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Start your holidays between the covers

click to enlarge PHOTO BY GLENDA BARTOSH - 1001 NIGHTS Save some of these long winter evenings for curling up with a good book, like 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die.
  • Photo by glenda bartosh
  • 1001 NIGHTS Save some of these long winter evenings for curling up with a good book, like 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die.

Ho, ho, everyone! Ready or not, here it comes — Christmas, with all its festive hustle-bustle, along with that nice fulsome list of gifts for the people you love.

Christmas also means those short, hopefully bright days and l-o-n-g dark nights that mark December's solstice and the finest season of all — winter reading season! So as a prelude to my annual offering of gifts that disappear (you know, things with a small footprint that you can eat, drink and be merry with, or otherwise use up so they don't end up in the landfill), here are some tips for the bookworms on your list who also love food in all its glorious breadth and depth. That might even include you!

If my dear husband hadn't already given me this one for my birthday, it would be Numero Uno on my Christmas list this year.

You don't have to take the title literally, but I'd definitely say 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die is a book you must own before you die. Since libraries are so agreeable I'm not an advocate of owning books per se, although I admit to having one or two kicking around, including 1001 — a keeper for all the right reasons.

First, at nearly 1,001 pages it's one of those yummy books you can pick up anytime, graze for five minutes or five hours, and come away satisfied. Despite the page count, it's not heavy or onerous like a meal out of Gourmet Cookbook with eggs and caviar and a terrine de canard à l'Ancienne. (Now there's another gift idea, not that you'll likely use it for duck terrine, but it proves invaluable for classics like Irish griddle scones or onion soup gratinée, otherwise known as French onion soup.)

1001 is a beautiful little volume with a nice compact page size and sewn binding so it won't fall apart. The layout is clean and sophisticated with lots of white space to flaunt the excellent photos, like the close-up of bright red arils of nutmeg fruit that are laid out to dry before being processed as mace, and the shiny S-shaped lussekatter, sweet, yellow Swedish buns made with saffron that mark a traditional Christmas in that culture.

Browsing 1001 is book fun at its finest — a fulsome reminder of how good browsing can be without Google. Organized into nine categories — fruits, veggies, dairy, meats, aromatics, grain, bakery, confections — each entry has been written by one of a host of international food experts, with Frances Case as general editor. In her intro she writes, "The main goal of this book is to encourage you to try new foods." She acknowledges you might not like everything, but you'll have fun experimenting.

Who knew, for instance, that gadwall is every bit as delicious as mallard duck. I didn't until my hubbie, who's taken very kindly to my gift, mentioned it casually while we were birding in the Fraser delta with three big, fat — you guessed it — gadwalls filling our binocular lenses.

The thing I really like about this book, though, is the way the authors weave in myriad aspects about food — richly, wittily and shortly, not in tweets but surely under 200 words.

In a few deft strokes, for instance, cheese expert Michel Raffael tells us appenzeller is the sharpest and spiciest of Swiss mountain cheeses, very different from Gruyère and Emmentaler, along with tasty tidbits about how it's made, including its provenance hearkening back to abbot's cellars, tithes and the Middle Ages, and why you might see some with a bluish-grey line below the rind (those are made from unpasteurized milk).

At the other end of the spectrum is another must-have in my little world — the Wilderness Kingdom New Cookbook, first published in 1972 by Prairie Crafts in Saskatoon, Sask. and republished in 1989. This Canadian treasure is composed of 90 authentic recipes using wild game and wild berries from a host of First Nations' contributors, including Johnny Redsquirrel, Annie Mae Ratt and George Buffalo.

It teaches you how to smoke and cure wild meats, including buffalo brisket, and how to make pemmican that never spoils. (Use moose, elk or deer meat. The trick is to hang it on a rack outdoors in the sun, using a fire or smudge to keep insects off.)

Everything old is new again, and with meats like buffalo now finding shelf space in stores like Save-On (happy to find kangaroo patties there, too — delicious!), you don't have to be a hunter to appreciate this gem. It's the one cookbook I'll take with me when the end of the world comes.

Speaking of gems, here's another for your holiday season. It's also a rewarding browser, where you can open to any page and be delighted.

For years, cultural anthropologist and frequent CBC guest Margaret Visser wrote a column called "The Way We Are" for Saturday Night, Canada's oldest and maybe proudest magazine, now long gone (RIP SN: 1887-2005). The book of the same name is a collection of her best and brightest essays from there, on food and more. Where else could you learn in a heartbeat about the sex symbolism of Santa or the true meaning of pumpkin (squash)?

As for all you secret Stella Harveys out there, otherwise known as aficionados of the Whistler Writers Festival (check out their website, whistlerwritersfest.com, for deets on Stella's excellent GoFundMe project), I leave you with the book to beat all holiday books: 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.

So many good things to read — don't die anytime soon!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who mainlines books.

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