Read Harder 2016: Food Memoirs

A baker’s dozen of recommendations for Task 22 of the 2016 Read Harder Challenge.

Burnt Bread and Chutney by Carmit Delman (2002).

One of the things that I love about food memoirs is that they are such a great window into other cultures and Delman’s childhood was an interesting mix of two – her mother is from the Bene Israel community of Jews in Western India, her father an American Jew of Eastern European descent. If you ever though Shabbat dinners needed more curry, this is the book for you. I loved the food, the history of the Bene Israel, and Delman’s writing about growing up biracial and bicultural.

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by Madhur Jaffrey (2005).

It’s probably not surprising that acclaimed food writer Jaffrey has written a compelling, food-infused memoir of her childhood. Born in Delhi in 1933, Jaffrey’s childhood spanned a tumultuous time in India’s history, but good food and a close, loving family are a constant in her early years. It’s no wonder she grew up to write amazing cookbooks!

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo (2011).

American journalist, Ciezadlo spent a decade in the Middle East, reporting on politics and civilian life. Her memoir frames her time in Baghdad and Beirut through food – humanizing life in a war zone in a way that more straightforward reporting struggles with.

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler (2011).

An Everlasting Meal is sort of a contemplation on home cooking. Tamar Adler has cooked at various restaurants (including Chez Panisse), but this book is really focused on making food at home with a goal making home cooking seem doable – not with any tricks, just by saying, food doesn’t have be complicated, here is how you make basic things. Here is what to do if things go wrong. There is even a whole chapter about what she does when she doesn’t feel like cooking. I liked this book a lot (although I’m not sure it would be at all helpful if you don’t cook at all and are looking for a place to start). It seem perfectly focused for me – the home cook who follows a lot of recipes, but could use some help figuring out how to cook efficiently, not waste food and who needs things to be not too time consuming. A great book to reinvigoration of your relationship with cooking.

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang (2013).

Huang writes about growing up in the South as the child of Chinese immigrants (not that easy, as you may imagine). He was a kind of wild kid, and the book definitely has a Bildungsroman quality, which I loved. I really appreciated how direct Huang was in his discussion of race, especially about racism again Asian Americans, which I feel like you virtually never hear discussed. Our life experiences are very different – I’m sure I missed a lot of the Hip Hop references and I only know who a few of the basketball players that Huang discussed are, but his desire to learn and to figure things out definitely resonated with me. Fresh Off the Boat has been adapted into a series on ABC, but I’ve never watched it, so I can’t say how it compares!

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl (2005).

I love all of Reichl’s memoirs, but this is a great one to start with. It combines great descriptions of food, with the challenge of finding and championing great new restaurants without being recognized during her period as food critic for the New York Times. Start here – but keep reading, Comfort Me With Apples and Tender at the Bone are also great.

Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater by Matthew Amster-Burton (2009).

I recommend this book to all parents of solids-eating kids, because if Amster-Burton who is an excellent cook with a flexible work schedule as a freelance food writer has a kid who goes through a “will only eat 6 things” phase, then we can probably let ourselves all off the hook. A fun look at introducing your kid to one of life’s great joys: FOOD.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone (2007).

A perfect mix of food and family history, Schenone traces her family’s recipes back to coast of Liguria in Italy. This remains one of my favorite food memoirs EVER – just such a lovely mix of research and family and delicious sounding food and travel adventures.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen (2013).

Such an excellent memoir and look at Soviet history through the lens of food. Von Bremzen and her mother emigrated from Moscow to Philadelphia when she was 9, and she is now a cookbook-writer by profession. She goes through the Soviet Union by the decade – describing the food common to the era. This is much better than your average food memoir. Well worth picking up.

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes) by Luisa Weiss (2013).

A love story to both traditional romance (Weiss’ with her husband) and to Germany – the food and the people from Weiss’ childhood who she reintegrates when she moves back to Berlin after many years in the United States. As someone who was an exchange student in Germany, this totally fed my love and nostalgia for that time in my life.

A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan (2011).

This is the book *I* read for Read Harder’s Task 22. Tan is from Singapore, which has a particularly strong food culture, so it was interesting and mouthwatering to read about all the dishes she learned to cook from her various family members.

Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home by Kim Sunee (2008).

This was a interesting memoir that touched on adoption, food, relationships, and expatriate life, among other topics. Kim Sunee was adopted from South Korea by an American couple and raised in New Orleans. This book focuses on her post-college life in France, however, and her search for a place where she “belongs”.

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelson (2012).

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, adopted by a Swedish family, and became a chef as a young man, eventually landing in New York City, so you can imagine that he has a pretty interesting life story to tell – and he tells it well. A great look at the process of interning and growing through the restaurant business and at family and belonging in a transracial adoptive family.

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Read Harder 2016: Food Memoirs

Early Reviewer: Fannie’s Last Supper

Fannie’s Last Supper by Chris Kimball was a fun book. The premise is as follows: Kimball, founder and editor of the magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, and host of the PBS show America’s Test Kitchen decides to create and served 12-course, Victorian dinner from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook. As you can imagine recreating recipes from 1896 is a challenge, and sometimes fairly gross (Mock-Turtle Soup, made with a calf’s head. Ugh.). It was interesting to see how much cooking had changed in just over 100 years, and while it was really fun to read about this different food and to get a little history into how this country ate, it made me glad that I live when I do now when cooking doesn’t take all day and I never have to make gelatin from calves’ feet.

