Best of the Food Memoirs

Food Books at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks

I will read any food memoir.  Want to talk about making more bread than anyone should?  Growing up in India?  Shucking oysters?  Your mom’s terrible cooking?  Rendering duck fat?  Tell me a story.  Right now.  I’m there, I’ll pull up a chair, read it cover to cover, and enjoy every second of it.  (Unless you are one of three books.  These annoyed me.)

Yes, it’s because I’m obsessed with food, but it’s also because the best food memoirs take love, food, inspiration, adventure, travel, and maybe a well-earned life lesson or two, and emphatically smash it all into a glorious literary meatball. (Subtle food reference!)  Food memoirs are comforting proof to me that food and life are inextricably intertwined, and that all of it is accidental, messy, and should be consumed in the greediest of manners.

These following, in no particular order, are my favorites of the genre.  Some of them made me cry in embarrassing places.  And by places, I mean locations.

My Life in France

My Life in France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Life In France / Julia Child (A lot at the end, but mostly at home.)

This woman was just extraordinary – a trailblazing, fearless, and huggable giantess that changed the food landscape of America and redefined what it meant to be a woman in the post War era.   My absolute favorite thing about this book is the completely  offhand way she talks about the incredibly ballsy things that she does.  She makes having top security clearance at the OSS (the pre-CIA), being the only woman cooking at the Cordon Bleu, and writing what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking seem like the most simple, logical thing to do.  Like, oh, that?  Not a big deal.  Her keen intelligence, her curiosity and her plain, good spirit come through every page, and made me wish desperately that we could be friends.

Cover of "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up ...

Cover via Amazon

Tender At the Bone / Ruth Reichl (Three cries)

I love all of Ruth Reichl’s writing.  Her books are ostensibly about her life, this one about growing up in an unconventional household with an erratic but well-intentioned mother, first in New York and then California.  Food, and her evolving relationship to it, is not so much spelled out but reads as a constant background hum to her life.   This is her first book, followed by Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires.  (Also, I totally remember my mom reading this book in English and loving it.  English is her second language and she only really reads short stories.

Blood Bones and Butter / Gabrielle Hamilton (Three cries)

This book made me cry so much.  First chapter, and then another few times later on. True story.  I loved the directness and honesty of her story, how unflinchingly she tells about the times her parents abandoned (forgot!?) about her and her siblings in the woods, their deteriorating marriage, her deteriorating marriage, and eventually, the opening of her restaurant Prune.  Food for her is the backbone, the milestones and the sustenance all rolled into one, and she is the everywoman who has erred, been wronged and has dusted herself off just one more time.

Cover of "The Apprentice: My Life In The ...

Cover of The Apprentice: My Life In The Kitchen

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen /Jacques Pepin

Jacques Pepin.  Just freaking adorable.  Jacques Pepin’s experience as a classically trained chef is fascinating in itself, for those of us not in the restaurant world.  That, along with his inexhaustible work ethic, lack of pretensions and straightforward charm and kindness make this memoir the cosiest and sweetest of reads.  Also, it’s living color proof that cool people find their way to other cool people.  Julia Child and Jacques, besides being great friends, quietly bickered and cooked through 22 episodes of public television television together.

Yes, Chef / Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers (Two cries)

Another cryfest.  The first chapter had me tearing up behind my sunglasses in a very public place.  Food is family, no matter how unconventional and sprawling your family tree is.  Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and belonging wholeheartedly to New York City, Marcus Samuelsson’s take on food is as wide-ranging as his experiences have been.  Threaded throughout his book is a sense of social consciousness, sensitivity to social responsibility, and an unadulterated sense of idealism that I think is very much representative of his (our) generation.  Food is the great leveler and a connector, and the difference we make in the world is not about the job that we do but the spirit that we do it in.

What do you think? Any glaring omissions, dear Readers?  Set me straight!

P.S.  These were also great: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper / Fuchsia Dunlop,  Climbing the Mango Tree / Madhur Jaffrey and Kitchen Confidential / Anthony Bourdain.

P.P.S.  If you haven’t checked out Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, where the photo above was taken, you really, really should.  Her hours change from week to week, so calling ahead is good protocol.

P.P.P.S.  I’m also slowly combing my way through this list by The Literary Foodie and this list on Goodreads.


Welcome to the future.

East River Ferry Ride

Dear loyal readers,

For the longest time, 2012 just sounded like the distant future, and I had to keep reminding myself it was the now.  Now we’re in 2013, and we might as well be strapping on our jetpacks.  (Btw, have you heard this band?  I am heads over heels over their name. )

The last half of this year has just blown by, with barely a post from me in the last few months.  I’ve missed you so. I’ve changed jobs, gone to India, got stranded in Austria, found myself waist deep in a relationship, gained some friends and misplaced some others, and generally have been lucky enough to be good, happy and healthy.  I hope you have too.

