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Wave of new books focuses on food and lifestyles "What could have been a moralist scold is transformed ... into a gentle, sometimes humorous tale."

You eat food, of course. But, this year especially you can also read food and watch food.

Has there ever been a time when culinary affairs have taken on so many political, literary and even fashion overtones? As food editor, I am attempting to get organized. I'll take on culinary cinema in a future column. For now, it's books.

The flood of cookbooks -- books purchased primarily for recipes -- has been constant for years, but soon we will also be buried beneath books that take a wider view. One best seller is "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" (HarperCollins) in which novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes how she and her family moved to a Virginia farm for a year, vowing to eat only food that was homegrown and local. They made their own bread, pickles, cheese etc. There are some recipes, contributed by her daughter, all done to dramatize the perils of our industrial food supply, needless to say.

But what could have been a moralist scold is transformed by Kingsolver's graceful writing into a gentle, sometimes humorous tale. It won't make you change your diet and/or lifestyle entirely, but it might convince you to stop buying peaches from South America in January. At least it will make you think about it.

Another side of the story comes in "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food is Wrong" by Barry Glassner (Ecco), in which a sociology professor takes on the whole nine yards -- celebrity chefs to fast food to food-as-medicine.

Americans have "fallen under the sway of killjoys who preach a gospel of naught," he writes, referring to the no carbs, no fats, no sugar movement.

You don't have to agree with him -- be prepared to have some of your favorite food tenets shattered. But there is such a thing as listening to the other side.

Speaking of chefs on pedestals, try "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution" by Thomas McNamee (Penguin). Waters is technically not a chef, but she played an enormous role in determining how many of us eat today when she opened her restaurant in Berkeley in 1971.

We have her to thank for the wide acceptance of, among other things, mesclun, goat cheese and free-range chickens.

She's pretty much out of the day-to-day routine of the restaurant biz now, but her story is still fascinating. A fair amount of sweetness and light here, but basically it's a well-balanced book.

Contrast that with "The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef," the typically immodest title of the autobiography of super Brit chef Marco Pierre White (Bloomsbury), culinary celebrity of several A-list London restaurants.

They served fine food but were really known for what White calls his "theatre of cruelty" involving both employees and patrons. Screaming, yelling, swearing -- sadly, you probably already know the drill.

First I was horrified by his story (just like he wanted me to be), but I got bored quickly. Forget the tantrums, mister, just grab a mixing bowl. We only ask to eat well.

When it comes to anything else in your life -- who cares?


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