You might be wondering why we chose to focus on “gritty” food memoirs, as opposed to, say, Julia Child’s My Life in France, which is also an excellent book. It’s because food writing can unfairly carry the reputation of being navel-gazing, especially when it is written by women. This list shows that that is just not true. Anybody who reads of how Gabrielle Hamilton, founder of New York City’s Prune, lived off stolen ketchup packets from McDonald’s will vehemently disagree.
With the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Anthony Bourdain changed the way we think, read, and write about food. Fifteen years later, other writers have followed in his footsteps and written brave and candid memoirs about how what drew them to life in the kitchen. They are not only windows into the minds of these brilliant chefs and writers, but also a way to read about how historical forces shape the way we cook and perceive food. Most importantly, these books are a testament to how taste has a way of transporting us to the past in a way no other sense can.
‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton
From her adventures working as a drugged-out waitress in New York City to picking fruit in her mother-in-law’s garden in Italy, Gabrielle Hamilton doesn’t hold back as she takes us through her tumultuous life. If you want to get a preview of this memoir, don’t read the back of this book — just look at the menu of Prune, her award-winning restaurant in New York’s East Village. Every item on that menu was inspired by something in her life — from the cheap egg-on-a-roll sandwiches she bought at her local Greek deli when she stumbled home drunk to the fine French cuisine her mother cooked for her family in rural Pennsylvania (before Hamilton ran away from home at the age of 16).
‘Climbing the Mango Trees’ by Madhur Jaffrey
Madhur Jaffrey, the undisputed queen of Indian home-cooking, applies the same precision to her life’s story of growing up in pre-Revolution India as she does to her recipes, and the results are just as rich, complex, and heartwarming as her creamy chicken korma. While she enjoyed a wealthy life, the revolution and subsequent India-Pakistan separation shattered the idyllic religious diversity of her community. From the foods of bustling Old Delhi that seem like a memory — like qeema bhare karele (bitter gourd stuffed with minced meat) — to the specialties her family packed when picnicking in the Himalayan foothills (like stuffed puris), to the mango trees she’d climb in her family’s estate, Jaffrey takes us through a history that’s personal, political, and gorgeous. Fear not: the index includes at least 30 recipes from her childhood.
‘L.A. Son’ by Roy Choi
In many ways, Roy Choi can be credited with establishing Los Angeles as more than just a city with celebrity-friendly juice bars and health restaurants. In fact, with his invention of the Korean taco, he can safely be called the father of the food truck revolution. As a child who immigrated to Los Angeles, Choi was a host at his parents’ Korean restaurant (which they opened after their liquor store failed). After a strong gambling addiction left him helter skelter, he pulled himself back up by learning how to recreate his mother’s traditional Korean cooking. What sparked the change? He was deep within a lifestyle of being drunk and high before noon, when he spotted Emeril Lagasse teaching French cooking on TV and felt inspiration strike. His writing has been described as a little Jack Kerouac, a little Anthony Bourdain. It is fascinating to read the cultural story of a city through the lens of such a maverick.
‘Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking’ by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen has won three James Beard Award for food writing, and we can see why. It’s not just that her prose is clean and humorous; it’s that her imagination is so rich you can’t help but turn the page to see what fantastic image she will conjure for you next. Von Bremzen moved away from the Soviet Union when she was 10 year old with just her mother and no winter coat. Her father, a scientist whose job consisted of finding ways to preserve Lenin’s corpse, stayed behind. The premise of the book is simple: Von Bremzen and her mother decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience. Through her lived and vicariously lived experience, you’ll learn so much about Russian history and cuisine. In a particularly memorable chapter, she and her mother make aristocratic kulebiaka (Russian fish pie with buckwheat, eggs, mushrooms, onions, and dill), only to realize that they prefer defrosted cod to luxe sturgeon.