Eat, cook, read.
If that’s your mantra, feast on these books — new and old, factual and fanciful— and all odes to food, glorious food.
New this year is “Everything Is Under Control: A Memoir with Recipes,” by Phyllis Grant (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). If you’ve intuited that the title is ironic, you are right.
Darkly poetic, it’s Grant’s account of her early anorexia, her years exploring the New York food scene as a dancer and her work in restaurant kitchens overseen by misogynistic chefs where fellow wait staff barked warnings: “Hot behind you. Coming through. On your left.”
Next comes a new career in California as a doula, many miscarriages and two hard-won pregnancies and deliveries, followed by jet-black postpartum depressions and tending to a beloved, dying foodie grandmother.
All of this is leavened by the therapy of cooking and eating, with recipes written as though to a friend: “I don’t make my own puff pastry because life is too short” and “Lick the paddle.”
Hearing is as important as tasting in one of my fave food books, a gift from my daughter, who is such a foodie that she makes her own crackers.
“The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink” (Bloomsbury USA 2012, Kevin Young, editor) features the likes of Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda and Sharon Olds. Among the best is Roy Blount’s Song to Bacon, which begins, “Consumer groups have gone and taken/some of the savor out of bacon.”
When I was editing food articles for a chi-chi magazine and thought a bain-marie sounded like a bubble bath (you probably already know it’s a water treatment for dishes like custards and mousses), my go-to guide was “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” by Barron’s. A chef’s friend since 1990, it’s so indispensable to serious cooks that it gets an update every few years, the latest in 2015.
Here, you’ll find oddities like “carpetbag steak,” for a steak with a pocket cut into it, which is stuffed with fresh oysters and sewn shut. Honestly. Two domestic skills intertwined.
If you’re into graphic books, you’ll get a kick out of “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen,” by Lucy Knisley (First Second, New York, 2013). My library classifies it as a young adult novel. Harrumph! At 68, I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of cooking and eating, from exotic urban eats to childhood treats. I especially got a kick out of Knisley’s illustrated account of her act of “delicious medicinal rebellion” as a kid. (She gobbled an entire jar of sweet, chalky Flintstone vitamins six inches from the TV.)
If you liked Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, “Fun House,” or the work of achingly funny New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, “Relish” might be your cup of chai.
If I had to vote for my best-loved food memoir, I’d be hard-pressed to choose between Frank Bruni’s brave, funny and poignant, “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater” (The Penguin Group, 2009); and Ruth Reichl’s savory, “Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table,” featuring a food poisoner mother known as, “The Queen of Mold” (Random House, 1998).
Bruni, a longtime writer for the New York Times, makes you both laugh out loud and tear up over his chronic battles with weight. The title comes from his Italian grandmother, who often pronounced, “Born round, you don’t die square.” And oh, how I identified with this observation: “I suppose there are people who can pass up free guacamole, but they’re either allergic to avocado or too joyless to live.”
In “Tender at the Bone,” Ruth Reichl, a chef, food writer and editor of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, chronicles her gustatory and personal adventures, growing up as the daughter of a bipolar mother who was sometimes absent. Reichl often was in the care of her aunt’s employee, Alice, of whom she wrote, “She was a great cook, but she cooked for herself more than for other people, not because she was hungry but because she was comforted by the rituals of the kitchen.” (Me, too. So nice to say that in a happier context.)
Finally, I recommend M.F.K. Fisher’s slim, elegant book, “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” first published in 1937 and as classic as the little black dress.
It begins with “A is for dining Alone” and ends with “Z is for Zakuski” (zakuski is a substantial Russian appetizer).
Rebecca Christian is a freelance writer based in Ames, Iowa.