Whether they write of the rarified realm of a megawatt restaurant, the cheery domain of a Midwestern kitchen or a childhood hearth left behind, authors have pounced on food's deep-seated power to summon the past or bring a seminal experience back to life.
In sweet, salty, sour and sometimes bitter tones, a growing roster of chefs, food authors and amateur epicureans is sustaining hungry readers with culinary memoirs. Certain titles may even fall under the description of umami, the elusive fifth element of taste described as pungent or savory.
This spring, a feast of new books belonging to the genre arrives in bookstores -- most notably the late Julia Child's autobiography, My Life in France. The account of her introduction to French cuisine, written with grandnephew Alex Prud'homme, has already been declared an irresistible read by the famed chef's acolytes.
Don't call it a glut -- "that is a bad word," says Ruth Reichl, whose Garlic and Sapphires, the third in a trilogy of memoirs, recently appeared in paperback. Call it a "cornucopia of food memoirs," she says.
Whatever you wish to call it, the current surge of gastronomical confessions began as a trickle a mere eight years ago, when Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table first appeared.
"When I wrote Tender at the Bone, which was the first, nobody knew what to do with it," says Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine and a former restaurant critic for the New York Times. It was a genre "that didn't exist at that point. Nobody had written anything like that since M.F.K. Fisher."
Now, "It seems like every few days I get another one," says Reichl, referring to the "cornucopia."
Among this season's new books are Jane and Michael Stern's Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food and New Yorker correspondent Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.
Add Insatiable by the sybaritic food critic Gael Greene and The Nasty Bits by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to that bedside mountain. It may be a stretch to call The Omnivore's Dilemma a memoir, but in his new book Michael Pollan hunts, slaughters and forages his way to an understanding of what he calls the "personal food chain."
Molly O'Neill's 2003 denouncement of the journalistic forays into culinary decadence she dubbed "food porn" in the Columbia Journalism Review hasn't kept famous foodies, least of all O'Neill, from producing more volumes. Her new book, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, a remembrance of Spams past, is perhaps an intentional counterpoint to those excesses.
Beyond their common infatuation with food, the authors take different stylistic turns. Some books are hybrids of vignettes, commentary and recipes. Others are pure narrative. Some read like travelogues. My Life in France was assembled from Child's taped memories, family letters and other records. Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires includes the stories behind her undercover reviews for the Times, the reviews themselves and recipes. The infatuation with food that has allowed the culinary memoir to flourish speaks to the collective loss of traditional rituals, such as preparing the evening meal, Reichl says.
Along with the deluge of films, television shows, Web sites, blogs and listservs dedicated to food, it is "symptomatic of the fact that we are not cooking as much as we used to," she says.
It's cooking that makes us human, she says. "As we become a nation where children don't see their grandmothers, mothers, aunts cooking very often, we turn to this literature of food. I think it's really a sign of how desperately we need that connection to the earth and to food."
Julie & Julia may be an extreme example of this need. Begun as a blog, Julie Powell's smash 2005 book chronicles her attempt to prepare every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. Imagine the vicarious appeal for all of those would-be chefs daunted by dinnertime, let alone Child's instructions for Veau Prince Orloff or Oeufs en Cocotte.
The connection to earth and food was keenly apparent to M.F.K. Fisher, a heroine of Reichl's, well before the debut of TV dinners. In The Gastronomical Me, published in 1943, Fisher wrote what amounted to a manifesto for future culinary memoirists: "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."
Memoirs, no matter how idiosyncratic, become touchstones for the visceral memories of their readers. In a preface to the American edition of 2003's Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger, author Nigel Slater notes the book's reception in his native England: "What I had not expected was the level of recognition of the backbone of my story. The tale behind the food. What I thought was a singularly personal account of a childhood scarred by the death of a parent, the imposition of a seemingly cruel stepmother, the feelings of frustration, exclusion, loneliness, and even sexual confusion, turned out to be anything but."
Culinary memoirs take readers behind the scenes of idealized food shows and magazines, says Michael Ruhlman, author of The Making of a Chef, a first-person account of his student days at the Culinary Institute of America. "They want that deeper story. It's much more interesting than a [food personality] walking through a vineyard in gold light. That's simply not the truth."
Ruhlman gauges others' food memoirs by the extent to which they transcend the lives of their authors. "When food writing becomes too self-referential, it becomes bad food writing," he says. "When food is used to describe bigger things, like our relationship to the earth, connections with people, how we try to satisfy people, who we try to comfort, how we try to comfort ourselves and nourish ourselves, then that writing is inevitably more valuable."
