I love to cook. I feel the most confident and at ease when standing at my kitchen counter preparing food. Still, once in a long while, the demands of making three meals a day, seven days a week, dulls the pleasure I derive from feeding others. Cooking becomes a drudgery, and the kitchen a prison cell.
When I become weary of food, I turn to my bookshelves for inspiration. It isn’t the cookbooks that I reach for, but the novels and memoirs that twine my love of cooking with reading. The tomes that remind me that magic can be made with a few good ingredients, the simplest kitchen equipment, and a bit of time.
In case you’ve ever been visited by the kitchen doldrums (or have never gotten your cooking mojo in gear), here are some titles that are guaranteed to stimulate your taste buds and send you searching through your cabinets for a bowl and whisk.
The following four food novels, although quick reads, each have an interesting twist that make them well worth the time commitment.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
There is no doubt in my mind that author Erica Bauermeister has had a long love affair with food. In this debut novel, eight students gather for a once-a-month cooking class taught by the owner of Lillian’s restaurant. As the insightful chef-turned-teacher walks her students through each lesson, they learn to consider eating and cooking in a whole new way. There are no recipes included, but the chapter describing how to bake a cake made me want to dust off my 8 inch pans and give two-layer baking another try. (See the essay “The Shape of Things” for past cake baking failures.)
Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray
Speaking of cake, Jeanne Ray’s main character whips up a frosted delight whenever she is feeling overwhelmed. This is especially true when her life becomes more out of control: her husband loses his job, her long-lost father turns up at her doorstep needing round-the-clock care, and her teenage daughter becomes moodier than usual. Cake recipes are included although I did not have much luck when I baked the “Healthy Carrot Cake.” (I couldn’t persuade any member of my family to eat more than one bite.) Perhaps I need to give that recipe another whirl using the instructions from The School of Essential Ingredients.
Bread Alone by Judith Hendricks
Wynter Morrison’s future is turned upside down when her husband dumps her, and she is forced, without much job experience, to find a way to support herself. Polishing off her old bread-making skills, she steps into a baking job and slowly begins to mix up a new life for herself. Sprinkled throughout the book are the recipes Wynter bakes as she regains her sense of self. Years ago when I first read Bread Alone, I so enjoyed the bread baking descriptions that I returned to the art of making my own loaves.
Pie by Sarah Weeks
This middle reader novel is a recommendation from my younger daughter. She loved the tale of the baker who upon her death leaves her much sought after secret pie crust recipe to her . . . cat. High jinks follow. A pie recipe concludes each chapter, and when Clara gave an oral book report about Pie, she made Lemon Chess Pie to share with her classmates. It was an odd combination of lemon juice, sugar, eggs, milk, and cornmeal that turned out to be delicious. I quickly added it to my collection.
There seems to be a plethora of food memoirs on the selves these days. Some popular titles that aren’t to be missed are A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg (see my previous recommendation of this book), Julie and Julia by Julie Powell (the premise is interesting, but there is quite a bit of unnecessary profanity), and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme (I fell head over heels in love with the Queen of French Cooking.) Below are additional food memoirs that are equally well done or better, but might get overlooked amongst the crowd.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic by Ruth Reichl
Reichl is best known for her food memoirs Tender to the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples, but it is her book about her tenure as New York Times food critic that I enjoyed the most. Since food critics are easily recognizable, Reichl took to disguising herself before venturing out to review a restaurant. Not only did she take on a new appearance, but she adopted a whole new persona. In doing so, she discovered that each of her “personalities” considered food and dining in a slightly different way. When discussing this memoir at a local book club meeting, the hostess provided wigs for each member. It was amazing for us to experience first hand how a change of appearance changes your perception of everything, including how you think about food.
In Buddha’s Kitchen: Cooking, Being Cooked, and Other Adventures in a Meditation Center by Kimberley Snow
This fascinating memoir deftly combines Snow’s passion for cooking and her experience as the head cook at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. I was equally fascinated by her very readable explanations of Buddhist philosophy and the behind-the-scene glimpses into the inner workings of a Buddhist community. Snow’s book reads quickly and easily–all at once quirky, funny, and insightful–and I didn’t want it to end.
Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
To be perfectly honest, I did not like this book. To me, it read like a reality television show: Too much airing of dirty laundry. But I am including it here for two reasons. First, her description of the restaurant she created, the popular New York hot spot “Prune,” was pitch perfect. It was exactly the kind of place where I’d like to eat every single night. Secondly, Blood, Bones & Butter received rave reviews from food critics and literary critics alike, and was a New York Times bestseller. My mother, who loved Hamilton’s memoir, said it completely changed her whole attitude about eating and cooking.
That something we all need once in a while. A reminder that food is not just a chore–a thrice a day necessity–but that eating and cooking can be an experience, a pleasure, a gift that we give to ourselves and to others.
If you have ever been inspired by a foodie novel or memoir, please add your own recommendation in the comments section below.
(If you happen to like to mix up your reading with your viewing, don’t miss out on the following films: Babette’s Feast, The Big Night, Ratatouille, Mostly Martha, and the documentary Kings of Pastry. All are odes to cooking and eating pleasure.)