Cookery books that don't have recipes in them
January 11, 2014 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What are some books, cookery or otherwise about food, that contain stories about people's memories of/experiences with food and eating?

My favourite part of a cookbook is the bit, generally before the recipe, where the author explains it a little - what goes well with it, etc. I especially like it when the author talks about what this food means to them or their family.

Nigel Slater's book Toast talks extensively about his childhood, but each memory revolves around food. Tessa Kiros has written several cookbooks which contain stories about preparing and eating food with her elderly relatives. These are both examples of what I'm looking for.

I'm not necessarily looking for recipe books, more something in the vein of a biography. Recipe books are acceptable as long as they have plenty to read besides recipes.
posted by Solomon to Food & Drink (60 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Jake Tilson, 'a tale of 12 kitchens'
posted by robotot at 2:09 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you would love Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. They are two of my favourite books of all time, and I return to them over and over for comfort reading.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:10 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ruth Reichl's memoirs are wonderful. My favorite was the first, Tender at the Bone.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:13 PM on January 11, 2014 [10 favorites]

Jeffrey Steingarten's books The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must've Been Something I Ate
posted by melissam at 2:17 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life has a few recipes in the middle but is primarily a memoir of her and her family's attempts to raise their own food on a small diversified farm.
posted by northernish at 2:18 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

M. F. K. Fisher is what you want.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 2:18 PM on January 11, 2014 [12 favorites]

There's Bill Buford's Heat. Great read.
posted by evisceratordeath at 2:22 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Aphrodite: A memory of the senses by Isabel Allende (about food, sensuality, aphrodisiacs)

Ideas on CBC had a great series on Salt but perhaps that is too much politics/history not enough cooking.

.. and if you like Reichl, as suggested above, the amazing Eleanor Wachtel interviews her here
posted by chapps at 2:25 PM on January 11, 2014

You also want Waverley Root, and especially (for the personal-reminiscences thing) A. J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.
posted by languagehat at 2:26 PM on January 11, 2014

Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food is effectively a history of the Jewish Diaspora as told via food. There are biographical parts from her own childhood, parts from people she's talked to, as well as more general histories and anecdotes. I know that you're less interested in the recipies, but they're excellent as well.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:30 PM on January 11, 2014

"The sharper your knife, the less you cry" by Kathleen Flinn
posted by alchemist at 2:33 PM on January 11, 2014

Calvin Trillin Alice, Let's Eat
Julia Child My Life in France
Georgeanne Brennan A Pig in Provence: Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France
Fuschia Dunlop Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China
Joseph Wechsberg Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Perigrinations of an Epicure

And greatly seconding A.J. Liebling
posted by IndigoJones at 2:34 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I haven't read this yet, but it sounds like the sort of thing you're after:
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya Von Bremzen
posted by Corvid at 2:38 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The rest of Nigel Slater's books are good for this. The man really really has a way with words. Right now I'm reading Notes From the Larder. Ripe and Tender are both about his relationship to his garden as a cook. (Favorite memory of mine: a dear friend reading to me from Slater's books while I cooked us dinner.)

Seconding Ruth Reichel.

The Momofuku Cookbook is as much the story of the development of the restaurant as it is a cookbook.

(Bonus Nigel Slater, from Notes from the Larder:

It wasn't, on reflection, the wisest of days to make marmalade. I had pruned the roses, the temperature was a degree or two below freezing, and the skin around my thumbnail had cracked open in the cold. Each drop of bitter orange juice, each squirt of lemon zest sent shots of stinging pain through my thumb. But the Seville orange season is over in the blink of an eye, and sometimes you just have to shut up and get on with things.

