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