Readers, with no events to attend or sports practices keeping us busy, family dinners have become a major thing in our house. I’m not talking Downton Abbey-style gowns and dinner jackets here, but our nightly meal has certainly become much more of an event than it was during pre-quarantine times.
As someone who loves to cook and spend time in the kitchen, I’ve appreciated the nudge to slow down while preparing and enjoying our meals. My cookbooks are getting lots of love lately as we revisit favorite recipes and find new ones to try.
I’m also finding fresh inspiration in one of my favorite literary genres: food memoir. Food is full of stories, from the family history behind a handed-down dish to juicy kitchen drama at a high-end restaurant to a culture’s roots and traditions.
Even if you don’t love to cook, perhaps you love to eat, and most certainly you enjoy a great story, well-told. Today’s list contains food memoirs from chefs, home-cooks, and food critics.
Perhaps one of these titles will inspire you to cook up a feast—or savor some delicious takeout. Much like your favorite meal, these food memoirs are sure to entertain, inspire, and comfort.
After her father died, Molly Wizenburg didn't know what to do with herself. So she went to Paris, and later, she started a blog. No spoilers here, so let's just say I especially loved hearing about how the internet introduced the author to new, life-changing relationships. This memoir made me laugh, cry, check airfare to Paris, and curse my low carb diet. Completely and utterly charming, accompanied by tasty recipes. More info →
This ostensibly foodie memoir is as much about identity as it is about fancy restaurants. When Ruth Reichl takes the plum job of New York Times food critic, she's determined to let ordinary diners know what the city's great restaurants are really like. She soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot is pinned to the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can recognize and wow her. So Reichl goes undercover, enlisting the help of an old theater friend to become a sultry blond, a gregarious redhead, and a tweedy brunette, each with her own backstory. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature. More info →
If you're the type that tends to over-romanticize the City of Lights, let David Lebovitz snap you back to reality. As an American expat who chose to move to France (but didn't feel like he really belonged until the day he put on dress pants and a freshly ironed shirt to take out the trash), he loves Paris—of course he does—but he also has no qualms about exposing the ridiculous, baffling, and frustrating side of le France. You'll be inspired to make (or at least eat) French favorites like warm goat cheese salad, chocolate mousse, and macarons. For those who have lived in Paris, been to Paris, or just want a good laugh. More info →
Julia's tales will entertain, inspire, and make you laugh out loud. Child didn't stumble into the world of French cooking until she was 36, when she moved to Paris with her husband Paul, who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service. It was 1948. Since she had no job and nothing else to do, she began shopping the French markets, learning the style, and taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. More info →
I included this memoir/cookbook mashup on the 2013 Summer Reading Guide. While shopping one night, Le Cordon Bleu grad Flinn bumps into a woman whose cart is filled with hyper-processed food. They strike up a conversation, and it turns out the woman simply can't cook. Following this grocery store epiphany, Flinn collects 9 volunteers—all non-cooks—for weekly cooking lessons, and The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is born. Flinn's belief in the power of home cooking is contagious, and her foundational (and fantastic) recipes might just change the way you cook. More info →
Anthony Bourdain, how we miss you. This wild ride of a memoir, packed with what Bourdain calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine," has taken on a special significance since Bourdain's untimely passing. Fair warning: this is intense. It's nothing like your typical food memoir. Great on audiobook. More info →
When Will and I visited a bookstore devoted exclusively to cookbooks and cooking books in Chicago a few years ago, this was my impulse buy. Colwin's chatty style is funny and endearing, and the book is so slim—and so enjoyable—I finished it in an afternoon. Highly recommended for fans of Ruth Reichl and Molly Weizenberg. More info →
Journalist Ann Mah moves to Paris when her diplomat husband is given a three-year assignment there. She’s overjoyed at the opportunity until he’s reassigned to Iraq for a year-long solo stint and must figure out life in Paris on her own. And so she does, one pain au chocolat and boeuf Bourguignon at a time. A thoroughly enjoyable read. More info →
Luisa Weiss launched The Wednesday Chef to document her goal of cooking her way through her massive recipe collection. Living in New York at the time, she never stopped longing for home in Berlin and this is her account of how she finally decided to move back and all that ensued from there. More info →
World-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson went from helping in his grandmother’s kitchen to cooking in some of the most cut-throat restaurants in the world. Ethiopian and adopted by a white Swedish family when he was three, he shares how his Scandinavian heritage influenced his cooking style, as well as how he ultimately drew in African influences and advocates for recognition of African cuisine. He shares honestly about the ups and downs of the food world and how it made him the person he is today. More info →
Chef Gabrielle Hamilton details her bohemian childhood and how she went from accidental cook fending for herself to opening her acclaimed restaurant Prune in NYC. Beautiful prose and an enthralling story. More info →
Food blogger Sasha Martin sets a goal to cook and eat a meal from every country in the world. In the process, she makes peace with her difficult childhood and undergoes a journey of self-acceptance. A heartfelt and empowering read. More info →
With growing concerns about the environmental impact of their food consumption, Barbara Kingsolver and her family vow to eat only what they can grow, catch, or locally source for an entire year. What follows is a family memoir, a gardening how-to guide, and a treatise on sustainability as Kingsolver chronicles their adventures in farm-to-table living. More info →
