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Eat some words this Christmas

From scientific skullduggery to world tours, food books save the day

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Getting panicky about Christmas shopping? What would you say if I promised you you can cover it all off in one place — your local book store?

I’ve culled my shelves and those of the local library with an eagle eye and have come up with some ideas that will suit just about anyone on your list, from the science aficionado who couldn’t care less about what kind of stuffing you put in the turkey, but really wants to know why the gravy is always lumpy, to your hip young son leaving home next year who may want a few recipes up his sleeve to impress his new pals with, to your new best friend who is trying to go sustainable (or should be).

Besides, if you aren’t eating rum balls or sticky caramel corn at the same time, you can probably leaf through most of them before you wrap them up and have a feast yourself. And if you blow it and it has to be re-gifted, it can even go to your favourite local library.

Happy shopping and Seasoned Greetings!

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen . Harold McGee. Even people who hate to cook find this book fascinating. At $58, it’s a bit pricey, but worth every dollar. Anyone who wanders into my messy office and picks it up can’t put it down. McGee studied both science and literature and the result is a fascinating, readable wander through the latest science (this is a revised edition of the 1984 one, which took him some 20 years to research and write). You — I mean, the lucky person on your list will learn about everything from how cows produce milk to old varieties of winter pears. As for the mystery of the eternally lumpy gravy, it’s because when you add flour or starch directly to hot liquid, the moment they hit, the clumps of starch granules develop a partly gelated, sticky surface that seals the dry granules inside and prevents them from dispersing. Share that at the holiday table.

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats . Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This fabulous print panorama is a delight for the traveller, the environmentalist/activist, the food-curious and the just plain curious. Menzel and D’Aluisio visited 30 families in 24 countries and asked them to lay out what they would eat in a week. In front of their refugee tent, the Aboubakar family from the Sudan displays their US$1.23 worth of one week’s supplies, which includes 4.6 lb of corn-soy ration, 39.3 lb of sorghum, 9 oz of dried goat meat and 7 oz of dried fish. Then there’s the Al Haggans of Kuwait City with their week’s worth of food (US$221.45) and the Aymes of Ecuador (US$31.55). Menzel did the beautiful photographs, while D’Aluisio rendered the anecdotes and careful statistics that make the documentation come alive. Add in the family recipes from around the world, provocative essays and quirky facts (each Mexican eats 228 lb of tortillas a year; 26 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day compared to 46 per cent of Filipinos, who smoke an average of 1,849 cigarettes per person per year) and you’ve got a book you can’t put down.

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