We read cookbooks for one reason: to learn. Whether searching for classic recipes or for new techniques, cookbooks can lay the basic foundation for our meals or offer blueprints for extravagant celebrations. Sure, we sometimes browse cookbooks to dream and plan, but in the end, these practical volumes help us get food on the table.
It’s more difficult to explain why we read that other genre of food books — the memoir or story-with-recipes. We might read these books to get an insider’s look at the education of a famous chef, to learn the life story of a veteran food writer or to get an expert’s perspective on the food industry. Food stories can be aspirational; they can tell of a cuisine, culture, or community. They might be about sourcing ingredients, a family dinner, a dessert. Sometimes they’re prescriptive; other times, they offer a vicarious thrill. But the best food stories, as writers like M.F.K. Fisher proved decades ago, aren’t just about food. Instead, they tell us something about ourselves and the world we live in. They show us how food is connected to life and how our lives are enriched (or sometimes diminished) by what we cook and bring to the table. In this sense, a great food story does the same as a great novel: it teaches us what it means to be human.
The four food books reviewed here — two about the still-controversial topic of sourcing food, and two memoirs-with-recipes — all newly available in paperback, demonstrate the range of what’s possible in the genre.
Spring Warren’s The Quarter-Acre Farm is both a chronicle and a how-to of her adventure in suburban farming at her California home. Motivated in part by the spate of food-borne illness in the summer of 2008, Warren committed herself to growing 75% of her food (by weight) in her front and back yards, which she soon christened the Quarter-Acre Farm. Her husband and younger teenage son were not entirely on board (but her older son, a line chef who lived on the other side of town, was enthusiastic). Her solo quest to win her household over — and prove they’d not subsist on zucchini alone — is at times engaging.
Warren provides eclectic stories of two geese and home-curing olives and a disastrous attempt to gift some grow-your-own mushroom cultures, but what makes her story most interesting is the fact that she doesn’t live on a farm but in a thriving university town with neighbors very close by. Her sometimes improvisational solutions to gardening challenges can be inspiring. She makes sunny space for growing by aggressively pruning fruit trees; constructs movable raised beds; jerry-rigs an irrigation system; fights a losing battle against tomato nematodes; and perfects the satisfying alchemical process of making good dirt. She also learns to grow pumpkins vertically and cultivates snails in her garden for a successful neighborhood escargot party.
The Quarter-Acre Farm also supplies recipes (Green-Chili Chili and Pasta con Zucca are accessible twists on more familiar dishes) and offers a decent if breezy chapter on freezing, pickling, canning, and dehydrating. Some of Warren’s story reads idiosyncratically (an entertaining but digressive history of the zucchini, or a perplexing mini-chapter on mudbaths), and the book isn’t detailed enough to offer a complete how-to for the ambitious home farmer, but her innovation and intuition did convince me that I could grow more than I thought — even though I live in a town. It’s that conviction, and Warren’s can-do optimism, that may be the book’s best contribution to the food-and-family conversation.
Melanie Rehak, in Eating for Beginners, is also concerned with where her food comes from, but in a broader, more catholic sense. Like Warren (and many women), Rehak began to think hard about food when she became a mother. Unlike other women, however, Rehak stepped into the kitchen of a local restaurant, applewood (with a lowercase a), where the chef-owner generously allowed her to work her way up the line, all the way from salads to desserts. Along the way she investigates the sources of the restaurant’s food, and gains for herself — and her readers — a keen sense of what’s best to eat and why.
Rehak is a warm and compelling narrator and energetic journalist. She knows just when to insert herself into the story (a brutal scene on a fishing boat is terrific, as is the story of her heady turn at the applewood grill) and exactly when to step back and let her subjects shine. The generosity and innovation of David and Laura Shae, applewood’s owners, will make every reader wish they had a similar establishment in their neighborhood. While some of Eating for Beginners addresses the challenge of feeding her picky son and some is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to work in a restaurant, the stories of food producers really drive Rehak’s narrative. As Rehak learns to milk cows, make cheese, sort beans, pick spinach, and butcher a side of beef, she brings to life the farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and cheesemakers who supply the food on the table. Rehak’s lively prose and sensitivity to the producers, their food, and their lifestyles show the human consequence of every food choice we make. Eating for Beginners is a vivid story with bottomless heart, and while much of the takeaway will be familiar to readers of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, Rehak’s context — family food and feeding a child — and her profound sense of story make her book a fresh and moving read.
