Fall Bounty: 11 Books About Food & Desire

From Eric Ripert to Han Kang, stories of appetite and invention

There’s never been a better time to read or write about food. Americans have accepted that food is more than sustenance, it’s an experience. As we move away from a universal, pre-packaged meal landscape, food becomes a cultural, economic, and emotional barometer. If Holden Caulfield was operating today, he’d be on Reddit talking about how David Chang is a phony and avocado toast is bullshit. Gatsby’s vineyard in Napa would do invitation-only tours.

The downside to the proliferation of food writing is a glut of poorly written chef memoirs, blogs turned into wordy cookbooks, and listicles about bacon. Great food writing is more than a description of a dish. It runs a double narrative; people who are hungry for food tend to be hungry for something else, be it love, sex, or success. That’s why this list includes both novels and memoirs. The important element isn’t whether a dish is real or imagined, but if food propels the narrative towards a bigger revelation about oneself or culture. The people in these books endure hazings in hot kitchens for little money, they eat foods to rediscover places they’ve lost, they cook for people in an attempt to emotionally connect. They are, in short, exploring the complicated relationship that humans have with food, the endless quest to identify just what it is we’re hungry for.

1. Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Stradal’s debut novel is the story of Eva Thorvald, a food prodigy with an impeccable palate and amazing culinary abilities; this girl is growing and selling her own hydroponic habaneros by age 10. But Kitchens of the Great Midwest is also an exploration — and occasional satire — of the modern American food scene in all its high-low paradoxes. Stradal points out that we’re living in a world that embraces cheap and convenient Subway sandwiches while also lusting after thousand dollar tasting menus and artisan ingredients. Perhaps it’s enough said that we all get the joke when Eva informs a woman at a party that her favorite “heirloom tomato” is actually a Monsanto hybrid.

2. Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune in the East Village but she also holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Her well-written memoir recounts her indirect path to owning her own restaurant, from family lamb roasts in rural Pennsylvania to working her way up through the tough kitchens of New York. This is the chef memoir to read if you’re interested in more than kitchen gossip; the details are sharp and the writing immersive.

3. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Danler’s debut novel follows Tess, a newcomer to New York City who, like so many others, finds work as a waitress. Tess is soon sucked into the crazy, exciting, exhausting world of restaurants, but it’s not just the restaurant industry that’s a whirl, but book the book itself, a fast paced story of ambition, culinary education, and romantic entanglements. As Danler told Electric Literature: “I wanted the experience of reading to be as close to the kind of dance of dinner service as possible.”

4. 32 Yolks by Eric Ripert

Eric Ripert has been at the helm of Le Bernadin since 1994 — a notably long time in the current age of celebrity chef empires. That doesn’t mean that Ripert’s memoir is dull, quite the contrary: Ripert had the (seemingly requisite) tumultuous childhood in which food was his passion and creative outlet. He left home for Paris at age 17 and worked for some of the best chefs in the world, including stints under David Bouley and the demanding yet genius Joël Robuchon (classic anecdote: in addition to his other kitchen duties, Ripert had to prepare an exacting dinner for Robuchon’s pet dog). In an age when many chefs would rather open restaurants than cook in them, it’s refreshing to read about someone who genuinely loves to be in the kitchen.

5. Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher

Published in 1943, Gastronomical Me is a hybrid of memoir, travelogue, and dining play-by-play that fans of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, or any other of today’s “food writers” will recognize. Fisher was born in California and moved to France in 1936, and this book describes a wonderful collection of her experiences, from an early peach and cream pie to her first French oyster. When it comes to food writers, Fisher is still one of the best.

6. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Don’t dismiss this memoir of Hemingway’s early years in Paris as a quotable depiction of the zeitgeist of the 1920s. Hemingway writes with a hunger, both metaphoric and literal: the ambitious but still unsuccessful writer was occasionally too poor to grocery shop, hence the famous scene of him hunting for pigeons in the Jardin du Luxembourg. His descriptions of multi-course meals at Gertrude Stein’s house are transportative, and includes a contender for the best sentence ever written about eating oysters: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans.”

7. Heat by Bill Buford

The subtitle to Buford’s memoir sums it up nicely: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. Buford was a writer for the New York Times when he was asked to profile New York City star chef Mario Batali. Instead of a mere profile, Buford went to work in the Babbo kitchens, learning first hand the intense realities of a restaurant kitchen (i.e. stifling heat, endless repetition of tasks, and a strict hierarchy that even reporters aren’t exempt from). It’s a fascinating behind the scenes look at professional cooking — one that will also stop you from thinking, yeah, I could do this, the next time you’re eating at a restaurant.

8. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto edited by Joan Reardon and Avis DeVoto

Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, is a fantastic read, but I was really enthralled by this collection of letters written between Child and her friend and champion, Avis DeVoto. The two women had the kind of relationship that young pen pals can only dream of: after receiving a letter from Child in 1952 in regards to her husband’s recent magazine column on kitchen knives, the two began to correspond regularly. They wrote over one hundred letters in two years, most of them about food. As Always, Julia also chronicles the long road to success for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was difficult for Child to sell. DeVoto was instrumental in the book’s acquisition by Houghton Mifflin and later Knopf.

9. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club is a multigenerational novel about four women who fled China for San Francisco in the 1940s and their four American daughters. Food literally brings the older women together — they meet weekly for mah jong and dim sum — and throughout the book Tan mines the rich Chinese culture of food-related symbols and traditions. In China, a daughter cuts off a piece of flesh to put in her mother’s soup, then in America, the women show their love “not through hugs and kisses but with stern offerings of steamed dumplings, duck’s gizzards, and crab.”

10. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

As the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, Tita is bound to be her mother’s caretaker; she’s explicitly forbidden to marry until her mother dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, who is entranced by Tita’s cooking. Pedro, unable to marry her, marries her sister Rosaura, starting a tale of twenty-two years of unrequited love. Esquivel’s novel is structured around the twelve months of the year, and each month around a recipe.

11. The Vegetarian by Han Kang

In this wonderfully unsettling novel by South Korean novelist Han Kang, Yeong-hye vows to become a vegetarian after she dreams that she is a plant. This seemingly benign life choice leads to a increasing level of discord within her family, who don’t understand and can’t accept her decision. (In one scene, Yeong-hye stabs herself rather than eat a piece of sweet and sour pork that her grandfather is trying to force down her throat.) Yeong-hye’s choice is about more than diet: the book grapples with philosophical questions about control, desire, and violence.

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