Experiencing the Meaning of the Holidays comes in many forms. Ultimately for me, it’s about connection. Because connection, when I’m able to feel it and bask in it, offers a sense of warmth and comfort. It gives me wings and makes me feel as though anything is possible and everything is okay, just as it is. During times of pain what we really need is to know that we are not alone. That we are part of a tribe that also feels courage and joy precisely because we are vulnerable and soft and tender. Community makes us stronger for the gifts we each contribute by showing up as we are in all of our unique, odd-ball, zany, kind-hearted ways. This is also where food memoirs come into play for me.
Food is an important part of Holiday traditions of all kinds. In my family it was my French-Canadian grandmother’s cooking that brought us together. Her recipes for doughnuts and “galettes,” for home-made ketchup and meat pie are still an important part of our Christmas traditions even though she is no longer with us. And so, whether you have a chronic illness, or trouble with to gluten or fiber, dairy or meat, to raw foods or roasted foods; are a college student subsisting on ramen and peanut butter; or whether it is a time when there is little to share in the first place – there is still something innately comforting about the idea of breaking bread with those we love, whether they are with us in the flesh or in our hearts with the smells and memories of meals past.
9 Food Memoirs
Food memoirs have been a form of comfort lately. Learning how the authors have cooked, sauteed, baked, experimented and learned their way through their own long, dark journeys of the soul has been helping me with mine. Even though I cannot yet eat any of the foods that are often described in these books, these kinds of stories encourage me to keep following that inner voice that whispers and beckons. To keep experiencing support and meaning through other people’s risks and triumphs. Because we are built to honor our deepest impulses and to open our hearts to life, whether it is through food or people, beloved furry friends or Nature.
Or that precious thing of being able to live vicariously.
Here are my 9 favorite food memoirs so far. May their stories offer you hope and company during the holidays.
1. Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, by Jessica Fechtor.
Stir describes Jessica’s experiences of surviving the medical crisis of a brain aneurysm that bursts, hospitalizations that save her life even as there are errors and complications that threaten it, and her process of recovery. It is a story of food and family. Of how one leads to the other and back again. Despite the strain and trauma of her experiences, Jessica, who is studying literature at the time, tells her story in an exquisitely tempered way that makes the journey compelling rather than overwhelming. That makes you want to feel that same sense of connection and belonging that is such a part of Jessica’s life. It is because of her writing style and the way in which a source of pleasure guides her through a challenging and unknowable journey that Stir has turned out to be my favorite of all the food memoirs I have read so far. Hands down.
Food feeds Jessica’s soul. It sparks her will to keep going. The draw of her tiny kitchen guides her through an intricate process of healing that unfolds one step at a time. Her descriptions are full and her writing style not only softens the edges of a difficult journey but offers insight into the ways in which her love of making, creating, and sharing meals; of drawing up grocery lists; of selecting special items from the shelves of her local grocer’s; of the tastes and textures and smells of it all – help her find her way home and back to herself. To her body. And to the richness of life. Read it. And let me know what you think.
Jessica blogs at Sweet Amandine.
2. Gaining Ground: A Story Of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, And Saving The Family Farm, by Forrest Pritchard.
Forrest comes from 7 generations of farmers who’s ability to keep the farm going have begun to peter out with his parents, who never quite took to the tremendous task of making grain and corn farming successful in changing times, competing with huge agribusiness. As his family struggles with mounting debt and full time jobs that barely pay the bills, Forrest finds himself finishing college with an odd impulse. He wants to become a farmer despite his opportunity for a secure job and his complete lack of knowledge or experience. In his first winter on the farm he tries one creative idea and odd job after another in failed attempts to do more than make ends meet.
This is Forrest’s story about sticking to his dreams despite the risks, the naysayers, the doubters and the liars. It’s about the trial and error and faith it took to become an early adopter of the movement for sustainable farming that eventually lead to the success of his family’s farm Smith Meadows. It’s an example of how persevering and honoring the voice inside enabled Forrest to create a life that became deeply meaningful, satisfying and congruent with who he is.
Forrest’s story of transformation inspires me to keep listening to my own deepest desires. I’ve read Gaining Ground twice and look forward to being inspired by his story again in the future. I have also adopted one of Forrest’s great lessons, which is to let go of perfection and consider something done when it is “tight, and good enough.”
3. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball.
The Dirty Life is a love story – a story of love for the land, of ways that land supports connection through community, and of the discovery that you can experience deeper connection to who you are and to a beloved when you allow yourself to be touched by that land. Kristin tells the tale of her shift from a bar-hopping, city dwelling, traveling journalist enjoying the free but subtly lonely life, to an early-to-rise, cow milking, draft horse driving, cheesemaking farmer who finds a sense of home despite the unforgiving hours and never-ending chores. Kristin has a witty and appealing way of sharing the details in a neutral way that often put a grin on my face. Such as when she describes her down-to-earth practical husband’s habit of sometimes wearing his T-shirts inside out, and his perspective that when you wear them as they are when they come out of the dryer, you’ll be right 50% of the time. And it evens out the wear.
The Dirty Life has similarities to Gaining Ground and is about the creation of a 200 acre farm that produces all the basic foods that a family needs from week to week throughout the year – from grains, to meat and eggs, to milk and cheese and vegetables. It’s another story of persevering in the face of adversity because something inside of you is singing and calling for you to listen.
Kristin also has a blog.
