From North America to the United Kingdom, these are my favourite food memoirs
A few days ago, I was craving a Walnut Whip. I bought three of them.
Why did I have a longing for an iconic British candy first made by Duncan’s of Edinburgh in 1910? Why did a milk chocolate cone with a whipped vanilla filling and a walnut on top urgently beckon to me? The answer: I was recently researching this blog post by re-reading the compelling memoir “Toast” by Nigel Slater and watching the brilliant BBC film by the same name.
I purchased the Walnut Whips on Yonge St. just south of Bloor in downtown Toronto at a store specializing in British non-perishable food. I was in my element. It brought on a shopping binge.
I snapped up a package of chocolate-covered Penguin biscuit bars. I had to have a six-pack of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes – chocolate-covered marshmallow mounds; HobNobs – crisp digestive-like cookies, the dark chocolate version; Aunty’s Sticky Toffee Pudding (the shop was out of Spotted Dick) – and a jar of Branston pickle, especially good in cheese sandwiches. All of them were fresh, delicious and brought back memories.
I grew up in a white-bread, white-collar suburb of North London, UK, in the 1950s and ’60s. Nigel Slater grew up in the 1960s in the Midlands – Wolverhampton, to be exact – in a suburban brick house that looked like mine.
My family didn’t fit in. My father was a doctor and taught medical students. I used to entertain my school friends by showing them the human skull we had in our dining room cupboard. My mother was a grammar school biology teacher. My dad grew up in Montreal’s Jewish ghetto in the neighbourhood of St. Urbain. My mum was a Holocaust refugee from Latvia.
They both had funny accents. We ate funny food: Salad with vinaigrette at every meal, rye bread with caraway seeds, Wiener Schnitzel, Pirozhki, Coulibiac, Linzertorte, eclairs and hazelnuts crescents. Most of my friends ate white sliced bread, lettuce and tomatoes with Salad Cream, Steak and Kidney Pie, Toad-in-the Hole, Treacle Tart and cream buns.
I longed to be tall and blonde – I was short and brunette. I wanted to have an ordinary last name – our name was Schachter. I begged my mother to make spam fritters like the ones served at my subsidized school lunch – she claimed she didn’t understand the concept. In a nutshell, I wanted to blend in with my peers.
Nigel’s sweet mother died from asthma when he was nine. She couldn’t cook but she was loving and affectionate. The housekeeper who replaced her moved in with Nigel and his angry, neglectful father. “Mrs. Potter – an old-fashioned charlady,” as Nigel called her, had social aspirations, an uncouth manner and a magical talent for cooking. A culinary rivalry between her and the teenage Nigel began heating up.
Enter food. It’s the glue that held Nigel’s life together and is a central theme in “Toast.”
Nigel Slater describes himself on his Twitter page as “a cook who writes.” He lives in London and is the Observer food columnist, a prolific cookbook author and is a popular TV cooking show host. In other words, he inspires people to cook. He is no-nonsense and does not believe in strict recipe instructions.
Nigel and I both turned to food – and especially cooking – for solace and comfort. Our families were odd. We were at odds with our families. Our childhoods were lonely. We are kindred souls.
I met Nigel Slater twice while visiting my mother in London. (She died at her home in Primrose Hill at the age of 96 in April, 2018.) We had lunch several years ago at the original Moro in Clerkenwell. A few years later, we had lunch at Racine in Knightsbridge soon after his memoir was published in 2003.
The subtitle of “Toast” is “The Story of a Boy’s Hunger.” It tells the intimate, heartfelt story of Nigel’s hunger for love, his burgeoning homosexuality and the birth of his career. He told me during lunch at Racine writing the book was cathartic. “It opened a world that I’ve forgotten. It closed a chapter in my life that was unresolved and that I’d put off dealing with.”
He told me his intent to tell the truth, even it wasn’t pretty. “So many foodie memoirs are a nice holiday read,” he notes. “They’re by people who’ve gone to France, don’t have to work and are always walking round the market picking up darling little cheeses.’
As we wound up our lunch, Nigel gently but firmly urged me to write my memoir. It is in my plans.
