Must Read Memoirs for Foodies

Memoirs are like autobiographies for obsessives. Authors focus in on one tiny part of their lives and, in the process, transmit something of their journey, and hopefully their passions, to the reader. Memoirs really blew up a few years ago and much to my delight because they’re my favourite things to read. And when you love food as much as I do, the fact that there’s even such a thing as a food memoir is a gift from heaven. Tell me about your life? Yes please. Tell me about your life AND what you ate and how you cooked it? YES PLEASE!

At this point, I’ve read many such memoirs, not all of them engrossing. Not everyone can write an engaging tale, no matter how eventful the life. Therefore, let me share with you the ones I’ve preferred… the crème de la crème, if you will. I’ve broken down the sub-genre into sub-sub-genres, just to be extra obsessive.

The Hungry Years and Lunch in Paris

The Hungry Years and Lunch in Paris

Everything Is Better in France (food, but also love)

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard — An American studying in UK falls in love with a Frenchman on a trip to Paris. What follows is sex, obviously, but more importantly: lardon. This is a fun fish out of water tale. I especially enjoyed Bard’s observations about the differences in French and American cultures as she navigates tiny apartments, French nihilism, and a mother-in-law’s not-so-subtle hints regarding the appropriate size of a woman’s appetite [small]. I see now that there’s a sequel called Picnic in Provence, oui!

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’Homme — Another American in Paris, but this one is set just after WWII when Americans still knew nothing about food. I read this recently while on vacation and Child’s chatty energetic voice charmed me completely. Again, the contrast between American and French cultures comes through. Plus it’s fascinating to learn how successfully bringing French food to the US required someone with Child’s passion and sense of discovery, but also with her methodical and detail-oriented mind (a friend commented that Child was very librarian-like — too true). Also, reading about her marriage is a delight. Julia and Paul had, back in the 1940s, exactly the kind of relationship one would wish for today: a mutually supportive and loving union between two fully formed independent adults.

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell — This was the first blog turned book I ever read (and, incidentally, I also read it on a beach). It works because the author, Julie, has the good sense to interweave Julia’s story with her own. Just as she tries to rescue herself from an uninspiring life working a shit job and commuting to a teeny Long Island apartment by cooking ALL of the recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blogging about it, she also successfully rescues the reader from her abrasive personality by inserting bits of Julia Child’s story into her own. The result is engrossing (the movie version is pretty good too).

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle — From Americans in Paris to Brits in Provence… While not strictly a food memoir (you could also call it a renovation memoir), there’s a satisfying amount of food here. I remember reading it in a park in Montreal and having to get up, walk to the patisserie for a croissant, and bring it back to the park to continue reading.

Words of wisdom from Julia Child

Words of wisdom from Julia Child

Food Is my Job

Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater by Gail Simmons — This one was my favourite of the bunch. I not only love to read about food, I also enjoy watching food preparation (hanging out in the kitchen with my mother or grand-mother was a treat for me as a child… and licking the bowl, of course!). And so I knew Gail Simmons from the show Top Chef, but had no clue about her otherwise. Turns out Simmons is Canadian (a McGill grad, like me). Her life journey is fascinating, from being the assistant to Vogue’s maniacal food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten, to working for chef Daniel Boulud, to food writing and event planning, and of course, becoming a recognizable television person. Her writing is engaging and very intimate. Read it!

Yes Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers — And speaking of fascinating life journeys… You know the story of an Ethiopian adopted by Swedes who becomes a celebrity chef in New York will not be boring. What makes this memoir wonderful is Samuelsson’s willingness be introspective, to share painful memories and difficult insights. He breaks the mold of the macho male chef by being vulnerable.

Everything by Ruth Reichl (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires) — For years, Reichl was the New York Times restaurant critic, but she’s now also quite known for writing about her life, mostly about her bipolar mother who had the worst food pallet of all time. I read the memoirs in order which I recommend. The quality of her writing improves dramatically over the years, but the stories she tells are amazing right from the start. My favourite is Comfort Me with Apples with its memorable hippy California Alice Waters garlic orgy.

Confections of a Closet Master Baker: One Woman’s Sweet Journey from Unhappy Hollywood Executive to Contented Country Baker (also under the title My Life from Scratch) by Gesine Bullock-Prado — If you’ve ever dreamt of leaving all that Hollywood excess behind and opening a German bakery in rural Vermont, this is the book for you. Seriously, this is written by Sandra Bullock’s sister, her sister the baker, and it’s the perfect escape fantasy, mit Torte.

Gail Simmons and Marcus Samuelsson

Marcus Samuelsson with Gail Simmons

Oh No, I’m Fat!

Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite by Frank Bruni — Much of this book is about growing up in an Italian American family and eating. A lot. Then moving to Italy and learning how to eat, really eat, for pleasure but not to bursting. Then moving back to America and getting to eat for a living (Bruni was one of Reichl’s successors at the NY Times). His story is full of humour and pain and deliciousness.

It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell — Andie Mitchell broke my heart, repeatedly. Her relationship with food became warped quite young as the result of trying to cope with an alcoholic dad and a mother who was not around (working tripple time as the sole bread winner). This is about so much more than food. It’s a story about depression, family, and personal growth… oh, and eating in Italy too.

The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict by William Leith — Leith is the rock star here. He’s got a good cocaine and booze habit to go along with his carbohydrates addiction. And this accomplished British journalist is by far the best writer of the bunch. He goes deep into food, relationships, body image, and ends up with Dr. Atkins. I’ve actually read this twice now; it’s fascinating stuff.

I would have loved to add another section called I Grow and Kill My Own Food, but I’ve yet to read one of that genre that I think is really compelling (though a Barbara Kingsolver volume stares back at me from my night stand, I’ve not yet read it). Novella Carpenter’s Farm City is not bad, but still too blogish to recommend.

Are you into food memoirs, cooking shows, foodie movies? Please share your favourites in the comments.

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  1. […] mention: In addition to reading about food, I also have a great attention span for watching food preparation. And yet, I’d never seen […]

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