4. Life From Scratch: a memoir of food, family and forgiveness, by Sasha Martin.
Sasha grows up in a broken family with an outspoken mother who inadvertently marries a con man the second time around. After figuring it out and leaving him she is eventually forced to give Sasha and her little brother up to foster care. Sasha’s journey through heartbreak is utterly moving in large part because she finds a way through and into a life of wholeness that is filled with love despite her rocky start. And in some ways, because of it. She, too, follows her love of food when she moves from the east coast to make a new life in Tulsa, Oklahoma – a place she’s never even visited. Once there she finds a job and an apartment and then cries every day for an entire summer until there are no more tears. And meets the love of her life. And starts to repair the bonds with her mother and to heal from her past. Sasha’s appreciation for food begins to come together when she decides to make a meal from a different part of the world each week and to blog about it. She covers 195 countries – from A to Z – in 4 years and garners a huge following. And then, after a flash of inspiration, Sasha creates a world feast right in her home town where she is awed by the support and the resources that emerge to help her make it happen.
Sasha is blogging at Global Table Adventures.
5. Mastering the Art of French Eating: From Paris Bistros to Farmhouse Kitchens, Lessons in Food and Love, by Ann Mah.
Book lover and assistant editor Ann Mah marries a diplomat and moves to Paris for 3 years, which she and her husband have long wished to explore. When he is unexpectedly called to spend a year in Iraq Ann has to figure out how to deal with the loneliness of her suddenly solo adventure. She faces the challenges of starting anew and learning on her own. Gradually, we begin to meet the cooks, bakers and chefs along with the friends she makes because of a shared passion for all things food. Through Ann we learn about the origins of cheese fondue, cassoulet, and boeuf Bourgignon. We travel with her as she finds the meaning and the joy in the little things and the connection that comes from appreciating flavors and traditions and culture. Including her love of Julia Child, who also spent time in Paris because of her marriage to a diplomat. Ann’s husband returns from his year away and in the end we get to love Paris through the two of them.
You’ll find Ann May in Paris and on her blog.
6. The Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg.
Molly begins with stories of her loving and sometimes quirky parents and recipes that bring her back to some of her favorite recollections of childhood. When she experiences the grief of losing her father to cancer her life takes an unexpected turn as she discovers the extent to which her passion for food and for spending time in the kitchen feel nurturing and right to her. It is through her process of healing from her loss that Molly discovers what it means to feel more and more connected to the world and to the people around her.
It is also at this point where her writing takes a turn and I, as the reader, start to feel a sense of personal connection to Molly and to each delightful step she takes that gives her a sense of home. That leads her to her work. And to love. Together she and her new beau experiment and get creative with food. And plan a celebration with recipes I would have loved to have incorporated into some of my own special days of my dreams.
Molly blogs at Orangette.
7. Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, by Cara Nicoletti.
Cara is a butcher, former-pastry chef and a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She started a book club that turned into a supper club and eventually, into a blog called Yummy Books.
When Cara was growing up her parents regularly plied her with great books and reading became a way of life. Cara shares her love of food and literature by creating recipes that represent a particular quality, insight or experience from her favorite reads. Each part of her own book describes a particular snippet from her life or singles out a tale from a book she’s loved – from Little House on the Prairie and Nancy Drew to Silence of the Lambs; from Homer to Proust to Dickens – and ends with a recipe that she’s honed and perfected. Cara’s drive for life and literature and food is filled with energy and light as she comes to fully embrace who she is and what she loves.
8. It was Me All Along: A Memoir, by Andie Mitchell.
Andie’s is a story of insight, discovery and self-acceptance. Of recognizing how food was her source of solace and comfort in a childhood where overwhelming events and emotions had nowhere else to land. When she is shocked by the reality of weighing in at nearly 300 pounds at the age of 20 Andie finds the ability to begin to make changes in her life. She goes slowly and keeps coming back to her desire to be more fully herself. Through a special time in Rome, the support of a counselor and good friends, Andie loses 135 pounds and begins to create a new life. She finds balance and learns to eat and love in an entirely different way. Her relationship to food changes to such a point that she not only begins to easily maintain her new weight but also supports herself by becoming a food writer.
9. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton.
Gabrielle brought herself up pretty much on her own beginning at the age of 11 when her parents divorced and essentially disappeared from her life. In this first section of her book called “Blood,” Gabrielle’s stubborn, wile traits enable her to survive the pain and loneliness of her childhood and teenage years with remarkable skill. And as she begins to move through the trauma and to develop a clearer sense of herself her writing style begins to change as well. Like the shifts taking place in her life, her writing begins to flow. In “Bones” Gabrielle encounters support that helps her change the direction of her life. A friendship helps her to keep following her own subtle voice. Following these impulses takes her to places she never imagined, described in the final section entitled “Butter,” where she finds herself opening her own tremendously successful NYC restaurant called Prune.
The next foodie book I am reading is Day of Honey, which a friend gave me after learning of my interest in food memoirs. I’ve just started to dig into it as a treat for the holidays and the first chapter was promising.
I plan to return with the next blog post on January 15th and to take the month, one of my favorite times of the year, to rest and play and maybe even get into some mischief, depending on my energy levels (cleaning out a closet for the new year? organizing a year’s worth of photos? doing a whole lot of nothing?). Time will tell.
In the mean time, my wish for you is that you may experience a sense of connection and meaning this Holiday season, no matter how small.
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