‘Tis the season to cook. In less than a week, many Americans will be spending more time in the kitchen than usual. If you’re like me, you’ve already been plotting turkey and stuffing and pies, flipping through cookbooks and Pinterest links to find the just-right recipe.
But food writing is so much more than step-by-step instructions, though books do include recipes within their pages. Cooking is a participation sport, even if our culture primes us to ignore the contradiction between munching takeout while binging Chopped. We learn to love food by participating in its rhythms. We chop and stir and broil through our histories, reenacting the stories of the world and its past in our kitchens.
And books are, of course, a wonderful way to hear new stories. Here are five great places to start reading food writing, all from the past two decades.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley (2013)
The daughter of a chef and a foodie, Lucy Knisley grew up surrounded by good food: truffle mice from her mother’s chef friends, elaborate restaurant meals with her father, and plenty of quality ingredients to spark her own experiments. But she was also a craver who loved “comfort grease” out of a plastic wrapper. Relish, her graphic memoir, is honest, hilarious, and immersive. The book can celebrate a croissant, buttery and fresh from a Venetian bakery, but also admit that croissants-out-of-a-can are far easier to make. (Instead, the author offers a fruit-laden recipe for sangria.) If you’ve ever felt the tension between the gourmet and the practical, Relish is the perfect introduction into all the complicated conversations—and wonderful tastes—of the food writing world.
DEVOUR WITH: Croissants out of a can, of course. Or, if you’re feeling fancier, sauté up some mushrooms using Lucy Knisley’s mom’s method: butter, olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper.
Garlic and Sapphires (2003) and Save Me the Plums (2019) by Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl is a giant of food writing, and these books are both so excellent that I couldn’t choose just one for this list. Earlier this year, I picked up Garlic and Sapphires at a used book sale. By that evening, I had finished half its chapters. The book dives into Reichl’s time as a restaurant critic for the New York Times, including her reviews after her behind-the-scenes escapades. Over her years as the restaurant critic, Reichl disguised herself as elderly matrons, glamorous society women, and frumpy spinsters just to escape identification. But beyond her capers in costume shops, the book also discusses the ethics of high-end dining and the attitudes we inherit alongside our appetites.
Beginning where Garlic and Sapphires ends, Save Me the Plums covers Reichl’s time at Gourmet magazine, watching the food world grow and shift with the advent of the digital age and celebrity chef culture. But for me, the book’s most striking story happens on September 12, 2001, as food editors and chefs respond in the only way they can imagine: batches and batches of chili, delivered directly to Ground Zero for rescue workers.
DEVOUR WITH: Takeout from your favorite local restaurant, or—if you’re feeling inspired by Save Me the Plums’ poetic epigraph—the “so sweet/and so cold” plums you snitched out of the icebox.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (2013)
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Nope, this isn’t the beginning of an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender: this is a book about the practical alchemy of deliciousness. Michael Pollan explores the processes that shape dough into bread, pork into bacon, vegetables into soup, and cabbage into kimchi. Samin Nosrat, who would gain acclaim for Salt Fat Acid Heat not long after this book’s release, guest stars as Pollan’s guide to braises, stews, and other dishes each sentence will make you crave. If you’ve only read Pollan’s more argument-based work like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, you’ll appreciate this gentler, more delighted journey into the food world. But Pollan retains his trademark focus on the science behind the savoring, and you’ll find yourself marveling with him at the simple wonder of boiling water.
DEVOUR WITH: Any rich, brothy soup that begins with a mirepoix, soffrito, or other flavorful mix of cooked vegetables, like what Samin Nosrat teaches Pollan in the “Water” chapter.
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman (2016)
If you’ve ever heard “that’s not real American food”—or uttered the phrase yourself—prepare to redefine what you categorize as “American” food. Food historian Lohman explores the histories of eight distinctively American flavors: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sriracha.
The book filled me with fun facts: did you know that soybeans were first imported to the US to make soy sauce (in 1767 Georgia, no less)? That Huy Fong Sriracha (in the famous rooster bottle) is named for the ship that brought its creator, a Vietnamese refugee, to safety? With every bite of these foods, we eat our history, and we inherit the ingenuity of immigrants, slaves, presidents, and chili queens who crafted the foods we love today.
DEVOUR WITH: Vanilla ice cream, the centerpiece of one of the book’s most revelatory chapters. Thomas Jefferson popularized the treat while he was in the White House, a trend made possible by his personal chef and slave, James Hemings.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.