“The table could sometimes breed violence and it could be the backdrop to the proscribed and the forbidden and the perverse … But feeding people made them happy; it made me happy, and grounded me.” From “Treyf” by Elissa Altman
From left to right in the photo above, here are my favourite food memoirs. All of them are beautifully written (in varying degrees) and all evoke the way food played a part in the author’s life. Some contain a bonus: recipes.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. This dashing, eloquent and brilliant New York chef unexpectedly rose to fame in 2000 with his unabashedly shocking, brutally honest and now iconic story of life in the restaurant kitchen. The book kick-started a stellar career for Bourdain as host of ground-breaking, gritty TV shows with food as an entree to politics, history and the homes of ordinary people. Sadly, chef Bourdain – a roguish culinary adventurer – had self-confessed demons and committed suicide in France on June 8, 2018 while filming an episode of his show “Parts Unknown.” This quote from Kitchen Confidential is poignant: “[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.” (My blog post written for the Toronto Star in 2000 shortly after Kitchen Confidential was published.)
Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite. As usual, the subtitle says it all – almost all. It could have included coming out as a gay man. David Leite is a prolific, award-winning food writer and talented cook with Portuguese heritage based in NYC and Roxbury, CT. His memoir is at times heartbreaking, at times heartwarming. But the pain is infused with and mediated by a passion for food and cooking that is pure joy. He has a blog called “Leite’s Culinaria” that’s well worth checking out.
Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman. Treyf is a Yiddish word for food that is unfit for consumption according to Jewish dietary law. This is a poignant metaphor for Altman’s search for acceptance in an often complicated, eccentric family rife with conflict and contradictions: pork ribs at a Chinese restaurant after synagogue on Saturday; her traditional old-country grandparents; her childhood habitat in wartime Queens, then Brooklyn in the 1970s and finally life in rural New England with her wife. Through the entire book, especially in the final chapters, Altman’s love of food and cooking looms large. See her other memoir “Poor Man’s Feast” of 10 years ago and her column in the Washington Post.
The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict by William Leith published in 2005. The eloquent, ebullient British journalist was ahead of his time as the poster boy of binge living. This is a brutally honest survivor’s tale of lonely days at boarding school, of emotionally unavailable parents who were academics specializing in child psychology and, as an adult, of addiction to drugs, alcohol and food. He recovers from these excesses but is wary of the psychic hunger that always lurks, the appetite for harm – a hole in the soul. A gripping, important read.
Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by Kim Severson. Severson is a Southern U.S.-based correspondent for the New York Times whose specialty is food. Her writing is some of the most magnificent in our field and runs the gamut from social and political issues to down-home stories about how ordinary people cook and share food. Her work has won several prestigious awards. This memoir comes to life with tales of growing up in the rural Midwest – her Twitter page says, “Body in the South, head in NYC, heart in SF” – coming out as gay and her stellar, satisfying career path. It’s also a tribute to eight women in the food world to whom she’s grateful including Ruth Reichl, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis, Alice Waters and Rachael Ray. There are recipes. I’ve made her mother’s authentic Italian spaghetti with meatballs – delish!
32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert. This is probably my favourite food memoir. Short, sweet and powerful, it is endorsed by chef Ripert’s close friend the late Anthony Bourdain who says: “Heartbreaking. Horrifying. Poignant. And inspiring.” The book is gorgeously co-written by Veronica Chambers who Ripert says in the acknowledgments “spent hundreds of hours in the basement of Le Bernardin listening to my story.” It tells of a traumatic childhood, the discovery of his talent and passion for cooking and the pinnacle of success: his New York seafood restaurant Le Bernardin that has 3 Michelin stars.
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater. The beloved British food writer and broadcaster came out with this slim but powerful memoir in 2003. In a nutshell, it tells how he found solace from a loveless, lonely childhood in food and cooking. The book stops at age 18 and expresses the young Slater’s anger, sadness and longing to escape in a child’s voice. His mother died when he was nine. His stepmother was the family’s cleaner and, in a grim twist of fate, a good cook. The tale begins with burnt toast and ends with profiteroles. In between are lemon meringue pie, grilled grapefruit, Bisto and Walnut Whips. When Slater leaves home, he finds himself in all kinds of restaurant kitchens, then recipe tester for a magazine, Observer food columnist, author of sundry popular cookbooks and TV cooking show host. This memoir is a gem.
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones. The late author was an innovator in the cookbook world. She is credited, as a young editor at Knopf, for discovering Julia Child. In 1969, Jones realized that the manuscript that came across her desk, later named Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was timely and would be a hit. She became Child’s long-time friend and editor. In this memoir, she describes time with her husband living in France After World War II and her love of French food. She came back to the renaissance of American cuisine spearheaded by the likes of Child, James Beard, MFK Fisher and Lidia Bastianich, all of whom she fostered and helped publish. The final chapter of her book is favourite recipes and much appreciated. Hear my podcast recorded in 2012 at her Upper East Side apartment.
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin. Pépin is a deservedly revered French-American chef, cookbook author, TV show host and culinary instructor whom Julia Child called “the best chef in America.” He proved to be a natural at his mother’s cafe Bourg-en-Bresse near Lyons when he became an apprentice at age 13. He then worked in Paris and was, for a time, the personal chef for Charles de Gaulle. There are recipes in this memoir well worth trying such as Roast Gigot of Lamb Provencale and Maman’s Apple Tart. I can vouch for his recipes many of which I have tried. Jacques Pépin lives and breathes a passion for cooking. It shows in this book.
Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in his Suitcase by Vikram Vij. The writing in this memoir is exquisite. The sentiments expressed are courageous, honest and insightful. Vij is a chef, restaurateur and Canadian national treasure. Apparently, the late Anthony Bourdain, who endorsed this book, thought so too and wrote: “A terrific and deeply personal culinary journey from a great chef.” Vij lives large, has lofty ambitions and tells a good story. I regularly make his Family Chicken Curry (with half the oil). Don’t miss the eight life lessons he imparts at the end of the book. Hear my podcast with Vij recorded at CBC headquarters in Toronto.