Best Books About Food: A Look At The Food Memoirs You Need To Read

If you love to cook or just love to read about cooking, then our ultimate list of food memoirs is for you. This list isn’t just the best books about food, it’s the best books about the world of food, cooking, love, history and excitement!

Like any great read, a food memoir must have a ‘reason to be’ and a ‘story to tell.’ Stories of lives lived through food can be a dicey concept for any writer. It takes real boldness (maybe audacity) to sit down and decide that your individual eating or cooking experience is interesting enough for readers to care about. The job is easier said than done, but when written well, a food memoir can touch our common feelings of growth, understanding and self-awareness. A great food memoir hits on the real reason we love food –  it’s not just a means for survival but it’s how we assimilate happiness, suffering, love and humor.

I have assembled a list of books that I hope makes you feel excited to keep reading, cooking and feeling.

A few words on how this list was assembled. Many food memoirs might contain some recipes, but there are no cookbooks on this list, only a story memoir. There is no particular ranking as these are personal stories and all are worthy to make the list. I considered originality, lasting interest, impact on the genre, and (most important) that it be an enjoyable read.

The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher (1943)

From the first page, “Our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.”

Born in Michigan, in 1908, Fisher was the preeminent food writer of her day and a woman ahead of her time. Over her life she wrote 27 books of which this was the first published in 1943.

It is a moving story about an American food writer’s travel and food experiences, specifically French food. But it’s hardly a story told through rose colored glasses; it’s also about war-time tensions, sexual taboos, and hunger both physically and emotionally. Throughout the book, she narrates a life in meals with eccentric characters and somewhat racy (for the time) references.

Fisher poses the question, “Why write about food?” and answers it in a beautifully executed memoir.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

Chefs are depicted as rough-edged, substance-fueled, adrenaline junkies. This ‘wild ride’ of a memoir is packed with what Bourdain called “25 years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.” Fair warning: this is intense. Restaurant kitchens as dark dens of immorality run by a pack of renegades that would have put Bonnie and Clyde to shame. Bourdain opens the doors to a subculture, and we’re never looking back. 

Anthony Bourdain how we all miss you!

Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson (2012)

A beautiful memoir that begins in Ethiopia where Marcus and his older sister were born to an impoverished woman named Ahni. By 1972, all three had contracted tuberculosis. His sick mother walked and carried her children (Marcus was only one at the time) 75 dusty, hot miles to Addis Ababa where she died.

Marcus, now three, and his sister were adopted by a loving family from Sweden (their new home). His new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a passion for food and cooking. He chronicles his passage from Helga’s humble kitchen to the most cut throat restaurants in Switzerland and France from grueling tours of duty on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City where he earned a New York Times three star rating at age 24.

He shares openly and honestly about the ups and downs of the food world and the difficulties of a black chef entering the world of haute cuisine.

My Life In France by Julia Child (2000)

“This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in my life: my husband Paul Child, la belle France, and the many pleasures of cooking and eating.”  So begins My Life in France by Julia Child, one of America’s most revered cooking personalities and a prolific advocate of butter. Child’s passion for cooking was not a natural occurrence but rather a skill and love born inherently from a desire as a young bride to provide acceptable meals for her husband.

Child enrolled in a ‘bride-to-be cooking class’ in Los Angeles prior to her wedding where she learned to make pancakes (among other things). However, her husband was an American diplomat and it was a move to France, in 1948, that inspired a true culinary legend to be born. What followed was an intense love affair with France (and French cooking, in particular) and the beginning of both a culinary career (she studied at Cordon Bleu) and a writing career. 

My Life in France is written with her nephew, Alex Prud’homme, and was completed shortly before her death. This is a 100 percent enjoyable story. Trust me.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011) 

Hamilton runs a jewel of a restaurant, Prune, in New York’s Greenwich Village (only 30 seats). She is a gifted writer who takes you on a journey from her difficult adolescence (drugs, 11 arrests) in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and her subsequent coming of age as a chef. 