Marmalade making is about as pleasurable as cooking can get. It isn't something for those whose only reason for cooking is the finished product. If the process of peeling oranges, painstakingly cutting their skin into fine strands, and constantly checking their progress on the stove is a chore, then don't do it. There is exceptionally good cottage marmalade out there. Go and buy it. Making marmalade is a kitchen job to wallow in, to breath in every bittersweet spray of zest, enjoy the prickle of the fruit's oils on your skin, and fill the house with the scent of orange nectar (or, of course, screech with pain as the bittersweet juice gets in your wounds.))
posted by mollymayhem at 2:40 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon. Following are paraphrases, rather than quotes, because I can't find my copy of the book.

On butter: Butter is a food. Margarine is just a lubricant.

On electric carving knives: It would be neater, and certainly more dignified for the roast, to get up on the table and kick it to pieces with pointy toed shoes.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:41 PM on January 11, 2014

The Mission Street Food book is a very interesting read, plus the recipes.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:44 PM on January 11, 2014

Peter Reinhart's books talk a lot about the journey. I highly recommend his Brother Juniper's Bread Book.
posted by jadepearl at 2:44 PM on January 11, 2014

You may want to check out Lucy Knisley's Relish, which is a memoir in comic format. There are a few recipes that are presented visually, but it's mostly about her life with food.
posted by darksong at 2:45 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in food history, I highly recommend 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. It's written by the culinary director at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:59 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basically anything by John Thorne, including his newsletter. Seconding, as well, Laurie Colwin and Ruth Reichl, both of whom are amazing.

Lucky Peach magazine often has this sort of thing, though I don't always feel entirely welcome reading it--it sometimes feels like it's written by a bunch of frat boys who are super into food. It's still worth seeking out, though.

Alone In the Kitchen With Eggplant was inspired by a Laurie Colwin essay of the same name. It's a collection of essays about eating alone, and includes Nora Ephron, Ann Pratchett, and Haruki Marukami as some of the contributors--gold star, would read again. What We Eat When We Eat Alone is in a similar vein--not as good, imo, but still enjoyable.
posted by MeghanC at 3:09 PM on January 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Joy of Cooking is mostly about the recipes, but many of them have a little story to go with them, and some of them are quite entertaining.
posted by Bruce H. at 3:10 PM on January 11, 2014

Anything by Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence etc). Bourdain waxes philosophical on food in his books

And echoing what somone said above, the Noma cookbook is >50% about the journey to making the restaurant work. Fascinating stuff.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:17 PM on January 11, 2014

Food That Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler is a classic.
posted by googlebombed at 3:21 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

A fine list here on Grubstreet.

My addition would be "The Unprejudiced Palate", by Angelo Pellegrini. I learned my rosemary potato recipe from a University of Washington cop who had known Pellegrini as a professor but had no idea he was a writer.

And in the vein of MFK Fisher, Tamar Adler's "An Everlasting Meal".
posted by Kakkerlak at 3:29 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

M.f.k Fisher is the god-empress of this genre but I've been enjoying the Eat Me series on, all personal family stories woven in and around food.
posted by The Whelk at 3:39 PM on January 11, 2014

Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pepin. You can read an excerpt here on NPR's website (scroll down for the excerpt, it's after the capon recipe).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:40 PM on January 11, 2014

Brillat-Savarin invented the genre. You can read him in French for free or look up M.F.K. Fisher's translation.
posted by zadcat at 3:54 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not about eating, but definitely about food: Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs
posted by sparklemotion at 4:06 PM on January 11, 2014

The mention of Lucky Peach reminds me of Fool Magazine. Honestly some of the best international food writing out there right now, though it's a bit hard to find.
posted by melissam at 4:10 PM on January 11, 2014

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
posted by 1367 at 4:11 PM on January 11, 2014

Under the Tuscan Sun
posted by belladonna at 4:26 PM on January 11, 2014

Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread Cookbook by Crescent Dragonwagon has recipes but also lots of stories. It's the thing that popped into my head when I saw your question. She owns a B & B in the Ozarks and is a writer of other things as well, including children's books which I'm guessing is where the name comes from.
posted by BoscosMom at 4:28 PM on January 11, 2014

For a farcical version of this genre I'd recommend 'Cooking with Fernet Branca' by James Hamilton-Paterson and its follow up. Not sure you'd want to try the recipes though.
posted by rdnnyc at 4:43 PM on January 11, 2014

Angelo Pellegrini, The Unprejudiced Palate.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:00 PM on January 11, 2014

Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya is a childhood memoir that revolves around food, specifically the Japanese home-style food that the author's parents went to considerable lengths to be able to prepare. Each chapter closes with a single recipe, so the balance is certainly on the side you favour.

