The food memoir is a dicey proposition for a writer: It takes real courage to sit down and decide that your individual eating experience is interesting enough for other people to care about. Will any readers care that you spent a week in Paris devouring caviar for breakfast? Or that a journey to the South Pacific resulted in personal discovery through street food? The job is easier said than done, but when written well, a food memoir can touch on universal feelings of growth, understanding, and self-awareness. (Plus, you have to make the food sound really delicious.) As publishers gear up to release a new crop of memoirs this fall keep an eye out for Anya Von Bremzen's month-old Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (already generating a great deal of buzz), Paul Liebrandt's To the Bone, and even a small memoir portion of Ren Redzepi's multivolume A Work in Progress Grub Street decided it was time to look back and assemble a list of the all-time best food memoirs.
Here's how the list was assembled: Though plenty of food memoirs include recipes, there are no cookbooks on this list, only narrative memoirs. We also limited inclusion to one book per author so no single writer could overtake things. The list itself is comprised of picks from a number of chefs and writers, as well as Grub Street's own choices. When ranking, we factored in a book's originality, lasting appeal, influence on the genre, and most important how enjoyable it is to read.
The result is a collection of books that any food lover should tackle immediately, or, if you've already read everything on the list, revisit and enjoy once again.
If all you want is the list, you can see that below. To read why each book is deserving of its spot and, in turn, deserving of your time check out the slideshow, straight ahead.
25.Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang 24.Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell 23.The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White 22.The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti 21.A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan 20.The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz 19.Born Round by Frank Bruni 18.Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen 17.The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin 16.Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey 15.Shark's Fin & Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop 14.Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin 13.The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison 12.The Man who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten 11.Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin 10.California Dish by Jeremiah Tower 9.When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman 8.Heat by Bill Buford 7.Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl 6.Between Meals by A.J. Liebling 5.My Life in France by Julia Child 4.The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher 3.Toast by Nigel Slater 2.Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain 1.Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
Just as Eddie Huang is starting to do with his many TV endeavors (a sitcom, an MTV show), his first book takes a familiar, overworked model (the coming-of-age memoir) and applies his own crisp voice and insight. The result feels more original than you might think — even if you don't like what Huang has to say, the real draw of this book is the swagger that Huang adopts while he says it.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
An essential anti-food memoir: Work, poverty, and hunger collide in Orwell's 1933 work. With accounts of seventeen-hour workdays and life as a dishwasher in the chaotic bowels of a Paris hotel, the book is skeletal and dark, even as Orwell fights for bread with butter. “The food we were given was no more than eatable, but the patron was not mean about drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a plongeur is not given two litres he will steal three," he writes, in one of several thousand still-truthful sentences. Recommended for scullions everywhere.
The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
Before troublemakers like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, there was Marco Pierre White, a chef that oozed louche appeal and a cocksure attitude all over Britain's fine-dining kitchens and, eventually, its televisions. Though not as well known as White's most famous cookbook White Heat, this memoir nevertheless does a worthy job of relaying where White's famous temper originated from and — to the book's credit — never glosses over the many times it flared up, both in front of cooks and customers.
The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
This oddball book, blurbed by both Michael Pollan and Elizabeth Gilbert, is a kind of indirect food memoir, more narrative nonfiction than anything else. The first-person tale uses a legendary piece of Spanish sheep's-milk cheese called Páramo de Guzmán (with possibly magic powers) as its foundation to build a behemoth story of betrayal and cave-aging and more. The book began when Paterniti was about to start an assignment on elBulli just before he discovered the dairy drama that serves as the book's main focus. In other words, this could have been just another book about Ferran Adrià — but it turned into so much more.
A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
In journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s beloved memoir, the author details moving from Singapore to America, and finally, as an adult, deciding to learn how to cook. Tan embraces her heritage by preparing the dishes from her youth. "In Asian culture, parents rarely tell their children they love them,” says SuChin Pak. “In fact, I can't ever recall my mother saying those words to me growing up. And yet, I knew and know that I am deeply loved and cherished by my mother because of the way she feeds me. Cheryl writes so beautifully about what it means to grow up in America when your parents are from a different culture, and how food is often the only language that truly connects us."
The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
"I distinctly remember the exact moment when I became Parisian," the former Chez Panisse pastry chef writes, leading the story of how he came to understand French culture not only via customs and passengers in the Metro, but also through the palate. His short scenes, which are layered with classic, workhorse recipes, decode all sorts of typically Parisian things, like how make a fuss over a baguette or negotiate the finest chicken at the market, somehow don't overly romanticize anything, but nonetheless brim with love for the city and its food.