Also the work of a journalist and a memoir of food and family, A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is, unfortunately, a more limited and less satisfying read. When Tan loses her job as a fashion journalist for The Wall Street Journal, she turns to investigating her family’s food heritage. A native of Singapore living and working in the United States and homesick for the food of her childhood, Tan makes several trips back to her homeland to visit and cook with her extended family, particularly with those women who learned to cook from Tan’s late paternal grandmother. Tan does a good job of illustrating the range and depth of her native country’s food obsessions, and some of her cooking scenes are captivating. For instance, Tan and her aunts make three thousand pineapple tarts and other restaurant-worthy feats from recipes that are neither intact nor exact.
She’s not much of a cook at the outset (although she takes on an ambitious, year-long baking project apparently unrelated to her time in Singapore), yet Tan progresses from awkwardly imitating each step of recipes her aunts execute from memory to understanding the flexible, improvisational nature of her family’s genius in the kitchen. While Tan makes some attempt to place her journey into a larger context (a trip to her father’s ancestral village in China, for instance), A Tiger in the Kitchen gets repetitive and never really moves beyond its author’s private discoveries.
Maman’s Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan is also a love story for lost food and lost family, but unlike Cheryl Tan, Bijan is an award-winning chef. Bijan’s account of growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran is a gorgeous homage to her mother and to Persian culture. Trained in England as a nurse and midwife, Bijan’s mother worked tirelessly by her husband’s side in the Tehran hospital that he built and where he worked as a doctor. The early chapters of Bijan’s memoir offer a captivating picture of Iranian culture and the community lost to her family after the revolution. In the garden of their hospital, her parents “threw elaborate parties… with lambs roasting over fire pits, classical Persian musicians, and tents lined with Persian carpets lit by lanterns.” Her mother was famous for her theme parties, including one where guests fished for live trout from the swimming pool. The family spent day-long picnics with other “bohemian physicians,” friends who every weekend sought “hal — rapturous delight and inspiration from nature” at a friends’ country house. There were family vacations, too, where Bijan’s father filled their small rented apartments with local delights: olives, pimentos, and garlic in Spain; mortadella, mountain cheese, and fresh plums in Rome.
Eventually, Bijan’s mother became engaged in Iranian politics. She championed women’s rights, and thus marked herself as a target during the revolution. While on a summer vacation in Majorca, the family’s Tehran home was seized, their assets frozen, and their paradise lost. The rest of Bijan’s story gracefully chronicles their exile, the great challenge faced by her father as he loses his career, her mother’s tenacity and ability to adapt to America, and Bijan’s own growing sense of self and place. It’s a complex, rich story of family, culture, and coming of age, in which a meal provides both solace and a reminder of grief.
Despite its heartache, Maman’s Homesick Pie is also a gratifying story of the making of a chef. We follow Bijan from California, to the restaurants of France, and back to the US where she eventually opens her own restaurant. Bijan shows how her young hungers led to a life of cooking and how the flavors of her adopted country blend in her own kitchen with the memory of her lost heritage. Bijan shares many of her recipes, old and new, Persian, French and American: Sour Cherry Upside-Down Cake; Braised Chicken with Persian Plums; Roast Rabbit with Whole Grain Mustard and Rosemary; Madame’s Cocoa Pound Cake; Potato Waffles with CrÃ¨me Fraiche. All these recipes are so compelling, original and comforting that this book demands a place alongside favorite cookbooks.
Bijan brings her story full circle with the birth of her own son and her mother’s death. Throughout, she shares a deep understanding of the lyricism of food and language. She understands exactly what is lost by her family’s exile, how this loss has shaped her, and how their history is embedded in the meals her family cooks and shares. In its profound understanding of how food connects us to the past and future and to the places and people we love, Maman’s Homesick Pie gets to the very heart of why recipes and food — and the stories we tell about them — matter so much.