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Hunting for cook books is better in stores

For us, the pleasures of browsing in a real bookstore compared to browsing for books on the net is like having a gourmet dinner at The Studio versus eating a TV dinner at home.

So, we were thrilled when Jane Hanauer bravely opened Laguna Beach Books in the new Old Pottery Place complex. We use the word “bravely” because independent bookstores are having a hard time these days with online competition.

Maybe we are old-fashioned but in an actual bookstore the process of discovery and the interaction with the bookseller are part of the total experience that makes it a happy place to be.

When it comes to cookbooks, it is almost impossible to make a choice without leafing through and reading some of the recipes. If you’re buying one as a gift, you want to see the format, the quality and the illustrations.

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When there are so many choices, it’s a delight to talk to the staff and ask for recommendations, particularly when one of them happens to be a passionate and informed cook like Lisa Kaplan, the manager.

We spent a pleasant few hours with her recently talking cookbooks. We discussed good basic books, the best books from the plethora of food network stars, serious cookbooks for serious chefs, great gift books and Terry’s passion... food literature.

We learned to cook from Julia Child, the first real food personality on TV. She taught classic French cooking for American kitchens with a casual and endearing style that included the famous moment when she dropped a chicken on the floor, picked it up, threw it in the pot and said, “Don’t worry, you’re alone in the kitchen, no one will know.”

Her recipes are often complicated but they always turn out well if you follow her directions carefully. She tells you everything you need to know.

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There is a new book out called “Julie and Julia” in which the author, Julie Powell, in a moment of clarity or insanity, decides to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, 524 recipes in 365 days. The difficulties and successes become a metaphor for life.

Our other mentor was Craig Claiborne, author of the two New York Times Cookbooks, now in one volume. These recipes are fairly simple but excellent, once you have mastered basic skills.

“The Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition” is almost an encyclopedia of traditional American cooking that now has contemporary updates. This is the place to get a basic recipe for just about anything. Then, you can “kick it up a notch” with variations found in the seemingly endless parade of tomes from the stars of the TV food network.

One of the most popular and accessible of these is “The Barefoot Contessa” by Ina Garten , the number one seller at Laguna Beach Books. Her casual but elegant recipes are much loved for entertaining. You will also find Rachel Ray, Jaime Oliver, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Paula Dean, Mario Batali and Nigella Lawson to name a few.

Lisa told us that she cooks almost every night, even after a long day at work. She finds cooking relaxing and she thinks it is important for her family to eat together.

Her favorites cookbooks are “The Silver Palate New Basics” that has just come out with a revised and updated 25th anniversary edition and “Weber’s Art of the Grill,” in her opinion, the best of all the many barbecue books out there.

“They have a great recipe for Mediterranean lamb on the grill,” she says.

She also loves Claudia Roden’s new book, “Arabesque,” for more serious cooks who want to branch out, using more exotic flavors from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon such as tajine of chicken with preserved lemon and olives.

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Terry has always been a fan of Claudia Roden’s books and this one makes a beautiful hostess gift. Another book that’s very popular as a hostess gift is Amy Sedaris’ “I Like You.” It’s a quirky, humorous read with illustrations that look like those peculiar food pictures from the fifties with equally kitchy recipes along with her wild, offbeat commentary.

The enormous popularity of the Food Network seems to reflect people’s fascination with watching people cook and getting a peek behind the scenes of life in a restaurant kitchen.

“Heat” by Bill Buford is a lively and exciting look into the kitchens of famous chefs. Buford, a journalist, decided to learn what it takes to be a professional chef, so he apprenticed himself to Mario Batali, then spent time in Italy learning about meat from Dario Ceccini, the Michelangelo of butchers, as well as working briefly with Jeremiah Tower and Marco Piero White. This well-written book is a riveting description of the egomaniacal macho world of crazy chefs.

Some food writing can reach the heights of literature. One of the best authors of this genre is M.F.K. Fisher. Her writing is autobiographical and she talks about food, travel and her relationships with elegant prose and joie de vivre. A volume of her complete works has recently been re-published as “The Art of Eating.”

Ruth Reichl, a New York food critic, has a written a three volume autobiography. Her third volume, “Garlic and Sapphires,” focuses on the secret life of a critic in disguise.

Gael Greene, another New York food writer, has written a book called “Insatiable,” a juicy account of overindulgence in eating and sex.

A great bathroom read is Robert Wolke’s “What Einstein Told His Cook,” explaining the science of food in plain English. This fascinating and witty text will answer such burning questions such as, “why is meat red” or “does the alcohol really burn off when you cook wine?”

Another not to be missed book is a novel called “The Last Great Chinese Chef” by Nicole Mones, a contemporary love story filled with wonderful descriptions of food.

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Laguna Beach Books has a charming, light-filled atmosphere, a helpful and well-informed staff and a carefully considered selection of books. Treat yourself to the rewards of an independent bookstore.


  • ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at
  • themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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