Here are the rest of my favourite food memoirs – the cream of the crop in my books – in no particular order.
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson. Marcus was born in Ethiopia. His mother died from tuberculosis. At a young age, he and his sister were adopted by a loving Swedish family. He now lives in Harlem, NY. He has a famous restaurant nearby called the Red Rooster. He has restaurants in other countries. He is a popular panelist on Food Network. He wrote a compelling memoir called “Yes, Chef.” He found his calling and a passion as a chef. In his memoir, Marcus tells his life’s ups and downs with clarity and courage. He co-wrote it with Veronica Chambers, a brilliant writer in her own right. This is a quote from the book: “I believe there’s a door that opens from inside any great kitchen, a door that opens out and gives us the world.”
32 Yolks by Eric Ripert. The title of this memoir is a mystery until you know this. Chef Ripert said once in interview: “32 yolks really defined the moment from realizing that it will take me weeks and months to master the 32 yolks and make a beautiful hollandaise. And this is when I’m becoming a real cook – a real chef in the kitchen.” Eric Ripert has an iconic restaurant in Manhattan called Le Bernardin. He grew up in France and worked as a trainee under the most famous French chefs, e.g. Joel Robuchon. The subtitle of this memoir is: “From my Mother’s Table to Working the Line.” Eric has wounds from his childhood. He approaches life with a Buddhist calm and positivity. Cooking was and still is his calling, his passion and his solace. It’s a compact book. It’s beautifully written – also with the help of Veronica Chambers.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. “Kitchen Confidential” is the quintessential food memoir. It was published in the year 2000 – it began the flood of memoirs by chefs and food writers. It’s a no-holds-barred, ribald and sometimes shocking depiction of the restaurant kitchen. Anthony, later in life, apologized for “meathead bro culture” he espoused in the brilliant book. He explained his experience as “largely male, pretty brutal and oppressive, very, very, very difficult” kitchens where he learned to cook. Anthony died by suicide in June 2018 while filming an episode of “Parts Unknown” in France. He was a consummate storyteller. I still miss him. Read my blog post from 2000 when I talked to him by phone shortly after “Kitchen Confidential” came out.
Vij by Vikram Vij. Penned by a Canadian chef living in B.C., the subtitle of his memoir tells it all: “A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in his Suitcase.” But it’s more than that. This is a tale of success, failures, the break-up of a marriage, the hectic life of a restaurateur and Vikram’s spiritual journey. Listen to my podcast with Vikram recorded a few years ago in Toronto.
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin. I attended this talented chef’s cooking demos at the now closed Bonnie Stern School of Cooking in Toronto. Jacques grew up in the restaurant business in France and is an excellent teacher, a great source of recipes featured in his many cookbooks and a charming man. This quote from his memoir sums it up: “At an age when most kids don’t know how to cook their own breakfast, I had already worked in four busy restaurant kitchens. I was at home in each one, and they were all the home I knew. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a chef.” He now demonstrates simple but enticing dishes in his kitchen via Facebook videos.
Notes on a Banana by David Leite. The subtitle of David’s book is “A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression.” David is an American food writer, cookbook author and a must-follow on social media. His memoir is brutally honest and the courageous tale of self-discovery – claiming his sexuality, family relationships, bipolar disorder and, of course, food. It’s common among sensitive people to symbolize their family’s dysfunction. David is one of these. He writes: “Something about being the person in the family who registers and acts out the feelings of everyone.” This is a healing journey and a must-read.
Treyf by Elissa Altman. As usual, the subtitle is a clue to the memoir’s contents: “My Life as Unorthodox Outlaw.” My friend and journalist, who is Jewish by heritage and is not religious, once said: “I’m a culinary Jew.” I suspect Elissa fits that description. She has an earlier memoir “Poor Man’s Feast” and is an impressive presence on the American food-writing scene. “Treyf” refers to the forbidden foods by religious Jews: lobster, pork, mixing meat and dairy etc. It also implies undesirable, offensive and unclean. Elissa tells a vivid story of growing up in New York in the 1970s. She describes turbulent family bonds, her haunting loneliness and, on the cheerful side, Chinese restaurant meals.