10 Novels and Memoirs With Recipes That You Can Cook Along To
Read, cook, eat and repeat
As a teenager, I loved to hole up in my room with my mother’s back issues of Gourmet Magazine and read through recipes I had no way of making: Florentine boar ragu! Spaghetti with ramps! Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with bean thread noodles, wood ear mushrooms, grated carrot, and ground pork shoulder! (Ruth Reichl really believed in us.) At other times, I’d read through cookbooks as though they were novels, and this at a time when the majority still came with nothing but a paltry three-page insert of the most beautiful dishes, which were somehow never the recipes you actually wanted to cook.
Thankfully recipes are no longer a niche interest; in the era of social media, it feels like we’re all constantly browsing through and sharing recipes. Even my friends who cannot, or by some perverse principle will not, cook themselves an egg will send me links to recipes with excited emoji faces.
I’m hoping this means we can finally embrace novels and memoirs that include recipes. Doing so has historically been seen as a little bit hokey, the purview of “women’s lit” or cozy mysteries rather than literary fiction or books by men. This view misses the point. In books like Heartburn by Nora Ephron or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, recipes are included as cultural artifacts. They tell the story in another form. I’d argue that this is actually a more exciting and more contemporary reading experience because it allows the readers to connect with the book beyond the written text in a sensory and tactile way.
Below, ten books that include recipes from Stanley Tucci’s memoir to Lara William’s imagined bacchanal.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron didn’t go to great lengths to hide the fact that her debut novel is a fictionalized account of her divorce from the journalist Carl Bernstein, who had an affair while she was pregnant with their second son. Ephron’s stand-in, Rachel Samstat, shares many of Ephron’s qualities—her wit, her uncanny power of observation, and, perhaps most notably, her obsession with food and cooking. “I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times,” Ephron famously quipped.
For Rachel Samstat, food, love, and memory are all bound up together. She makes potatoes for every man she starts a relationship with—”I have made a lot of mistakes in falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them”—and the end of her relationship is just as productive on the gastronomic front: as Rachel’s marriage falls apart, she cooks.
Ephron included many of Rachel’s recipes, which lean towards comfort fare: there is a deep dish peach pie, buttery mashed potatoes, and bread pudding to feed a crowd. Ephron famously loved sharing recipes, and if doing so in a book was considered low-brow or silly, it’s hard to imagine she cared.
Supper Club by Lara Williams
The protagonist of William’s debut novel is Roberta, a woman who’s internalized the societal expectation that woman should be small, quiet, and restrained in all their appetites. When Roberta meets a free-spirited artist named Stevie, they set out to reclaim their appetites by holding a supper club that quickly turns into something akin to a gorging, sweaty, drunken, bacchanal.
Food is one of Roberta’s most complicated desires. She has that kind of obsessive attention to food that often comes from starving (think of being around a slice of hot, melty pizza when you’re waiting for dinner) and so the recipes in Supper Club aren’t classically formatted but rather written as Roberta’s painstakingly detailed descriptions of how to make dishes like kimchi, sourdough, and spaghetti puttanesca. The lack of structure feels fitting for Roberta, who is trying to break free of any kind of established rules, but it’s also a nice reminder that recipes are rooted in the tradition of simply watching others cook.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
From the time she is little, Eva Thorvald has a “once-in-a-generation palate” and a startling culinary ambition; at ten years old, she’s growing hydroponic habaneros in her bedroom and selling them to local restaurants. She prefers vegan blueberry ice cream to birthday cake. Eva grows up to become a world-class chef, and Kitchens of the Great Midwest is her story, told through the eyes of her community, with accompanying recipes.
Given Eva’s prodigious gastronomical talents, it’s initially surprising that the dishes are unfussy Midwestern fare, the kind you’d find in homemade church cookbook. (Which is where Stradal found them; he mined a 1984 cookbook released by the First Lutheran Church in Hunter, North Dakota for inspiration.) But as we’ve come to appreciate our national canon of semi-homemade recipes (especially during the pandemic), it also makes sense: Pat Prager’s peanut butter bars—a no-bake mix of chocolate, peanut butter, graham crackers, and suga—are kind of genius.
Search by Michelle Huneven
Michelle Huneven is both a critically acclaimed novelist and a James Beard Award-winner for feature writing with recipes, so it’s no wonder she decided to combine her two talents in Search. This warm, quirky novel is the ‘memoir’ of Dana Potowski, a restaurant critic and food writer who joins her church’s search committee for a new minister with the idea that she’ll chronical the process for a book (with recipes, course). Search feels like what might have happened if a food writer ended up in the writing room for Parks and Recreation; the oddball committee always offsets their searching with good meals, and the candidates for new minister at the progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California include both a microbrew master and a self-professed eco-warrior witch. The recipes are as eclectic as the committee, ranging from escarole salad with favas, mint, and pecorino to wet brisket.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
These days Southern food is treated with respect, if not a certain cult of veneration, but there was a time when dishes like skillet cornbread, buttermilk biscuits, and fried green tomatoes were dismissed as uninteresting, unrefined home cooking. One author who challenged this view was Fannie Flagg, who included these recipes and others in her 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Café.
