Hey, last-minute shopper: Flummoxed about what to give your foodie friends this holiday? Skip the celebrity cookbooks, excessively sophisticated gadgetry, and gift certificates to over-hyped restaurants in favor of these food memoirs. The five that follow are among the most compelling published in the past decade (so, sorry, no M.F.K. Fisher) and suit diverse tastes. What makes me such an “expert” on the genre? I spent most of the last 18 months reading over 50 of ’em.
5. Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression (David Leite, 2017)
In this no-holds-barred retrospective, Leite, creator of the award-winning website Leite’s Culinaria, reflects in painful and sometimes humorous detail on coming to terms with sexual identity and his struggles with mental illness. It’s filled with delicious anecdotes about eating and cooking with the many members of his Portuguese family and will resonate with anyone born into a large immigrant clan.
4. Shark’s Fin Soup and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (Fuschia Dunlop, 2009)
Part travel narrative, part autobiography, Shark’s Fin Soup and Sichuan Pepper is Fuschia Dunlop’s account of trekking across China to learn about the ingredients and methodology that define different provincial cuisines. As the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine, Dunlop gracefully describes navigating the ramifications of “otherness” as a British woman in China and then as a culinary ambassador and advocate for Sichuan cooking back home in London.
3. Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine (Edward Lee, 2018)
Chef Edward Lee’s second book is an illuminating field guide of sorts to the cuisines of lesser-known ethnic enclaves in small towns and major cities across the United States. By outlining the connections between iconic regional dishes (e.g.: the beignet) and similar iterations in different international cultures, Lee challenges what is considered “American” in origin. Houstonians will especially appreciate the chapter in which Lee explores the food traditions of the Nigerian expatriate community in Houston.
2. Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Annia Ciezadlo, 2012)
To write a book that alternates between inducing horror and hunger is a great feat indeed. Such is journalist’s Annia Ciezadlo’s enviable accomplishment with Day of Honey, in which she deftly weaves together her experiences as a war correspondent in the Middle East with her food-inflected relationships both at home and abroad. This book will be particularly enticing to those eager for a deep dive into the roots of different Lebanese dishes.
1. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Michael Twitty, 2018)
Named “Book of the Year" by the James Beard Foundation in 2018, The Cooking Gene chronicles culinary historian Michael Twitty’s journey to trace his personal racial lineage and uncover the complicated socio-political context that shaped what we call “Southern cooking.” Twitty’s rigorous scholarship and fastidious archival research is unparalleled, and his book will surely serve as a model monograph for generations to come.