from PLATE to PEN

Spring brings an outpouring of culinary memoirs for readers to digest

April 26, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

Whether they write of the rarified realm of a megawatt restaurant, the cheery domain of a Midwestern kitchen or a childhood hearth left behind, authors have pounced on food's deep-seated power to summon the past or bring a seminal experience back to life.

In sweet, salty, sour and sometimes bitter tones, a growing roster of chefs, food authors and amateur epicureans is sustaining hungry readers with culinary memoirs. Certain titles may even fall under the description of umami, the elusive fifth element of taste described as pungent or savory.

This spring, a feast of new books belonging to the genre arrives in bookstores -- most notably the late Julia Child's autobiography, My Life in France. The account of her introduction to French cuisine, written with grandnephew Alex Prud'homme, has already been declared an irresistible read by the famed chef's acolytes.

Don't call it a glut -- "that is a bad word," says Ruth Reichl, whose Garlic and Sapphires, the third in a trilogy of memoirs, recently appeared in paperback. Call it a "cornucopia of food memoirs," she says.

Whatever you wish to call it, the current surge of gastronomical confessions began as a trickle a mere eight years ago, when Reichl's Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table first appeared.

"When I wrote Tender at the Bone, which was the first, nobody knew what to do with it," says Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine and a former restaurant critic for the New York Times. It was a genre "that didn't exist at that point. Nobody had written anything like that since M.F.K. Fisher."

Now, "It seems like every few days I get another one," says Reichl, referring to the "cornucopia."

Among this season's new books are Jane and Michael Stern's Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food and New Yorker correspondent Bill Buford's Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.

Add Insatiable by the sybaritic food critic Gael Greene and The Nasty Bits by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to that bedside mountain. It may be a stretch to call The Omnivore's Dilemma a memoir, but in his new book Michael Pollan hunts, slaughters and forages his way to an understanding of what he calls the "personal food chain."

Molly O'Neill's 2003 denouncement of the journalistic forays into culinary decadence she dubbed "food porn" in the Columbia Journalism Review hasn't kept famous foodies, least of all O'Neill, from producing more volumes. Her new book, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, a remembrance of Spams past, is perhaps an intentional counterpoint to those excesses.

Beyond their common infatuation with food, the authors take different stylistic turns. Some books are hybrids of vignettes, commentary and recipes. Others are pure narrative. Some read like travelogues. My Life in France was assembled from Child's taped memories, family letters and other records. Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires includes the stories behind her undercover reviews for the Times, the reviews themselves and recipes. The infatuation with food that has allowed the culinary memoir to flourish speaks to the collective loss of traditional rituals, such as preparing the evening meal, Reichl says.

Along with the deluge of films, television shows, Web sites, blogs and listservs dedicated to food, it is "symptomatic of the fact that we are not cooking as much as we used to," she says.

It's cooking that makes us human, she says. "As we become a nation where children don't see their grandmothers, mothers, aunts cooking very often, we turn to this literature of food. I think it's really a sign of how desperately we need that connection to the earth and to food."

Julie & Julia may be an extreme example of this need. Begun as a blog, Julie Powell's smash 2005 book chronicles her attempt to prepare every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. Imagine the vicarious appeal for all of those would-be chefs daunted by dinnertime, let alone Child's instructions for Veau Prince Orloff or Oeufs en Cocotte.

The connection to earth and food was keenly apparent to M.F.K. Fisher, a heroine of Reichl's, well before the debut of TV dinners. In The Gastronomical Me, published in 1943, Fisher wrote what amounted to a manifesto for future culinary memoirists: "So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it ... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one."

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