The late Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’ remains the giant of the genre, but I’ve found some other gems I would like to share.
When I say I love food, I don’t just mean I love eating. I love to constantly learn, not only about processes, ingredients and technique, but especially the stories that often come with the food.
Food literature is one of my favorite book categories, especially memoirs and biographies, because I get to go deep inside the minds of my sisters and brothers in the food industry. Of course, the late Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential remains the giant of the genre, but I’ve found some other gems I would like to share, especially now that we all have time to read when staying home.
Buttermilk Graffiti. Chef Edward Lee, an immigrant himself, documents the stories he picked up going around the United States to not only try the food, but also to hear about the stories behind these immigrant cuisines. As Lee mentions in his adventures in Massachusetts, “The plate of food has never been the be-all and end-all for me. Quite the opposite: for me, good food is just the beginning of a trail that leads back to a person whose story is usually worth telling.”
Lee is quite the storyteller, relaying some beautiful and interesting stories like an Uyghur cafe in New York, each with mouthwatering descriptions of food, and his own thoughts and lessons from meeting and eating with these people.
In New Haven, sharing a white clam pizza with a Moroccan cook, he says, “It is in that intersection of the home we leave and the home we adopt that we find a dish that defines who we really are.”
I think the book succeeds greatly because of Lee’s great insights, especially about multi-culturalism and the constant debate over what constitutes “authentic” food. In fact, this is a running theme he continues to talk about more as he gets to interact with more immigrant cooks.
“This is what I find infuriating about the impulse to classify food as authentic. It implies that tradition is static and that there can be no evolution. It implies that a culture can stand still.”
All in all, Lee tells stories from 16 of his travel stops, and each one is truly an adventure worth taking, especially for food nerds like me. Available as an e-book on Kindle for just US$9.99, I think it’s a pretty good buy and a great weekend read.
Love, Loss and What We Ate. Admittedly, I bought this memoir by Padma Lakshmi because I wanted to get the inside scoop into the Emmy Award-winning TV show Top Chef, which she hosts, but I was rewarded because the book was so much more than that.
Lakshmi’s journey from a child immigrating to America, to becoming a fashion model and then host of Top Chef, is not only a beautiful read, she drops in some insightful lessons about standards of beauty, self-love and finding your identity.
In fact, one of my favorite stories is about her now-iconic (at least to her fans) scar. “People have told me that my scar makes me seem more approachable, more vulnerable. Ironically, the greatest gift fashion has given me is the courage to expose that most vulnerable part of myself.”
Of course, there are also her stories of food. I especially love the stories about Indian food, of how diverse it is and that calling everything “curry” is a disservice to one of the world’s most flavorful cuisines.
Lakshmi is also an expert, not only food, but also how to enjoy it. “A person’s palate is like anything else: it must be trained, stimulated, cultivated and buffered.”
Sure, the book’s biggest come-on is you get to know the glamorous Top Chef host, but I stayed for all the heartfelt stories and insights that Padma so generously shares. It’s just $11.49 on Kindle.
The Language of Food. Food literature isn’t just about biographies for me, either. Dan Jurafsky, a linguist and Stanford University professor, uses his forte to dive into the world of food and comes up with some great stories. He writes about menu fonts, the kind of language written on the back of potato-chip bags and why negative food reviews seem easier to write for people as compared to positive ones.
He, in fact, studies the language of negative reviews and finds a lot of similarities in the language used by fans when they wrote about Princess Diana’s tragic death and student articles about campus tragedies. Negative restaurant reviews mirror the same language because “immediately after experiencing a traumatic event, people feel the need to tell stories about that event.”
Also by using language, Jurafsky is able to dive into and find some surprising origin stories about our favorite food and condiments. My particular favorite is tracing the roots of catsup, which shockingly, is not American but possibly Chinese!
It’s not all science and history, either. This book, at $9.99 on Kindle, is a fascinating read as I enjoyed Jurafsky’s insights even more than the facts and the science. His deep dive into food science and history supports my longstanding belief that understanding food helps us understand that people, no matter the race or creed, are all the same.
“I’d like to think that the lesson here is that we are all immigrants, that no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions.”
These are just three of the dozens of food-literature books that have kept me satisfied, and I can’t wait to devour more. As traveling continues to be put on hold, the best way to travel and learn these beautiful stories about food and the people who make them is to read about them.
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You can catch Sharwin’s videos on his YouTube channel chefsharwintee. Follow Sharwin’s food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him on www.sharwintee.com