I think food writing is some of the best writing out there. After all, it’s a universally inspiring subject — everybody has to eat! But the lives of food-lovers and chefs with a gusto for life also can be juicy and fascinating to read in a way that reminds me of curling up with tabloids like People. But better, of course, because food is better for you than Kim Kardashian.
Whether you’re interested in a career in the food service industry, love cozying up with a well-written memoir, or just want a little juicy entertainment this weekend, these five favorites should be on your must-read list.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Take one look at the menu at Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune restaurant, and you’ll see a litany of comforting foods from different cuisines. The selection is at once whimsical and well thought out, and pretty much every item looks like something I’d love to eat right now. My warm fuzzy feelings toward this menu are likely amplified due to the fact that, in addition to being a fan of Gabrielle Hamilton’s food sensibilities, I have enormous respect and love for her writing.
It’s a special, special thing when someone with as rich life experience as Hamilton is also blessed with a penchant for reflecting and communicating with such flare and honesty. Blood, Bones & Butter is Hamilton’s tour de force — she lays bare the details of her fascinating life in a way that will entertain and touch you deeply. Curl up with this beautifully-written memoir on a chilly afternoon, and you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Watching his documentary show on CNN these days, it’s easy to view Anthony Bourdain as an easygoing, affable guy — the sort of warm-fuzzy travel guide people just can’t wait to invite into their homes for a family meal. He gets along with just about everybody everywhere, bridging culture gaps with a common interest in such things as sausage (or “meat in tube form” as he’s known to call it), nighttime food crawls, and the roasting of large animals over an open fire.
But Bourdain wasn’t always this way. His beginnings in the food world were in the back of the house in restaurants, and in Kitchen Confidential, he tells all in matter-of-fact and darkly humorous style. Young Tony was a moody and restless line chef, at home in the macho and hardscrabble world of foodservice. He minces no words speaking of his rough times with drug addiction — it’s incredible that he was able to pull himself out of that spiral and rise to such success. This book may scare you out of a career in the restaurant industry, but it will definitely entertain you along the way.
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
Apart from the food section of the newspaper and my parents’ cookbook collection, Ruth Reichl’s memoirs were the first food writing I ever got my hands on. When I was thirteen years old, my grandma lent me this first in Reichl's three-book series of memoirs, exclaiming on how much she enjoyed it. I devoured the whole thing in a weekend, and have come back to reread it many times since then.
The storytelling in this book can best be described as sensual — every dish that Reichl encounters on her journey is written about as a multi-sensory, savored experience. From the intensely putrid leftovers her mother would try to pass off as food for company, to chocolate soufflé dinners cooked by a french chef and a dumpster-dived Berkeley Thanksgiving dinner, Reichl always makes us feel like we are in the moment with her, seeing life and food through a lens of humor and love. (By the way, her second book, Comfort Me With Apples, is even more of a juicy tell-all, in the best soap opera sense!)
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop
When Fuchsia Dunlop first traveled to China in 1992, Chinese cuisine was largely a mystery to the Western world. Yes, we thought we knew from Chinese food, but what we’d really been exposed to was just a small slice of a huge repertoire of regional dishes. Lucky us that Ms. Dunlop had such an open mind and adventurous palate. When presented with preserved duck eggs, sea cucumbers, swallows’ nests, or any other Chinese delicacy, she never turned down the unfamiliar.
In fact, in a subsequent trip to China, Dunlop ventured past Hong Kong and its environs, traveling deep into Sichuan to enroll in a cooking school. The only westerner in a class of Chinese students, she learned not only recipes, but cutting techniques and concepts central to balancing flavors and textures in a dish. Dunlop’s bubbly, charmingly wonkish energy is infectious — you’ll happily absorb the lessons she learned on cooking and culture in her travels and studies.
My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
Julia Child’s buoyant personality endeared her to millions of fans, both of her cooking shows and cookbooks. Her cheerful, reassuring tone has encouraged countless cooks to venture out of their comfort zones to prepare impressive and delicious French dishes. It’s not hyperbole to say that she’s mostly responsible for Americans’ education about classic French cuisine and how to cook it in a home kitchen.
Unlike those of us who grew up in the era of the Food Network, Julia Child was not overexposed to food and cooking in her formative years in California. Her introduction to the kitchen came fairly late, in her mid-30s when she traveled to France with her husband Paul. While the two of them immensely enjoyed dining in Paris’ many restaurants, Julia was determined to create delicious meals at home. She enrolled in cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu, and the rest was history.
Written by Julia Child with assistance from journalist Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France was a cooperative effort. Prud’homme and Child spent much time going over her and Paul’s written letters in order to put together a cohesive narrative of their time in France. It was the last major project she worked on, passing away in 2004, a year before Prud’homme finished the book. Her joy in recalling the early years of her marriage effervesces right off of the pages, warming you heart and soul as you read about their life together, and her journey from novice to expert in the French kitchen.
What are your most-loved food memoirs? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!