Born Round by Frank Bruni
The restaurant critic's memoir is a micro-genre that is all but guaranteed to draw in readers: If you can't get a job that requires you to eat in the best restaurants in the country, you might as well read about it and dream. But former Times critic Frank Bruni contrasts the realities of a dream job against his own lifelong struggle with weight and portion control. The result is a book that's far deeper, and more touching, than a simple bit of food porn.
Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen
“Food is not central but peripheral — a unifying element (as it can be in any of our lives) in what is a memoir of a child's uneasy transition into adulthood and the life of a writer,” says Michael Ruhlman of novelist Kate Christensen’s first memoir, which was published this past July. The book begins with Christensen describing what she ate as a child while witnessing her father abuse her mother — but the focus isn't on the tumult, it's on the comfort that the simplest foods provide.
The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin
"Jacques Pépin is and will always be first-rate," says chef Marcus Samuelsson. "And it's so nice to read a great story about a truly awesome talent." That story, of course, is Pépin's 2004 memoir (written in conjunction with Barry Estabrook), which tracks the legendary chef's childhood in France, up through his role as Charles de Gaulle's personal chef, and his time in America helping, often alongside Julia Child, to more or less redefine the way this country cooked. Few chefs have had as much influence on the way we eat — Pépin certainly ranks toward the top and that alone makes this book worth a close read.
Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
Jaffrey's excellent 2007 memoir tells the story of her childhood in Dehli before India's independence from Britain, long before Jaffrey became a movie star and celebrity cookbook author. "It might be the most magical piece of non-fiction I've ever read," says Saveur senior editor Tejal Rao. "Jaffrey had an extraordinary childhood growing up in a massive, food-loving Indian family that didn't take any shortcuts, even making their own daulat ki chaat — leaving terracotta cups of milk and seafoam on the rooftop overnight to set with winter dew, then eating it in the morning with milk skin, sugar, and pistachios."
Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuchsia Dunlop
The best memoirs, of course, transport you. But the most famous scene in Fuchsia Dunlop's narrative places the reader squarely in Dunlop's home while she debates the merits of eating a caterpillar from her garden, thinking back on the many bugs she ate when she became the first, and only, Westerner to be a full-time student at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. The book itself, though, does take readers on the same journey Dunlop took through China, and in turns looks at the experiences that shape a person.
Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
New York–based novelist Laurie Colwin’s book is a collection of essays that spans several decades of her life, which was unexpectedly cut short, at age 48, in 1992. She covers topics like fried chicken, fussy eaters, and hotplates with a wink, never taking herself too seriously. “This is down-to-earth but expert food writing by a novelist,” says writer Kate Christensen, who considers the book one of her favorites. “These memoirs read like letters from a best friend — intimate, fond, and infinitely comforting.”
The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison
The Michigan native's collection displays a huge appetite for intellectual stimulation and wild game alike. While telling tales of chasing beluga with Stoli shots and eating truffled sweetbreads in the company of Orson Welles, Harrison, a self-professed "food bully," calls bullshit on several dozen horrible food trends (this means you, "julienne of jicama with raspberry vinaigrette"). If contact gout existed, you'd get it just from holding this book. "His stories are mesmerizing and unabashed in their appreciation of food and eating," says photographer and My Last Supper author Melanie Dunea. "When I read Jim Harrison, I want to be Jim Harrison."
The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
The Vogue critic has traveled all around the world for his job, and his memoir offers advice on how to properly drink soup in Japan, purchase seafood in Venice, and find the best fries in Paris. Despite how dour Steingarten can come off on his Iron Chef appearances, his willingness to experiment and the pure joy that's unmistakable in this journey are what make the book so entertaining.
Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
This charming, slim volume by esteemed New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin takes on appetites and the interesting people who have them, each page packed with wit and joie de vivre, riffs on nouvelle cuisine and KFC. But it's also about devotion. "It's as much a love letter to food as it is one to his wife. My kind of romantic," says Skirt Steak author Charlotte Druckman.
California Dish by Jeremiah Tower
Goat cheese, goose fat, grilled peaches, and high-stakes drama loom large in Jeremiah Tower's first-person account of the creation of California cuisine in the seventies and early eighties, much of which is set at Chez Panisse, ground zero for heirloom fruit tartlets and gently seared Monterey Bay prawns. Tower is a genius with flavors, but also a polymath dandy who deftly invokes the revolutionary forces that shaped American cooking in the last 30 years in a book that comes across, at times, like a cattier version of Kitchen Confidential.
