2019 has been a lot. Just… a lot.
Oddly enough, it’s been quite a spectacular year for food writing. Food became part of mainstream political discourse in earnest and has stayed relevant. More people are slowly becoming aware of food and its impact on the environment in varied parts of the cycle from production to consumption. The industry is branching out and the Indian scene is moving towards catching up to the global scene. There’s been significant strides towards blurring of lines between stories and recipes.
My partner, who truly believes he knows nothing about food at all, came up to me and mentioned how he’s slowly learning more, independently, which to me means food writing is branching out. On a personal note, I discovered some brilliant new authors and found areas of interest related to food and life I didn’t even know existed.
But at the same time, some books got more undeserved attention than others and that is a bit of a shame. A certain Bon Appétit contributor’s book comes to mind (as petty as that makes me sound, I couldn’t not mention it). Please comment below on which one you think I am referring to and let’s talk about that.
My list is coming out rather late. I missed all the opportunities to publish something earlier on–unlike every other massive publication–but then again, we’re two people and they’re 20 at least, if the food department is modest. Between ‘spring cookbooks 2019‘ and ‘the cookbook gift guide that covers everyone you know 2019‘ there’s a mind-numbing number of lists featuring food writing.
As it sadly happens to be, most lists are largely recipe book lists. While that is absolutely fine, food writing is going through a massive makeover and is slowly but surely creeping into a place where it can no longer be dismissed and that has truly been what the decade has been about. So mentioning only recipe books or having separate lists to accommodate more books is pretty unfair. (Something like a Bollywood awards show, overlong and people-pleasing af. Plus, we’ve already done quite a comprehensive piece on cookbooks earlier this year.)
2019 is coming to an end and we are moving towards another decade which is already looking like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel, so I’m forced to will myself into finding positivity in the form of food once again. A big part of this has been reading, especially this year. Here’s a few that have comforted and inspired me to learn more, rediscover myself, cook, be unapologetic and become a better eater:
Nigel Slater – GreenFeast Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter (Fourth Estate)
“Much of my weekday eating contains neither meat nor fish … It is simply the way my eating has grown to be over the last few years.”
A Slater book is an unmistakable entity and always a treat, even when it has only meat-free recipes. The thing is, as with most others, particularly in the industry, eating has changed – the environment, age and well-being becoming the most common factors to adapt to a more ‘frugal’ lifestyle.
GreenFeast is just that. It is what Nigel Slater eats regularly, with variations and a keen understanding of how annoying it is to spend hours prepping food but also looking for interesting ideas to make dinner less of a chore.
Well yes, but they’re two parts of the same book in a sense. Slater has written a fair few cookbooks but what is so different about his writing is how the recipes are presented. From his memoir to these two vividly coloured hardcovers that truly represent the feelings evoked inside, you’ll find yourself curling up with either book under a warm blanket, just reading for comfort even when you don’t necessarily need instructions on how to make a perfect butternut squash soup.
I prefer the autumn/winter recipes to the spring/summer ones but that’s mostly because the seasonal divisions don’t work the same way in India as they do in the UK, but they’re the perfect initiating example of the blurring of lines I mentioned early on. The content isn’t radically different but will change the way you think about cookbooks and eating interestingly.
Bee Wilson – The Way We Eat Now (Fourth Estate)
“The story of modern cooking is not a simple tale of decline but a more complex and hopeful one. When we say that ‘no one cooks any more’ we often have in mind a particular version of home cooking that depended on women being confined to a life of unpaid labour. By contrast, the new cooking of our times is done by a wider range of people in a wider range of ways.”
Bee Wilson is probably among the most important discoveries this year for me. Her work, along with that of a few others, has helped me understand and streamline my research interests and opened up a bunch of exciting avenues.
But let’s be real, this book isn’t for everyone. It is, in parts, too dry and much too serious. One might go as far as to call it (shudders) academic. Wilson is a food historian and anthropologist who tackles modern eating practices in a world that is much smaller and less diverse than it used to be, offering not advice but her own informed insight. She addresses essential considerations to make in the modern world and in relation to food. Just reading this text in isolation and not following up with others will leave a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.