This book is many things: funny, dark, uplifting, sad. Hamilton writes about her sexual tensions, her fraught marriage (two children, yet did not live with her husband) and the ways that female chefs are positioned in the industry. It’s all done with wit and sensibility. This is a no-holds-barred book using profanity in everyday conversations (like people in restaurant kitchens use) but a telling tale of what really makes a person become a chef and an owner. You will never hear this kind of story from Emeril Legasse, Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri, et al.

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (1998)

Reichl, the former editor of the now defunct Gourmet magazine recounts her most powerful food memories, from childhood on, that shaped her love of the kitchen.

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The storytelling in this book can best be described as sensual, every dish Reichl encounters on her food journey is written about as a multi sensory savory experience. “Food could be a way of making sense of the world,” Reichl writes. “If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”

From the spoiled leftovers her mother would try to pass off as food for company to chocolate souffle dinners by a french chef and a dumpster-dived Berkely 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.

Alice Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater by Calvin Trillin (1978)

New Yorker staff writer Calvin Trillin reveals his love for food in this delightful memoir.

The book centers around his and his wife Alice’s adventures in eating. Often their travels are related to articles for the magazine meaning there are just as many mishaps as there are excellent meals.

Trillin is always on the search for good food. It may be country ham in Virginia, barbecued mutton in Kentucky, Chinese and Indian food in London, or his fantasy of driving around New York with Mao sampling all of Calvin’s favorite foods. It’s just that Alice’s interests in museums or cathedrals (or, heaven forbid, scenery) just might get in the way of Calvin’s next meal. He worries about that and he gently whispers to her, “Alice, let’s eat.”

The best part of this memoir is Calvin’s absolute adoration of Alice, an incredibly charming person. Alice, Let’s Eat is not just a love letter to food but also a touching memoir about marriage and friendship.

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling (1959) 

“The primary requisite for writing about food is a good appetite.” This statement was made by (arguably) the greatest American food writer, A.J. Liebling.

In 1926, Liebling had graduated from Columbia University and had botched his first job as a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island. It seemed to his father a good time to study for a year in Europe. Liebling pretended to protest. He told his father that he was thinking of getting married to a woman 10 years his senior. His story was totally invented and worked like a charm. His father, anxious to avoid what he thought could be a disastrous marriage, bought him a steamship ticket and gave him a $2,000 line of credit. Happily for Liebling, he had “just enough money,” that is, he had to think hard whether to spend the six francs dinner budget on a better wine and a lesser beef or vice versa.

Liebling celebrates the richness and variety of French food, fondly recalling great meals and memorable wines. He writes with awe (and some envy) about his friend Yves Miranda who would consume, “raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb loaded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras and four or five kinds of cheese with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of Champagne,” all before beginning to think about dinner.

A.J. Liebling, a gifted writer and a great eater, offers readers a priceless and bountiful feast in this luscious book.

The Apprentice: My Life In The Kitchen by Jacques Pepin (2003)

All food memoirs are about hunger, some are even about food. Many divide themselves at the entrance to the kitchen. We have epicures and practitioners. The literary champions tend to come from the first category: people like Calvin Trillin, M.K.F. Fisher and A.J. Liebling. But then comes Jacques Pepin, making his way late to the written world, but well worth the wait.

The Apprentice is a poignant and sometimes funny tale of a boy coming of age to become one of the most renowned and respected chefs and teachers in the world. Working from the age of eight in his mother’s restaurant then climbing the ladder in France’s feudal kitchen system until he became the personal chef for Charles de Gaulle. Coming to America and befriending (as yet unknown, but later iconic) food personalities such as Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Julia Child. Earning a graduate degree at Columbia University. Turning down a position to be the personal chef for John F. Kennedy. It’s all here…plus some tasty recipes. 