The novel is primarily the story of Idgie Threadgoode, the tomboy daughter of a well-known local family who falls in love with an older woman named Ruth. When Idgie saves Ruth from her abusive husband, the two create a home together at the Whistle Stop Café. It quickly becomes a haven for their fellow outcasts of early 20th-century Alabama. There is a sense in Flagg’s novel of food as emotional nourishment but also of regional cooking as empowerment; dishes like fried green tomatoes are a way the clients of the Whistle Stop can identify as part of their broader community, even if that community doesn’t always welcome them back.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune By Roselle Lim
When I lived in San Francisco, I did a lot of food shopping in Chinatown, where you could find markets that offered an unparalleled combination of freshness and price point. Take my husband’s favorite fish store, which looked more like a pet shop than a fishmonger. All the fish and a few crustacean were still alive, swimming in their tanks. You pointed to what you wanted and it was killed, cleaned, and packaged on the spot. Roselle Lim brings this neighborhood, and its dedication to good food, to the forefront of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune.
The novel begins when Natalie returns home to San Francisco to deal with her estranged mother’s death. She learns that she’s inherited her grandmother’s long-abandoned restaurant in Chinatown and, being a chef, she decides to revive the space, though in its current shape it’s little more than a dusty, dirty relic tying her to a past. Things get a semi-magical turn when a neighborhood fortuneteller tells her she must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook for her struggling neighbors if the restaurant will succeed.
Lim’s book is light reading, but she takes the food seriously. When, for example, Natalie makes drunken chicken to help cure her neighbor’s ailing marriage, you get every detail of the process, from the scent and texture of rubbing spices into the chicken to shredding bright ribbons of cabbage and lettuce for slaw.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
British writer Dolly Alderton’s memoir touches on a lot of themes with intelligence and humor: growing up, female friendship, loss, and the grit you need to get through your twenties. (See also: the problem with using sex and partying as a means to find yourself.) However, her most serious point might be the importance of drunk food.
For example, when Dolly and her friend AJ come home from the club where they’ve been kicked out for being too drunk, she makes a Got Kicked Out of the Club Sandwich, which has a twee name but—as those of us who has passed through our twenties understand—may have literally saved her life. She makes a hangover mac n’ cheese that’s an ode to cheese (or cheeses, she uses four). I love that this book won the National Book Award in the U.K., where it was also a bestseller, because Alderton is a wonderful writer who challenges the idea that young women who tell their story are navel-gazing or self-indulgent, and also because we’re finally giving drunk food the acclaim it deserves.
My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss
If it seems obvious now that we’d be interested in following a young woman as she cooks recipes cut out of the newspaper, then one person we have to thank is Luisa Weiss. Weiss began her blog, the Wednesday Chef, in 2005, with the idea that she would chronical the dishes she was cooking for herself in her tiny New York City apartment. This seemingly simple project—and the proliferation of others like it—helped normalize the idea that young women would want to cook for themselves out of personal interest, desire, and hunger.
My Berlin Kitchen is Weiss’s memoir; born in West Berlin to an American father and Italian mother, she grew up splitting her time between Berlin and Boston after her parents divorced. The lingering sense of cultural dislocation hounded her throughout college in the States, a year abroad in Paris, and publishing jobs in New York City. When she finally settled in Berlin, it was with a sense of coming home. Her cultural multiplicity is our gain on the culinary front. My Berlin Kitchen includes recipes from Weiss’ various homes, including braised chicken from New York and omelette confiture from Paris, but the best recipes are the classic German dishes like Pflaumenmus, a tender, yeasted plum cake. It makes you wish Weiss would write a book of Classic German Baking. Luckily, she did.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg
Like Weiss, Molly Wizenberg started her blog Orangette in 2004 as a way to chronical her life through the lens of home cooking. Her atmospheric writing style and frankly uncanny ability to cook exactly what you want to eat won her a James Beard Award for best individual food blog in 2015.
Though Orangette is no longer live, Wizenberg runs two restaurants (Delancey and Essex, both in Seattle) and has written two memoirs. Her first, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, focuses on her early life, including how the trauma of losing her father to cancer led her off the path of academia and into the world of home cooking and writing. The recipes she includes are representative of her style, food that is somehow both homey and refined, like what a chef might cook on a rainy weekend morning; banana bread with chocolate and crystalized Ginger, or meatballs with pine nuts, cilantro, and golden raisins.
Taste by Stanley Tucci
In the first phase of the lockdown, Stanley Tucci became famous for mixing a negroni in his living room. Sure, we were hard up for amusement, but the pleasure he took in crafting a perfect drink radiated through his wife’s phone—she was filming him in their living room—and established him as a man who loves food. Tucci’s recent memoir, Taste, tells the story of his life through food, starting with his childhood in Westchester, where his Italian grandmother made and bottled her own tomato sauce, and through his film career, including food-focused films such as Julie and Julia with Meryl Streep and Big Night (which, coincidentally, is also a novel that pairs each chapter with a recipe.)
Tucci is a published cookbook author, so all the recipes in his memoir actually work, but, with no offense to his British wife’s roast potatoes, the most exciting inclusions are all Italian, from a light spaghetti con zucchini alla nerano from the Amalfi coast to a hearty, cheesy baked pasta called pizzoccherie from Lombardy.