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 / 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.
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.
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.