Let’s face it, most people would still much rather look at food and romanticise about it when it comes to the day-to-day. And if by chance you read a ‘serious’ book about food you’d rather it tell you what is wrong or dictate so you don’t have to bother thinking about it.
But it’s quite simple: everyone I’ve met believes on some level that they’re more clever and live cleverer than the average person. But the same people say ‘oh but everyone else is doing it’ when making shoddy decisions about food and purchasing. I told my father a week or so ago: Don’t be the average person when you shop for food, be how you are in your daily life, smarter. Use your purchasing power for better.
Although I was met with grunts and huffs and puffs of disapproval, I hope you give this thought and this book your consideration and time.
Ella Risbridger – Midnight Chicken & Other Recipes Worth Living For (Bloomsbury)
“There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken…in a cloth bag hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door, and looking at the rust in the door hinges, and wondering if I was ever going to get up…
But this is a hopeful story. It’s the story of how I got up off the floor.
It’s also the story of how to roast a chicken, and how to eat it. This is a story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story about wanting to be alive.”
This part cookbook, part memoir, and part love story is something I found randomly during one of my late night Amazon browsing sprees. It was just a random purchase for me at the time but became the first cookbook I cried about after completing it.
By the end of the year–which proved long and full of difficult conversations with my partner–it became one I turned to for hope when things got tough. Don’t get me wrong, we survived our first apparent death year and came out stronger but Ella’s struggle with depression and her short-lived love story shall remain one that gave me strength and to find it in love.
Midnight Chicken is powered by Risbridger’s boyfriend’s death from cancer, just as she was finishing the book. Don’t read the acknowledgments first, you’ll start crying before you even begin the book. She says she wrote the book in part to keep their world alive even if he couldn’t be. The collection neatly explains how cooking knits itself into the day-to-day business of living which, is a bouquet of experiences and emotions and worth living out.
Charlotte Druckman & Others – Women on Food (Abrams)
This my favourite food anthology of the year.
There are about a 100 contributors and that, in my experience, is very atypical. Druckman has been calling out industry bullshit for years and is a pro, but here she has truly outdone herself. The women have been startlingly honest and poignant, whether it’s the interviews or the essays. Among the more interesting parts in the book is the Lexicon section where Druckman gives prompts and all her contributors provide an opinion on the same.
From ‘badass’ and ‘woman chef’ being the most despised words in a professional kitchen to eating alone as a woman of colour in the US becoming a deeply personal take on the systemic racism, rampant in the country, the stories are inspiring, infuriating, funny and meant to give you enough courage to hype you up on your way into the industry and take down the patriarchy!
In an industry where women are often overlooked, it is a very real and fierce look at the women who are more than a part of it despite all the rubbish they’ve had to take on to survive.
Selina Periampillai – The Island Kitchen (Bloomsbury)
With only 80 recipes, this book might be on the expensive side but this is among the only books of its kind. The Island Kitchen explores food from the islands in and around the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar to Mauritius and the Maldives.
For the most part the story of the food is the story of people who migrated to the islands from Europe, Asia and Africa, resulting in vibrant and invigorating flavours. Therein lies the payoff. 80 recipes turn into 80 stories that, through the author’s family and their collective tastes help you understand the culture of the islands better. King prawns with tamarind and coconut, Creole saffran (spicy turmeric) rice, and cumin and lentil flatbreads are all on my to-cook list.
This is a cookbook, a beautiful cookbook and sometimes that is all you need.
This year there has seen a welcome selection of books on food from all over the world. I shall not list them separately but, be it Mandalay, East, Zaika, Jubilee, Baan, Taverna, Zaitoun, Bazaar or others like it, some exquisite food has been written about this year. And all are on food cultures that aren’t necessarily as lucrative to write about but offer incredible insight into popular cuisines from around the world, but perhaps more importantly tell stories of the people.
Kwame Onwuachi – Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir (Knopf)
Writing a memoir at 30 seems a bit premature, but not surprising, if you’re Kwame Onwuachi.
