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They Came, They Saw, They Cooked: 5 Food Memoirs

Chris Silas Neal

During summer vacation, part of me wants to spend my hard-earned shekels traveling the world and eating amazing food. The other part of me just wants to lie on the couch with a good book. Now, thanks to five delicious new food memoirs, I can do both.

The books — written by a reluctant, bad-girl chef; an avant-garde restaurateur; a slacker with a love of roast chicken; a Mideast war correspondent; and an American in Paris — are about love affairs with food, and the journeys that led their authors into the kitchen.

Granted, the term "food memoir" usually makes me cringe. It just smacks of indulgence — and not the good kind. Besides, in our age of celebrity chefs, kitchen lit and food fetishes, one has to wonder if there is anything really fresh to say about cooking at all.

Well happily, the answer turns out to be yes.


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They Came, They Saw, They Cooked: 5 Food Memoirs

Blood, Bones & Butter

by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton's stunning Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef is a gorgeous, nervy portrait of the "artist" as a young woman. Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune restaurant, just won the James Beard Best New York City Chef Award. She began working in food service haphazardly at age 13, when she was effectively abandoned by her parents. Blood, Bones & Butter details the heartaches, family conflicts, world travel and little epiphanies that played midwife to her passions and talents as a cook.

With unflinching candor and eloquence, Hamilton describes her evolution beautifully, offering sharp insights into American culture, parenthood and the food industry along the way. Like any standout recipe — or memoir — Blood, Bones & Butter is far greater than the sum of its parts. It's not simply about becoming a chef, but everything messy and exquisite that feeds a life.

Life, On The Line

by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Conversely, as its title suggests, Life, On the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat, is a memoir of undiluted ambition. By age 16, Grant Achatz already dreamed of owning "a great restaurant, a famous one." With fanatical dedication, he trained in the most celebrated kitchens in the world: Charlie Trotter's, The French Laundry and ElBulli. At 29, he won the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award. Two years later, he opened avant-garde Alinea in Chicago. Gourmet magazine named it the Best Restaurant in America. And then, Achatz was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer. To have any chance of surviving at all, this top chef would literally have to have his tongue cut out.

Written by both Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokona, Life, On the Line, has the fundamental ingredients of a modern-day Greek drama. And, like any good culinary memoir, there's plenty of behind-the-scenes dish, too.

Beaten, Seared, And Sauced

by Jonathan Dixon

Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America, on the other hand, isn't by a professional chef at all. One day in his late 30s, author Jonathan Dixon simply woke up broke and aimless, and realized that he had to find something to do with his life. Though Dixon didn't want to actually work in a restaurant, he did really love making roast chicken for his friends, and so he thought, "Hey, why not study cooking?"

Though presented as an expose of the Culinary Institute of America, what makes Beaten, Seared, and Sauced truly engaging is that readers realize that Dixon is out of his depth long before he does. He's a dilettante, a ditherer — in short, what most of us would be like if we were thrown into such a cutthroat kitchen environment. His naivete makes his story frustrating at times, but also honest and entertaining.

Day Of Honey

by Annia Ciezadlo

Strangely, for a book that's largely about war and prejudice, Annia Ciezaldo's Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, is also mouthwatering. Ciezadlo, a war correspondent, married a Lebanese-American journalist, spent her honeymoon in Baghdad, then reported from Beirut and Iraq for much of the past decade. Day of Honey recounts what she witnessed up-close in the kitchens, streets and battle zones along the way.

To understand a people and connect with them, Ciezaldo found, you have to become familiar with their cuisine. "The path to hearts and minds led through the stomach," she writes. "You have to eat the meal." As a journalist, she's canny enough to see how food can illustrate and demystify much about the Middle East. You might think recipes for hummus and fattoush wouldn't mix easily with geopolitics, but Ciezadlo pulls it off. Day of Honey offers an intimate, thought-provoking look at life in an oft-misunderstood region — with recipes.

Lunch In Paris

by Elizabeth Bard

Spending your honeymoon in Baghdad is unusual. But falling in love with a Frenchman in Paris? Not so much. By all standards, Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes should be an enormous cliche. As an American visiting Paris, writer Elizabeth Bard was swept off her feet by a Frenchman during — guess what — lunch at a French restaurant. Sacre bleu! She married the man, moved to Paris and raided the markets.

Yet Bard's narrative is breezy and likable. Her observations about cultural differences are spot-on. She debunks both the romance of France and the glamour of expat life. She also ends each chapter with straightforward, international recipes.

Just to make sure her book was, in fact, worth recommending, I forced myself off the couch to test a few recipes. The swordfish tartare and scallops in champagne custard, I'm happy to report, are excellent.

Indulgent? Indeed. In the good way.

Susan Jane Gilman
Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.