Friday, January 24, 2014

Notes on Food Memoirs

The first food memoir?
I suspect that the first food memoir might be The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (born 1755), notably translated by M.F.K. Fisher. Brillat-Savarin's memoir is famous for originating the expression "you are what you eat," as well as for the aphorism "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."

I have enjoyed reading food memoirs for many years, perhaps beginning with A.J.Liebling's memoir Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris and Orwell's memoir of being Down and Out in Paris and London. Early in my food reading experience, I thoroughly enjoyed Calvin Trillin's many memoirs in the New Yorker and in book form -- often also about dining in France. Also, I loved several books about about life in the wider Mediterranean region: an older memoir titled Honey from a Weed and several memoirs by Mary Taylor Simeti, an American who married a Sicilian and has lived there for years.

Two books about becoming a chef especially interested me, the stories of Marcus Samuelsson and Jacques Pépin. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, was adopted by a Swedish family, trained in various parts of Europe, and is now an American celebrity chef (blogged here: "Yes, Chef"). Pépin was one of the last generation to experience the completely traditional chef's apprenticeship beginning at the age of 14; he also ended up in America (blogged here: "The Apprentice").

Recently, I read Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. Sort of a tour-de-force, it manages to present the history of Russia just before, during, and after Communism through a selection of typical meals that might have been served each decade of the 20th century (blogged here: Cuisine without Food). And for a completely different cultural milieu: Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey describes the girlhood in India of this famous woman who has been highly successful both as an actress and a cookbook author (blogged here: "Climbing the Mango Trees").

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other food memoirs, and many lists of favorites from many sources such as 50 from Abe Books or over 700 from Goodreads. Here is my choice of memoirs among which I think we could pick one that would be enjoyable for our book club this year:
  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen -- most  highly recommended.
  • Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
  • Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray
  • Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood by Mary Taylor Simeti
  • Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (note: we read the first of this series, Tender at the Bone, several years ago)
  • Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
  • The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
  • Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
I'm simultaneously posting this on my food blog.

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