What are your favorite books, movies, and essays about food?
November 3, 2012 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I am putting together a syllabus for a college composition course. I chose "food" as the theme for this semester. I would like to include examples of different kinds of writing about food, ranging from essays to fiction to poetry, as well as some movies. What are your suggestions? I'm open to anything, as long as it has food in it! I already have a list of some of the obvious ones (Michael Pollan, Dinesen's "Babette's Feast," Jiro Dreams of Sushi), but I am hoping the HiveMind can help me make this the most awesome-- and delicious-- writing class ever.
posted by incountrysleep to Food & Drink (62 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by MFK Fisher - she was an amazing writer. Start with the essay "The Standing and the Waiting".
posted by matildaben at 11:25 AM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is one of my favorite books: Aphrodite - Isabel Allende

This one I have not yet read but it's in my to read pile and looks interesting: The Sex Life of Food - Bunny Crumpacker
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:26 AM on November 3, 2012

Big Night is a solid, philosophical movie about an Italian restaurant.
posted by JDC8 at 11:26 AM on November 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

MFK Fisher is considered among the greats of the early food writers. You might want to score some Escoffier. Anthony Bourdain has a couple books of short works that might be good. Jeffrey Steingarten's food columns from Vogue are wonderful reading, and collected in at least two books, "The Man Who Ate Everything" and... I forget the second.

As for movies, "Big Night"-- scenes from small bites to a major feast cooked with love and fascination with food. I haven't seen "Eat Drink Man Woman" but I gather it has some Chinese(?) cooking that's amazing.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:28 AM on November 3, 2012

Francis Lam does a lot of awesome short form stuff on the web. I particularly like the "Watch the Stove" series he was doing for Gilt Taste before they folded. Lots of other great writers contributed to Gilt as well.

Also Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential."
posted by justjess at 11:29 AM on November 3, 2012

Also, the McSweeney's-published magazine "Lucky Peach" is a great cover-to-cover read as far as food writing, food science (Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher are the go-to people for that) and food-fiction.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:31 AM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Consider the Lobster is a fantastic article.
posted by carsonb at 11:34 AM on November 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Tampopo! Really, it's the best food movie I know.
posted by ourobouros at 11:34 AM on November 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Like Water for Chocolate
Soul Food
Eat Drink Man Woman

Are all great movies with food featured prominently. Building Houses Out of Chicken Bones is also a great analysis of food historically.
posted by spunweb at 11:37 AM on November 3, 2012

Oh, and Sistah Vegan talks a lot about veganism and black feminism. She's got a blog and an edited anthology out.
posted by spunweb at 11:38 AM on November 3, 2012

You must include something by the late (died too young) great Laurie Colwin.
posted by gudrun at 11:39 AM on November 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Anything by John and Karen Hess.
posted by BibiRose at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not solely about food, but the Little House on the Prairie books talk about food.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:45 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a fun scholarly book called Food in History, which should have some great, thought-provoking selections for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 AM on November 3, 2012

The philosopher Peter Singer is a good place to start if you want to include a section on ethics of food choices, vegetarianism, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2012

If you want to get a bit weird, Delicatessen is a great film.
posted by Ms. Toad at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

And Wendell Berry writes lovely accessible essays about farm life etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2012

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes weaves food throughout her memoir of restoring an old villa in Tuscany.
posted by belladonna at 11:48 AM on November 3, 2012

Oh, and I love Earth To Table
posted by Sassyfras at 11:49 AM on November 3, 2012

Michael Ruhlman writes about the craft of being a chef. There are some terrific essays in The Elements of Cooking. He also writes a blog, and more standard cookbooks, too.

Babette's Feast is a lovely movie about food and family.
posted by agentmitten at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2012

Fast Food Nation is really good and worth all the popularity it got in the early 00s.
posted by threeants at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2012

Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of cooking.

You can get reports from the USDA on many things, including crop growth and food stamp use and so on - explore around once you have some topics in mind, and I bet they have something that would fit. Might be an interesting unexpected source, and a type of writing they're likely to have to do in professional life.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 AM on November 3, 2012

Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History
posted by arianell at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ruth Reichl, "Comfort Me With Apples," "Tender at the Bone," and "Garlic and Sapphires."
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Get some music/lyrics in there. Have them listen to Cibo Matto's Viva! La Woman (lyrics).

