Every December, we chat with Celia Sack, owner of San Francisco’s cookbook enthusiast wonderland Omnivore Books on Food. She gave us the rundown of the year’s most popular, most purchased, and most beloved texts that would make delicious additions to any holiday wishlist.
This year, Sack was delightfully surprised to see a number of excellent Mexican food cookbooks actually written by Mexican chefs. Foremost among them was “L.A. Mexicano” by Bill Esparza and “Guerilla Tacos” by Wes Avila, both of which explore the breadth of LA’s Mexican food scene and feature many dishes not often seen in cookbooks. Also, in San Francisco, the chef behind the popular restaurant Nopalito, Gonzalo Guzman, published his first cookbook, “Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen.”.
Sack separated the contenders into their respective categories: practical, beautiful, memoir and food history. “Coffee table books are finally on the way out,” she says. noting instead a resurgence of practical cookbooks written by full-time cookbook authors. Among her favorites were Alison Roman’s “Dining In” and Melissa Clark’s “Dinner: Changing the Game,” both excellent choices for home cooks. Then there’s her best-selling book of the year, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” by Samin Nosrat, a former chef from Chez Panisse in the East Bay and assistant to Michael Pollan for many years. Evan adds a testimonial for Nosrat’s book, saying, “You could not know how to cook, and you’d learn from that book.” Keep an eye out for Nosrat’s future Netflix show based on the book.
As far as trends go, Evan says she’s been seeing a lot of books about the Silk Road. Sack agrees: “In response to the travel ban being on, being off, and being on . . . and people being aware of certain countries and their residents not being allowed into our country, they’re much more interested in learning about them through their cuisines.” “Kaukasis” by Olia Hercules is a colorful read for those interested in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Another smart choice is “Istanbul & Beyond” by Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman, which is full of in-depth research on Turkey’s relatively obscure regional cuisines.
Moving on to the beautiful category, Sack recommends “The Grammar of Spice” by Caz Hildebrand, a designer from London who designs Nigella Lawson’s books. She says the book is essentially an encyclopedia of spices, featuring a history of each spice while teaching readers how to effectively capture their unique flavors in dishes.
If you’re looking for something to give the baker in your life, there’s no shortage of excellent options. Sacks says, “The thing that makes a successful baking book is that it’s well tested, everything comes out perfectly,, and it’s not too finicky.” With that in mind, Sacks names “Bravetart” by Stella Parks and “The Artful Baker” by Cenk Sönmezsoy as her top picks.
For mixologists, “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” by Jim Meehan is a standout. Also, from Bar Agricole’s Thad Vogler comes “By the Smoke and the Smell,” which follows Vogler’s travels around the world in search of rare liquors that aren’t owned by corporations.
For food histories, “The Potlikker Papers” by John T. Edge and Laura Shapiro’s “What She Ate” both provide exhaustively researched looks at how food has changed over time and influenced culture.
Memoirs are always a popular genre, and chef autobiographies continue to do well for Sack’s bookstore. Barbara Lynch’s “Out of Line” takes readers through her Southern childhood and rough-and-tumble career. Also, we’d be remiss not to include Alice Waters’ “Coming to my Senses” in which the iconic slow-food chef recounts her life before founding Chez Panisse. This enjoyable romp is complete with stories of sex, hamburgers, and drinking. “The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty is another fascinating read that tells the story of Southern food through the lens of his experience as a black gay man.
Of course, we have to mention “Leave Me Alone with the Recipes” by Sarah Rich and Wendy MacNaughton. The book is a beautifully illustrated reimagining of a manuscript from Cipe Pineles, the first female head of Conde Nast. Rich and McNaughton found Pineles’ manuscript at an antiquarian book fair and brought it to life.
Of course, there are endless numbers of books that would make the perfect gift for an avid reader or foodie. Evan’s conversation with Celia went on for over half an hour, but we’ve only included the greatest hits to help you decide on something to give your loved ones this holiday season.
Happy reading, and as always, happy eating.