Need some food for thought? Here is a booklist to devour: my favorite pieces of writing centered around food. There is so much I am yet to discover and read within the world of food writing, but as of now, these 5 books are the ones I found to be particularly relatable, thought provoking, and enthralling.
Relish by Lucy Knisley: I wish I could jump into the pages of Relish. A personal history told through the lens of food? In the form of a graphic novel? With recipes included? Well that just covers all of my favorite things right there. Knisley’s beautiful illustrations bring her stories to life, creating movements, sounds, aromas, and tastes that all threaten to dance off the pages. This book is perfect for food lovers of all ages.
Burn The Place by Iliana Regan: Where do I start on this one. On a personal level, I hold this book close to my heart because Iliana’s narrative is partially one I can relate to intimately, and partially one I see mirrored in folks I care about. Iliana is a queer, self taught Michelin star chef and business owner who grew up in Indiana and relates to her roots through foraging. Like me (and so many), her relationship with food is complex. She struggles with addiction and feeling out of place, and uses food and writing as outlets for processing difficult emotions and for expressing herself. She writes what she knows, she cooks what she knows, and she creates compelling stories through both. There is a heartbreaking tenderness with which she captures anxiety, anger, frustration, and grief. There is a captivating energy with which she captures joy, ambition, curiosity, and her personal wins.
“my sense of self and happiness, a lot of the time, resides in the execution of my food”
“you can make a good loaf of bread and fuck everything up the rest of the day, and you’ll still have a good day”
Same. My copy of this book is littered with underlined phrases like these ones, which I like to revisit when the mood strikes.
The Best American Food Writing (2020) edited by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: While I don’t love when books describe themselves as “the best” anything, I love this body of work simply as a well curated collection of poignant food essays. I was particularly floored by the quality of the pieces that created space for criticism. In todays world, I think it is easy to equate critique with cancel culture, but I found that when written well (as these essays are), critique became conversation as opposed to a closed door. These essays covered topics such as the lack of diversity in the world of food criticism, disability access in restaurants, the impact of climate change on the New Mexico Chile, and the question of authenticity (appropriation or adaptation of culture and tradition? Also who is using this word and in what context?) in the food world. Much of the material forced me to give more thought to difficult subject matter, my own biases, and the frustration that comes with questions that lack cut and dry answers. Reading food essays with such clear points of view and such powerful prose has also set a high standard for what I want my own writing to one day look like.
Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi: I love this book because it powerfully spotlights the ways in which food is a critical lens through which stories of personal history, identity, culture, struggle, and aspiration can be told. From his roots in the Bronx, Nigeria, and Louisiana, and through his time spent in the Gulf of Mexico, New York City, and D.C., Kwame dispels stereotypes rooted in ageism and racism as he recounts the life experiences that shaped him into the chef he is today. Through his highest highs and lowest lows, he manages to bring ingenuity, a hustler’s spirit, and the need to “always keep moving” to any task or struggle at hand, and the food he creates reflects this hard work and ability to solve problems creatively. Creating food becomes the positive outlet for his intense energy, as well as the mechanism through which he can tell stories centered on his history. This book is filled with heartwarming and heartbreaking accounts of inspiration and loss, as well as recipes that bring flavor to each chapter.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: I think it goes without saying that Kitchen Confidential is a national treasure. At the very least it is a gem to the restaurant world. I could go on about the book’s significance historically– it is widely considered to be the first piece of writing to candidly cover the joys, the horrors, and the details of working in the food industry. I could go on about the books significance culturally too— it inspired the Kitchen Confidential subreddit, which is the largest community of restaurant and kitchen workers on the internet. But more than anything, what I want to highlight here is this books significance as a insanely well written, clear voiced, and timeless chronicle. As I re-read this book while working in a professional kitchen (19 years after this book was published, I might add), I was astonished to find the similarities and the spot on recounts of experiences that may as well have been my own, especially when it came to the day to day routines of working as a prep and line cook. Could I manage to sum up my own experience with such clarity, such exactness, and with such power? I’m not sure I could. Which is why when people ask me what working in a kitchen is like, I point them in the direction of this book.