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NPR staffers pick their favorite food books from the 2023 Books We Love list

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What's for breakfast or lunch or dinner? If you draw blanks or just need some inspiration, NPR's Books We Love might be able to help. Here are some ideas from five of our colleagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALEZ' "OREGANO")

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: I'm Jennifer Vanasco. I'm an editor and reporter on the culture desk. I'm recommending the "Secret Of Cooking: Recipes For An Easier Life In The Kitchen." It's by Bee Wilson. So I'm a single mom, and for a long time, my son was a picky eater, and it made cooking such a chore. But food writer Bee Wilson is like a kind older sister. She says, OK, sure, cooking is easy if you have all afternoon and no kids pulling on you, and maybe somebody else is prepping your ingredients. But for most of us, that's just not our situation. So she gives us strategies - how to figure out what flavors go together so you can use what you have, how to build a repertoire of favorites for your family that everybody will really look forward to, and the most important thing, how to cut yourself some slack when everything goes wrong. Basically, she keeps saying you should cook for the family you have, for the palate you have and for the life you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT SONG, "SHANGHAI EXPRESS")

VINCENT NI, BYLINE: My name is Vincent Ni, and I'm the Asia editor for NPR. I'm recommending the book "Invitation To A Banquet: The Story Of Chinese Food" by Fuchsia Dunlop. Now, this is not your traditional cookbook, but rather a series of stories that raises an interesting question - why is Chinese food among the world's favorites, yet one of the least understood? Well, in Dunlop's view, this is partly because there are few Chinese gastronomy critics who can both cook dishes and write prose.

So in "Invitation To A Banquet," Dunlop, who in the '90s became the first foreigner to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, tries to take on that role. It is a personal journey filled with history of some of the best-known and occasionally exotic dishes, often toting lip-smacking detail. Even for me, a keen consumer of Chinese cuisine my entire life, it's an invitation hard to resist.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT SONG, "SHANGHAI EXPRESS")

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I'm Carrie Kahn. I'm NPR's South America correspondent. I live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The book I recommend is "The Migrant Chef: The Life And Times Of Lalo Garcia." It's a wonderful, amazingly written biography about this elite chef in Mexico City's world-class food scene. It's filled with so much drama, it needs no embellishment. But the author, Laura Tillman, just injects keen insight, a deft prose. And what I really loved was her fascinating historical context about Mexico, about Mexican food origins, cooking tips. You know, sometimes during the read, my mouth was watering, and my mind was fully satiated.

Lalo had a very unconventional path to success - crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, working as a child migrant farm worker, being deported, spending time in prison. He also shared touching insights into his journey from poverty to privilege. And with Mexico City now this must-stop on the global food stage, Lalo's story is all the more engaging. It's timely, and it's tasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITEFIELD BROTHERS' "SAFARI STRUT")

MILTON GUEVARA, BYLINE: My name is Milton Guevara. I'm a producer for Up First and Morning Edition. One of my favorite cookbooks from this year is "Asada: The Art Of Mexican-Style Grilling." Its author, Bricia Lopez, describes it as a love letter to Los Angeles. That's because it's an expression of both her Oaxacan and American identities. An asada is a smoky barbecue filled with family, friends, music. And asada culture reigns supreme in the streets of LA. Her cookbook covers everything you need to know about how to throw in asada, from making marinades to refreshing drinks called aguas frescas.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITEFIELD BROTHERS' "SAFARI STRUT")

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi. It's national correspondent Debbie Elliott, and I'm here to recommend the cookbook "Ed Mitchell's Barbecue," written by North Carolina father-and-son pitmasters Ed and Ryan Mitchell, with Zella Palmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T & THE MG'S' "SOUL SANCTION")

ELLIOTT: This book is a tribute to the unspoken cuisine of America and to the author's enslaved ancestors - the first pitmasters of eastern North Carolina. This is one of those special regional cookbooks that reads like a rich, historical and cultural memoir told through the lens of foodways. And the recipes are delectable.

While the star is the whole hog barbecue, pit roasted over hot embers with a vinegar-based sauce, I'm not quite that ambitious. So I've tried their baby back ribs. They're dry rubbed, then slow smoked and then steamed in that same tangy vinegar sauce. And they came out perfect. I've also made the smoked collard green dip. It's a twist on your traditional spinach dip. And next on my list to experiment with - the tobacco barn Brunswick stew, Ed's shindig slaw and the cast-iron pineapple upside down cake. Are you hungry yet?

SIMON: I'll take some shindig slaw. You just heard about "Ed Mitchell's Barbecue" - before that, "The Secret Of Cooking" by Bee Wilson, "Invitation To A Banquet" by Fuchsia Dunlop, "The Migrant Chef" by Laura Tillman and "Asada: The Art Of Mexican-Style Grilling" by Bricia Lopez. For even more cookbook ideas, or if you're just looking for a good story to read, you can find the full list of Books We Love at npr.org/bestbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER T & THE MG'S' "SOUL SANCTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Milton Guevara
Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.