In this grief memoir, actress Tembi Locke's husband died young. Locke sets out to tell a story of how she fell in love with her husband though perhaps they didn't look on the surface like they belong together because of race, class, and culture; how they overcame a lot to be together; why he meant everything to her; why losing him was so painful for her; and why it's a story that needed to be told. Locke does a great job telling how she found him, how food and chance brought them together. His Sicilian family was not wild about him marrying an African-American woman from America and that splintered the family for many years and seemed like would break them forever. She shows how love and perserverance really did conquer all. This was beautiful; I'm glad I read it. If you love grief memoirs—and I'm not saying that ironically, some people really truly do—I thought this was excellent. More info →
I've adored Reichl’s food writing in the past, but if I wasn’t a devoted Gourmet magazine reader, would I be interested in reading the book aptly subtitled "My Gourmet Memoir"? The answer: YES!! The story begins in 1999, when Reichl is offered (another) dream job: to take the helm at Gourmet, with free reign to make the staid publication relevant to today's cooks. Reichl dishes like a gossipy friend, sharing the behind-the-scenes scoop on the big picture, like livening up Gourmet’s stuffy culture, and the specific, like what was going through her head when she published David Foster Wallace's notorious piece "Consider the Lobster." Gourmet’s rise—and fall—is intimately connected with the publishing trends of the aughts, and as a reader and writer I found her take on her company’s troubles captivating. This is pure delight from start to finish. If you love it, read Garlic and Sapphires next, her un-put-down-able story of her years as the New York Times food critic. More info →
Renowned culinary historian Michael Twitty traces his family roots (both Black and white) from Africa to America and the history of Southern cuisine in this richly drawn memoir. It's a substantial, detailed read, which gives ample space to both personal and culinary history; I appreciated Twitty's distinctive style of storytelling. More info →
In his new memoir, foodie, food writer, and former New Yorker fiction editor Buford shares another first-hand account of his time in the kitchen. In a quest to deepen his culinary training, Buford and his wife, wine expert Jessica Green, move to France with their twin three-year-old boys. They intended to stay for six months so Buford could cook, but after settling in Lyon they extended their visit—and stayed for five years. A lush, detailed, and vividly drawn account of esteemed French kitchens, and the culture that makes their grand food possible. More info →
I knew of Achatz (chef at Chicago's Alinea) but I didn't know the whole story. I knew that in 2003, the James Beard Foundation named Achatz Rising Star Chef of the Year; in 2006, Gourmet Magazine named Alinea the best restaurant in America. But I didn't know that in 2007, Achatz was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer, and the treatment plan left the chef with no sense of taste–an irony his business partner Kokonas dubbed "Shakespearean." (Thankfully, his sense of taste later returned.) This memoir describes Achatz's path to founding Alinea from his childhood family-restaurant days, and his battle with tongue cancer. I could hardly put it down. (Warning: there's a little salty language.) More info →
In the span of a few weeks, former New Yorker editor Emily Nunn grieves the death of her brother, her fiance breaks up with her, and she's evicted from their apartment. She pours her heart out on Facebook and is stunned by the many friends and family members who invite her to stay with them while she figures out what's next. She seeks treatment for alcoholism and then begins her Comfort Food Tour. Wherever she stays, they talk about the role of food in our lives and try different recipes. Comfort food can't heal all wounds but it, along with people who love us, can get us started. More info →
Diana Abu-Jaber grew up with a Jordanian father who loved to cook. Her memoir explores the two cultures of her childhood—American and Jordanian—and what it was like to be a part of both. A rich story of identity, relationships, and the food that forms us. More info →
Kristin Kimball fell in love with a farmer and traded her NYC life for one in the country. She shares how they reached their ambitious goal of growing everything needed to feed a community. For anyone who's ever wondered just what all goes into running a farm. Spoiler alert: a whole lot of hard work. More info →
You may recognize Kwame Onwuachi's name from his stint on Top Chef. But before that, he started his own catering company with twenty thousand dollars he made selling candy on the subway in NYC and worked in notable restaurants across the country. By age 27, not only had he competed on Top Chef, he served dinner to Present Obama at the White House and closed his fine dining restaurant shortly after opening it. He's honest about his mistakes but he also delves into the racism he's experienced in the various kitchens he’s worked in. His voice is a welcome addition to the food memoir canon. More info →
Jessica Fechtor had a brain aneurysm at age 28 and nearly died. The kitchen played a big role in her recovery: she can't work or study so instead, she cooks. She explores the restorative qualities of food and the ways we use it to nourish ourselves and others. A moving read. More info →
Where others would see a long-abandoned property as a lost cause, Tara Austen Weaver saw promise. Through the course of fixing the house and overhauling the expansive garden and orchard, she and her mother learn to reconnect. As the garden blooms with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors, so does their relationship. Reading this will make you want a garden of your own. More info →
Writer Madhur Jaffrey is well-known for cookbooks and here she invites readers into learning about her upbringing in Delhi. 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 Partition, which tore her family's world apart. Her most enduring food memories are connected to the land: climbing mango trees, sampling street fare, and more, making for a unique and memorable read. More info →
What favorite food memoirs would you add to this list?