Cookbooks, memoirs and novels are my most checked-out items, and as I’ve recently discovered, there’s a sort of magical thing that happens when those worlds collide. You don’t have to be a hardcore gourmand to appreciate the fact that food plays a central role in all our lives, making it a vibrant and relatable conduit for storytelling, exploring memories, making analogies and creating a sort of shorthand between the author and food-savvy readers. Cooking and baking can be the hook that gets you interested or a thread that ties the story together, but it’s never the whole story. Here’s a look at some of the recent selections I’ve enjoyed in the subgenre I’m calling food-books-that-aren’t-really-about-food, both fiction and nonfiction.
“Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be part of something that was not easy, just simple.”
Julie & Julia – Julie Powell
The movie adaptation of this memoir was released few years ago, when I first started being interested in cooking. I thought it was sweet movie with nice performances, but it was all-and-all pretty forgettable to me. As is so often the case, the book is so much better! I loved Powell’s sharp, foul-mouthed humor. The story isn’t so much a treatise on the wonders of Julia Child as it is about about finding meaning and purpose when you are feeling adrift. After finishing this, I added Powell’s more recent memoir, Cleaving, to my to-read list.
Seconds – Bryan Lee O’Malley
Seconds has been praised time-and-time again by CLP staffers, so I’ll keep my synopsis short: The author of Scott Pilgrim is back with a faced-paced story featuring magic mushrooms, mistakes and second chances, and a house fairy in a graphic novel set in the restaurant world. It takes about one sitting to read, and it’s definitely worth your time.
Heartburn – Nora Ephron
For my first experience with a Nora Ephron book, I went for this short novel about a cookbook author grappling with her husband’s affair. While it doesn’t sound like a setup ripe for hilarity, Ephron manages to pull it off with trademark wryness. A book about cooking-as-caretaking, relationships and Rich People Problems, I have to admit, I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it half as much if I hadn’t listened to the audiobook which is narrated brilliantly (of course) by Meryl Streep.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen – Lucy Knisley
Lucy Knisley was born and raised surrounded by an eclectic collection of restaurant critics, artists, chefs, home cooks, farmers and gardeners, and she has the stories to prove it. I quickly devoured (heh, see what I did there?) this adorable graphic novel filled with food-centric memories, stories about growing up, and reflections on the value of friends, family and food. Comic-style recipes, like this one for huevos rancheros, punctuate the book.
Maman’s Homesick Pie – Donia Bijan
I picked this up with a few other Middle Eastern cookbooks for my monthly themed potluck, and was happily surprised to find it wasn’t really a cookbook, but a memoir with recipes (written by an award-winning chef) interspersed throughout the chapters. Maman’s Homesick Pie chronicles the life of author Donia Bijan and her family members as they adjust from a happy, well-to-do life in Iran, to living as immigrants in America as a result of Islamic revolution, to Bijan’s training as a professional chef in Paris. All of her memories are woven together with stories about food: how food was used as a bridge to the family’s Persian heritage, and how adapting to American food rituals is a big part of the enculturation process. The story is engrossing, as is the rich, descriptive food writing. Even if you aren’t interested in that, I say it’s worth a checkout for the recipes alone.
Some related selections from my to-read list:
The Language of Baklava: A Memoir – Diana Abu-Jaber
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender
Shark’s fin and Sichuan pepper: a sweet- sour memoir of eating in China – Fuchsia Dunlop
Food: A Love Story – Jim Gaffigan
Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India – Madhur Jaffrey
The Sweet Life in Paris – David Lebovitz
The Baker’s Daughter: A Novel – Sarah McCoy
Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses – Meredith Mileti
Cakewalk: A Memoir – Kate Moses
Baking Cakes in Kigali – Gaile Parkin
Yes, Chef – Marcus Samuelsson
Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family – Patricia Volk
The Truth about Twinkie Pie – Kat Yeh