A book that cooks isn’t just a cookbook. A book that cooks can also be a memoir with recipes, an essay collection that embeds cookery into the writing, or a foodie fiction that includes instructions on making various dishes to reveal character, build a climax, or create symbolism. Authors of such cooking books want readers to consume them in more than one way: with the eye, the mind, the heart, and the mouth.
Here, we draw on our mutual expertise both teaching and writing the literatures of food to offer this delectable list of 10 Delicious Books that Cook. You may read more delicious entries in our new book, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal(September 3, NYU Press).
The heart does indeed burn in Nora Ephron’sHeartburn, a humorous roman à clef–a thinly veiled fictional account of Ephron’s disastrous marriage to her philandering husband Carl Bernstein (the journalist of Watergate fame). In this novel, Ephron becomes cookbook author Rachel Samstat, while Bernstein transforms into syndicated columnist Mark Feldman. Wielding her recipes as skewers, Rachel broils Mark and his lover Thelma Rice over the slow coals of betrayal and revenge. From the book’s first recipe for lima beans with pears (“something that looked like plain old baked beans… [which] turned out to have pears up its sleeve”) to the novel’s pièce de résistance–a recipe for key-lime pie, which Rachel serves Mark right in the kisser–Ephron marries love to food: humans’ desire for food, delight in food, and disgust with food. In the end, however, food trumps love. For as Rachel tells us, cooking is “a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.” If readers wish to cook up some of Rachel’s “sure-thing” recipes, the ones for vinaigrette, Potatoes Anna, and Chez Helene’s bread pudding are among the best.
More provocative and complex than the film of the same name, Fried Green Tomatoes turns out not to be chick lit after all. Instead, Fannie Flagg has written a social protest novel for our time, as penetrating and wickedly comic about such controversial issues as race and class stratification, sexual violence, the beauty myth, rampant commercialism, and same-sex love as any Victorian novel by Charles Dickens. While certain dishes within the book do serve up a healthy dose of symbolic nostalgia–the traditional Southern recipe for fried green tomatoes indicating a close friendship between a middle-aged stay-at-home mom and an aging nursing-home resident–other recipes represent the plight of the homeless, romantic love between women, the implicit racism of mammy figures, and how acts of cannibalism might be transformed into ones of communion. Covering Southern history and culture from 1929 to the present day,Fried Green Tomatoes will surprise, charm, and satisfy any reader looking for more than a quick literary bite.
The one bona fide recipe in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat is for–appropriately–a chocolate fondue. “Make it on a clear day,” insists Vianne Rocher, one of the book’s two narrators, “cloudy weather dims the gloss on the melted chocolate.” Though the film version focuses exclusively on Vianne’s viewpoint and her talents as a chocolatier, Harris’ novel is both more luscious and more complex: a bittersweet bonbon instead of a Hershey bar. In fact, Harris uses chocolate as a potent and adaptable symbol across the whole of her story: as a symbol for witchcraft, sexual desire, religious zealotry, and social healing. While the central tension of the novel is between the two narrators–Vianne Rocher’s delicious decadence pitted against the local curate’s famished asceticism–chocoholics will swoon over Harris’ descriptions of confections of all kinds, from steaming cups of chocolat chaud to nut-studded mendiants to double-chocolate truffles, dark and rich as hearts.
Set in Renaissance Italy, Peter Elbling’s The Food Taster is a feast for the mind as well as the palate. Elbling has done his homework, and his novel is redolent with the smells, textures, and tastes of early Italian cuisine. Embedded in the spirited adventures of Ugo DiFonte–a reluctant food taster to the tyrannical Duke Federico–Elbling offers images of lavish banquets, the first recorded use of napkins, and delectable descriptions of Renaissance dishes, including Neapolitan spice cakes and pear tarts wrapped in marzipan. Yet the novel is more than a culinary history lesson. In addition to a plot rife with romantic intrigue and despotic violence, the central metaphor of The Food Taster is food’s dual function as life-giving necessity and potential poison. Each time Ugo opens his mouth to taste a dish on behalf of the duke, he risks death. That said, the Renaissance recipes Elbling gives his reader are more delightful than dangerous, including such dishes as Rafioli Commun de Herbe Vanzati (mint and spinach ravioli), Torta Bononiensis (chard pie), and Suppa Dorata (saffron “french toast”). History never tasted so good.