“I come from a long line of restauranteurs, from a family whose roots were made of gravy and whose blood ran hot with pimentón.”
Onwuachi’s story is inspiring. The life he has led up to this point, and his accomplishments in the culinary world, a community not known for its diversity at the top, is noteworthy and an important piece in the culinary narrative of immigrant African-Americans.
We get a glimpse of his childhood and his relationship with both his parents, one of whom was abusive, we see a child develop and then later beat a drug addiction and go on to take an interest in culinary arts, which ultimately changes his life.
He discusses starting a catering company, his journey through culinary school and learning from some of the greatest kitchens, being on “Top Chef,” and the highs and lows involved with opening his first restaurant in Washington, DC, a tremendously ambitious project that taught him a great deal about the business and himself.
But what’s more, we see a boy turn into a man and make it in an alien world and ultimately shine. It’s uplifting, no matter where you are in life.
Jonathan Safran Foer – We Are the Weather (Hamish Hamilton)
Reversing climate change, “requires an entirely different kind of heroism”. This heroism is “perhaps every bit as difficult” as the sacrifice Foer’s grandmother made (when fleeing Poland to escape the Nazis) “because the need for sacrifice is unobvious”.
That sacrifice begins, as the book’s subtitle suggests, at breakfast.
In 2018, despite knowing more about climate change than ever before, we produced more greenhouse gases than we have ever produced, at three times the rate of global population growth. Climate change, therefore, exists as a rhetorical challenge as much as a scientific one. The most pressing question is how to persuade people to act, and to act now, both on an individual basis and, particularly, collectively.
He argues that individuals must help with a situation that is undeniably universal but can feel oddly impersonal. He calls that sensation “fatigue of the imagination” and much of the book is spent wrestling with it. It helps that he puts his own flaws out front, acknowledging that though he no longer eats meat he “can’t imagine a future in which I don’t want to”.
A warning: this is a life-changing book and will forever modify your relationship to food. I can’t imagine anyone reading Foer’s lucid, heartfelt, deeply compassionate prose and then reaching blithely for a burger. So maybe save it for your #veganuary endeavours.
Mitchell Davis & Others – Signature Dishes That Matter (Phaidon)
Can one really have a list of food books and not include a Phaidon hardcover?
Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question.
If I had the money I’d buy every Phaidon Food publication, but I don’t, so for now, I’ll settle for owning a couple and pining after the rest. But that’s not why this book is on the list.
With the decade ending, my feed is constantly flooded with people looking back. There’s only celebration, appreciation and nostalgia; no one recollects all the hardship. Somehow, it’s very human to forget the bad parts once they’ve passed or been conquered. And so, among Phaidon’s many gems, this one particularly stands out to me as relevant.
For the food historian, Signature Dishes That Matter presents a comprehensive collection of the restaurant dishes that have defined the culinary landscape since the 18th century.
The James Beard Foundation’s Mitchell Davis, who wrote the foreword, calls the cookbook “a definitive canon of cuisine.” The list is organized chronologically and curated by an international team of food writers and critics who weighed in on what dishes—from timeless classics to innovative dishes of the present—are iconic in global cuisine.
Each description of a dish is paired with an extensively researched illustration, taking into account plating conventions and other details.
This, again, isn’t a book for everyone. It’s more a gift for the food nerd you know and love but it is also about looking back at developments that define the current scene in the industry and in your home.
Which dish do you think made the list?
Mark Diacono – Sour (Quadrille)
People have generally become smarter about their understanding of food and cooking. The decade began with the release of The Flavour Thesaurus and others like it followed in the form of The Missing Ingredient and Ratio to name a few. Sour is another great example of looking at an element that is often taken for granted but has a transformative effect on flavours and food.
The act of souring, for instance, is key to producing global favourites like cheese, wine, and chutney. Citrus spoils food, but just enough to enhance it. Diacono expresses his disappointment in the change in the food scene over the decades quite plainly:
“And then everything drowned in an avalanche of sugar.”
And you almost can’t help but smile at the bitterness that one statement carries, bitterness he passes on to you through his writing.