As for poetry, you might consider the Food section from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.
posted by aparrish at 12:00 PM on November 3, 2012

Well,he is not one of the most famous food writers, but I think Mr. SLC did a wonderful bit of writing a few years back on gather.com.
It is about cleaning out the refrigerator. So that's food, right?
Condimental Journey

When it's time to do chores around my house, we are all of the same mind: If it's not causing anyone any actual pain, we'd rather put it off. But sometimes it just feels better to get things a little more under control, at least for a moment, when the chores cry out for attention. And so on selected Saturdays I sometimes find myself faced with a chore that has reached monumental proportions.

I spent my last Saturday on such a chore, doing nothing but emptying out the refrigerator and freezer and letting it defrost. I'm hoping that defrosting it will help to curb that alarming KLUNK I hear every time it shuts off, but I'm not holding my breath. At any rate, it was worth a try, and while it defrosted I scrubbed it spotless, a wonderful change from its previous nauseating condition. This lifted my spirits considerably, but as it turns out cleaning out the fridge also has its wistful side for a sensitive, paternal man who cooks for his family.

Some things are fresh and only need to wait in the ice chest for the cooling to be turned on again. Others are easy to get rid of, like that shriveled green thing in the vegetable drawer, and the leaky bag of blue ice, or the powdery blue block in the cheese drawer. But the condiments!

A jar of Tandoori sauce with half a teaspoon gone where I tasted it, now 6 months old, but probably still OK. I wanted to make some tandoori chicken, but the recipe is strangely daunting...

Pink Grapefruit marmalade, which sounded pretty good, looks great, and tastes good if you're in that kind of mood. Which I seldom am, it turns out, and the rest never are. So the ingénue jars of strawberry and blackberry jam come and go, but my grapefruit marmalade is living out a bitter and neglected old age, seldom visited.

Pickled zucchini, bought at least a year ago at the church bazaar, pale green pieces floating in pale green liquid, like some kind of ghostly specimen and definitely not inspiring any notion of eating them, but I have never spoken to MM about them, and she is the one who bought the jar back then. And to top it off, the jar is still sealed, and that along with the church connection gives them a kind of sanctity they wouldn't otherwise have.

I condensed the mini dill pickles into two open jars. During one week last summer the kids went through three jars of pickles, so I stocked up. That's when they got sick of them, and they haven't eaten a pickle since. Maybe there is a recipe for pickle casserole I can use to get the numbers down to a manageable level.

There's that half-tub of miso. My constant companion for three years now, and still hanging in there. About once a year I crave miso soup.

A half-jar of horseradish. Probably too old to use now. Can't even remember the last time I served roast beef. I should make it again sometime soon...

Raspberry mustard. Sounds like a great idea, but really way too sweet. The same with the honey mustard. They're history.

Chinese hot chili sauce, a pint bottle, half gone after two years. How can you tell if it's gone bad? Kung pao stir-fry: I should make it next week.

Sauerkraut in a Tupperware container. A little dark, but still sour. Should I buy sausage so I can use up the kraut? It would be the tail wagging the dog, but...with some French rolls... the bockwurst lunch we had the day I opened the jar was pretty good, and deserves repeating.

Speaking of kraut, here's some of Harry Kim's Won Bok Kimchee, sealed tightly in its jar. I'm the only one who eats it, and when I do it always reminds me of feasts I had while in the Moonies.

Has it turned? Don't get me started about Kim Chee. It's too easy. With its price sticker it reminds me that in these inflated times Won Bok now costs about three fifty. But beef pergogie and rice, with Kim Chee...sometime...

Four tablespoons of Florida Key lime juice. It's got some white sediment, but can lime juice go bad? I thought I used that up months ago. Never did make Key lime pie, though...

Why should there be such deep emotional ties with the condiments nestled in the deep recesses of my fridge? Getting rid of not quite expired ingredients is somehow like sending your children off to orphanages, like drowning kittens. Still, it has to be done. I can't string them along forever. I feel that I made a promise to them back when we all were younger, of culinary glory, which, sadly, I have not followed through on. In these unfulfilled dreams there is a kind of poignancy that stays my hand at the brink of the trash bin.

Perhaps that is why I'm so frazzled today. I will end up doing the job, and starting over. Some of the condiments will be given new hope, new promises, others will have to go on to that big Frigidaire in the sky. And I'll be needing a few moments of silence to mourn their passing.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:02 PM on November 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's a German film called "Mostly Martha" that you might want to check out.
posted by violetk at 12:04 PM on November 3, 2012

Also consider the Best Food Writing series, "Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple, Jr.,", and Calvin Trillin's "Alice, Let's Eat."

