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Food for Thought

These days, simply everyone — from Ratatouille‘s titular rodent to chipmunk-cheeked Rachael Ray — is a foodie. Stars as diverse as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Adam Sandler have donned chef’s whites on the silver screen; television offers couch potatoes an endless menu of top chef, iron chef and hellish-kitchen shows. Magazines promise us the best recipes and tempt our taste buds with glossy photographs of fulsome foodstuffs so ripe they verge on the pornographic. Gourmet grocery stores package obscure ingredients with daunting suggestions about how to serve them. Restaurant critics have given up dining in disguise, and food blogs abound.

Even reference books have a seat at the table: the New Oxford American Dictionary recently named “locavore,” a term describing a person who eats only food grown or raised locally, its 2007 Word of the Year — perfect timing in an age when you can’t grab a bite at your favorite neighborhood eatery without first being told about the virgins who harvested the sea salt and which Montessori school your lamb attended before it graduated to your plate.

Then there are the books — talk about an omnivore’s dilemma. Think of this eMusic Bookshelf as a tasting menu of six of the best. So cue up one of these audiobooks while you’re searching for that elusive ingredient, deciphering a food-stained family recipe while the clock is ticking, or preparing to break bread and make small talk with someone else’s family. There’s a reason Proust’s multivolume reverie began with biting into a cookie. Bon appétit.

Tough-talking Anthony Bourdain may have ossified into a firewater-swilling, testicle-eating caricature of himself in his globe-trotting television shows, but back when he was writing this exposé-cum-memoir, he was just a formerly strung-out struggling chef with a checkered career, a way with words and a passion for food. This passion was awakened early, the celebrity chef reveals, during a memorable childhood trip to his father's native France. Bourdain tones down the bad-ass posturing... long enough to reverently describe the flavors of his first oyster, then amps it back up when he admits he enjoyed disgusting his brother as well. As an adult, he loses neither his taste for French food nor his appetite for disgusting others. But where Bourdain really shines is in his passage detailing a typical day amongst the miscreants in the Les Halles kitchen, a poetically obscene aria delivered at a breakneck pace that rivals the finale of Goodfellas.

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Married to her high-school sweetheart, but childless and staring down her thirtieth birthday, disgruntled outer-borough secretary Julie Powell was in a serious funk. To pull herself out of it, she decided to devote a year to cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's 1961 classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The author later admitted that the life-changing project was "like doing Thanksgiving every day for a year" — especially if your... idea of Thanksgiving involves many pounds of butter. Powell risks her marriage, her job and her sanity as she tackles omelets and offal in her tiny kitchen, and chronicles her successes and failures in a blog that eventually became this book. Listening to the frequently foul-mouthed author describe sweating over broken mayonnaise — all the while staying well-lubricated with cocktails or red wine — is a tonic, the perfect soundtrack for any stressed-out cook short of time with company on the way.

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There are two editions of Ruth Reichl's latest memoir, but only the abridged one offers the warm, wry, concentrated flavor of the writer narrating her own story of life in the culinary trenches. Eating for a living sounds like a sweet gig, but for every bit of good-guy treatment she receives when she's recognized as the New York Times restaurant critic — in one memorable episode, Le Cirque's Sirio Maccioni leaves the... king of Spain waiting at the bar while wafting Reichl to a prime table and plying her with foie gras — there are plenty of grim slogs through less-than-memorable meals and lackluster service when she dines out undercover in a variety of disguises. Each chapter follows Reichl as she assumes another persona in service of her mission as a "spy in the house of food," while her reviews let the listener taste not only the food, but the anxiety that accompanies a critic's decision to bestow those all-important stars — or take them away.

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New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin is a man of many appetites. His paeans to local eats, from bagels to boudin blanc, chronicled in comic fashion in culinary collections like Feeding a Yen and The Tummy Trilogy, are the best kind of comfort food. In About Alice, he turns his pen and his rich voice to his other abiding passion, the woman with whom he shared his writing and his table for many... years, his beloved wife Alice. In his books' pages, Alice, who died in 2001, may have come across as an infinitely patient person, a sitcom character who "unreasonably" kept her family to only three meals a day. But here Trillin reveals that his salty, smart, sweet spouse was a whip-smart writer, educator and, for a time, a cancer survivor. Clocking in a brisk hour and change, About Alice may seem more like an amuse bouche than a main course, but Trillin's lean love letter will leave you in tears, feeling supremely sated and wishing there was more.

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In her fifth essay collection, writer-director Nora Ephron takes on aging, grimly but gleefully recounting the indignities of being a woman and growing old. As read by the tart-tongued author herself, the short chapters on plastic surgery, purses, parenting and passionate love affairs — with apartments — make for the best sort of bittersweet treats; it's hard to stop at just one. But casual cooks and aspiring foodies alike will want to... linger longer over the chapter entitled "Serial Monogamy: a Memoir." In it, Ephron looks back fondly over a life punctuated by what she calls "insane culinary episodes," faddish attachments to various cuisines that frequently outlasted her marriages. Anyone who's ever talked back to a cookbook in frustration will enjoy her imaginary conversations with Julia Child and Craig Claiborne and relate to her transformation from rule-follower to relaxed cook once she learns to give up neurosis where food is concerned.

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It's hard to avoid cracking wise about "And still I rise," when writing about Maya Angelou's celebration of food, family and fellowship. But this audiobook is no joke. The poet's savory memoir reveals that she's a dab hand in the kitchen, having even worked for a stretch as a cook at San Francisco's Creole Cafe. The Arkansas native filters a lifetime of memories through 73 mouthwatering family recipes, sumptuous-sounding down-home dishes like... her grandmother's (known as Momma) baked lemon meringue pie and chicken and dumplings and her brother's smothered pork chops. She even invited famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher home for cassoulet. But the rich voice of the poet reading her own words is the tastiest treat by far. This is not the book to listen to while grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Better to save it for dessert after a rich, satisfying meal. Like Angelou, you will long for a larger stomach, so you can eat two more helpings.

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