A lot of Sour is spent explaining to you what sourness actually is and how it works on various foods and to what effect. It’s all a bit science-y but never boring. The book ends with quite an extensive list of recipes to help you understand and manoeuvre the flavour and enhance your cooking.
Jeff Gordinier – Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it all with the Greatest Chef in the World (Tim Duggan Books)
One word: Noma.
Now that I have your attention, yes this book is about Rene Redzepi. But it is also about the author.
I’ve heard that satisfaction leads to complacency which in turn leads to mediocrity. So what I’m saying is, most of us are screwed.
So when the head chef of the most important restaurant in the world is dissatisfied and gets in touch with a New York Times staff writer in a personal and professional slump, you know you’re in for something incredible. In their shared hunger for risk and reinvention, the two men find common ground that binds them throughout a four-year culinary odyssey.
In Hungry, Gordinier chronicles this adventure—from gathering figs in parks around Sydney to hunting for sea urchins in the Arctic Circle—with vivid prose that is sure to make your mouth water. Along the way, Gordinier locates what makes the world’s greatest cook, the world’s greatest cook. First there’s his outsider status as an immigrant from Macedonia. Then there’s his almost pathological curiosity, shared by a young, international crew of talent he gathers around him, all bound together by his ethos: “keep moving”.
You come out of the book feeling rather insecure, but also with a sense understanding of what makes Redzepi tick and maybe even a spoonful of that same enthusiasm, now forever mixed in you.
Ten isn’t a lot, specially for the skeptic to whom I made big claims early on about this being a great year for food writing. But here’s the fun part, I’ve sneakily added a bunch of names and introduced you to authors who should be a good enough gateway in case you’re really curious. And if you’ve made it this far, I’m going to venture a guess and say that you are.
2019 has been largely about change in diet and stepping into a more non-meat lifestyle in general. What began with #meatlessmonday has become about a much greater and more permanent alteration in how we consume food. And several books have been on food catering to such a shift so as to encourage more people to make the change. Veg by Jamie Oliver for one is a great resource that has been quite popular.
Food writers concentrated more on making a predominantly non-meat diet seem palatable to a population that is extremely dependent on meat for nutrition and tends to treat veg as an afterthought. An Indian diet accommodates that more than most, yes, but there’s a long way to go and what I’m saying has nothing to do with religion or politics.
Other books which have been extremely popular this year with critics and the masses alike are strictly recipe books and I’m not keen on including them here even though they’re quite great. One of these (that I can’t not mention) is Nothing Fancy. It includes simple recipes to make when entertaining at home ie. impressive looking but won’t take all evening to make.
So, even if you’re hosting, you spend time with guests instead of in the kitchen, something I struggle with a lot. Joy of Cooking was also revised and re-released and is as thicc and as helpful as ever.
An important chef, woman of colour, and breaker of stereotypes I must also mention is Asma Khan.
This year has undeniably been about women conquering the scene and she’s been the woman of the year for me (enough reason for you to definitely look her and her book up). She’s changed British cuisine and the idea of what it means to run a food business as an immigrant, running an all-women kitchen and is all kinds of #goals. The fact that she’s from Kolkata is the cherry on top.
I’ve never been one who’s comfortable looking back, but this has been a year of finding common ground with loved ones and learning to be more accepting of myself, my failures and pausing when necessary. The books have helped, the socio-political climate of where I’m writing this from, has not, but I’ve met determined, beautiful and unique people and somehow there’s still hope.
The upcoming decade looks promising and will begin on a more positive note than on which this one ended. And maybe you’ll end up checking out at least one if not all of these books for inspiration too. Here’s hoping.
Been meaning to get to the Bee Wilson book. Thanks for the rest of the list too! Didn’t the Samin Nosrat anthology come out this year as well? (And of course we all know the Bon Appetit author you are talking about!)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Let us know what you thought when you get to it. Don’t find a lot of people who read on food. 😅
Yes, Best American Food Writing 2019. That was great too! Looking forward to the 2020 edition, should be out soon.