He was part of the vanguard that transformed food as an afterthought in America to a national preoccupation. His life exemplifies the synergy of love between good food, good wine, family, and especially life.

The Devil In The Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness And The Making Of A Great Chef by Marco Pierre White (2006)

Marco Piere White, an English chef, is a relative unknown in America. Conversely, a former protege from whom he is estranged, Gordon Ramsay, has turned into a trans-Atlantic restaurateur and reality TV star. Factor in Anthony Bourdain’s (at the time this book was written) aggressively marketed naughty-boy persona and you get the sense that White, whose fame in the 1980’s and 90’s predated all that stuff, was trying to stake his claim as the original bad boy chef. But once you get through the theatrics, this is a moving, unaffected, delightfully honest book. White’s book has early moments of heartbreaking privations and loss that give way to momentum. 

Before all his fame, there was the requisite slog of apprenticeships and low level positions throughout England. White became an obsessive, driven, “adrenaline junkie” who gave no thought to putting in 100-hour workweeks. We also see as White’s star was rising that he gave no thought to the feelings or well-being of anyone who stood in his way. This is the ‘Mad Marco’ of British tabloid notoriety. Staff members who have aroused his temper are pelted with bottles, strung up on hooks by their aprons, or chucked in the trash bin. Customers are not immune. White never hesitates to hustle complainers out the door and once held a woman’s mink coat hostage when her husband, impatient over the length of a meal, threatens to not pay the bill.

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Yet, as White depicts these events, he does so without sensationalism or self-congratulation. He was not an agitator (as, say, Ramsey or Bourdain) but more of a person reacting to the moment. “People thought it was an act, but the fact is, I didn’t like it when people interrupted my intensity. I was so passionate about my food,” he writes. Physically and emotionally exhausted, White retired when he was 38. He may have been one of the most disagreeable chefs ever to command a kitchen, but in his unfiltered way he tells one heck of a story.

Born Round: The Secret History Of A Full Time Eater by Frank Bruni (2009)

Marco Piere White, an English chef, is a relative unknown in America. Conversely, a former protege from whom he is estranged, Gordon Ramsay, has turned into a trans-Atlantic restaurateur and reality TV star. Factor in Anthony Bourdain’s (at the time this book was written) aggressively marketed naughty-boy persona and you get the sense that White, whose fame in the 1980’s and 90’s predated all that stuff, was trying to stake his claim as the original bad boy chef. But once you get through the theatrics, this is a moving, unaffected, delightfully honest book. White’s book has early moments of heartbreaking privations and loss that give way to momentum. 

Before all his fame, there was the requisite slog of apprenticeships and low level positions throughout England. White became an obsessive, driven, “adrenaline junkie” who gave no thought to putting in 100-hour workweeks. We also see as White’s star was rising that he gave no thought to the feelings or well-being of anyone who stood in his way. This is the ‘Mad Marco’ of British tabloid notoriety. Staff members who have aroused his temper are pelted with bottles, strung up on hooks by their aprons, or chucked in the trash bin. Customers are not immune. White never hesitates to hustle complainers out the door and once held a woman’s mink coat hostage when her husband, impatient over the length of a meal, threatens to not pay the bill.

New York Times op-ed writer explores his love for food. As you can tell from the title, Bruni has been a food lover basically from birth. Born into an Italian American family in New York, he turned his passion into becoming the Times food critic from 2004 – 2009. Not only a great memoir for those who love to eat, but also for those who have struggled with body issues and voracious appetites.

A Tiger In The Kitchen: A Memoir Of Food And Family by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (2011)

After growing up in Singapore (the most food obsessed city in the world), Tan decides, at 18, to leave for journalism studies in the United States. The teenage Tan makes the Pulitzer Prize a career goal. She forsakes the traditional role of women in her homeland such as cooking and keeping house. Fast forward, Tan is in her 30’s married to a fellow journalist. The blazing ambition of youth dims after she loses her prestigious reporting job in an economic downturn. The past surfaces, Tan feels the dishes that defined her childhood beginning to call her back. She makes several cooking trips to her native Singapore to cook with her family (mother, aunts, grandmothers). She not only learns about cherished recipes but also long, sad, buried stories of her family and past generations.

