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Holiday Servings Chez Alice

By Stuart Mitchner

Among the holiday season’s crop of new books, most of which are immense, amply-illustrated volumes destined for display, some of this year’s stand-outs feature interesting women, whether photographers like Mary Caperton Morton (Aerial Geology), painters (Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900), or women of the Old West like Calamity Jane (The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary), or superstars like Wonder Woman (The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen) and culinary legend Alice Waters, whose modest-sized, compulsively readable best-selling memoir is more suited to bedside than coffee tables.

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook (Clarkson Potter $27) had me smiling the instant I saw the photograph of the Times Square Automat accompanying the opening chapter. If, like me, you associate Alice Waters with her masterwork Chez Panisse in Berkeley, you may be amused to know that this most charismatic of restauranteurs grew up in Chatham, N.J. and first felt the allure of food in a lost New York landmark. “When I was little,” she writes, “I always wanted to go to the Museum of Natural History and eat at the Automat for my birthday.” The Automat was her favorite because “it felt like an entirely new way to have food” and she could choose what she ate. “Every surface … was shiny: there was a huge wall of little stainless steel doors, sort of like post office boxes, with windows displaying the food in each one. You put your money in one of the post office box slots, opened the door, and got your dish …. I liked seeing the food before I picked what I wanted—I couldn’t or didn’t read the menu, so being able to see it resonated with me. We’d each go for what we wanted, and then the whole family met back at the table to eat our various dishes together. “She loved being given her own money and being allowed to make her own choices, and she loved putting her money “into that little door.” As she notes, the irony is that Chez Panisse became known for offering just one fixed-price menu each night.


Like Alice Waters, Mary Caperton Morton discovered her life’s work as a young girl. In her preface to Aerial Geology: A High-Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters, and Peaks (Timber Press $29.95), she recalls finding a rock covered with seashells in the mountains of West Virginia: “Finding a slice of an ancient ocean floor on a mountaintop forever changed the way I saw the world. I am now a geology writer, an avid traveler, and a mountaineer.” As she puts it, with mountaineering “the higher you go, the more you see. Mountain tops are fantastic classrooms, airplane window seats are even better.” She ends her preface, “I hope this book changes the way you see the world and inspires you to get out and see more of it.”

Besides being a freelance science and travel writer and a regular contributor to EARTH magazine, Morton has a blog headed Travels with the Blonde Coyote. In her 10 years as “a road warrior nomad,” she’s hiked in all 50 states and evolved from “a girl who looks up at the mountains to a woman who climbs to the summits.” She now lives at 8,000 feet in Big Sky, Montana.


Photographic adventures on a more down-to-earth scale are the subject of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson $45) by Fiona Rogers and Max Houghton. Established in 2011 in the context of what continues to be “a male-dominated industry,” Firecracker ( is an online platform dedicated to supporting female photographers worldwide by showcasing their work in a series of monthly, online gallery features; by organizing events; and by awarding an annual grant to enable a female photographer to fund a project. Building on Firecracker’s foundations, this book brings together the work of more than 30 contemporary photographers from around the world. Each profile explores the photographer’s creative practice, illustrated by photographs that showcase a key project in her career, and a selection that offers a wider view of her work. The images reflect a variety of styles, techniques, and locations—from German Alma Haser’s portraits that use origami to create 3D sculptures within the frame, to Egyptian Laura El-Tantawy’s series on political protest in Cairo.

Fiona Rogers is Magnum Photos’ global business development manager, as well as the founder of Firecracker. Max Houghton runs the MA Program in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.


Edited by independent curator Laurence Madeline, formerly a curator at the Musée d’Orsay, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (Yale Univ. Press $65) includes essays by Madeline, Bridget Alsdorf, Jane R. Becker, Joëlle Bolloch, Vibeke Waallan Hansen, and Richard Kendall. Featuring 36 artists from 11 different countries, this lavish, thoughtfully illustrated book includes paintings by Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, and lesser-known artists like Marie Bashkirtseff, Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and Hanna Pauli. In a situation familiar to female photographers a century later, women were “mostly barred from formal artistic education but cleverly navigated the city’s network of ateliers, salons, and galleries.” Essay subjects are the female artist in portraiture, the experiences of Nordic women artists, and the presence of women artists throughout the history of the Paris salon.

The striking cover image is from Echo, an 1891 oil on canvas by the Finnish painter Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954).


Hope Nicholson’s The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History (Quirk Books $24.95) begins with a tribute to Little Lulu, a beloved character I associate with the era of automats (my wife and I still quote from old Lulu comics), before moving on to crimebusters like Miss Fury, super-spies like Tiffany Sinn, sci-fi pioneers like Gale Allen, and iconic favorites Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel. According to Library Journal, “the mix of history, pop culture, and a little bit of reference is more akin to a heavily illustrated coffee-table book, allowing for browsing short entries about superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones and cult favorites such as Emily the Strange.”

Hope Nicholson is the owner and founder of Bedside Press, and a consulting editor for Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird (Dark Horse Comics, 2016).

French Writer Christian Perrissin (El Niño, Cape Horn) joins forces with award-winning artist Matthieu Blanchin to tackle the legend of Martha Jane Cannary and her life alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok in Calamity Jane: The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary (IDW $29.99), a graphic novel presented in English for the first time. Fans of Robin Weigart’s lusty foul-mouthed Jane in David Milch’s great HBO series Deadwood should enjoy this lengthy, in-depth graphic biography (368 pages) of the prototypical cowgirl, “a bona fide frontierswoman, a professional scout, drunk, and sometime whore, doing whatever it took to stay alive in the hardscrabble days of American expansion.”


It could only happen in New York, city of the Automat. My wife and I were having lunch at the Union Square Cafe some years ago when we began hearing “She’s here! she’s here!” from the wait staff. A small crowd seemed to be forming around the woman seated at a table to our left. When our waiter came for the order, my wife, a fellow student of Waters at Berkeley, said, “I’ll have whatever Alice is having.”