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Sharing Food Through Stories: The Power of the Memoir Cookbook

The trend with the modern cookbook is to fuel the soul and stomach of the reader in equal measure. They do this by braiding together the two genres of cookbook and memoir. The result is an intimate and embodied reading experience that enhances our humanity along with new appreciation of the cuisines that have enriched and informed the authors' lives. And, as a result of them sharing the food through story, enriching and enhancing our lives as well.

Everyone has a stash of beloved classic cookbooks that are part of our own culinary history. But today’s cookbook authors, recognizing the power of story as the best way to connect with readers, have begun sharing their foods through narratives. Doing this anchors the foods’ meaning and relevance.

The result is a combination of practical and emotional exploration of the relationship between family, love, culture, self, and cuisine.

stack of waffles beside coffee on red woven placemat

The power of the “memoir cookbook” is strong: this hybrid form is renovating the cookbook industry into one that invites not only recipes of great dishes but shared connection, exploration, and bonding with others over foods from around the world.

When we share food through stories, we’re extending love, exploring and appreciating all that has made us into the people we’ve become, and inviting readers into our metaphoric homes through the pages of a book.

Classic Cookbooks We Love

Many cookbooks, while not personal or memoir hybrids, are still very much reliant on the voice and persona of the author, making the recipes enjoyable to use. 

Some seminal tomes that have so much value for the food and chef influence are:

Yet while their recipes are the backbone of what many cooks have built their culinary repertoires around, and they have some personality through the voice of the author, they’re not quite as emotionally connective or spiritually fulfilling to read as today’s memoir cookbooks that incorporate backstory and history, world-building, character, persona, and setting: all elements of good memoir.

Why Turn Perfectly Good Cookbooks Into Memoirs?

We read memoir because it provides a direct connection to another real person inside of an intimate space. Most memoirists hazard their emotional and intellectual interior and “bear witness” to their own lives and the lives of others with far more candour on the page than do the people in our lives we feel we know best.

Writing our true stories in our own voices establishes an intimate closed-loop connection with a reader like nothing else.

When cookbook authors use food as the locus, which is intertwined with family, friends, expression of love and care, and our culture past and present, we get a double dose of an even deeper intimacy: a direct portal into that writer’s life, origins, and emotional interior.

We’re then present in their most intimate space and their humanity, and by extension, our own.

The power of the memoir cookbook comes in because these books foreground the food in the people who make it and eat it together. When cookbooks accompany their recipes with stories, it’s an essential delight and has rich reward.

When Did Memoir Cookbooks Become a Thing?

The trend to combine intimate stories with recipes isn’t new; in 1976, Edna Lewis’s cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking combined anecdotes of her growing up in rural Virginia along with her recipes.

Increasingly through books such as:

New releases such as Arabiyya by chef Reem Assil, Korean American by Eric Kim, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, whose Netflix special of the same name takes us through Nosrat’s life, lifelong exploration of and curiosity about food, and her expertise honed over years of working as a chef are deeply engaging and inspiring.

Are Memoir Cookbooks a Passing Trend Or Are They Here to Stay?

chart

If our cultural enthusiasm for memoir is any indicator of how well the memoir cookbook will continue to do, it’s safe to say it’s here to stay. Readers’ appetites for intimacy and human connection via the candid sharing of story are insatiable. Note the sales figures for “Adult Nonfiction” above; not only for this one year, but generally and increasingly, nonfiction and memoir outsell fiction.

In 2021, Wordsrated, an international research data and analytics group noted that memoir for young adults grew 26% in sales revenue between 2016-2021.

Publishers Weekly also noted that adult nonfiction was the highest selling book out of all genres and jumped over 20% between 2020 and 2021. 

Tori Latham in “Why Is Every Cookbook a Memoir Now?” speaks to the trend. It’s due to our appetites growing not only for the food, not even for the stories, but into a greater sense of embracing the culture we are today: diverse, rife with voices and backgrounds, and above all, rich with cuisine—and the attendant stories— that are slowly coming to the forefront of readers’ and eaters’ consciousnesses ready to be shared. 

Chef Assil, author of Arabiyya, created her book to illustrate her experience as an Arab woman in the U.S. in combination with sharing the food of her culture.

Kim, author of Korean American, wanted to bring the world he knows and loves into others homes and intimate spaces.

What better way to do that than through food?

Samim Nosrat, cookbook author, with her
Samim Nosrat with her mom in her Netflix special, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

It is to everyone’s benefit that the cookbook publishing industry is finally making more room for food writers of color and of world cuisines to add their voices and stories to an ever-growing and dynamic table. 

Julia Turshen, author of memoir/cookbook Simply Julia has written about how crucial it is now more than ever for these writers to get their stories in front of readers- so readers can enjoy their stories and add their recipes to the canon of their favorites- making the world that much more connected.

A cookbook can be more than a collection of recipes: It can be a catalyst for change. It can be a way to share meaningful and challenging ideas in a familiar package. It can bring a group of home cooks together to feed people in their community. It can even be a tool to address the disparities that afflict the publishing industry.

Turshen says the change isn’t happening fast enough; writers of color are still being asked to “whitewash” their foods and recipes for a Euro-dominant mainstream readership rather than be celebrated for introducing audiences to their cultural dishes, cooking methods, and ingredients. These invite readers into their sphere, which then becomes a sphere where everyone can congregate, celebrate, and eat.

Turshen has put together a brilliant list of things readers can do to support memoir cookbooks written by chefs of color and from the world community.

We want these writers’ stories: because their stories make our own tables enriched, larger, and more delicious than they were before.

 

Interested in Writing a Memoir Cookbook Yourself?

To help chefs and cooking enthusiasts create their own memoir cookbooks, there are now courses you can take to learn how to combine storytelling with your recipes:

If you’re not keen to write a memoir cookbook, but you still like to cook (and eat!), consider your relationship to cookbooks and what you might learn by reading one of the new memoir cookbooks (or several) from cover to cover.

After all, as writers, we need to keep up our calories (all that thinking burns them up at a far faster rate than if we were relaxing); plus, as readers, we are bonded and humanized by sharing food and the experience of enjoying it with others.

Consider how you relate to the foods of your youth, your family, and your ancestral culture and what they give you at an emotional level.

Now consider how you can magnify that feeling exponentially by reading about another writer’s relationship, experiences, and serving suggestions for the foods they know and love—and share with you through story.

Sounds delicious, right? Time to read, then off to the kitchen!

lemons on cutting board

For my fellow foodies: here are some new cookbooks to go on your "read-next" list:

🍲 ~ The Inspired Vegan by Bryant Terry: a collage of food, storytelling, music, and art with recipes using whole, fresh, seasonal ingredients.

📚 ~ The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook by Natalie Even Garrett: today’s famous authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Julia Alvarez, and Edwidge Danticat talking about their favorite dishes. 

🍏 ~ 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman: the stories and food of five families who all lived in New York’s most famous tenement on the lower east side in the early 1900s.

🍛 ~ My Two Souths by Asha Gomez: taking her two cultures of India and the American South, Gomez braids together flavor and story.

What About Your Story?

When you’re ready to tell your stories and engage with people at the most human level, consider getting your first draft under your belt in our Write Your Memoir in 4 Months Program. 

Getting through your first draft should be illuminative and exploratory and being fully supported with everything you need to get it done makes all the difference.

Got questions? That’s fantastic. Please reach out any time. We’re always happy to chat!

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