This is a touching story of a Singapore expat who learns to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of her family’s kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself. There is hope for us that stray from tradition. If you have the heart and determination, as Tan shows, you can go home again. We all can. And maybe you can even cook like your grandmother.

Down And Out in London and Paris by George Orwell (1933)

When you think of George Orwell, you probably think of his novels, 1984 or Animal FarmDown and Out was his first published novel. It is a memoir made up of two parts, focusing on the theme of poverty in the two cities. The first part is an account of living in near destitution in Paris and working subordinate positions in various city restaurants. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from a tramp’s perspective.

I included this work on the list for two reasons. This story rings true; you can feel the immediacy of Orwell’s situation in as much as he was not a writer playing a game, he was truly down and out. Also, his remarkably graphic and completely unforgettable behind-the-scenes description of Paris kitchens in the 1930’s makes this book a must read. Washing dishes for thirteen hours a day, six days a week, for wages that afforded one meal a day and sleeping on the streets. He witnessed waiters with filthy fingernails and reeking of stale sweat mixing salads by hand for rich clientele. He saw chefs that beat waiters and waiters that beat dishwashers. It is a sordid tale but part of food history and a worthy addition to our list of food memoirs.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver and Stephen Hopp (2007)

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver, her husband Steven Hopp, and two daughters leave their home in Tucson, Arizona, to resettle on a farm in southern Appalachia. Their intention was to spend a year in their new rural life eating only what they could grow themselves or buy from local farmers. The plan was no whim, Kingsolvser and her husband, a biologist, had been raising vegetables on a farm every summer since they met. What follows is a family memoir, a how-to garden guide, and a treatise on sustainability as Kingsolver chronicles their adventures in farm-to-table living.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn

A former New Yorker editor recounts her trek to heal old wounds and find comfort in the face of loss through travel, friends and family, and home cooked meals. One life changing night, tottering from her brother’s sudden death, a wounding breakup with her fiance, and eviction from the apartment they shared, Emily Nunn had lost all sense of family, home and financial security. After some wine, Emily, a professional food writer and an enthusiastic cook, went on Facebook. Waking up the next morning thinking she had made a mistake, she found that she had more friends than she knew. Many of these friends invited her to come visit and cook with them while she pieced her life back together. Thus began the Comfort Tour. Emily travels the country, cooking with relatives and friends. Food becomes a source of connection and identity. Of course, not everything is peaches and cream. Emily learns to accept her losses even as she feels a sense of hope for the future. Comfort food can’t heal all wounds, but it can, along with the people who love us, help start the mending process.

Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters (2017)

In 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, both for her love of French cooking and a social experiment. Her big idea: even the most traditional cuisines could be flexible. Blending cultures into one recipe could create a multicultural dining room and hopefully a more understanding society. Waters is credited as the founder of the farm-to-table movement and is an icon of sustainable food; it was interesting to read this origin story. The book actually ends the day Chez Panisse opened in 1971.

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The revolution of Chez Panisse was not political, at least at the beginning. It was cultural and aesthetic and was built on domestic arts, not the professional skills of men who ran fancy restaurant kitchens. Stuck in their hierarchies and traditions, those chefs had fallen out of touch with the eating experience, allowing a place like Chez Panisse to take root. We should all be thankful for that. A wonderful read.

