For the Love of Food-Lit
By Karen Ballum on October 07, 2010
BlogHer Original Post
I love food-lit. Pretty much any book, be it fiction or non-fiction, that uses food as a central part of the story is bound to pull me in. These books occupy a special space in my house -- literally. Most of my books are in our media room, but cookbooks and food-lit live in my kitchen. Cookbooks can tell me what ingredients to mix together, but food-lit can inspire. When I'm feeling like there's not an interesting or appetizing thing to eat in the house, I can read a few pages of Julia Child's My Life in France or Molly Wizenburg's A Homemade Life and suddenly, my pantry is bursting with yummy food just waiting to be made.
I think I love food-lit so much because food and words are the fabric that I use to weave the story of my life. It's watching Julia Child almost every morning as a child. It's the lemon cake I baked with my mother. It's the Canadian Thanksgiving meal my friend and I made for a dozen of our college friends where we discovered that 10 pounds of potatoes was not enough and five desserts was almost too few. It's a late night poutine with those same college friends (ok fine, that one was probably proceeded by much drinking). It's the food that my husband claimed to hate and now requests. It's the way that I bake bread and want to feed people in times of stress and grief.
Food is what binds us, and I'm always happy when I find new books from other people who feel the same way. Here are some recent food-lit publications that have captured my attention.
The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Learn to Love the Stove by Cathy Erway is a blog-to-book success story. Erway was a New Yorker who hardly ever ate at home and then pledged to stop eating out -- no restaurants, no take-out, not even a slice of pizza -- and eat only food prepared at home. And she blogged it in her blog Not Eating Out in New York. Carolyn, of the Hang on Little Tomato blog, read the book and said that The Art of Eating In made her fall in love with cooking again.
Another aspect of the book I loved was the emphasis on the social nature of food. "I don't think there's anything more I could have wished for on that night. I had everything that I loved about life: good people (and not too many of them) and really good food (too much of it, but that was okay." I couldn't agree more. Some of my warmest and fuzziest moments from college and law school involve dinner parties, not going out to eat, but a group of us cramped around a too-small table, eating delicious homemade food and genuinely enjoying each other's company. Those were the best times.
I cannot think about Paris without dreaming of the food. The croissants. The cheese. The bread. The lamb chops. I had some seriously good lamp chops in Paris. Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris: A Love Story With Recipes is one of those books that feels like it was designed for me to read. Who doesn't dream of living in Paris, falling in love and eating lots of good food? (Hi honey! Don't worry. You were totally my Paris romance!) Claire at The Captive Reader said that stories around the recipes had her mouth watering.
Part of what makes the food so alluring here is the social setting in which it’s eaten. Most of the meals are eaten with friends or, more often, family. An amazing recipe is one thing but a fantastic meal shared with those you love, dragged out over several hours of good conversation and good wine, is unforgettable. I may be antisocial most of the time, but at meal times I wish for long tables lined with people.
I've been reading Tara Weaver's blog Tea and Cookies for a very long time. When her book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp Through a World of Men, Meat and Moral Crisis came out I added it to my library request list and then proceeded to impatiently wait for the notice telling me I could pick it up. It's worth mentioning that this book is not a romance, at least not in the traditional sense. There is a love of food to be sure but a butcher and vegetarian do not fall in love. (I would totally read that book though - who wants to write it?) I'm mentioning this because Maria's post at A Place to Write Things isn't the only one I've seen that mentions thinking it was a love story. Maria does a great job of telling what the book is really about.
This is a book about a semi-vegetarian (Weaver was raised vegetarian but has eaten meat in varying amounts for much of her life, though never to the extreme she explores in her book) who embarks on learning about meat - whether it will make her feel better, since she feels tired all the time; how to cook it; how animals are raised for and slaughtered for meat consumption; what it means to eat sustainably; what it means to go to a restaurant and order bacon; oh and bacon bacon bacon. She eats meat, she doesn't eat meat, she eats only certain kinds of meat, she eats all kinds of meat, she questions eating meat. Plus, it's also a deeply personal story about Weaver's life that goes beyond just talking about food and into talking about body image, history, trauma, and triumph.
I'm not particularly fond of sweets, but I do have a weakness for cake and candy. Kate Moses' Cakewalk: A Memoir is right up my eating alley. She likes simple food and has dined with M.F.K. Fisher. I'd be willing to read it just to get the details on what it was like to dine with one of the best food writers. In her review at The Millions, Jessica Ferri says that Moses' memoir is beautifully written.
And while Moses’ story could certainly stand on its own as a straightforward memoir, the baking reflects her “struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.” The presence of the pastries reminds us of the importance of experience, that through work and forgiveness, one can make life into something sweet.
All of the above are memoir, but non-fiction isn't the only game in town when it comes to food-lit. I've read a fair amount of fiction that uses food as a device to tell the story. There are two books that have come out this year that keep my finger hovering over the "buy now" button. Ann Mah's Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself is one of those books. It's a story about a young woman who loses her New York City magazine job, moves to China to live with her sister and ends up becoming a restaurant critic for an ex-pat magazine. Basically, it's every ex-pat foodie's dream. S. Krishna's calls it a charming novel and recommends you have a Chinese take-out menu close by.
The cultural elements of Kitchen Chinese are absolutely wonderful. The mouth-watering description of Chinese food is enough to make you want to call your local Chinese restaurant and order take-out, though sadly it won’t compare to the amazing things that Isabelle gets to eat.
What food-lit is on your nightstand right now?