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Books for the Intellectual Foodie

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The Roman emperors did nothing by half-measures. Vitellius, whose reign in 69 C.E. (that's "Common Era," the alternative to A.D., or "Anno Domini") lasted barely eight months, proved a spectacular failure on most fronts but one: the man knew how to throw together a dinner.

According to the historian Suetonius, Vitellius created a certain dish that combined "the livers of charfish, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, with the tongues of flamingos and the entrails of lampreys." That was one of many exotic spreads the emperor arranged on a nightly basis. By the time his enemies came to assassinate him, he was probably too stuffed to run.

Gifted with near-infinite money and power, most of Rome's emperors partied harder than a load of rock stars on a Vegas binge weekend. The only reason that Vitellius, Commodus, Nero or any other imperial miscreants didn't drive a Bentley into a hotel pool at the climax of a cocaine-fueled bender was that Rome fell centuries before the creation of the internal combustion engine or hard drugs. This decadent lifestyle eclipses their well-earned reputations as foodies, or enthusiasts of food and cooking.

By contrast, most intellectuals neglect to focus their considerable mental energies on food. In the midst of study and work, a typical diet might feature little more than a grilled-cheese sandwich, a handful of microwave popcorn, or a fast-food heart attack in a greasy paper bag.

But like music, science, literature and mathematics, the culinary arts are supremely worthy of the intellectual's attention. Cooking blends chemistry, history and biology into a tasty package. Many chefs double as public intellectuals of the highest order, writing books and driving discussion of how food molds a society. Any intellectual seeking to build a balanced larder of knowledge would do well to embrace their inner Roman emperor, and familiarize themselves with food and the art of cooking -- even if their own culinary attempts go up in smoke a disconcerting amount of the time.

Putting This Theory into Practice

Some books to help broaden your culinary knowledge:

The Omnivore's Dilemma: Michael Pollan is a culinary intellectual whose books, including this impressive tome, explore what exactly it means to eat: how our collective decisions about food impact the natural world around us, whether "organic" is truly better, and even the mysterious ingredients found in Chicken McNuggets. Another work by him, In Defense of Food, boils his dining philosophy down to a simple maxim: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

The Way to Cook: For decades Julia Child helped open American eyes and mouths to the possibilities of more sophisticated cooking (The Way to Cook is just one of her magnum opuses). Her recipes range widely, from soufflés to complexities involving lamb, with realistic steps to prepare them (unlike some cookbooks that won't be mentioned here).

The Joy of Cooking: This hefty cookbook by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker has served as a kitchen bible for generations of chefs. Its comprehensive pages feature recipes from stuffed boar's head to coconut macaroons.

Heat: Essayist Bill Buford's narrative of his adventures in the restaurant industry features captivating digressions into culinary topics such as pasta-making and butchering.

Whether or not you plunge fully into the foodie lifestyle, knowing more about what goes into your daily meals can encourage you to eat better, which in turn could boost your longevity. Most Roman emperors never had the chance to demonstrate that a good diet adds years to your life: the tyrant lifestyle is fun and games, but sooner or later someone always draws a sword on you.

The Inevitable Footnote

When it comes to culinary literature, ignore those culinary tell-alls where a famous chef devotes hundreds of pages to shredding his or her restaurant rivals. These narratives prove entertaining, but they often lack the cultural details craved by foodie intellectuals.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.