I feel I should begin with an advisory: reading any one of these books will make you want to get up and prepare something delicious to eat or drink. Not just a midnight snack of pb&j (although that would be delicious, too) but a carefully prepared dish with quality ingredients and tons of flavour. It’s what great writing about food should do: make you want to make your own, make you want to host, make you want to explore new flavours and recipes. This is a wonderful thing, but when you read many of these books in a row, sometimes until the very wee hours of the morning, wanting to get up to prepare a feast every five minutes can be a bit trying! All through my hunger pangs and cravings, I was so excited to share this feast of food writing. Just be sure to arm yourself with a store of fancy snacks when you curl up to read them!
Love in a Dish and Other Culinary Delights by M.F.K. Fisher
I cannot recommend this collection of essays highly enough. M.F.K. Fisher, best known for her war-time cookbook How to Cook a Wolf, helped shape the genre we now call food writing. Clocking in at just over 100 pages, this is the perfect appetizer with which to get acquainted. Her writing is most of all an achievement of voice. Hers is so strong, so assured, that I felt utterly and gleefully submerged in it. The writing is powerful, opinionated, tender and perfect. Her memoir on her “Two Kitchens in Provence” is a marvel: it is the literary equivalent of a teeming Dutch still life, packed with lush life just at the peak of ripeness, just on the cusp of decay. After reveling in all of the fresh food that’s on offer on market days, she packs her laden baskets into a cab for the ride home:
Sometimes I would want him to go faster, for I could almost feel the food in the baskets swelling with juice, growing soft, splitting open in an explosive rush toward ripeness and disintegration. The fruits and vegetables of Provence are dying as they grow–literally leaping form the ancient soil, so filled with natural richness and bacilli and fungi that they seem a kind of summing up of whatever they are. A tomato there, for instance, is the essence of all tomatoes, of tomato-ness….
M.F.K. Fisher has eaten a fair few tomatoes, and when she describes one as the epitome of the genre, I believe her. She herself is the epitome of the food writing genre. Read anything by her.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
Although it was written nearly half a century later, Home Cooking has a lot in common with M.F.K. Fisher’s work. Again, it’s that assurance of voice. There is personality in these books, not just instruction, and that, to my mind, is what makes them great.
It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called a social life.
I love her wry humour. I also deeply appreciate Colwin’s attention to other domestic details, like the presence of children for instance. Colwin’s writing on food is a combination of instruction (recipes, advice, admonition) and memoir, embedded in life as it is lived, and that includes the difficulty of combining complicated cooking and motherhood, the humble pleasure of sweet butter, a chapter on “Easy Cooking for Exhausted People,” and the joys of an English high tea.
Dinner With Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent
Dinner with Edward is a lovely, easy-reading memoir about journalist Isabel Vincent’s friendship with her friend Valerie’s newly widowed father, Edward. Valerie, who has moved to Canada, asks Isabel to keep an eye on her father, who lives around the corner from her in New York. This arrangement becomes a weekly dinner that Edward, an accomplished cook, prepares for Isabel. Each chapter begins with the menu of a meal Edward has served her, and the book explores their growing mutual need. Edward is mourning, and Isabel’s marriage is failing. What begins as a favour to a friend ends in a mutually fulfilling and essential support system. I loved this book for Edward’s careful attention to detail: chilling the cocktail glasses and the gin before cocktail hour, warming the plates before dinner, scouting the city for the best ingredients. I enjoyed reading about an intergenerational friendship, about lessons in slowing down and paying attention.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
This book was published in 2011, and in 2011 a friend said I must, absolutely must, read it. I bought it on the strength of that recommendation, but it languished in a pile of books by my bedside, and I somehow never got to it. If you have not yet read this book, don’t repeat my mistake. You must, absolutely must, read it. Her writing is accomplished, polished and full of crisp imagery and tangible sensation. This is not a book written by a chef as a way to extend her brand or her reach; this is a book written by a writer with enormous talent. There is a tight, taut narrative, deft handling of pace, setting and character. It’s literary. In an interview with Ian Brown, Hamilton said that writing is the hardest thing she has ever done: harder than opening a successful restaurant in New York, harder than raising two sons as a single parent. It does not show. She is equally authoritative as author and as an expert on good food. Not high concept or trendy food, but good food. Her celebration of a simple, salted boiled potato, eaten in a café in Amsterdam as a starving student backpacking through Europe, was one of the most evocative passages of food writing I’ve ever come across. And the hunger she experiences as a student comes to inform the success of her restaurant:
I starved. And I starved so many times on this repeated three-day bus ride or train journey from somewhere to somewhere else that I came to know every contour of my hunger in precise detail. When I came to be actually holding the keys to my new restaurant, wondering what credentials I possibly possessed for owning and operating such a place, I counted knowing hunger and appetite as one of them.
She is uncomfortably insightful on class, on sexual relationships with men and women, on estrangement from her family, and on the martyrdom of motherhood. In other words, this woman is the complete package, and you must, absolutely must, read this book.