12 Food Books that Will Feed Your Mind

Anya Von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Admittedly, throughout most of the year my thoughts dwell on my next snack, but at this frozen, festive time, I have a hard time thinking about anything but my rumbling tummy and its insatiable need for hot cocoa and any dish laced with tryptophan or mashed with butter. Luckily, there’s no shortage of books to complement our collective unbridled fascination with food. Just make sure you shake the crumbs out of these favorites when/if you are (ever) ready to lend them to your favorite sous-chefs.

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris, by Ann Mah

Mah, freelance food writer and Francophile, giddily accompanies her diplomat husband, Calvin, on the assignment of a lifetime: Paris. However, plans run awry when Calvin is called away unexpectedly to Baghdad for a year, leaving Mah to navigate “a new country, a new language, and a new culture alone while trying to keep the worry and loneliness at bay.” Invoking another spunky diplomat’s wife at many turns (as the title suggests), Mah refuses to dwell on her recently acquired “table pour un” status, and embarks on a regional tasting tour of France. Seeking out comforting cassoulets and andouillette sausages along the way, she encounters a cast of quirky characters, stumbles upon invaluable lessons, and deepens her love of great food one bite at a time.

Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee: How a Founding Father and his Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America, by Thomas J. Craughwell

Born out of an unlikely partnership between a founding father and his slave, this culinary biography-cum-adventure story contains a richly detailed account of a legendary trip to France in 1784, during which Thomas Jefferson—perhaps America’s first foodie—brought along his 19-year-old slave James Hemings to master the art of French cuisine in exchange for his freedom. Jefferson, a quick study of crops and culture (being an ardent gardener and philosopher), returned to America ready to share a thorough understanding of grape harvesting for wine, and the newly emancipated Hemings, who apprenticed in the great kitchens of Paris, founded a culinary dynasty. Together, the two introduced America to such curiosities as pasta, champagne, macaroni and cheese, and, of course, crème brûlée.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver

When I happened upon this gem a few years ago, I knew to expect elegant, transporting prose from Kingsolver, a true master of her craft. What I didn’t expect, however, was such an informed, exuberant journal of the joys and tribulations of eating locally in the year that Kingsolver, along with her husband, Steven, and her teenage daughter, Camille, vowed to live for a year exclusively on food either raised in their neighborhood or grown in their backyard. Filled with illustrative chapter titles, like “Waiting for Asparagus” and “Smashing Pumpkins”; recipes; and well-researched sidebars from environmental biologist Steven (on topics including finding local farmers and understanding organic produce pricing), Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is an excellent reminder to live—and eat—mindfully.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson

Wilson’s wonderful deconstruction of the table setting and the utensil drawer is augmented by her historical narrative on gastronomic tools including knives, forks, pots, pans, peelers, and the plate. In addition, her frank observations, which are sometimes historical or scientific and often anthropological, are always witty. Take, for instance, how we view pottery: “Pottery is deeply personal,” she contends. “Many of us cling to particular vessels, fetishizing over this mug or that plate. I do not care what fork I eat with, or if anyone else has eaten with it before me… (but) Pottery is different.” Consider the Fork is enthralling, and just might help you savor all those moments spent sautéing, slicing, peeling, and filleting in your kitchen during impromptu appetizer season.

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, by Joanne Harris

The long-awaited sequel to Harris’ beloved Chocolat sees the return of lovable heroine Vianne Rochet. After receiving an urgent summons, Vianne returns to the quaint French village where she once performed her magic. Father Reynaud, her longtime rival, needs help, and Vianne is perhaps the only one who can save him. Full of delicious twists and turns, this novel is delightful food for the soul.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

A literary companion for the days ahead, which for many will be spent cooking and eating together, Cooked is Pollan’s latest in a series of straightforward but powerful explanations for why simple, nourishing foods are essential to our emotional and physical well-being. In an attempt to answer his compelling central question, “Is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?,” Pollan explores food preparation one element at a time—fire, water, air, and earth—simultaneously producing a historical account of cooking methods, a how-to guide on utilizing the elements in your own everyday home cooking, and a collection of recipes that are accessible, even for less ambitious home cooks.

My Life in France, by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme

This delightful memoir from one of America’s most endearing cultural icons is dedicated simply, “To Paul,” putting into perspective the fact that love transcended all else in the life of the enormously talented Julia Child. Her account, written jointly with Prud’homme, begins in 1948, when Child first arrived in France with her husband on diplomatic assignment. With tenderness, trademark wit, and a steady stream of stories that are immediately engaging, readers follow her windy road to Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show, The French Chef, and through her 50-year marriage to Paul, the love of her life.

Best Food Writing 2013, edited by Holly Hughes

Hughes, who has edited the Food Writing collections since 2000, has assembled yet another mouthwatering anthology highlighting 2013’s finest thoughts on food. Featuring the likes of Michael Pollan and Francis Lam, this edition celebrates everything from the healing power of ice cream to food trucks, McRibs, and cheese. It’s sure to please a variety of palates.

Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott

Get ready to dazzle the in-laws at the holiday meal this year with your pumpkin expertise. In Pumpkin, Ott provides a lively cultural history that goes way past pies and lattés, explaining the role of this all-important squash throughout American history. It focuses initially on the pumpkin’s role in the first Thanksgiving, and, ultimately, on the rural and urban fixation with the squash, as evidenced through festivals, contests, and elaborately carved jack-o’-lanterns. It’s entertaining, enlightening, and, well, you just might want to keep the whipped cream handy while reading.

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julie Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr

Much like Studio 54 and your favorite sledding hill the year you turned 8, Provence in the winter of 1970 was an exciting place. Coincidentally (serendipitously?), six iconic culinary figures, including Julia Child, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Simone Beck, Richard Olney, and Judith Jones, converged in the South of France that year, and, as temperatures dropped precipitously, cooked together, ate together, and, perhaps most importantly, talked together. Drawing largely from his great aunt Fisher’s letters and notes, Barr not only recreates, in startling detail, the events of this significant moment in culinary history, but makes a compelling argument that this small but influential group, over the course of but a few weeks, unwittingly changed the course of culinary history.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya Von Bremzen

In the prologue of this tragicomic memoir, celebrated food writer Von Bremzen, author of five cookbooks and recipient of three James Beard awards, candidly explains: “The stories I’ve kept to myself are the stuff of this book. Ultimately, they’re why I really write about food.” Essentially, food is what connects Von Bremzen, who immigrated to the United States from the USSR in 1973, to her family and her personal history. So when her mother, Larisa, suggested that they “reconstruct every decade of Soviet history—from the prequel 1910s to the postscript present day—through the prism of food,” turning her kitchen into a veritable “time machine and an incubator of memories,” Von Bremzen chronicled the culinary experience, articulating the mother-daughter journey with wit and tenderness. Lauded by critics and admiring authors alike as a hilarious, honest romp through Russian social and culinary history, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a rare accomplishment, worthy of multiple helpings.

The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life, by Angelo M. Pellegrini

First published in 1948, as processed foods were coming into vogue, Pelligrini’s now-classic memoir was then, and is now, an eager admonition to slow down and savor every bite. An inspiring, food-worshipping immigrant from Tuscany, Pellegrini’s confidence and infectious optimism are evident from the first page, where he states, in no uncertain terms: “Would I prepare the dinner? Why not? Had I any experience in cooking? No. Would I know how to proceed? Why, of course. All Italians can sing. All Italians can cook.” Ultimately, Pelligrini’s seminal work is a perfect blend of two cultures, a passionate manifesto on the power of eating well, and full of irresistible insights and recipes. Buon appetito!

What’s your favorite book about food?