There is a special skill required to making food sound interesting on the pages of a book and that means you should pick your food memoirs carefully. Publishers see ‘foodoirs’ as a lucrative genre these days and if I see another one about moving to France and cooking traditional French cuisine I may go mad.
Food memoirs can be divided into three main categories – finding and/or growing food, making food and eating food – but these often merge. Books about the histories of particular foods can be very interesting but we’re dealing here with memoirs – books about real-life experiences. The best food memoirs go way beyond the food and into someone’s reality – food memoirs can be deeply revealing about families and working environments.
Several memoirs have been particularly influential. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000 and helped develop the cult of the chef. It’s a gritty account of life in professional kitchens with as much booze and drugs as cooking. Bourdain is a genuine talent.
A Year in Provence, from 1989, is not a food memoir but an autobiographical novel by Peter Mayle – however it established the idea that life and eating is simply better in France (it also influenced the French real estate market). Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell is a gimmicky memoir but helped ignite a fresh wave of interest in Julia Child and continued the theme of the French doing it better. Child has her own memoir called My Life in France if you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.
I heartily recommend Heat by Bill Buford and Toast by Nigel Slater. After reading Heat, I had a new-found respect for anyone who works in a restaurant kitchen. Buford, a writer on the New Yorker, goes to work in a major New York restaurant and suffers for his literature, literally - cuts, burns, extreme tiredness and bullying in a high-pressure environment. Toast is completely different and very personal, almost too personal at times. Much of it is about bad food in the 1960s and 1970s during Nigel Slater’s rather painful childhood in Worcestershire.
However, quality food writing has been around for a long time. Connisseurs of food literature should pick up anything written by MFK Fisher, the finest of all American food writers, and also Delights and Prejudices by James Beard. Fisher wrote more than 25 books with her first, Serve It Forth, being published in 1937. Beard shared Fisher’s era and campaigned for America to adopt the Gourmet standards found in France.