We’ve received some great responses to our blog posts lately, including a few suggestions for the cookbooks and food podcasts that you love. We’re taking note and if the list continues to grow, we’ll post it here. If you have any resources you’d like to share with us, and with our readers, please post those in the comments section below. And be sure to include a few words—or more—about just what it is you like about that book or podcast. Don’t be shy…we look forward to hearing from you!
For this post, however, we plan to look at an entirely different genre of food writing— what some call food literature. Under that wide umbrella falls a vast array of titles, from food memoirs to food-oriented travelogues to investigative journalism that explores and exposes the cracks and controversies in our food systems. Because there are so many good titles out there, today we’ll focus on the autobiographical, saving the rest for another day.
- Bert Green, James Beard, Julia Child cooking at MFK Fisher's house in CA in the late 1970s. Copyright The Schlesinger Library, Harvard University
Food memoirs and other epicurean lit are popular these days. Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen is a good example of a book that went big, becoming a Hollywood hit that charmed the critics, including this one at The New York Times. But quality food writing has been around a long time—at least since the early 3rd-century AD when the Greek gourmand and author Athenaeus wrote his fifteen-volume work, The Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned, in which the protagonist, Ulpian, is the host of three long, leisurely banquets throughout which food, literature and history are discussed. For this post, we won’t look back to Ancient Greece, but we will look to the early 20th century when modern food lit really got its start. Whether you’re new to the genre or an old hand, we hope this list will guide you to a few new gems.
The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher
Born in 1908, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is known not just for being the greatest American food writer, but also one of our greatest writers. She is the author of 27 books and her works on food are always much more than works on food: they’re compelling blends of autobiography, culinary history, fable, and cookbook. It is the five books written from 1937 to 1949 collected in The Art of Eating that are at the heart of her work: Serve It Forth; Consider The Oyster; How To Cook a Wolf (written during the Second World War to inspire cooks daunted by wartime shortages); the memoir called The Gastronomical Me; and An Alphabet for Gourmets.
Fisher wrote often and lovingly about her many kitchens and cooking tools—from Dijon, where she developed her love for French food, to her kitchen in northern California, in which she spent her last days. She appreciated beauty and efficiency, so we like to imagine that, were she with us today, she would appreciate Earlywood’s designs, perhaps especially our medium classic ladle, which is so timeless it could just as easily fit in a rustic kitchen in France as it does in our kitchens here in Montana.
Born just nine years after Fisher, but an ocean away, in England, Patience Gray had much in common with her American contemporary, not the least of which was good writing. Both wrote about cooking during those years around World War II, when much of the U.S. and Europe were reeling from years of rationing; both lived, for at least a little while, with a view of the Mediterranean, where they cooked in simple, unpretentious kitchens; both were single mothers in the 1930s and ‘40s, when that was rare and, by many, looked down upon; and both had the grit and determination to keep the household flame lit, no matter the circumstances. Gray’s Honey from a Weed describes her years with her partner, the sculptor Norman Mommens, living near a series of marble quarries in remote regions of Italy, Spain and Greece—places where her neighbors foraged, hunted, gardened and cooked everything from scratch.
- Gray and Mommens
Part autobiography, part celebration of seasonal and local foods, Honey from a Weed is also a cookbook with recipes for the regional dishes Gray cooked in those very rustic places in her very primitive kitchens—in some cases without electricity or running water. When I was living on the southern Peloponnese Peninsula in rural Greece, I often looked to Gray for inspiration…and found it.
I can imagine Gray and Mommens enjoying a little handmade cheese from the shepherd down the road on one of Earlywood’s mini cutting boards using our small spreaders to serve it. Our long bread board, too, would fit well in Gray’s batterie de cuisine (to which she devotes an entire chapter in Honey from a Weed).
Tender at the Bone (and other memoirs), by Ruth Reichl
Fast forward to California’s food scene in the ‘80s and New York’s in the ‘90s and you’ll find Ruth Reichl. A former food editor for the L.A. Times and restaurant critic for The New York Times, she was the editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine for ten years until its abrupt closure in 2009. She’s written at least two cookbooks and, most recently, a novel, but the books I love best are her memoirs, which are candid and funny (and include recipes at the end of each chapter): Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, and For You Mom.
Ruth Reichl, what Earlywood product would you covet most? During her early years as a writer, she “couldn’t afford a rolling pin,” according to this interview from the Wall Street Journal, so she used an old wine bottle instead. Given her no-nonsense practicality, we think Reichl might enjoy our trifecta, which is what Brad calls the “perfect storm” of Earlywood utensils: our flat sauté, our tera scraper and our do-everything large spreader.
The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, by Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison, who for many years spent his summers outside of Livingston, Montana, died at his writing desk at his winter home near the lovely Sonoita Creek in Patagonia, Arizona, this spring. The author of great works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, Harrison spent much of his life cooking and enjoying food and writing about it all. Much of his food writing appeared in Esquire and Men’s Journal and is collected in The Raw and the Cooked, one of the most-read books on my own bookshelf. About the book, the Santa Fe New Mexican exclaimed, “To read this is to come away convinced that Harrison is a flat-out genius—one who devours life with intensity, living it roughly and full-scale, then distills his experiences into passionate, opinionated prose. Food, in this context, is more than food: It is a metaphor for life.”
I would like to think that the man who held the view that “many of our failures in politics, art and domestic life come from our failure to eat vividly,” would have enjoyed our tasting spoon set, for he clearly took pleasure in tasting everything life had to offer him.
And here are a few other titles we love (and others we’ve read about and want to read), but don’t have room to carry on about:
My Life in France, by Julia Child
Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz
A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain
Blood, Bones, and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford