever can substitute leftover Thanksgiving dinner."
On the other end of the culinary spectrum are Francine Segan's seriously researched and beautifully presented cookbooks, Shakespeare's Kitchen and The Philosopher's Kitchen.
Segan's books, illustrated with luscious full-color photographs by Tim Turner, provide deliciously informative, meaty browsing. "The Philosopher's Kitchen" is well- seasoned with quotes from Apicius's "On Cookery," Cato the Elder's "On Agriculture," Sappho, Menander, Horace, and other ancients.
Sprinkled throughout "Shakespeare's Kitchen" are quotes from the Bard highlighting food-related imagery, including, "My salad days, When I was green in judgement...," from "Antony and Cleopatra," and "He scotched him and notched him like a carbonado," from "Coriolanus."
There are no tomatoes, bell peppers, potatoes, vanilla, or chocolate in Segan's books, since they did not come to Europe until the 15th century and weren't widely available until much later.
Instead, her clear, easy-to-follow recipes show a predilection for pestos and purees. They feature fennel, mint (a symbol of hospitality in ancient Greece), onions (considered aphrodisiacs), olives, grapes, figs, and honey.
Lacking chocolate, tea, or coffee, desserts in Shakespeare's time, called "the banquet," included Gooseberry Fooles, Banbury Cakes, and Rose Cakes made with rose syrup and candied rose petals.
Victoria Brooks, author of Famous Faces, Famous Places, and Famous Food is a travel writer first and a recipe collector almost as an afterthought.
Her book is a series of biographical travelogues that track 10 famous male writers - many of them long dead - to their favorite roosts in exotic, far-flung locales: Ernest Hemingway's Havana, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lanka, Paul Bowles's Tangier.
Recipes such as Sour Fish Soup with Pineapple and more versions of mojitos than you can shake a cocktail at are from restaurants her subjects frequented, an attempt to bring "a little bit of the magic" into readers' homes.
The Book Lover's Cookbook seeks a deeper symbiosis between literature and food. Authors Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen write, "Food scenes offer a universal platform that can foster connections between the reader and the character."
Food-oriented passages from popular literature are followed by related recipes. A passage from Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" about a character who died after ingesting pie is juxtaposed with To-Die-For Peach Pie. To steep yourself in the Amish world of Jodi Picoult's "Plain Truth," you could prepare her Amish Chicken and Dumplings, garnered from her stay on an Amish dairy farm while researching her novel.
Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp take literary-culinary matchmaking even further in The Book Club Cookbook. Book groups have turned the solitary act of reading into a social activity which often features food as well as literary discussion.
As they enjoy a surge in popularity, book groups are also infiltrating the printed page, with book club reading guides, novels such as Karen Joy Fowler's "The Jane Austen Book Club," and this hearty handbook for readers who wish to incorporate thematic edibles into their club meetings.
With its synopses of 100 literary staples, wide range of recipes, and interviews with book groups around the country, "The Book Club Cookbook" offers rich browsing - especially for those curious about what other book clubs are reading and eating. But because it tries to cram in so much, like a meal with too many courses, readers may reach satiation early.
Arranged in alphabetical order of title from Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" to Mildred Walker's "Winter Wheat," the recommended books offer few surprises, and the accompanying commentaries are rather pedestrian. Recipes include Seafood Chowder for "Ahab's Wife," Mint Juleps for "The Great Gatsby," Treacle Tart for "Harry Potter," and Griet's Vegetable Soup for "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
More engaging are the miniprofiles of various book clubs, with names like Wuthering Bites, from Seattle; LunaChics Literary Guild, from Tallahassee, Fla.; NBA (No Boys Allowed), from Miami; and Epicureaders, from San Francisco.
Next time you hear someone lament that no one reads or cooks anymore, you might want to tell them about Pages and Plates from Los Angeles; Four Major Food Groups from Anchorage, Alaska; or FRED (Friends Reading, Eating and Discussing Books) from San Francisco.
(This dish was a favorite of fourth-century BC food writer Archestratus.)
1 cup fresh mint
1/3 cup capers, drained, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly milled pepper
4 tuna steaks, 2/3 inch thick, about 8 ounces each
1. Preheat the grill or broiler.
2. Puree the mint, capers, and pine nuts in the bowl of a small food processor until finely ground. Add the lemon juice, shallots, and oil, pulsing several times until well combined. Set aside.
3. Liberally salt and pepper both sides of the tuna steaks. Grill or broil the tuna to the desired doneness, about 2 minutes per side for medium-rare.
4. Top the tuna steaks with a dollop of mint-caper pesto and serve with lemon wedges and a scattering of whole capers.
Source: The Philosopher's Kitchen
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.