Another food-focused memoir is Colette Rossant's Apricots on the Nile, released in the US as Memories of a Lost Egypt. In both editions, it's subtitled "A Memoir with Recipes". There's a sequel: Return to Paris. The first volume focuses on the author's childhood in Cairo; the second on her teenage years in post-war Paris.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:04 PM on January 11, 2014

The actor Dom DeLouise has a book called Eat This, It'll Make You Feel Better that IIRC is like two thirds just him talking about his mother's cooking, his father's cooking, the food he's eaten at the tables of other celebrities, and so on. I remember thinking it was a fun read when I was a kid.

Also, MFK Fisher, John Thorne, & a lot of the other writers that have already been mentioned here.
posted by gauche at 5:32 PM on January 11, 2014

"Blood Bones & Butter"
posted by zdravo at 5:32 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is not possible to favorite M.F.K. Fisher hard enough.
posted by kestrel251 at 5:32 PM on January 11, 2014

The Alice B Toklas cookbook is classic French country cooking with tales of life with Gertrude Stein before and during WWII. It's great.
posted by goo at 5:48 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Clementine in the Kitchen and Katish
posted by brujita at 6:20 PM on January 11, 2014

Naomi Duguid wrote a bunch of cookbooks which are equal parts travelogue and anthropology with lots of photography. The most recent one which is her first solo book is Burma. Older and written with her then husband Jeffrey Alford are Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, Beyond the Great Wall, Flatbreads and Flavours - a Baker's Atlas,, Seductions of Rice and several more. I cook a lot out of Seductions of Rice and Flatbreads in particular but they're wonderful books to just browse in as well. Many (most?) have won James Beard awards too.

Love Ruth Reichl's books as well.
posted by leslies at 7:05 PM on January 11, 2014

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table
by Molly Wizenberg

I recently purchased these two books but have not read them yet:
Roast Chicken And Other Stories
Second Helpings of Roast Chicken
by Simon Hopkinson
posted by blacktshirtandjeans at 7:05 PM on January 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed is one of the loveliest food books I know.
posted by neroli at 8:37 PM on January 11, 2014

I'm rather partial to When French Women Cook by Madeline Kamman.
posted by daikaisho at 9:01 PM on January 11, 2014

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink has a nice selection from different writers and is a good jumping off point to find more styles you may enjoy.
posted by girlhacker at 9:22 PM on January 11, 2014

Mandy Patinkin wrote a couple of cookbooks based on his grandmother's recipes.
posted by ancient star at 9:46 PM on January 11, 2014

Last month there was a New York Times Book Review article by Jenny Rosenstrach about 3 such books. In case you don't want to waste a rationed NYT visit on that link, here are the books, plus excerpts from the article:
In Nina Mukerjee Furstenau’s memoir, Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, the author uses family recipes to bridge two worlds: the small Midwestern town of Pittsburg, Kan., where she grew up, and, a universe away, her parents’ and grandparents’ native Bengal. ... Her food memoir, though, is less concerned with the proper amount of ginger in the dal than it is with the classic immigrant’s search for belonging.

In the engrossing Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, Abigail Carroll lays down some historical context, reminding us that in America who you are and where you came from are less important than where you are now and where you hope to go .... Beyond covering the evolution of breakfast, lunch, dinner and even the insidious snack time, Carroll also charts how American food has been politicized, signaling not just what social class you belong to but, in some cases, how loyal you are.

