They Came, They Saw, They Cooked: 5 Food Memoirs

Jul 27, 2011
Originally published on August 3, 2011 5:25 pm

During summer vacation, part of me wants to spend my hard-earned shekels traveling the world and eating amazing food. The other part of me just wants to lie on the couch with a good book. Now, thanks to five delicious new food memoirs, I can do both.

The books — written by a reluctant, bad-girl chef; an avant-garde restaurateur; a slacker with a love of roast chicken; a Mideast war correspondent; and an American in Paris — are about love affairs with food, and the journeys that led their authors into the kitchen.

Granted, the term "food memoir" usually makes me cringe. It just smacks of indulgence — and not the good kind. Besides, in our age of celebrity chefs, kitchen lit and food fetishes, one has to wonder if there is anything really fresh to say about cooking at all.

Well happily, the answer turns out to be yes.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: For summer vacation, some of us long to travel and eat great food. Others are happy to stay home with a good read. Well, author Susan Jane Gilman recommends a handful of new books that let readers do all of the above.

SUSAN JANE GILMAN: Usually, the term food memoir makes me cringe. Is there anything really fresh to say about cooking? Happily, yes. Five new food memoirs each bring something appealing to the table this summer. Gabrielle Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef" is a gorgeous, nervy portrait of the artist as a young woman. Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant, just won the James Beard Best New York City Chef Award. She began working in food service haphazardly at age 13, when she was effectively abandoned by her parents. With unflinching candor and eloquence, Hamilton describes the heartache and little epiphanies that played midwife to her passion and talent as a cook. Her book isn't simply about becoming a chef, but everything messy and exquisite that feeds a life.

Conversely, "Life, On the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat" is a story of distilled ambition. At 16, Grant Achatz already dreamt of owning a great restaurant, a famous one. At 29, after training in the most celebrated kitchens in the world, he won the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award. Two years later, he opened avant-garde Alinea in Chicago. And then, Achatz was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer. Written by Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas, "Life, On the Line" is a true modern-day Greek drama.

Jonathan Dixon, however, simply woke up one day in his late 30s, aimless and broke. Since he really loved making dinner for friends, he thought: Hey, why not learn to cook? His memoir, "Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America," is meant to be an expose of the famous school. But it's engaging more because readers realize Dixon is out of his depth long before he does. He's a dilettante, a ditherer, what most of us would be like in such a cutthroat cooking environment. His naive adventures are frustrating but highly entertaining.

Annia Ciezadlo's "Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War" on the other hand recounts experiences as a war correspondent in the Middle East over the past decade. In 2003, Ciezadlo married an Arab-American journalist, spent her honeymoon in Baghdad, then reported from Iraq and Beirut. To understand the culture, she found it was crucial to know the cuisine. You have to eat the meal. You might think recipes for hummus wouldn't mix easily with geopolitics, but Ciezadlo pulls it off. "Day of Honey" offers an intimate, thought-provoking look at life in an often misunderstood region - with recipes.

That said, "Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes" should be an enormous cliche. As an American visiting Paris, Elizabeth Bard was swept off her feet by a Frenchman during - guess what - a French lunch. She married the man, moved to Paris and raided the markets. Yet, Bard's narrative is breezy. Her observations about cultural differences spot-on. She debunks the romance of France, while ending chapters with straightforward recipes. Just to make sure her book was, in fact, worthwhile, I forced myself to test a few. The swordfish tartare and scallops in champagne custard, I'm happy to report, are excellent. Indulgent? Indeed.

SIEGEL: Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.