The Way to a Reader’s Heart…

Essential memoirs of family meals

In December 2008 there was a massive ice storm in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where my family lives. The cold froze the power lines, cutting electricity to almost the entire town for two weeks, right before Christmas. My parents and grandparents frantically tried to salvage five pounds of handmade ravioli from the basement freezer, tossing the Ziploc bags out into waist-high snowbanks in the backyard. But the freeze was too deep; it destroyed the delicate ricotta and spiced ground beef centers. All their hard work was ruined, and Nana swore she’d never make ravioli for Christmas again.

My family is like so many others: all of our best legends are about food. The ultimatums and crescendos always take place in the kitchen, the climatic scenes and resolutions around a dinner table, overfull and noisy. It makes sense: our most important rituals center around food. My family spends weekends together, crowded into kitchens, rolling out pasta dough, stuffing ravioli, twisting tortellini, then spends hours eating together, stuffing ourselves well past the point of reason. Food makes family, the kitchen table the place where we build a collective whole out of disparate ingredients.

Food is such an integral part of the human experience, it’s no surprise meals make a frequent appearance in memoir, providing a natural opportunity for reflection and discovery. The daily ritual of the family meal (or lack thereof) is a natural starting point for writers exploring their household dynamics. The list below demonstrates the enormous variety of possibility in modern food writing and family-life memoirs. Sweet memories of baking with grandma are balanced by the natural tension found in all families, and dark confessions about struggles with drinking come with an extra serving of humor. In tone, these works range from weighty and thoughtful to tongue-in-cheek and satirical. In some cases, the writer finds her family or identity through shared food rituals, and in others, food rituals become a refuge from family.

Here are voices from several cultural perspectives, presenting a wide variety of foods, from Hostess cupcakes to mock turtle soup, from home cooking to four-star restaurant fare. I’ve also tried to include writers who define family in many ways—through marriage or bloodline—and in many incarnations. Women dominate this list simply because food has a long history of being women’s work, and therefore, a valid subject for a woman’s memoir. Of course, there are male memoir writers exploring these themes (Matthew Amster-Burton, Frank Bruni, John Haney, Calvin Trillin, Nigel Slater, to name just a few); yet the overwhelming majority of books focused solely on food and family life come from the voices of women, who were relegated for so long to the roles of family chef, nutritionist, and waitress, and have lately worked to reclaim these domestic responsibilities as a source of creative inspiration. These writers show us how food can bring us together or push us apart, can be an unexpected source of connection or illuminate the gaps that already exist in our understanding of each other.

The Language of Baklava
Diana Abu-Jaber
(Anchor Books, 2005)

Abu-Jaber gives a sensuous description of what it was to be raised by a Jordanian immigrant father, who cooked to remember where he came from. Her father’s stories of his Jordanian past, Abu-Jaber writes, were almost always about something larger: “grace, difference, faith, love.” This memoir, complete with Middle Eastern recipes for shish kabob, lentil soup, and lamb kofta, is rich with tastes of home, family, and place.

Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal
Ava Chin
(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Chin’s memoir, which grew from her New York Times “Urban Forager” column, includes a wealth of information on finding, harvesting, and preparing wild foods, even in the city. Raised by a single mother and Chinese grandparents, Chin finds a natural retreat in the parks and backyards of her Queens home, and when her beloved grandmother falls seriously ill, Chin turns to foraging to make sense of her complex family past and current romantic turmoil. The medicinal and edible plants Chin finds (and the incredibly accessible recipes throughout the book) provide a natural metaphor for the world around us as a source of wisdom and guidance.

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War
Annia Ciezadlo
(Free Press, 2011)

Ciezadlo’s stark memoir of hunger for something familiar weaves together personal narrative, recipes, and reportage from inside a landscape of military and sectarian violence. As she and her husband, newlywed foreign correspondents, spend the years from 2003-2009 posted to Baghdad and Beirut, Ciezadlo turns to cooking as a way to navigate her new Middle Eastern home. The resulting book underscores food’s potential as a source of connection and understanding.

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid
Nikki Giovanni
(Harper Collins, 2013)

In this hybrid work of poetry and creative nonfiction, Giovanni confronts the losses of her mother and several other family members, and tries to find new life after their deaths. The title is a reference to Giovanni’s attempts to find a bottle of Samuel Adams special-edition brew in an effort to “bring them back.” Moving seamlessly between short essays and poems, Giovanni’s characteristically sparse, direct language demands that we pay attention to the small details of everyday life, for in those simple meals we find the essences of those we love.

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food
Adam Gopnik
(Vintage Press, 2012)

Gopnik explores the roots of our modern American obsession with food by charting the history, development, and even sexual politics of the restaurant and the recipe book—and eventually comes to the conclusion that, as much as we love gastronomy, we have a lot to learn about the familial value of eating together. While this book would be a compelling piece of food history on its own, the inclusion of Gopnik’s “e-mails” to nineteenth-century food writer Elizabeth Pennell, in which Gopnik reflects on his role as his family’s chef, weaves a personal history of love, taste, and a desire for meaning throughout the narrative.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed
Daisy Hernández
(Beacon Press, 2014)

Many of the life lessons Hernández learns from her Cuban-Colombian home revolve around food: beware, for instance, men who try to seduce you with pastries. A memoir that weaves together the evocative details of her family’s food rituals (including her father’s struggles with alcohol) and social criticism of assimilation and free trade, this book also traces Hernández’s struggles to forge her own queer identity.

Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table
ed. Amanda Hesser
(W.W. Norton, 2008)

An anthology of essays from The New York Times Magazine column of the same name, Eat, Memory features personal, familial reflections on food from some of the strongest names in contemporary literature. Dorothy Allison writes about her mother’s gravy and her hardscrabble childhood. Gary Shteyngart brings his customary satirical tone to bear on the all-nutrition, no-flavor Russian cuisine of his childhood home. And throughout the collection, we are reminded that food is part of almost every narrative of a family’s life—not only in our homes, but in our hearts, where real communion happens.

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
Kristin Kimball
(Scribner, 2010)

Seven years ago, former Manhattan literary agent Kimball fell in love with a farmer. This book chronicles her trajectory from city person to co-farmer, describing with wit and humor the complexities of running a farm. Unsurprisingly, Kimball finds a deeper connection with the land, but her narrative is anything but cliché, as she examines with unflinching honesty the reality that farming—like marriage—is both poignantly sweet and incredibly messy.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Bich Minh Nguyen
(Penguin, 2007)

A case study in cultural assimilation through food, Nguyen’s charming memoir of growing up a first-generation American offers a new take on both the genre and on the sugary, processed foods associated with 1980s American suburbs. For Nguyen, becoming a “real” American means eating SpaghettiOs and Pringles, while her Vietnamese father and grandparents offer up the exotic delicacies of Saigon and her Latina stepmother teaches her how to make tamales.

Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman
Sheryl St. Germain
(University of Utah Press, 2003)

St. Germain’s memoir-in-essays is set in and around New Orleans, so jambalaya, oysters, hot sauce, and booze all take the shape of characters as rich and varied as her addiction-prone family members. Each essay is like a spice added to the rich stew of the South’s sinful over-indulgence, but “Bodies of Water,” “Communion,” “The Sound of Planes,” and “Whips and Unruly Women” especially focus on the sometimes-dark interactions between food and the body.

About the Author

Marissa Landrigan

Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, 2017), and her essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, the Atlantic, the Rumpus, and others.

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