The Man Who Ate Everything: And Other Gastronomic Feats, Disputes, and Pleasurable Pursuits by Jeffrey Steingarten (1997)

Jeffrey Steingarten is the victim of a particular madness that takes the form of an obsession with food. It was to indulge that obsession that, in 1989, Steingarten gave up his career as a lawyer and became the food critic of VogueThe Man Who Ate Everything is a wonderful book, comprising a selection of his brilliant essays from the magazine and elsewhere. He takes us on a thousand gastronomic adventures: from Japan to Tunisia, from Memphis to Seattle, from Zabar’s to McDonald’s. There are no lengths to which Steingarten won’t go to satisfy his curiosity about any food matter.

Nothing is too technical for him. He devours scientific and medical journals. He buries himself in complex statistics. The Man Who Ate Everything could be spoiled mayonnaise in less expert hands, but Steingarten turned out a winner. It is part self-portrait, part travelogue, part propaganda pamphlet, part scientific treatise, part cookbook. In the end, it is a book written with breathtaking ease, lucidity and humor. Hail to The Man Who Ate Everything.

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey (2005)

Food alone is only a necessity, but in the life and lore of those it nourishes it can be a captivating means of communication. Climbing the Mango Trees, by the acclaimed cookbook writer and actress, is a memoir about learning to taste and about being the precocious fifth child in a large family in India in the final years of colonial rule.

Family dinners consisted of 40 or more relatives gathered together over flavorful dishes that impacted the way Jaffrey sees food. But she was also impacted by the Partition, which tore her family’s world apart. Her most enduring food memories are connected to the land, climbing mango trees, and sampling street fare. The story ends with Jaffrey sailing off to drama school in London. A starring acting career came before and coexists with her celebrated career as an Indian cookbook writer. It’s funny to learn that before leaving India she failed the cooking exam on what she calls “British invalid foods from circa 1930.”

“When left to study in England, I could not cook at all.” Jaffrey writes. “But my palate had already recorded millions of flavors. From cumin to ginger, they were all in my head, waiting to be called into service.” This is a unique and memorable read.

The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand by Jim Harrison (2003)

Jim Harrison was not your average foodie. He surely was not a fusspot taste testing balsamic vinegar or trying to find the best sea salt to drizzle on an avocado. If you want a picture of Jim Harrison, think Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Ozzy Osbourne. He ate with rapturous joy and he wrote with unbounded glee.

In this collection of essays and correspondence Harrison knows no restraint. He is the crazy guy you meet at a party who has many tales to tell, knows scores of famous people, has been there and done that, and makes sure you hear every story until the party ends. Harrison’s prose is indecorous. He has a particular fondness for wild game and the unpopular parts of pigs, cows and sheep. Each of his stories are exuberant and sometimes funny. This is a different kind of memoir. Harrison, who died in 2016, staked out a distinctive place in the world of food writers. He is not for everyone, but everyone should try him at least once.

Delancey: A Man, a Women, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg (2014)

Molly Wizenberg, the voice behind the popular James Beard Award winning food blog Orangette, recounts how opening a pizza restaurant sparked the first crisis of her young marriage. This book takes you down the rabbit hole of what’s actually involved in pursuing the restaurant dream, starting with the dream itself (is this a real goal or just an amusement?) and continuing with the process of finding a space, negotiating with landlords, designing an interior, hiring personnel, creating a menu, and opening the place to customers. It doesn’t end there: there’s cleaning, prepping, firing, rehiring, dealing with customers, and it never ends as long as you stay open. Wizenberg walks you through all of this, and also her own emotional journey as the restaurant begins to swallow her up. The sub title is apt: there are intimate scenes of screaming, sobbing, making up, and sobbing again.

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This is a memoir about creativity, leadership, management, and collaboration. Something we can all use.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of my Appetites by Kate Christensen (2013)

Christensen’s memoir is an acclamation of cooking and food, from the homey to the haute, beginning with her childhood in Berkeley, California, in the 1960’s, and taking her through marriage, divorce and a new life in Maine. It conveys her fervour for the culinary arts while also fashioning a spot-on picture of an era when social norms shifted dramatically. 