[I]n Peggy Wolff’s Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food, [a]s with most anthologies, the quality of the writing is uneven, but Heartland natives will embrace the recipes, if not the remembrances of State Fair corn dogs and Lake Michigan fish boils, German kuchen and tamales eaten on Chicago’s Maxwell Street, a.k.a. “the Ellis Island of the Midwest.”
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:46 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's mysogynistic in a sort of hilarious way ("Ladies these days have cake mix and canned food and they don't cook properly anymore!") , but if you can find a copy of Monstrous Depravity is certainly is high on commentary and low on recipes (although the ginger-free gingerbread recipe is quite nice). I found it quite entertaining.
posted by that girl at 11:54 PM on January 11, 2014

Bitter Almonds, by Mary Taylor Simeti, is her investigation of Sicilian foodways and how food and culture and history interact. She also talks about food and culture in On Persephone's Island.
posted by PussKillian at 12:12 AM on January 12, 2014

For a compilation of food writing, try Holly Hugh's Best Food Writing of 2013. If you like that, check out previous year's compilations.
posted by sarajane at 7:20 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

My friend, Adan Medrano, has a book coming out, Truly Texas Mexican, that has recipes, but it's more of a memoir crossed with an academic exploration of food as identity and community.
posted by *s at 7:40 AM on January 12, 2014

We are all greatly dependent upon the state of our digestion. Napoleon could not rise superior to an illy-cooked dinner. Hence his Waterloo. The History of the French Revolution rose and fell with the state of Carlyle's dyspepsia, and many a tragic episode in family life is superinduced by the baleful influence of a tortured stomach. Mighty is the hand that holds the ballot-box, but mightier is the hand that wields to advantage the pepper-box, the salt-spoon, and the sugar-shaker.

—Maud C. Cooke, Breakfast, Dinner and Supper; or, What To Eat and How To Prepare It (1897)
posted by XMLicious at 11:00 AM on January 12, 2014

some personal favorites (some of these do have recipes but the writing/historical time capsule is def. the bigger focus):

-Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking
-Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking
-AJ Liebling's Between Meals
-Charles Baker's Knife, Fork, and Spoon and Jigger, Beaker, Glass
-Nikki Segnit's The Flavor Thesaurus--one of my favorite books period
-The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook
-Jim Harrison's The Raw and The Cooked
-Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse, her memoir of editing Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden, Edna Lewis, James Beard, etc.--that era of American culinary revolution.
posted by ifjuly at 6:26 PM on January 12, 2014

And Waverley Root's tomes like The Food of France are awesome too.
posted by ifjuly at 6:27 PM on January 12, 2014

Oh, and Nicolas Freeling's The Kitchen Book and The Cook Book.
posted by ifjuly at 6:30 PM on January 12, 2014

Dang, all the good ones have been mentioned already!

John Thorne's books are wonderful; I rarely read the recipes!

M.F.K. Fisher is recipe-free, but a little dated now. Still worth your time if you haven't read her before. Same for Pellegrini's "Unprejudiced Palate" (which is a slim book and a nice, quick read).

Chris Kimball (of "America's Test Kitchen" and "Cook's Illustrated" fame) wrote a book about cooking an authentic, 19th-Century meal like Fanny Farmer that should have been perfect but which I haven't been able to finish. Twice.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:48 AM on January 13, 2014

My husband is currently devouring Ivan Orkin's Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint. It's about half to 2/3 memoir, and the rest is recipes.
posted by telophase at 10:48 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not exactly what you had in mind, but Steve Almond's Candyfreak is wonderfully well-written and engrossing. Highly recommended.

Nthing Ruth Reichl's books (read the trilogy in order).

If you like Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (recommended above), I also recommend Plenty by Smith & Mackinnon (about a year of eating locally) and Farm City by Carpenter.
posted by southern_sky at 8:05 PM on January 14, 2014

A bit off but still within the theme: "It can't always be Caviar" by Mario Simmel - perfect foodie holiday novel
posted by mumimor at 3:05 PM on January 15, 2014

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