Gourmet! Has any other word slipped into such disrepute? Okay, "liberal"—but at least it started out sterling. Before World War II, as the Sterns relate in their witty and well-researched 16th book, gourmet connoted an effete snob, or an oddball who smacked his lips over chocolate-covered grasshoppers. Then postwar prosperity ushered in an adventurous "gourmet revolution" sparked by TV and jet travel and enthusiasts such as the iconoclastic James Beard; Joe Baum, creator of New York's Forum of the Twelve Caesars and other lavish theme restaurants; and Julia Child. "Those who felt part of the gastronomic rebirth were proud to call themselves gourmets because it meant that they were people who sought the best life had to offer," the Stems write.
Their book succeeds as social history (amusing chapters on the evolution of TV chefs, "continental" restaurants and food-as-sex as hyped in The Playboy Gourmet and any number of avid cookbooks). But it also works as dinner. The Sterns revive 100 bygone recipes. Turns out there really is nothing wrong with lobster thermidor, beef Stroganoff or baked Alaska—at least on an occasional Saturday night. Your friends may laugh when you tell them the menu. But watch them clean their plates. (HarperCollins, $25)