Thomas Fox Averill spent many years developing and testing the spicy and sweet recipes he provides his reader in Secrets of the Tsil Café, a novel about a boy, Wes Hingler, caught between two families and two cuisines: the pungent “New World” cookery of his father and the classic comfort food of his Italian-American mother. The novel explores how Wes grows up spending time in the respective kitchens of his opinionated chef father (of the spicy-hot Tsil Café) and his beautiful caterer mother (who owns the sunny-sweet Buen AppeTito). As Wes matures, he discovers that these kitchens not only reveal his culinary lineage but also conceal sexual secrets. Such concealment leads to separation, silence, and strife among Wes and his parents, a bit like the resentment that can come when a “secret recipe” is jealously guarded. The novel deliberately pushes the boundaries of what counts as a “recipe,” offering both traditional instructions for making green salsa and twice-baked squash but also recipes for living a more honest, open, and self-directed life.
Whether she’s writing about pie, polenta, or plums, in this lovely essay collection Teresa Lust mixes social history, anecdotes, meditation, recipes, and memories of the people, foods, practices, and places that have shaped her. She embeds recipes and cooking instructions in her narratives, allowing the reader to imagine Lust’s maternal Italian grandmother cooking polenta, her paternal grandmother–Nana–teaching her to make pie crusts, her grandfather–Joe–slaughtering chickens, and her mother making two versions of stuffing each Thanksgiving to please both sides of the family. Through detail, dialogue, and perfect pacing, Lust invites readers into her kitchen and memory, sharing a passion for cooking and a love for good food and those who prepare it.
Although not every passage in Never Eat Your Heart Out is as delicious sounding as the “flaky, slightly salty crust” and “the buttery juices” of “tart cherries and rhubarb and apple” that make up the pie Moore describes, all of her descriptions in this essay collection are vivid–including the section on the almost too intimate practice of preparing food for others: “Sweat on your palms, so slight that not even you feel it, carries your body salts and other castoffs into everything you touch.” You won’t forget these memorable moments, but you’ll likely want to page forward to “the sweet fragrance of cooking rice” and other comfort foods.
Those who have read Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will be familiar with the characters she presents in this memoir/cookbook, which is infused with stories that feature Angelou’s grandmother, whom she called “Momma,” her brother Bailey, and other family and friends. If you’re hungry for a good story, fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, biscuits, fried apples, caramel cake, and some sweet Southern memories, this is a book you’ll want in your kitchen.
If you can have only one book by M. F. K. Fisher, it should be The Art of Eating, which is actually five books in one: a fusion menu from Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet of Gourmets. While focusing on food, Fisher also writes of hunger, love, joy, sorrow–the stuff of humanity–with openness and passion. The writing, graceful and sensuous, is as delicious as the soups, sauces, cheeses, breads, vegetables, and meats she describes. Even though this collection includes over 700 pages of food writing, after reading it, you’ll still be hungry for more M. F. K. Fisher.
In this edited collection, Grant and Harper include essays and recipes that focus on food and family. From Chris Malcomb’s simile comparing empty tomato cans to open clamshells to Sarah Shey’s description of “birdfeeders dangling from maple trees like earrings,” the images are memorable. The collection includes reflections on a range of food traditions and experiences. Barbara Rushfoff writes of growing up eating kosher. Deesha Philyaw remembers the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese of her southern youth. And both reflect on the complexity of food heritages–and what food traditions to pass on to children. From memories of childhood to thoughtful ruminations on present food choices, this collection shows the multiple ways food selections and experiences affect one’s understanding of self and relationships.