5@5 - Non-cookbooks for food enthusiasts
April 4th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Has a non-cookbook ever sent you scrambling kitchen-ward?

For legendary and James Beard award-winning chef Norman Van Aken, literature often beelines straight from his brain to his stomach.

He says of the delicious bond: "The strands of fate and history pull us in circles we may never fully comprehend, but they are there. And why I’m a chef is moved, most surely by all of the ‘levers’ moved by the pencils, pens and typewriters of these artists and many more."

Five Non-Cookbooks that Influenced My Cooking: Norman Van Aken


1. Why We Eat What We Eat," Raymond Sokolov
"On September 26, 1991, I bought this little book and it changed the way I was looking at my food in major ways. It made me appreciate how greatly the ramifications of history change our way of eating and how my location in America (for me, South Florida in particular) was shaped by what writer Ray Sokolov was referring to as 'The Columbian Exchange.'

The phrase was not his, but his way of making it so darn fascinating sure was. I might have snapped up the book on the strength of M.F.K. Fisher’s prominent endorsement on the back cover alone. She is one of my favorites of all time.

The book remains extremely relevant. Here’s an example.

The Spanish had also opened up a regular trade with China from their base in the Philippines. Food and food ideas flowed freely between Seville and Asia on the same ships that carried goods from China and the Americas to Europe, and on the return trip brought European necessities for the colonists. The so-called Manila galleons took five months to make the passage across the Pacific to Acapulco. Their cargoes were transported overland to Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast, reloaded on shipboard, and sent on to the mother country.

2. "Oliver Twist," Charles Dickens
"Charles Dickens's classic story of duality and life’s twists (the title character is named as such) struck a major chord with me growing up. I can still remember the first time I held the book and turned the first page. It was as if I turned a door on its hinges. I felt outside the world at times (though what child doesn’t?), but when you are going through it, a book like this comes along and just saves you.

You realize that you can identify with others who, though from distant places, are very much like you in the dizzying, twisting, road of life. When young Oliver loses a contest and must represent the other hungry inmates of the workhouse they live in and asks on behalf of all: 'Please, sir, I want some more.'

He is another human suddenly, and defenselessly, caught up in the cross-hairs of social injustice in the hope for a better world for many, including his very young self.

Reading that book again at age 20, I had no idea that becoming a cook would let me have access not only to food but a place where I could find a community and kindred spirits. And while that may not be everything it certainly is a lot."

3. Culture and Cuisine," Jean-François Revel
"I purchased this book at a shop on Fleming Street in Key West in mid-February of 1988. I was part owner of my first restaurant. It was called MIRA. I was also in the middle of a huge amount of culinary self-analysis as to what I was going to do with cuisine. I’d cooked my way around French, Italian, various regional American cuisines like many of my generation.

After reading this book, I sat down and over the course of about two weeks wrote a paper I titled 'Fusion.' I wrote the paper only for my own personal understanding; I had no intention of publishing it.

Iin the Fall of '88, I was asked to join other chefs on stage in Santa Fe for a symposium on American Cuisine to describe why we cooked the way each of us did. The other chefs that day on stage with me were Tom Douglas, Lydia Shire, Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter.

My definition of fusion refers to fusion between haute cuisine - or aristocratic-styled 'restaurant' cuisine - with the more down-to-earth, rustic home cooking.

Later, by others, it also came to mean the 'fusion' between various cultures and countries. Fusion cuisine can and does take place in almost every continent.

Jean-François Revel states: 'There is gastronomy when there is a permanent quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and when there is a public both competent enough and rich enough to arbitrate this quarrel.'

I think that fusion is the mother of all of the different types of hyphenated cuisines. Like me, other chefs across the globe are finding that there is a combined power in what I named 'fusion cooking.'

In my cooking, I create an interplay, a fusion, between regionalism and technical know-how. My cooking is the result of coupling our native regional foodstuffs like conch, black beans, plantains, mangoes, coconuts, grouper, key limes, snapper, shrimp and the folk cooking methods intrinsic their preparation, with my self-taught classical techniques.

'New World Cuisine' is the term I came up with to describe the fusion occurring in Florida and the immediately surrounding areas."

4. In the Night Kitchen”, Maurice Sendak
"Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated this controversial book about a young boy’s nighttime ‘voyages’ in 1970. Our son, Justin, was born in 1980 and by 1986, I’d probably read it to him 100 times. I’ve no doubt that we both were captivated by the wondrously surreal dreamscape that Sendak conjured up.

As the young boy, Mickey fell out of his clothes and into cake batter where he was met with a city made out of a baker’s stock and trade tools.

Mickey proclaims, 'I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me!' That made us both wonder what existential intent that meant - and I still don’t know. The story confounds, captivates and liberates - which essentially all art (and the art of cuisine) seeks to do.

This year Justin and I wrote our first cookbook together. The bond was forged in mythical storytelling as well as in blood."

5. “On the Road," Jack Kerouac
'On the Road' starts with this classic first sentence, 'I first met Neal not long after my father died.' And that is when I first 'met' the work of Kerouac, just after my father died.

So many characterize Kerouac as a ‘free spirit,’ when in fact, he was almost never free from the hurt of his brother Gerard’s early death when Jack was 4 or 5 years of age. Jack is a seeker and my friends and I were as well. We too hitchhiked around America with rucksacks slung to our hungry frames.

Kerouac’s book 'Desolation Angels' might be my favorite of his, but it was 'On the Road' that got me started. I didn’t know until much later that he wrote the famous 120-foot scroll version in an apartment on West 20th Street in New York.

I wonder how close it was to my own family’s home in two preceding generations. My maternal grandfather lived at 252 W. 20th when he was a boy. My great-grandfather lived at 312, and my grandmother and grandfather lived at 400 when my mother was born."

Do you feast on non-cookbooks as well? Share your favorite titles in the comments.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Feast on Fiction • Think


soundoff (12 Responses)
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  4. ForReal

    For what they're worth, 3 classics for me are:

    Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee
    The Apprentice by Jaques Pepin
    Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

    Three of the most influential foodies of the last few decades that tell you what inspired them. Good stuff.

    April 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  5. Aaron

    Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, a great non-cook book.

    April 5, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  6. amy

    Yet another reason to be proud to share my home city with Mr. Van Aken.

    April 5, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  7. JellyBean

    Excellent, thanks!

    April 5, 2012 at 7:12 am | Reply
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    It's really a nice and useful piece of info. I am satisfied that you simply shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

    April 5, 2012 at 1:34 am | Reply
  9. Bill Smith

    Bravo, Norman. Very well said.

    April 5, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  10. hahahafunnyguy

    first....but a fine read. to the point and well-read. thanks for the insight.

    April 4, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Reply

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