The fact that food and life are intimately bound together has been brought home by an abundance of biographies and memoirs. The popularity of titles like "Dearie," "Blood, Bones and Butter," and "Comfort Me with Apples" has fortified an appreciation for what might be considered a sister-genre: the autobiographical cookbook. Among the infinite list of books helping you to make dinner faster, jump on the latest food trend, and learn the tricks of master chefs, the autobiographical cookbook stands out for its inherent warmth and desire to share: Please eat my food, get to know me, and stay a while.
Collections of recipes gather naturally around a life, with ingredients and history intersecting and weaving days and flavors into a narrative whole. The land one is born to, the dictates of wartime or an intrusive government, an unexpected new home found by following a loved one’s path -- all of these factors can result in stories that flourish beyond words. A cookbook, freed from the necessarily purposeful and self-conscious voice of a memoirist and filled instead with lists of ingredients and instructional steps, can whip the hours we spend each day in the kitchen, at the market, and around the table into a universally timeless tale.
The stories featured here include three ingredient-based tales from Europe -- of surviving Inquisition-era Spain, Paris through the words and dishes of WWII’s Lost Generation ex-pats, and a forage through mid-twentieth-century Mediterranean countrysides -- plus a farm-to-table story told by one of the most elegant and gracious voices of the American South. The following four classics are ones you’ll come back to again and again, their pages marked with food stains and dog-eared from where you left off reading.
"The Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis
The Grand Dame of American cooking was born in Freetown, Virginia, a rural community founded by freed slaves (her grandfather among them) and tied closely to the bounty of that land. Growing up to become a high-powered chef at Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, Lewis held close to a quiet dignity afforded by a hands-on farm-based childhood: this book recounts her earliest days via the Freetown residents’ recipes and meals. "The Taste of Country Cooking" is organized by season: Spring includes a menu for “A Spring Breakfast When the Shad Were Running,” with wild strawberry preserves, honey from woodland bees, and homemade dandelion wine, while a Christmas dinner with baked rabbit, persimmon pudding and divinity cream takes up an entry under Winter.
"Honey From a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia" by Patience Gray
In deference to her sculptor husband’s need for affordable marble, in the 1960s Gray set out with him to the marble-rich Mediterranean countryside -- and spent the next twenty-five years exploring the stone houses, hay- and chamomile-filled meadows, and cattle-grazed hillsides of Italy and Catalonian Spain. Painters, stoneworkers, fishermen, and historical figures fill Gray’s softly luscious marketplace and domestic scenes, which are sprinkled through this collection of recipes, pantry lists and centuries-old histories of things like pastas and local wines.
"A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews" by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson
In fifteenth-century Spain, keeping an openly kosher household was akin to having a death wish: Jews who did so were promptly reported by a neighbor and disappeared. To a people whose food habits are prescribed by religious law, this presented a unique problem: how to remain observant while staying unobserved. In this recipe collection, Gitlitz and Davidson have gathered the solutions. Instructions for keeping marketing trips and kitchen habits seemingly clear of Jewish culinary culture include ingredient substitutions and clever fibs (a piece of meat kosheringly stripped of its sciatic nerve is attributed to the household cat) -- with the original medieval recipes accompanied by ones accessible to modern-day cooks.
"The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook" by Alice B. Toklas
For forty years, Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s lifelong, quietly sensual and proficient-cook partner, deftly cooked for and entertained her more famous half’s cast of friends. Throughout World War II, figures like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso were among the couple’s rotation of art- and literature-centric guests on a regular basis, attending the meals Toklas magically wrought from wartime rations and chronicled in this first of her collections. Recipes for French mainstays like bouillabaisse and flan of mushrooms a la crème appear with stirring exclamations against war-induced necessities like substituting tinned milk for fresh.