Anyone who knows me knows that I am very interested in food. I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur of fine dining per se, although I do love eating a good meal. What I actually enjoy more than eating is putting food together. I love the process of constructing a pan sauce, roasting vegetables and watching them caramelize, using spices and herbs in a way that makes a balanced and satisfying soup. Most days of the week find me cooking something from scratch simply because, for me, it is such a pleasure.
Even more enjoyable than cooking though is reading about cooking. I devour cookbooks, so to speak, follow a number of cooking blogs, and Bon Appetit is my favorite magazine. My favorite writing though has to be a species known as the “culinary memoir,” and while I have enjoyed the muscular prose of writers such as Anthony Bourdain and Jacques Pepin, my favorite writers of this sort are women. Here follows a casual “pantheon” of those who I most admire…at least this week.
First, here’s some of the newer voices. All three of these women have been strong voices in the culinary world for some time now but I think you could say that each one is still testing her powers.
Julie Powell (above left) is the author of Julie and Julia a book that grew out of a blog she started in order to record her struggles and triumphs to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s hugely influential Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of one year. The book has, of course, since been adapted into a film starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. Since then, Powell has published Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession an equally absorbing, though to my mind much darker account, of the aftermath of her publishing success and the changes that have taken place in her marriage.
Amanda Hesser (above center) is a former food editor for the New York Times and is the author of Cooking for Mr. Latte, a compulsively readable (and re-readable!) account of the courtship between herself and her husband. Hesser now runs, with Merrill Stubbs, the food website food52. At DCPL check out The Cook and the Gardener, Hesser’s story of a year she spent as cook at a chateau in France and the interesting friendship that developed between herself and the estate’s gardener.
Molly Wizenberg (above right) writes a monthly column for Bon Appetit and is the author of the long running (and very popular) food blog Orangette. At DCPL you can find her charming memoir A Homemade Life.
Which brings us to the next member of my personal pantheon, Julia Child. Considered by many as a true giant in the culinary world, (This in more ways than one! She stood over six feet tall.) Child is arguably the person who led the way in re-awakening the American palate. The deprivations of the Prohibition Era combined with those of the Great Depression left many Americans with little real experience of fine restaurant dining and quality home cooking. Julia Child stepped in to help satisfy the national yearning with her monumental work Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). After years of success with writing and television, Child’s editor, the legendary Judith Jones, finally convinced her to write her memoir. My Life In France was completed by Child’s nephew and co-writer Alex Prud’homme after her death in 2004. The book chronicles Child’s formative years in France and beyond and her awakening to the world’s culinary possibilities. It is also, in my opinion, a wonderful love letter to Child’s adored husband and loyal partner Paul.
Although less well known than Julia Child to most of us in this county, one could argue that Elizabeth David did for post WWII Britain what Child did for the U. S. David’s palate had been sparked, then refined, by extensive travel, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her writing awakened in a nation, still struggling with rationing, a desire for exotic, sun-drenched flavors (olive oil! lemon!). Though none of her books is memoir per se, most of her writing possesses an intensely personal quality. You find in her essays and articles a sort of arched eyebrow slyness and hints of a wicked sense of humor. One comes away with the perception, correct or not, that she wrote primarily to please herself. My favorite of her books is An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, a collection of articles she published between 1955 and 1984. From DCPL, I recommend Elizabeth David Classics: Mediterranean Food, French County Cooking, and Summer Cooking. The book combines three of David’s best known works in a single volume and it provides a heady sample of the allure of this seductive and idiosyncratic writer.
Now to the writer who I consider the queen of my personal culinary pantheon, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, better known to the world as M.F.K. Fisher. A prolific and energetic writer, Fisher produced more than 20 books during her lifetime. Much of her writing concerns itself with human hungers – for love, for home, and, of course, for food. To read Fisher’s prose is to be captured by her passion for life, her quirky personality, and her precise and painterly feeling for atmosphere and nuance. John Updike called her “the Poet of the appetites,” and W. H. Auden declared, “I do not know of any one in the United States who writes better prose.” I would be hard pressed to pick a “best” among her many books although Consider the Oyster and How to Cook a Wolf remain favorites. From DCPL, try A Stew or A Story for a taste of some of the best of Fisher’s food-related writing. For something a bit different, check out Among Friends, Fisher’s moving account of growing up in the predominantly Quaker community of Whittier, California. Whatever you chose, I urge you to sample, or make a meal, of Fisher’s unusual and utterly absorbing prose.