Arts Listings

Oliveto Hosts Aris Books’ Author Reunion

By Joe Eaton, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 10, 2006

Back at the dawn of Berkeley’s food revolution, before the first bit of artisan bread was dipped in extra-virgin olive oil, L. John Harris, a former Cheese Board collective member and waiter at Chez Panisse, published The Book of Garlic. 

He went on to found Aris Books in 1980, and to bring out a long list of single-subject cookbooks celebrating ginger, goat cheese, olives, peppers, mushrooms, calamari—40 titles in all. If you’re a serious cook, you probably have a couple on your own shelves. 

This Sunday, Harris and Maggie Blyth Klein, co-owner of Oliveto in Oakland’s Rockridge district, will host an Aris Books Author Reunion, Feast, and Cookbook Auction at Klein’s celebrated restaurant. It’s a benefit for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, kicking off their annual “We Give Thanks Month” in which local restaurants dedicate some of their proceeds to the 35-year-old nonprofit’s seven homeless assistance programs.  

Harris and Klein promise delicious food from Oliveto’s chef Paul Canales, inspired by some of the Aris cookbooks, plus a silent auction and a drawing for “a wonderful and unusual culinary adventure.” A dozen or so Aris authors will be on hand: Klein herself (Feast of the Olive), Georgeanne Brennan (New American Vegetable Cookbook), Isaac Cronin (California Seafood Cookbook, International Squid Cookbook), Michele Jordan (Good Cook’s Book of Mustard, Cook’s Tour of Sonoma), Jim Burns (Women Chefs), Linda Burum (Asian Pasta) and Jay Harlow (The Grilling Book).  

“When, in 1981, Harris asked me, then an editor at Cal Berkeley, to write a cookbook about olives and olive oil, neither of us knew that the project would change the course of my and my TV-producer husband Bob’s lives,” says Klein. Their research for Feast of the Olive involved immersion in Tuscan cuisine and culture and inspired them to open their own restaurant. Oliveto will turn 20 this December. 

Many of the other participating authors are still very much engaged with food. Brennan is practically a one-woman cookbook industry, whose other projects include a cooking school in Provence, gardening books, and the Bon Marché line of seeds. Cronin runs a public relations company representing specialty food accounts. Jordan has a food-related radio program in Sebastopol. Other Aris alumni are now food critics, artisanal food makers, specialty farmers, or restaurateurs. 

The Aris output also included books by MFK Fisher and Bruce Cost. What was special about them? “We featured unusual single subjects,” Harris recalls. “And they were more sophisticated subjects: olive oil, ginger, squid, garlic. They were more of a reading experience than standard cookbooks. We were like armchair travel books: you could get pleasure reading about food.” 

Some, like Klein’s Feast of the Olive and Cost’s Ginger East to West, were enormously influential. “Feast of the Olive launched the whole thing of tasting extra-virgin olive oil”, says Harris. “The Grilling Book was the first book to feature mesquite grilling.”  

Harris, now a filmmaker (his documentary, Divine Food: 100 Years in the Kosher Delicatessen Trade, has appeared on PBS), sold Aris in 1991. But he held on to his inventory, and it occurred to him that the books could be used to help the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. He had worked with the group before, making connections with restaurants that now participate in the “We Give Thanks” program. Berkeley Food and Housing Executive Director Terrie Light was delighted with the reunion idea, and Maggie Klein agreed to provide a venue for the event. 

How often do you have a chance to meet culinary celebrities, taste extraordinary Mediterranean food, and assist a worthy local cause?  


Tickets ($100) are available through Oliveto; call 547-5356.