If you enjoy both cooking and reading, then a food memoir should be on your reading list.
A good food memoir, whether written by a famous chef, or by a home cook seamlessly integrates food into real storytelling, and can be deeply revealing about family, relationships, life struggles and working in the food industry. Though food is a central motif in these, it is used as a catalyst for memories of childhood, love, pain, joy, humor and for loving nostalgia.
Some of the memoirs (in ebook or audiobook format) listed below give a behind the scenes look at a restaurant kitchen, others are riveting stories of the early struggles faced by professional chefs or food writers and how they ultimately find themselves and their homes in the kitchen.
We are all spending more preparing meals in our home kitchens these days, and these books can perhaps inspire by reminding us of the power of cooking to bond, empower and to heal.
Since there are so many great food memoirs that I did not want to leave out, this blog post is in 2 parts, with Part 2 appearing separately.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; Hamilton’s own kitchen at her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton’s idyllic past and her own future family—the result of a prickly marriage that nonetheless yields lasting dividends.
Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen
A narrative in which food—eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it—becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life. Christensen explores her history of hunger—not just for food but for love and confidence and a sense of belonging—with a profound honesty, starting with her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley as the daughter of a mercurial legal activist who ruled the house with his fists. After a whirlwind adolescent awakening, Christensen strikes out to chart her own destiny within the literary world and the world of men, both equally alluring and dangerous. Food of all kinds, from Ho Hos to haute cuisine, remains an evocative constant throughout, not just as sustenance but as a realm of experience unto itself, always reflective of what is going on in her life.
The Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn Drzal
A unique A-to-Z food memoir. Starting with “A Is for Al Dente,” the loosely linked chapters evoke an alphabet of food memories that recount a woman’s journey from the challenges of youth to professional accomplishment, marriage, and divorce. Each letter serves up a surprising variation on the struggle for self-knowledge, the joy and pain of familial and romantic love, and food’s astonishing ability to connect us with both the living and the dead.
Burn the Place: A Memoir by Iliana Regan & Eileen Stevens AUDIOBOOK
A galvanizing culinary memoir that chronicles Iliana Regan’s journey from foraging on the family farm to opening her Michelin-starred restaurant, Elizabeth. Her story is alive with startling imagery, raw like that first bite of wild onion, and told with uncommon emotional power. an underrepresented perspective from the professional kitchen, and a young star chef whose prose is as memorable and deserving of praise as her food.
A hilariously self-deprecating, highly obsessive account of the author’s adventures, in the world of French haute cuisine. Studying at L’Institut Bocuse, cooking at the storied, Michelin-starred La Mère Brazier, enduring the endless hours and exacting rigeur of the kitchen, Buford becomes a man obsessed—with proving himself on the line, proving that he is worthy of the gastronomic secrets he’s learning, proving that French cooking actually derives from (mon dieu!) the Italian.
Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in Indiaby Madhur Jaffrey
The enchanting autobiography of the seven-time James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and acclaimed actress who taught America how to cook Indian food.
Whether climbing the mango trees in her grandparents’ orchard in Delhi or picnicking in the Himalayan foothills on meatballs stuffed with raisins and mint, tucked into freshly baked spiced pooris, Jaffrey’s life has been marked by food, and today these childhood pleasures evoke for her the tastes and textures of growing up. Following Jaffrey from India to Britain, this memoir is both an enormously appealing account of an unusual childhood and a testament to the power of food to prompt memory, vividly bringing to life a lost time and place. Also included here are recipes for more than thirty delicious dishes from Jaffrey’s childhood.
Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters
This critically acclaimed memoir from a cultural icon and culinary standard bearer recalls the circuitous road and tumultuous times leading to the opening of her “little French restaurant” in Berkeley, California in 1971 at the age of 27. Waters turned her passion project into an iconic institution that redefined American cuisine for generations of chefs and food lovers.
Dotted with stories, recipes, photographs, and letters, this is a quietly revealing look at one woman’s evolution from a rebellious yet impressionable follower to a respected activist who effects social and political change on a global level through the common bond of food.
Before she became a renowned chef and Food Network star, Cat was just a girl from Jackson, Mississippi, where days were slow and every meal was made from scratch. Her love of cooking started in her Greek home, where fresh feta and home-cured olives graced the table. Cora chronicles how she found her passion in the kitchen and went on to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and apprentice under Michelin star chefs in France. After her big break as a co-host with Rocco Di Spirito on the Food Network’s Melting Pot, Cat broke barriers by becoming the first-ever female contestant on Iron Chef.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South Written and read by Michael W. Twitty AUDIOBOOK
Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who “owns” it is one of the most provocative touchpoints in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Twitty takes listeners to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine. Twitty travels from the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields to tell of the struggles his family faced and how food enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries.
JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes by Jean-Georges Vongerichten & Michael Ruhlman
One of the most influential chef-restaurateurs of all time reflects on a career defined by surprising, delicious food. With humor and heart, Vongerichten looks back on success and failure, sharing stories of cooking with legendary chefs Paul Bocuse and Louis Outhier, traveling in search of new and revelatory flavors, and building menus of his own in New York City, London, Singapore, Sao Paulo, and back in France. Every story is full of wisdom, conveyed with the magnanimity and precision that has made this chef a household name. Enlivened with old, handwritten menus and black-and-white photographs.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Bourdain, host of Parts Unknown, reveals “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine” in this deliciously funny and shockingly delectable book, sure to delight gourmands and philistines alike. From Bourdain’s first oyster in the Gironde, to his lowly position as dishwasher in a honky tonk fish restaurant in Provincetown (where he witnesses for the first time the real delights of being a chef); from the kitchen of the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, to drug dealers in the east village, from Tokyo to Paris and back to New York again, Bourdain’s tales of the kitchen are as passionate as they are unpredictable.
Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood
From her Italian-American childhood, through raising and feeding a growing family and cooking with her new husband, food writer Michael Ruhlman, Hood has long appreciated the power of good food. Here she pairs her signature humor and tenderness with simple, comforting recipes, and spins tales of loss and starting from scratch, family love and feasts with friends, and how the perfect meal is one that tastes like home.
To be continued —
-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian