The Bossy Bookworm
Six Foodie Memoirs to Whet Your Appetite
It's time for the foooood books!
The shout-out: this Greedy Reading List theme was suggested by my lovely longtime friend, fellow book lover, and stalwart Bossy Bookworm supporter, Judy! Let's all hear it for Judy! :)
I love a memoir, I love reading about people doing what they love, and I also love eating. I therefore love memoirs written by chefs and by people who are obsessed with food, and the books listed here are some of my favorites in this category.
I included two books by Ruth Reichl here. (Frankly I could have included a third, making this a 50 Percent Ruth Reichl List, but that felt a little aggressive.) If you've read Reichl's books, you may understand why this had to happen.
If you like memoirs, you might want to also check out these Bossy Bookworm Greedy Reading Lists:
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought! And which other books should I add to my food memoir to-read list?
01 Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Garlic and Sapphires may be my favorite foodie memoir of all.
Ruth Reichl was editor in chief of Gourmet and a world-renowned food critic for The New York Times, and her tenure there is the focus of this book.
Staying unrecognized as a food critic was essential to Reichl's ability to properly assess the level of service and the food quality everyday patrons would receive at any given restaurant, and she resorted to various disguises and decoy ploys to guard her anonymity. Her costuming and taking on of alternate personalities felt farcical, but I adored it.
Reichl explores how one's appearance affects how others treat you--not a revolutionary concept, but I found it fascinating when applied to the class and financial factors involved with fine dining. She takes the snobbery out of food criticism, however, regularly visiting low-key restaurants as well.
Reichl comes across as incredibly appealing and unassuming. She reveals absurdities and excesses in the restaurant world while clearly remaining the head of the Food Fan Club (I made that up, but she is a big food fan) and unfailingly celebrating the deep joy that good food, friendly company, and an appealing restaurant atmosphere can inspire.
02 The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber
"It’s so hot that it steams in your mouth, and at first you eat it with just the tips of your teeth. Then the layers of crisp and sweet and soft intermingle, a series of surprises. It is so rich and dense that you can eat only a little bit, and then it is over and the knaffea is just a pleasant memory—like a lovely dream that you forget a few seconds after you wake."
In The Language of Baklava, Abu-Jaber explores her heritage through describing in poetic terms meals and foods that are important to her. She reflects on what it means to be Jordanian-American, and through recounting her own journeys as well as her father's life, she comes to find peace with who she is and where she's been.
Abu-Jaber made me hungry while drawing me into her history, with recipes special to her placed strategically throughout. Each of the foods she showcases is directly linked to her life in some way.
The author writes beautifully, whisking the reader off to Jordan, to upstate New York, and back again, illustrating the melding of her cultures. The tone of the book is joyful and vibrant, and Abu-Jaber intermingles thoughts on faith and family (and conflicts related to both) by using food as the touchpoint for many of her life events.
03 Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
I love behind-the-scenes books, especially those about food. I wondered at first if Bourdain's "I'm tough, I've been pretty screwed up at times, and I'm also sometimes shocking, so take me or leave me" (I'm paraphrasing) attitude was going to overshadow the meat (see what I did there?) of the book, in which case I might have been tempted to abandon it.
Bourdain does have sordid tales to tell, but he seems less puffed up over his kitchen war stories after the first section of the book, and that's when I felt I could settle into taking in his rich, attention-getting experiences.
I found the sections about a day in the life of Bourdain's kitchen and a day in the life of a three-star kitchen to be the most captivating. I pledged after reading this book I wasn't going to forget to not eat fish on Sunday or Monday because of supply and delivery patterns (I did forget this, but now after rereading my original review I'm reminded again). I also had the post-book goal of trying to block from my mind most of the gross-out kitchen tales Bourdain told--and that plan of mine did work, because I can still bring myself to eat at restaurants.
I find myself retroactively feeling greater affection for this book than I did when initially reading it. I read Kitchen Confidential thirteen years ago, well before I spent endless evenings happily watching multiple television series featuring Anthony Bourdain traveling the world, inserting himself into both familiar and previously unknown-to-him food stalls, restaurants with Michelin star ratings, and everything in between.
I really fell for Bourdain watching him in action on television--witnessing his bristly manner and his unabashed adoration for the chefs and the kitchen staffs aiming to bring culinary magic to the plate. I found his framework of knowledge along with his wonder about the foods and cultures he was exploring irresistible. This book may have felt a little unpolished to me--but Bourdain himself was unabashedly rough around the edges too.
04 A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg
"When Molly Wizenberg's father died of cancer...she went to Paris, a city that held vivid memories of a childhood trip with [him]. She was supposed to be doing research for her dissertation, but more often, she found herself peering through the windows of chocolate shops, trekking across town to try a new pâtisserie, or tasting cheeses at outdoor markets, until one evening when she sat in the Luxembourg Gardens reading cookbooks until it was too dark to see, she realized that her heart was not in her studies but in the kitchen."
Wizenberg started out as a food writer who wrote about home cooking, the meaning of food in the home, and its significance in relationships.
This book made me love Molly Wizenberg. I was fascinated by her life, and I found her writing voice endearing and real and funny. Her manageable yet unusual recipes looked delectable.
Wizenberg has more recently written a memoir about marriage, unexpected yearnings, and the messy process of finding herself again after losing her way; for my review of that book, see The Fixed Stars. Between these two books she wrote Delancey, about owning a restaurant with her husband.
05 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
"Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family abandoned the industrial-food pipeline to live a rural life—vowing that, for one year, they'd only buy food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it."
I like that Kingsolver is careful to lay out the baby steps of her shifting views of food and of her process for growing or obtaining her family's sustenance. Her tone seems useful for readers who may not have gardens, much less farms, and who may looking to live vicariously through the details of her experience but also come away with simple steps they might take in their own lives.
Kingsolver provides ideas for not only how to eat conscientiously (without being too rigid) but also for how to become more aware of issues surrounding local eating and how to effect change.
I found her teenage daughter's sections somewhat irritating, but it must be tough to be a teenager drawn into Famous Author Mom's whirlwind.
06 Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
Here's the second Ruth Reichl title on this short list, but please recall from my introduction to the list that I really could have included three of her books and not have been sorry about it. So this second listing is actually evidence of my restraint.
Reichl traces the roots of her interest in food, cooking, connecting, family, and the intersections of each of these elements. She credits those who shaped her culinary journey: the Queen of Mold (her mother, a notorious food poisoner); the chefs who introduced her to the indelible tastes and experiences that shaped her cooking and her culinary views; and those involved in the organic food movement and its 1970s beginnings.
Reichl includes her own photographs and some of her favorite recipes, which together make the book feel like a special peek into both her personal and professional influences.
Reichl is appealingly imperfect, down-to-earth, and a wonderful storyteller--when she's writing about her life and about food, I'm always glad to be along for the ride.