And my favorite lines, so far, from the above-mentioned M.F.K. Fisher: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”― from "The Art of Eating"
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:06 PM on November 3, 2012

I really liked the book "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant." You could stretch this to fit the theme of how communities and cultures use food differently and the social aspects tied to food.
posted by shortyJBot at 12:25 PM on November 3, 2012

2nding Tampopo.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:27 PM on November 3, 2012

I collect these books although most of what I have is older French and Italian books and probably not well-suited to a composition course. Here's some modern favorites:

Anna del Conte's Risotto with Nettles: A Memoir with Food
She is a well known cookbook writer who writes engagingly about her life growing up in Italy, during the war, and then moving to England. It is all about food too, including a couple recipes at the end of each chapter.

Aldo Buzzi's A Weakness for Almost Everything and The Perfect Egg and other secrets.
Mostly books of anecdotes about his travels and about food. Really entertaining.

Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain
The protagonists here are an American family, living in France, and their French cook Clementine. She and her ideas on French food are the focus of the book. They also move back to the U.S. and bring Clementine along. This book is a classic.

M.F.K. Fisher, as already recommended above.
I really enjoyed Serve it Forth, which is an Aldo Buzzi like collection of short pieces on Food.

The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook
If you want to envy someone's life, this is it. Despite the title, this is more memoir than cookbook. She describes all the fantastic meals her and Gertrude Stein ate in France and also discusses food and travel in general.

Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky
This is subtitled as A Miscellany of Food Writing. It should give you more avenues to explore should you wish to pursue this.

The Gastronomica Reader is a good compendium of articles from the food magazine Gastronomica.
posted by vacapinta at 12:35 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Dirty Sugar Cookies by Ayun Halliday
posted by corey flood at 12:36 PM on November 3, 2012

Under poetry, this found poem by William Carlos Williams:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

One English prof of mine insisted that the plums were a metaphor for sexual activities, but she was a bit out there, so ymmv.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 12:44 PM on November 3, 2012

This is a little different from the other suggestions, but Roger Ebert, who has since lost the ability to eat by mouth due to his cancer and loss of his lower jaw, is actually a big food-lover and talks about how food affects his life on multiple levels (nutrition as well as a social event) now that he is unable to physically enjoy it. He even wrote a cookbook! Here's a NYT article about that relationship with food, or this 2009 blog entry that they refer to. (As someone from his hometown, yeah, those burgers he loves are pretty good, but I have never been a true convert to that religion.)

I guess it's an interesting reflection on how you appreciate the basics of living once they are gone from you forever.
posted by vetala at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2012

Bill Buford's Heat is excellent, and I'd second MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl, and the Gastronomica reader, too. Gastronomica routinely publishes incredible food writing. There's also the New Yorker food writing collection, Secret Ingredient.

This Todd Kliman article, from the Oxford American, is wonderfully written. The author becomes obsessed with a wandering and relatively anonymous chef, and chases him across America. And Fuschia Dunlop is an excellent food writer, here's a New Yorker piece she did about a restaurant in China trying to operate outside of a westernized food paradigm in 2008.

Depending on how wide ranging you'd like to get, the Momofuko cook book has some excellent written material in it, including a history of the restaurant and an oral history of one of the companies that supplies them with their meat.

I'd be wary about the Best Food Writing series; in my experience as a reader it's pretty inconsistent.
posted by emilycardigan at 1:38 PM on November 3, 2012

I liked Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
posted by mareli at 1:50 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner is brilliant and so very well written, cover to cover, although you could select perhaps a chapter or two just for the class. The quality of her writing and her level of natural curiousity/engagement remind me quite a lot of Bill Bryson.
posted by mochapickle at 1:51 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding John and Karen Hess. Their impassioned rant The Taste of America will give your students plenty of food for thought.
posted by peacheater at 2:13 PM on November 3, 2012

My Life in France by Julia Child

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Born Round by Frank Bruni

Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee

Also nthing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Kurlansky's Salt
posted by argyle dreams at 2:26 PM on November 3, 2012

Toast by Nigel Slater is an wonderful food based memoir.
posted by vespabelle at 2:34 PM on November 3, 2012

Chocolat, book or film, is about a single mother who moves to a small French town and opens a chocolate shop... during Lent, much to the disapproval of the traditional, conservative, Catholic population. The descriptions of chocolate are mouth-watering and food is at the core of a theme about sinfulness and libertine sensibilities and desire.

How about something a little more macabre? Delicatessen (mentioned by someone else) is certainly about food. As is Parents. Oh, and Dumplings for sure.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 2:39 PM on November 3, 2012

I hope I didn't miss it above but Heartburn by Nora Ephron gets my vote.

posted by dawkins_7 at 3:19 PM on November 3, 2012

Oranges, John Mcphee.