Christensen is the daughter of a Marxist lawyer who was prone to violent rages and beat his wife behind closed doors. Christensen found comfort in the “plain, simple” cooking her mother jokingly called “blue plate specials.” Just after her eighth birthday her parents separated, but even after her mother remarried, Christensen, the eldest of three daughters, was responsible for some of the dinner chores. Browsing through cookbooks she created a memorable pot roast but also began to write novels. The pairing of food and words has remained dominant in her life. She worked as an au pair in rural France, studied at Reed College, survived the chilly and competitive Iowa Writers Workshop (a time of hippie food alternated with pastrami sandwiches and potato chips). She lands in New York as a budding writer surviving on bean burritos, chicken soup, and saltines, but also having raw clams at Ruby’s in Coney Island, pelmeni with sour cream in Brighton Beach, and chicken at the Savoy in SoHo. As a married woman, she has fabulous restaurant meals that bring on a “food inspired rush of love” but disguise an insatiable unhappiness.

Christensen’s love affair with food is not without its own heartbreak: periods of weight gain followed by rigorous denial, and a draining allergy. However, she writes beautifully about eating a delicious meal by oneself, the consolation of favorite childhood dishes, and the thrill of new flavors. Sprinkled with recipes and memories of meals, Blue Plate Special is an inviting blend of personal and social history.

Love, Loss And What We Ate: A Memoir by Padma Lakshmi (2016)

Long before Padma Lakshmi stepped onto a television set she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, comfort, shape a sense of home, and taste the world as we negotiate through it. This book spares little, probing deeply into personal details about doubt over paternity during her pregnancy, the agony of a custody case, and her efforts to overcome the diffidence she felt being Indian.

Despite the “dirt,” this book is a rich food memoir. Born in India, she spent some of her childhood years in the southern city of Madras, which was her starting point for the culture and chemistry of food that eventually formed the ‘stage’ to her life. She describes knocking tamarind pods out of trees to be used for cooking, watching the white shavings fall from her grandmother’s wooden coconut grater and inhaling the scent of frying mustard seeds. And though she has travelled the world, her favorite food remains the rice that she first ate while sitting on the floor of her grandmother’s kitchen.

This memoir can be uneven at times and has a strangely jumbled timeline, but the narrative is a collection of heartfelt memories, astute observations, some intriguing recipes, and plain ‘good dish.’ It takes the reader from humble beginnings to the judges table on Top Chef.

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke (2019) 

Tembi Locke, a black American actress forging a career in Hollywood, meets a Sicilian chef while visiting Italy when she’s 20 years old. Their interracial, intercultural relationship is shocking enough that his parents shun the wedding. Then her husband Saro is diagnosed with a rare cancer and dies early in the narrative. Locke attempts to work through her debilitating grief while caring for their young daughter Zoela in Los Angeles. They spend summers in Sicily as she begins a life without her husband. Where once estranged from Saro’s family and his origins, she now finds comfort and sustenance.

In the Sicilian countryside she discovers the healing powers of simple, fresh food and the warmth of a close-knit community embedded with timeless traditions. She is able to reflect on her wonderful romance with Saro, an enduring love story that comes alive on every page. This is a compelling story with insightful vignettes: from herb harvesting to cooking traditional dishes. In Sicily it’s said that every story begins with a marriage or a death, in Locke’s case it was both.

Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat by Grant Achatz And Nick Kokonas (2011)

Grant Achatz had already won acclaim as one of the nation’s top chefs when he was diagnosed, at age 33, with advanced cancer of the tongue. The recommended treatment was devastating: a surgeon would remove his tongue, lymph nodes, and a portion of his jaw. There would be chemotherapy and radiation, and still his chance of survival would only be 50 percent. Achaty decided to reject the treatment. Even if he survived, he wouldn’t have the life he wanted. He couldn’t be a chef without a tongue; he couldn’t cook if he couldn’t taste.

