During the Covid-19 pandemic, many have been inspired not just to expand their culinary horizons but to reevaluate their relationship to food. Which dishes comfort us, or help us connect with others? How do certain ingredients cross the globe to get onto our shelves, especially as so many of us remain grounded? The authors of these new narrative nonfiction titles—memoirs, essay collections, reportage—help readers to achieve a richer understanding of food.
Culinary memoirs remain a staple of the expansive food nonfiction genre. One such forthcoming title is Sobremesa (Scribe, May) by Josephine Caminos Oría, founder of La Dorita Cooks, a line of dulce de leche products. The book details her trip to Argentina to reconnect with her family’s past and their heirloom recipes, and the cross-cultural, cross-national love story and career transformation the journey leads to.
Another memoir, What’s Good? (Abrams, June), comes from Peter Hoffman, of pioneering farm-to-table New York City restaurant Savoy. Here, Hoffman explores his upbringing, professional education, and career as a chef and entrepreneur, as well as the cultural, historical, and botanical backstories of the foods he uses in his restaurants.
A more collaborative reflection can be found in Mango and Peppercorns, which Chronicle will release in March. It brings together three authors—Tung Nguyen and Katherine Manning, cofounders of Hy Vong, a Vietnamese restaurant in Miami, and Lyn Nguyen, Tung’s daughter—to tell a story of a serendipitous friendship, a beloved restaurant, and food from a community in exile.
Cristina Garces, senior editor at Chronicle, describes the book, which was written with Elisa Ung, as a “story about immigration, asylum, social justice, female empowerment.” She adds, “Food and memoir are tied inextricably together. We’ve been really pushing the boundaries of our food list to include books that focus on really topical things.”
Just the facts, ma’am
Other books rely on reportage to bring surprising food stories to light.
James Beard Award–winning journalist Jocelyn C. Zuckerman leans on her investigative chops in Planet Palm (New Press, June), which cracks open the connections between palm oil, late-stage capitalism, and climate disaster. PW called the book a “sharp exposé.”
Zuckerman says Planet Palm blends history, science, politics, and food to explicate the human and environmental impacts of this “poorly understood plant.” She adds, “Like salt and sugar and gold and cotton, this commodity has shifted the landscape of the world. There are stark labor issues tied to the industry—the poisoning of bodies, women’s issues, forced labor, and child labor. The industry paints a pretty picture in contrast to the reality on the ground.”
Another title shedding light on familiar ingredients is The Secret History of Food (Ecco, Sept.) by food and culture writer Matt Siegel, which draws on atypical sources—among them medieval food-related manuscripts, ancient Chinese scrolls, and obscure culinary journals—to tell lesser-known stories of common American food items, including honey, hot peppers, and apple pie. A chapter on ice cream, first published in the Atlantic in 2017, asserts that the sweet treat improved American soldier morale—and helped to defeat the Nazis.
At the edges of this genre are more literary titles that defy easy categorization.
In Processed Meats (Torrey House, Mar.), a collection of essays, Nicole Walker draws on her life and family history to uncover connections between community, hardship, and food. Among her subjects are a recent socially distanced cookout and her Mormon ancestors’ End of Days food preparations.
In The Book of Difficult Fruit (FSG, Apr.), Kate Lebo weaves her personal experiences together with recipes as she reflects on unusual fruits, such as elderberry, sugarcane, or durian, and discusses their origins, history, and uses. PW’s starred review called The Book of Difficult Fruit “unusual and piquant,” and recommends it for “readers hungry for something a little different.”
The “difficult” fruits spotlighted in the book, Lebo says, “became metaphors for different experiences in my life in particular, or in history or other people’s lives.” Given the literary quality of the book, the recipes “require a different relationship with the reader,” she adds. Serving as illustrations of the essays, they allow the reader to “enter the text and enact it.”