A masterful food memoirist reaches beyond the obvious into the metaphors also found in the critique of music, Reichl says. "The vocabulary in English for taste is extremely limited," she says. Gifted food writers "have a good enough imagination to [help readers to savor the taste of a dish] without saying 'sweet,' 'salty,' 'delicious.' That's a very specific ability."
It may not have been considered a distinct literary genre, but the culinary memoir boasts a venerable history that precedes Reichl's work. Nach Waxman, owner of the New York City bookstore Kitchen Arts & Letters, traces the form to Alexis Soyer, a 19th-century chef who wrote A Culinary Campaign, an 1856 account of using groundbreaking methods to feed British troops during the Crimean War.
In 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell's first book, gave a lively account of his dishwashing days in a grubby French kitchen. The 1942 memoir Cross Creek (followed by her cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery), chronicled the years Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings spent in the Florida scrub, where survival meant hunting, foraging and cooking her own food on a wood range.
Verta Mae Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, published in 1970, was a sassy introduction to African-American cuisine and the culture that spawned it. In 1974, the first of Calvin Trillin's "Tummy Trilogy" -- American Fried -- appeared, followed over the years by Alice, Let's Eat and Third Helpings. Each volume intertwined Trillin's penchant for American foodways with sketches of antic family life. Published in 1976, The Taste of Country Cooking, a melange of anecdotes and recipes by the late Edna Lewis, is regarded as a definitive portrait of rural life and its delectable, simple cuisine.
Waxman speaks reverently of those for whom food is a vehicle for writing about childhood, coming of age, culture and adventure. He roughly divides the form into three subgenres. The first, dubbed "How I Got Where I Am," includes the autobiographies of super chefs such as Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, a "totally charming and engaging book."
Other books with that tag include Pierre Franey's Chef's Tale: A Memoir of Food, France and America and George Lang's Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen. In the same vein, Waxman names James Beard's Delights and Prejudices and Colette Rossant's two works, Apricots on the Nile and Return to Paris.
Under "Scuttlebutt," Waxman lists Jeremiah Tower's California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution. "Anthony Bourdain clearly falls in the category," as does Jim Villas' Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist, Waxman says.
As for Greene's Insatiable, "It's more about her than about the world of food, Waxman says. "She's the most unanonymous anonymous food critic in the history of the business."
"Food Experience" is Waxman's favorite subgenre because it concerns "the relationship of people to food, some as cooks, some as eaters, [and food] as an element of their becoming the people they are."
He places Slater's Toast in this category, as well as My Mother's Castle by the French author Marcel Pagnol. "The material is all-consuming and written about with joy," Waxman says. He also adores mystery writer Nicolas Freeling's two memoirs, The Kitchen and The Cook Book.
But of the 13,000 titles carried in his shop, it is A.J. Liebling's Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a chronicle of prodigious consumption, that is never elbowed from Waxman's personal top-five list. "It is a great, great book," he says, "joined together [by the thread] of a young man discovering food in Paris."
Other notable culinary memoirs:
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes by Maya Angelou. The poet's ode to soul food. (2004)
At Mesa's Edge: Cooking and Ranching in Colorado's North Fork Valley by Eugenia Bone. Cooking Italian in the middle of nowhere. (2004)
The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber. Memories of Jordanian feasts and Lake Ontario cookouts. (2006)
The Seasoning of a Chef: My Journey From Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis with Michael Psaltis. A notable young chef chronicles his rise to the kitchens of some of the country's top restaurants. (2005)
Monsoon Diary: A Memoir With Recipes by Shoba Narayan. Life viewed through the traditions of Indian food. (2003)
Tea and Pomegranates: A Memoir of Food, Family and Kashmir by Nazneen Sheikh. A cultural and culinary history of the Mughal people. (2005)
Laughing With My Mouth Full: Tales From a Gulf Islands Kitchen by Pam Freir. Chronicles of running a bed and breakfast on Galiano Island in British Columbia. (2005)
A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance by Marlena de Blasi. A tale of love for Venetian food and a Venetian man. (2002)
Pig Tails 'n' Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir by Austin Clarke. The Caribbean novelist recalls the culinary rituals of his youth in Barbados. (2000)
If I Can Cook/You Know God Can by Ntozake Shange. An ode to African-American cuisine, with recipes. (1999)