When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman
Grub will let Gabrielle Hamilton — who counts this as her favorite food memoir — explain this: “I think Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook is just about the best there is. Through those exceptionally well-written pages you can smell the reek of dripping camembert, feel withered under the piercing black-eyed gaze of the old auntie who is draped in her black dresses —tending the geese and making coarse pates, and find yourself giggling tipsily from the mid-meal shots of burning Calvados called Trou Normand. These women with their stained and calloused hands — who tend animals, who feed their families through wartime rationing, who are as shrewd and capable in the forest as in the kitchen as in the marketplaces in the cities — are about as ‘bad-ass’ as they come."
Heat by Bill Buford
Bill Buford's 2006 book is as much a memoir about his time working at Babbo — first as research for a story, soon after as a means of dealing with a midlife crisis — as it is a look at the culture of celebrity chefdom. The book focuses much of its attention on Mario Batali, contrasting his shows and jovial personality with the hard realities of life in a professional kitchen. It all moves at a brisk clip, and is interspersed with amazing, hilarious tales of culinary legends (Batali recalls Jeremiah Tower asking for a hand job when the two first meet) — and it might just be the most readable work on the list.
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
At this point, you could very well consider Ruth Reichl's poetic Twitter feed its own kind of amazing food memoir. But of her printed works, her 1998 memoir, Tender at the Bone (published when she was still the critic at the New York Times) is most deserving of a spot here. As with the best food memoirs, it's the joy of discovery — of new foods, new people, new ways of living — that makes Tender so compelling.
Between Meals by A.J. Liebling
While many books on this list recount childhoods and troubling times where comfort is found only in food, A.J. Liebling's early-sixties masterwork is purely a celebration of the hedonistic appeal of Parisian food. Nearly every page unleashes a torrent of tripe, cassoulets, stewed beasts, marrow-slathered steaks, red wine, sparkling wine, dessert wine, and other gout-causing delicacies. In short, after reading this book you will look upon most meals as meager. Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying says Between Meals "is the yardstick by which I measure whether I'm having a good enough time at any given moment."
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme
You know how Julia Child's story ends, of course, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. This collection — put together before her death and published posthumously in 2006 — serves as the definitive look at the life of America's most beloved food personality. The big hearts on the cover are apt since, as the Timessays, Child's book "is really a love story: she loved Paul Child, 10 years her senior; she loved France; she loved French cooking; and she loved life." It's no wonder, then, that so many people loved her in return.
nomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
It's a given that a work by M.F.K. Fisher will rank highly on any list of incredible food writing; her name is synonymous with the craft. Choosing just one of her books is hardly fair given the quality of her entire collection, but both Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl chose The Gastronomical Me, the 1943 account of Fisher's time in Dijon and eye-opening exposure to French cuisine, as the Fisher book they hold in highest regard.
Toast by Nigel Slater
Beloved by both Adam Platt and Yotam Ottolenghi (author of the bestselling Jersualem: A Cookbook), Nigel Slater's much-praised Toast follows the English writer through his tumultuous childhood. What sets this coming-of-age story apart ("slightly tragic, sometimes funny, always engaging" in the words of Ottolenghi) is the openness of it all, as Slater wrestles with his family dynamic and finds happiness — real, true happiness — in food.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Almost fourteen years after its initial publication, Anthony Bourdain's memoir of cooking in New York's underbelly retains its cult following among food-industry personnel for its raw storytelling and sharp words. Somewhat perversely, the mixed shadiness and dubious glory related therein still compels people to seek out line-cooking jobs. "Nobody has done a better job — and will never — of writing both the freaking National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance of line cooks everywhere in the universe, than Tony Bourdain," says chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton. "I've read Kitchen Confidential half a dozen times and still stand up and place my hand over my heart every time."
Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
When it came time to choose the all-time best food memoir, the decision was nearly unanimous: Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl, Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, Marcus Samuelsson, and Peter Meehan all count Prune chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s 2011 memoir among their all-time favorites. It’s rare to find a chef with writing skills as strong as Hamilton's, on full display here as the James Beard winner eloquently weaves together stories of childhood, travel, marriage, and work. Like the food at Prune, the book itself takes simple, familiar elements and effortlessly turns them into something stunning.