If there’s one thing I love more than a promising new recipe, it’s a recipe with a story attached. Cooking has always been a form of escape for me so it’s probably no surprise that my favourite kind of cookbook is the cookbook/autobiography or memoir. Many a cookbook adds a short history of where the recipe came from but these favourite memoir cookbooks are proper stories with a good smattering of recipes thrown in.
In this whole category, this is the one I love the most. Josceline Dimbleby is the perfect person to write this kind of book. She lived in several exotic locations as a child with her diplomat father, the kept copious and fastidious notes, took beautiful photographs everywhere she went and kept records of all her negatives. Despite these markedly type A traits, she’s a first-class and creative cook, makes the most exotic dishes sound appealing and doable and the book is a visual treat throughout. If you can’t get the hard cover new, get a good used copy. It’s a treat. I’ve cooked a third of the recipes and they have all been delicious. I particularly like the Roast Chicken in spiced yoghurt, the Burmese Fish curry and an Indian dish which takes mere minutes of spiced chickpeas with spinach and fried eggs on top. All have become menu staples around here.
I first heard this serialised on Radio 4 several years ago. It goes back well before the author’s birth to the intriguing history of Indians in East Africa, a segment of history I knew very little about. It starts in about the 1880s and ends in the 1980s in East London. There are recipes from each era, my favourites being the luxurious creamy curries enjoyed at festivals in East Africa and the resourceful adaptations of familiar recipes that Yasmin made as a young wife in the UK, missing the comforts of home, especially her spiced roast chicken. I’ll warn you the memoir is harrowing in places – she describes a friend being raped in front of her under the Idi Amin regime – but the story is well written, fascinating and reads well as a memoir. The recipes were mostly not the kind you would see elsewhere but are accessible if you have a decent world foods aisle in your local supermarket or a good local ethnic grocers.
Family Life: Birth, Death and the Whole Damn Thing by Elizabeth Luard
I’m going to make a confession here. I didn’t get to cook anything out of this book before I had to return it to the library but the story has stayed with me for years. Elizabeth Luard lived in Spain, France, Italy and London with her four children and the recipes reflect the time she spent in each of these places. Her recipes are always well-written and carefully tested and the selection was appealing although I wasn’t convinced I would be able to get ingredients for everything. The chapters towards the end deal with her daughter’s death from AIDS but are beautifully handled – her daughter wrote some of this section herself – and I wept buckets. The end was however uplifting and I’ve put the sequel on my wish list. If you like European food, this is a good buy.
This is a much more recent release (2013) and is about how a cordon bleu trained chef found her calling in teaching nine women how to cook from scratch. I was totally inspired, completely changed the way I cut an onion (life-changing!) and ended up teaching another friend to cook off the back of it. Although designed for the US market, the recipes are for basics that you can build upon so this is great for either a novice cook or a more experienced cook who has holes in their knowledge or a personal kitchen nemesis (mine is gravy – *hangs head in shame*). It’s fun, fresh and engaging and the different women learning to cook are all very likable and realistically drawn.
This book isn’t really marketed as a memoir but it really is and it is very, very funny! I’m just rereading it. Having been made redundant from her job, Jennifer Reese decides to find out which foods, typically or often bought, can be made at home. She does everything from making her own butter to raising turkeys and goats and making her own camembert! She makes recommendations on which are worth making at home (not all!) based on the taste of the home-made version, the hassle involved and the comparative cost. If I ever have the time, I will write the British version – I’m laying down my colours! – but it’s a useful, informative and entertaining read for the British audience despite being American. It was worth buying for the birthday cake recipe alone which is now our family’s go-to chocolate cake. In fact, it’s here and it’s handy because it’s dairy and egg-free! This is a great buy. I can’t wait to try out more of the bread recipes as the first I tried, her basic bread, was heavenly.
As far as the recipes are concerned, this book is a bit heavy on cakes for my personal taste but the savoury recipes are appealing – many interesting salads and recipes from Molly’s time in France. The writing was beautiful and eloquent. I found the section where her father dies (there’s a bit of a theme to these books, isn’t there?!?) very moving and was choking back the tears while sitting supervising my kids in a play barn. That’s how well she writes. BUT, two thirds of the way through, Molly meets her future husband and, suddenly, this sassy, forthright, intriguingly complex character makes a hairpin turn personality-wise and starts gushing forth about how wonderful life with her soul mate is. I nearly gave up on the book after a few pages of this but it turns out he changes her cooking somewhat so I forged on. I’m only forgiving her though because she hosts a very funny podcast called Spilled Milk which is about food but not one you want to listen to in front of your kids. Or my mother. Your mother might find it hilarious, of course! Molly seems to be over her lovesickness and has a funny sidekick called Matthew. My current favourite podcast! I’m now torn as to whether or not to buy the sequel.
This is quite different to my other picks. First of all it is written with a faith perspective although Shauna is the opposite of preachy about her Christian spirituality. Her mission is to give people the confidence to exercise hospitality and to use food to form community more often. The book is sequential but is written as a series of short essays and it is a beautiful book, although there are no photos inside. The recipes are great and I’ve tried many – the breakfast cookies, the bacon-wrapped dates with goats cheese (insanely good!), the mango chicken curry and all the salads are awesome, The recipes are mainly American but light and creative using ingredients easy to get in the UK. Shauna writes with passion and sensitivity about early-married life, infertility (eventually overcome), friendship and community. The only issue I had with this book is an issue you may well not have. I found her intensely annoying at times but that was mostly because I realised we were incredibly similar in personality and she annoyed me in all the ways I annoy myself! It was like looking at a really scary mirror. So, if you’re not me, you’ll probably really like this book! She also has a cooking club which I am very jealous of – like a book club but each person comes with part of a meal cooked to a pre-agreed theme and they all eat together. It sounds amazing!
So, do you enjoy cookbook memoirs? Which are your favourites? And what makes it a good read for you?