5 favorite food and cooking memoirs
Updated: May 30, 2022
My love for cookbooks has been well documented already. It’s probably not surprising that I also enjoy food memoirs. While these books do often contain a few recipes, they aren’t cookbooks. Instead, they’re more like memoirs that give you a glimpse into the ways food and cooking have shaped the author’s identity and memory.
As someone who attaches a lot of nostalgia to food and cooking, this ethos speaks to me.
Of course, like any other genre, not all food memoirs are created equal. Over the years and through fairly extensive reading, I’ve begun to nail down the attributes that make for a great reading experience in this genre. Other than just beautiful writing generally, here’s what I look for in a great piece of food writing:
The food descriptions must make me want to eat the food and make me feel as if I’m almost tasting it. A good food writer knows how to paint a memorable picture of a dish so that when you see the name on a menu later, you can’t stop yourself from ordering it.
It must tell me something I don’t already know about a type of cooking or a specific food, whether it’s a technique or the history of how the dish came to be.
The food and recipes (if applicable) much connect to what’s happening in the narrative. In other words, the pairing needs to make sense.
While this list could have included dozens of books, to jumpstart your food memoir reading journey, here are five of my favorites.
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
I’ve loved every single one of Ruth Reichl’s books I’ve read, so I could have put any of them on this list. The reason I chose Garlic and Sapphires is that it provides a look into a part of the food world I had no prior knowledge of: undercover restaurant reviewing.
Prior to her long tenure as the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine (which you can read about in Save Me the Plums), Reichl was the restaurant critic for The New York Times. At the time, the role required elaborate smoke and mirrors since the restaurant critic’s identity was not supposed to be known. The anonymity allowed them to receive the “normal” treatment at the finest restaurants instead of preferential treatment based on their power to review.
This book is funny, full of heart and insight as Reichl grapples with her disguises and aliases and what they say about her true self, and filled with mouth-watering food descriptions. It’s a can’t-miss book for anyone who loves food writing, in my opinion.
Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist
Shauna Niequist writes beautifully crafted personal essays no matter the subject matter, so it’s not surprising that I loved her food-centric memoir Bread and Wine as much as I did. Rather than one linear story about a period in her life, this book is a collection of essays that center on relationships with family and friends and how those relationships are nourished through sharing food.
This book includes essays on extremely hard topics–miscarriage, loneliness, grief, etc.–but it is fundamentally a joyful book. It presents a hopeful view of the world and the beauty of sharing a meal with loved ones that’s well worth the read. Plus, it contains my go-to brownie recipe that is miraculously gluten-free and still amazing.
Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
This book centers around Gabrielle Hamilton opening and running her NYC restaurant Prune (which unfortunately closed in 2020), tracing her culinary heritage through the kitchens of her past that led to her own restaurant’s kitchen.
Hamilton actually comes from a writing background and her expertise in that regard is evident on every page. This is a beautifully written and structured memoir–the fact that it centers on food is icing on the cake. When reading this book, I felt like I was standing next to Hamilton in the kitchen, dancing around her mother, her employees, and her mother-in-law as we all try to work in the same space together. It’s both incredibly intimate and personal and also universal.
If you’re someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen and has distinct memories of cooking in childhood, this would be a great read for you.
Okay, so this one is sort of a food memoir, but the main narrative focuses on David Lebovitz moving to Paris and building a home there with his long-time partner. As someone who loves Paris deeply and has not-so-secretly longed to move there, this book was a delight and also a bit of a warning.
While a little Paris apartment with a beautiful light-filled kitchen may seem like the dream, getting there proves to be rather a nightmare in this book. It seems that Lebovitz’s apartment acquisition and renovation project meets with obstacles at every turn. In reality, this story would have been maddening to live through, it makes for a very funny reading experience. Peppered throughout, of course, are recipes Lebovitz makes in his (now thankfully finished) Paris kitchen.
If you love Paris as much as I do and have toyed with the idea of living your best ex-pat life, pick this one up.
The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty
I find genealogy fascinating, so when I heard about Michael W. Twitty’s book that combines his quest to trace his family line with his own personal food history, I knew it would be a book for me. It’s a story of Twitty’s own genealogy, true, but it’s also a story about American cooking–particularly southern cooking–and the influences it borrowed and stole.
Twitty’s memoir opens with a frank and heartbreaking discussion of the difficulty of tracing his family history as an African American person. Since his ancestors were enslaved, the records of who they were and where they came from simply do not exist. Instead, Twitty must trace his genealogy using DNA and historical guesswork. Along this quest to find his family’s story, Twitty travels all over the southern United States to learn about the foodways of his ancestors and how those cooking customs came to America in the first place.
This is a memoir that deals with heavy topics, but the emphasis is on the ways food brings people together and how shared meals can unite people of all backgrounds. If you love history and/or genealogy, this would be a great food memoir to start with.
Do you read food memoirs? If so, what are your favorites?