A Whiff of Madeleines and a Sniff of Curry: A List of Delectable Food Memoirs

Why do you love to read food memoirs?

Barbara Frey Waxman attempts to answer that question in “Food Memoirs: What They Are, Why They Are Popular, and Why They Belong in the Literature Classroom.”*

But it doesn’t take an academic treatise to prove what you, and publishers, know: food memoirs sell because people love stories. Some of these memoirs enthrall, others end up tossed across the room, relegated to the Thrift Shop pile. A fine line wiggles between sheer narcissism and mesmerizing story. Not to mention any names, but I find that many of the more recent offerings in the food-memoir genre read like a session with the author’s shrink, where the story should have stayed.

But a few sagas remain in your hands, beguile you, and transport you to another time and place and table. With these food memoirs, you sense something elusive, a feeling, perhaps, of deja vu, that at least parts of the narrator’s story could be your own. Something universal speaks to you.

Take Marcel Proust, for example.

Proust wrote one of the most famous food-inspired memoirs — Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time), a seven-volume opus of memory intertwined with fiction. His childhood swirled around a reminiscence of a simple French sponge-cake — the madeleine.**

The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the shapes of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness.

The universal? Memory jogged because of a single food.

By no means a complete list, the following food memoirs deserve a prominent place on your stash of to-be-read books, e-reader, or bedside table:

Amarcord, Marcella Remembers: The Remarkable Life Story of the Woman Who Started Out Teaching Science in a Small Town in Italy, but Ended Up Teaching America How to Cook, by Marcella Hazan

Between Meals, by A. J. Liebling

Cakewalk, by Kate Moses

Daughter of Heaven, by Leslie Li

Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings, by Colette

The Gastronomical Me, by M. F. K. Fisher

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford

The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber

Lilla’s Feast: One Woman’s True Story of Love and War in the Orient, by Frances Osborne

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, by Laura Schenone

Memoirs of a Lost Egypt, by Colette Rossant

Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Erlich

Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes, by Shoba Narayan

My Life in France, by Julia Child

Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit: A Culinary Memoir, by Austin Clarke

Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, by Jen Lin-Liu

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn

Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen, by Dalia Jurgensen

When French Women Cook, by Madeleine Kamman

____________________

*An article in College English 70 (4): 363-383. March 2008.

**Yet Proust’s madeleine, as he recalled it at least, could not have existed, because at one point he says it crumbled in his tea.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Bozena,

    Thank you for these additions, both excellent!

    Like

  2. Bozena says:

    Cynthia,

    Thank you for this list! And I would add “Pig in Provence” by Georgeanne Brennan and “Cook Book” by Alice B.Toklas. I’m not a big fan of Peter Mayle but his “Provence A-Z” has some good food stories too.

    Oh, you always make me hungry, this time for reading :)

    Like

  3. And thank you, Kate, for your wonderful comments. As a matter of fact, I’ve got Giacomo Castelvetro’s book on another list that comes out next Tuesday on “Gherkins & Tomatoes.”

    Like

  4. kate moses says:

    Cynthia, thank you so much for including me in your select and wonderful list! I’m honored to be in that good company. Many of those books (and Mae’s choices too) are also my favorites. One I think you’d like if you don’t already know it is “The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy” by Giacomo Castelvetro, an Italian living in exile in England during the early 1600s, saved from the Venetian Inquisition by the British ambassador. Though Castelvetro had dreamed of becoming a man of letters he ended up a tutor for a noble English family. Missing the foods of his homeland, he wrote his poignant book for his employer. The book is divided by season and has descriptions of the fruits and vegetables as well as stories about them (Italian children learning to swim using dried pumpkins as floats, finding a melon perfectly preserved at the bottom of the barrel of honey where it had fallen months before, the correct way to grow asparagus or make a salad) as well as recipes, many of which are amazingly current and usable still. Castelvetro has the most appealing voice, and you can’t help but feel his homesickness in the richness of his memories of all he misses. Plus the edition published by Viking (with a foreword by Jane Grigson) is gorgeously illustrated with still-life paintings by the author’s contemporaries. Well worth finding a copy!

    all best,
    kate

    Like

  5. Hi Mae,

    Yes, these are good, too. I especially loved The Auberge and even mentioned it in a blog post. I’ll add the link later.

    Like

  6. Hi Charles,

    Thank you for stopping by. Food memoirs keep me up many’s the night!

    Like

  7. Lovely post. I don’t think I ever read the exact Proust/madeleine passage before. Have heard so much about it, of course. Thank you for that. I have several of the books on your list to read, have already a few, and will add the rest to my ‘to buy’ list.

    Like

  8. mae says:

    I am a big fan of food memoirs. I can’t help adding a few of my many favorites to your list:

    Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (Oct. 9, 2007) by Madhur Jaffrey

    Auberge Of The Flowering Hearth (June 1, 1996) by Roy Andries De Groot

    The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (May 7, 2004) by Jacques Pepin

    Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure by Joseph Wechsberg

    On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal by Mary Taylor Simeti

    Like

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