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In many ways it was his business partner who saved him, Nick Kokonas researched treatments and pushed Achatz to see other specialists. Then he turned to the media. Then an article in the Chicago Tribune got Achatz into a pioneering program at the University of Chicago, where doctors used chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor before surgery making it possible to save the chef’s tongue and life. The choice did come at a cost: he lost his sense of taste. Tapping into discipline, passion and focus, he trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses (spoiler alert: he did ultimately regain his sense of taste).

Achatz had only one goal since he was young: to cook and own a great restaurant. He had the requisite work ethic and self-confidence (bordering on arrogance). He graduated from the renowned Culinary Institute of America where he found other students lacking in dedication. He spent some time in the kitchen of legendary chef, Charles Trotter, but chafed under the discipline. He then studied under Thomas Keller at the world famous French Laundry in California. Finally he opened the Michelin-starred restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago.

We learn from the book that Achatz is the kind of artist who sinks everything into his work. He writes about neglecting his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had two children, and his happiness that his first son was born on the day his restaurant was closed. Despite these less than heartwarming aspects, Life, on the Line is a story of a love affair with cooking, survival and creativity.

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg (2016)

From the first page of this memoir a reader knows that they are dealing with a formidable ego. Agg is a restaurateur. She owns five restaurants and bars in Canada. Agg brags, she swaggers, she writes in great detail about her appetites: for junk food, music, sex. All of this can be almost unbearable…but there are some strange forces working inside all this braggadocio. The “how to open a bar or restaurant and then how to run it” is instructive.

The book was marketed as a feminist diatribe. I’m not so sure it is. The issue of how women are treated in kitchens mainly comes up second hand because Aggy isn’t a chef. But she makes good arguments, about what she calls “an absurd, militaristic, master/servant relationship that happens in restaurant kitchens.” This is accurate and historically correct. But what’s interesting to me is that Agg seems to invite (or give permission to) women to act like stereotypical men. This is an important read if you are interested in restaurant and food culture. Is acting bad, as either a man or a woman, ever really good?

The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty (2018)

This book, by the food historian Michael Twitty, is a labor of love and pain, scholarly investigation, and redemption. He is at the center of the story from his childhood, when he did everything to avoid “slave” food, to his painful coming out story in his family’s kitchen. Twitty is a profound and poetic voice. He does not suffer fools but also presents an open heart that does not discriminate. His stories of disgraceful oppression are dovetailed with stories like that of a white student of his who sought understanding and redemption for the history of slaveholding in his family. His frameworks are complex. We Americans, we of these lands of the United States, are a heterogeneous tangle of genes, identities, conflict, oppression, and love.

Our food is no different, and we must pay homage to the Africans that essentially made Southern food what it is. The birth of Southern cuisine could only happen within the intersection of African, European, and Native American foodways. Twitty writes that we can choose to acknowledge the presence of history, class, economics, cultural forces, and the idea of race in shaping our experience, or we can languish in subterfuge over what it all means and get nowhere. This is a substantial read which gives ample space to both personal and culinary history.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)

As we have seen, the best food memories are not just about food. They are far more complex and examine the importance of family, friends, and identity…bound by love and a love of food. The Moveable Feast was written late in life by Ernest Hemingway shortly before he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It looks back to the early days of his career when he lived in Paris with his first wife Hadley and their new baby. Hemingway surely did not set out to write a food memoir like every other book on this list, but this is a transcendent work combining family, friends, the writing life, Paris, and food. It defies the genre yet at the same time it encompasses everything that contributes to a great food memoir. This is a book of breathtaking clarity. Writing that is eternal.

I will leave you with a passage that could serve as the essence of all the memoirs that came before. “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and succulent texture and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

I’m hoping that all the food memoirs on our list will take away that empty feeling, and will make you happy so that you, too, will make plans. Enjoy!

Blair Witkowski
Author: Blair Witkowski

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