It's short and all the things that make McPhee great.
posted by notyou at 3:54 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love several of the above suggestions (especially Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant), and also recently discovered this book by Fuschia Dunlop about the time she spent in China learning about food and culture. It's an engrossing read and a great jumping off point for discussions about how culture shapes our preferences, and how preferences change over time.
posted by mismatched at 3:59 PM on November 3, 2012

Anita Desai's Fasting Feasting is really beautiful and uses food as a means by which to examine cultural differences and as a symbol for love within families.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:30 PM on November 3, 2012

Nobody has yet recommended John Thorne? He writes great essays about the history of a dish and his experiences cooking it. I enjoyed Pot on the Fire, especially his essays on the perfect pot of rice, and the nature of being one who loves his pot versus one who loves his knife.
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:39 PM on November 3, 2012

Proust's madeleine scene.
Lydia Davis, "Meat, My Husband."

Marvin Harris, "The Abominable Pig."
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:38 PM on November 3, 2012

Miriam's Kitchen is a lovely memoir that talks about the writer's American Jewish experience through the recipes of her family and especially mother-in-law. The recipes are amazing - I'm pretty sure one of them starts along the lines of "first render the goose fat..."

Also have to nth the movies Tampopo and Delicatessen
posted by Mchelly at 6:26 PM on November 3, 2012

I liked the book A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm.

Barbara Fisher at Tigers and Strawberries is a wonderful and thoughtful writer.
posted by Lexica at 7:07 PM on November 3, 2012

HOLY CRAP PLEASE CHOOSE REDWALL. Those books made me soooo hungry every single time. The food descriptions are AMAZING. Any book has amazing description of foooood. omnomnom
posted by fuzzysoft at 9:21 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Heat by Buford. It's a full-length nonfiction book, but some of the chapters could be pretty smoothly excerpted as essays.

We Have Always Lived In the Castle is a novella about a small and strange family whose lives revolve around food -- both because they spend their days preparing it, and because, several years ago, the rest of the family was poisoned, almost certainly by one of the three survivors. I've often thought about putting together a cookbook based on the mentions of food in that book. It all sounds delicious.
posted by ostro at 10:21 PM on November 3, 2012

Hey, you need a graphic novel, manga, comic book, or something like that! How about Not Love, But Delicious Foods (Make Me So Happy) by Yoshinaga Fumi? It's an (adult-oriented) manga about a food-obsessed woman. There's a whole food category at my local Japanese bookstore, but little of it has been translated. (Oishinbo isn't very literary, and they chopped the story up when they translated it anyway...)

Love the class theme.
posted by wintersweet at 10:54 PM on November 3, 2012

Anything by Elizabeth David. Eating Animals- JS Foer.
posted by travellingincognito at 4:08 AM on November 4, 2012

While it's a cookbook, Cookin' with Coolio contains some truly unique food & cooking language.
posted by jmd82 at 6:29 AM on November 4, 2012

The poet Kevin Young recently edited a collection called The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. I haven't seen it yet, but I definitely trust him to put together a good collection because his own odes to southern food are amazing. Here's his "Ode to Chicken." You can find more in his book Dear Darkness. These odes remind me of Neruda's odes to food, like "Ode to the Tomato," which I would also suggest for your list. Li-Young Lee's first book of poems, Rose, also has some great food poems, such as "Eating Alone." Billy Collins also has a great poem called "Osso Buco."
posted by 6and12 at 6:46 AM on November 4, 2012

(Link to fullsite for Oranges).

(Come on, Amazon! You are vast -- maybe the vastest -- yet your mobile offering is narrow. And broken.)
posted by notyou at 7:25 AM on November 4, 2012

I have a whole shelf of these types of books in my kitchen! Just went to look to see what hasn't already been mentioned here--what about:

Cooking For Mr. Latte: A Foodlover's Courtship With Recipes by Amanda Hesser

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro

CookOff: Recipe Fever in America--Heartbreak, Glory, and Big Money on the Competitive Cooking Circuit by Amy Sutherland

. . . and has been previously mentioned, you need to include one or more essays by the wonderful Laurie Colwin.
posted by bookmammal at 7:35 AM on November 4, 2012

To pair with McPhee: "The Orange," by Wendy Cope:

At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park
This is peace and contentment. It's new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all my jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I'm glad I exist.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:15 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, MeFites. Once again, you guys are awesome. Thanks so much for all these great suggestions. I will be reviewing them as I plan for next semester!
posted by incountrysleep at 7:42 AM on November 6, 2012

That orange poem reminds me (in a good way) of Benjamin Rosenbaum's short short story, "The Orange," which might be usable as well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:54 PM on November 6, 2012

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