While the planning and preparation for this dinner took two years, and the books covers this, there was also a documentary made of the dinner itself, which is supposed to be showing on PBS “during the holidays”. So far I haven’t seen it listed on my local PBS station, but I am hoping to catch it when it airs. It would be interesting to actually see the food described in the book.

Early Reviewer: Fannie’s Last Supper

Two about Food

I’m back on a reading kick, which so far means reading my favorite types of books – mysteries and books about food. They are my total “comfort reading”. More on the mysteries later – now it’s time for food!

The first food book I read in the past week was No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been meaning to read some of his writing for a while, since folks seem to like it, so when I stopped by the library last week to pick up a book for the metro ride home, I thought I would pick up one of his. This was the only book by Bourdain on the shelf at the library, which is why I picked it. I didn’t take a good look at it before I left and I was surprised to find out that it was really more of a photo essay book, than a memoir or book of essays. It was fine, but didn’t give me much of a sense about Bourdain’s writing – although I really enjoy the essay about Beirut, where Bourdain found himself during Israel’s bombing back in 2006. It gave a real sense of what was lost in that bombing and made this event, which had been an abstract thing to me before, very personal.

Yesterday I finished Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China by Jen Lin-Liu, which combined three of my favorite book attributes: writing about food, writing about China, and memoirs. Lin-Liu is a Chinese-American journalist who moved to China in 2000 and eventually decides that she wants to learn how to cook. This book follows her through her course at a Chinese cooking school, studying for her chef exam, and then internships in Chinese restaurants, both small and grand. I found the book enjoyable and the descriptions of food interesting – some sounded delicious, some sounded like I would rather miss them (the restaurant that served the genitals of male animals, for example). I read about Lin-Liu and her book in the Food section of the Post a few weekends ago, and I’m glad I check it out. It made for an enjoyable weekend of reading.

Two about Food

Golden Arches East

Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia is edited by James L. Watson with articles by a handful of authors regarding McDonald’s influence in five different Asian communities (Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea). It’s an academic book and the authors are all anthopologists with lots of experience in the communities they write about. It’s a very interesting look at how Western companies interact with non-Western communities and the way that they both influence the other. The book was written in the mid-90s and I am curious how things have changed in the last decade plus. One thing that I thought was really interesting about the book was that pretty much all the authors said that McDonald’s has become “local” in East Asia, and isn’t really seen or treated as “foreign” – even though it is providing decidedly non-local types of food (whose ingredients are usually bought locally). I read a photo essay book a year or so ago that made a great visual point about the globalization of food products – Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Also definitely worth taking a look at if you are interested in this topic. (Or just curious about other people’s lives, like me).

Golden Arches East

One Weekend, Two Books

I finished two books this weekend, both relating to food.

The first book was Third Helpings by Calvin Trillin, a thin, humorous volume written in the 1980s. I read a selection of Trillin’s writing in American Food Writing and enjoyed it, so I added him to my “to read” list along with quite a few others. His writing reminded of nothing so much as Erma Bombeck, a writer who I had entirely forgotten until I read this book – even though I (embarassingly) read all the books of hers that my library had when I was in junior high. I enjoyed this book, but I think it was good that it is a short one, because his writing becomes rather predictable pretty quickly. I don’t think I need to read any of his other offerings, but this one was just the humorous break I needed for a day or so.

The second book I read this weekend (okay, okay, I finished it Monday morning on the train to work), was Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey is a noted actress and cookbook author and this is her memoir of growing up in India. As you might expect, the book contains a lot of discussions of food, but it is also an interesting, personal look at the time surrounding Indian Independence from the eyes of a child. I love memoirs, and I think one of the things that I like about them, in addition to the fact that they are intensely personal, is that they are often self-limiting, dealing only with a certain phase of a person’s life. I think this focus makes the books stronger, and Jaffrey’s restriction of the book to her childhood, certainly does that for me here.

One Weekend, Two Books

American Food Writing

I like to read about food. This may be related to the fact that I like to eat food. Or even to the fact that I like to cook food. But mainly I think it has to do with the fact that I really like non-fiction, but I especially like non-fiction that is personal. I like memoirs. I like social history. I like finding out about other people’s lives. And food is nothing if not personal, so that makes it a perfect non-fiction subject for me.

American Food Writing, edited by Molly O’Neill, is a creatively named anthology of writing selections dating back to the country’s inception. They are arranged chronologically and it is interesting to see American food evolve (and diversify) over time. The pieces are all fairly short (I don’t think any was more than 10 pages or so), which made it the perfect book to keep in the house and pick up any time I had a few minutes. (It’s over 700 pages long, so it can also last you for a good, long while). As a bonus, it introduced me to quite a few new food writers who I am eager to check out. I think it’s always a good sign with a book leads you to other books.

American Food Writing