First, guys and girls, thank you, thank you, thank you for reading.  It means so much to me that you read Smartest Cleverest.  Second, I’ll be making some exciting changes to the site.  In the process of writing on a more regular basis for Smartest Cleverest in the past year, I’ve noticed that the posts that I get most excited about writing are the recipes.   They are fun. (Please say you think so too.)  For a while there, I had a pretty big mental block against being a food blog.  “The world is awash in food blogs.”  “Who doesn’t have a food blog?” “No one one cares about what you ate last night.”  (That was my brain mocking itself, by the way.)  But I’ve decided it will be fine, this is what I’ll be doing.  Check out my new About page and the slight name change. New categories, and posts will follow shortly.  Stay tuned!






And to make up for the recent temporary lull, a list of things that have inspired me in the last year.  May it spark a light in you.

  1. Have you read Steal Like An Artist by Mr. Austin Kleon?  The bit about how blogging is learning what you want to write about?  And yea, all those other really brilliant bits.
  2. Penelope Trunk.  Yes, she’s craaazy and arrogant, but damn smart.  And also unapologetic about cutting to the chase.   Like this.  And this.  And this.
  3. This quote by Woodrow Wilson, a reminder to look above the fray: “You are not here merely to make a living.  You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with great vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement.”
  4. Jiro and his bone-deep commitment to his craft.
  5. This poem by Kathleen Lynch I ran into on Swiss Miss.  It is currently being transferred from my (paper!) planner 2012 to planner 2013.
  6. Beyonce at the United Nations belting out ‘I Was Here.”  Girlcrush forever.


Hot Sauce City

This summer has been all hot sauce, all the time in my apartment.  That little (or big) kick in the mouth feels the right answer to combating the oppressive mugginess (of the air), and the inevitable sluggishness (of me).  I tend to prefer hot sauces higher on the heat gradient, and that do that slow burn in your throat and stomach, instead of just setting your mouth immediately on fire.

Without, further ado, I bring to you my three most favorite hot sauces, all deliciously perfect in their own way.

1. Sriracha

You know about this already.  If you’ve tried it, you understand.  If you haven’t, you need this like you need ice in your lemonade.  It’s the classic.  (Tabasco doesn’t count…because it’s gross.)  Equally at home on scrambled eggs, noodles, meats of all persuasions, sandwiches, and tweaked condiments, its versatility is legion. (Check out Bon Appetit’s 25 ways to use Sriracha.)  Without any sour or sweet notes that can skew the taste of a dish, Sriracha adds a slow, but strong heat to anything it touches.  Even better?  It’s a multicultural mutt from California, by way of Thailand via Vietnam.  The NYT would love to tell you more.

By the way, don’t get fooled by imitators in similar bottles, of which there are many. They pale in comparison.

2. Secret Aardvark Habanero 

I happened on this while eating at Pine State Biscuits in Portland last year and it’s been stocked in my cupboards ever since.  A little sweet, a little fruity, and a lot of hot, SA Habanero doesn’t get along with absolutely everything the way Sriracha does, but it does lend some great flavor and heat to most things.  (This and pork are total BFFs.)  Made in Portland and tinged with Caribbean influences, Secret Aardvark Habanero doesn’t seem to be stocked on this coast, but you can order it online.  Perhaps in a pack of 6, so you can be a hot sauce know-it-all/distributor to your friends.

3. Bo Ky Green Chili 

I’ve been going to Bo Ky/Grand Bo Ky for a while now for their cheap, cheap, delicious soup noodles.  Half the reason I go is for their green chili sauce that they keep stocked on their tables.  It’s lightly pickled, fresh, bright, fantastically hot, and brilliant with seafood.  I have been refraining from eating it straight from the spoon.  A small container is $4, a large is $7, sold at their two locations.

That is all.  Let me know if I’m missing anything importantly delicious!


Jasmine Tea

Jasmine tea gets a bad rap. My mom makes a noise every time I mention it, somewhere between a hiss and an exasperated sigh.  It’s often overly floral, almost perfume-y, disguising inferior tea leaves like a cab driver’s cologne.  The jasmine aroma dissipates soon after opening.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

This tin is from a company called Sunflower, which I picked up during a jaunt at the Chinese supermarket. Isn’t the tin just so off-handedly cool?  It was $3.29.  If the tea failed me, I thought, at least I would have a nice place to keep coins.

It was also one of the nicest jasmine teas I’ve come across, with a lasting jasmine aroma, and a solid backbone of good black tea.

The Yamamotoyama tea bags are maybe a tad more amazing, but for the price, these Sunflower tins win hands down.  With both, be careful of overbrewing – the bitterness of the tea can overpower the jasmine in a heartbeat.

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