Celebrity cookbooks blend food, entertainment

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's not your imagination. The food world really has become as much about the entertainment as the eating.

Beyond that, this star turn for food is all a matter of perspective. Either it's helped usher huge swaths of people into the kitchen -- especially and most importantly children -- or it's produced volumes of vacuous content that tethers people to the couch.

To help you cut through the clutter, the Associated Press has checked out some of the latest from the starry-eyed stacks.

'Jamie's Italy'

Though Jamie Oliver has been criticized for wildly overexposing himself, especially early in his stardom in England, he nevertheless comes across as a genuine guy who is excited about food and wants you to feel the same way.

It's tempting to treat this as a travelogue, reading the dissertations on Italy and its food, as well as the stories behind the recipes, like a novel. The only distraction? Too many overly stylized, not-so-candid candids of Oliver interacting with the locals.

'Paula Deen Celebrates'

Speaking of made-for-TV books. The latest from Paula Deen, the Food Network's doyenne of Southern cooking, covers good (though rarely good for you -- see the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding) eats for all manner of celebrations, including Elvis' birthday.

It's hard not to like Deen's food. What's to dislike about ham hock pizza and country-fried steak with gravy?

These heart-stopping recipes are bookended by stories from Deen about celebrations from her life and the food that went with them. While the stories sometimes verge on over-the-top cute, that's a huge part of why fans adore Deen.

'Tyler's Ultimate'

What a celebrity cookbook ought to be. Tyler Florence, another Food Network star (and the one who is America's answer to Oliver) hits just the right balance of personality and appealing food.

The photos focus on the food (there's only a handful of Florence). The stories focus on the food (not on how wonderful life as a star is). Even when he's talking about his shopping trips, there's a lesson at the end (in this case, that seafood demands simplicity).

Nicely organized into chapters such as "surf" and "garden," the book richly illustrates Florence's simple fare. He doesn't break much new ground (there are plenty of "ultimate" recipes, as in "the ultimate grilled shrimp" or "the ultimate crab cakes"), but everything looks so good and so approachable (such as "the ultimate Greek salad with grilled calamari"), it doesn't much matter.

"Barefoot Contessa at Home" by Ina Garten

Any cookbook that begins with a how-to on writing a grocery list likely is headed for rough terrain. But Garten quickly pulls it together by refocusing this, her fifth cookbook, on the flavorful comfort food (such as a Caesar club) for which she is known.

Garten's theme is how to use the kitchen to turn a house into a home. Coming home to her simplified shrimp bisque or seafood gratin certainly would go a long way toward that. Even her fruitcake cookies sound and look homey and good.

The only complaint: She does plod heavily into the territory Florence so deftly avoided. Much of her verbiage is spent reminding readers that she has a wonderful life in the Hamptons.

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