Recipes in Memoirs and Narrative Nonfiction
When to include recipes? And why?
Howdy cookbook fans!
And welcome to your last issue of Stained Page News for the year! Next year things may look a bit differently around here, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. There WILL be some kind of Top Chef Wisconsin content for paid subscribers whenever that premieres in the spring, so look forward to that. (I will not turn payments back on without a heads up.)
Today!returns to Stained Page News for some good old fashioned literary criticism. What does the role of recipes mean in memoir and/or narrative nonfiction mean? And what does it mean if you decide not to include them?
What is the Role of Recipes in Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction?
—By Lola Milholland
What is the role of recipes in memoir and narrative nonfiction? This question sprang to my mind shortly after I sent a completed draft of my debut book, Group Living and Other Recipes, to my editor. As the title suggests, I’d included recipes—specifically, one recipe to close each chapter.
The book is part memoir, focused on my experiences living in communal households; part examination of group living through the stories of my extended family; and part exploration of group living as a metaphor for interconnections—macrocosmically, microcosmically, and across generations. I wouldn’t categorize Group Living as primarily a “food memoir” or what prominent food writer Alicia Kennedy calls “domestic writing.”
So what did my decision to include recipes convey? Does the presence of recipes pigeonhole narrative nonfiction or memoir as food writing? Do they signal something fundamental about the scope, style, or focus of a book? And if so, is that a problem? I knew how to answer these questions: I needed to hit my bookshelves.
I began by grabbing the first book I read in the food memoir sub-genre: Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. When I was 19, I moved into a communal dorm at college where we took turns cooking dinners for each other. My mom mailed me a copy of Reichl’s book, and I found the writing effortless to read. Reichl, who was the longtime editor of Gourmet, throws recipes into the middle of chapters abruptly and playfully, sometimes even before she’s mentioned the dish. For one of our dorm’s communal meals, I broke our vegetarian rule and cooked “Mohammad’s Bisteeya,” a dish Reichl encountered on a trip to Tunisia. I remember how surprised I felt as I scooped the various fillings onto each layer of phyllo dough: first almonds, confectioners’ sugar, and cinnamon; then simmered chicken meat; then beaten eggs cooked with lemony chicken broth. These things shouldn’t go together, I mused, but because I was deep inside the world of her book, I cooked with faith. The result was more harmonious and delightful than I could believe. Returning to the book almost twenty years later, I find that Reichl’s greatest strength as a writer is to make me hungry. The recipes let me cook what she’s made me crave.
Next, I picked up Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Von Bremzen writes with overflowing panache, weaving together the history of the Soviet Union during the twentieth century with her family stories and personal experiences. She opens with a discussion of Proust’s madeleines, the canonical example of food as an involuntary portal to memory. But von Bremzen calls her childhood memories “poisoned madeleines” because so many are of longing—of dreamed-of madeleines she couldn’t sample and intense cravings she couldn’t sate. The book concludes with one recipe for each decade. Her entry for the 1940s isn’t a recipe at all but an image of a ration card, which reflects the obscene scarcity of that decade of war and famine. For the 1960s, she shares a recipe for cornbread, which is not a food she ate in the sixties but a way to talk about Khrushchev’s corn propaganda campaign. She lets her imagination guide, creating recipes that convey the interplay between her personal experiences and the larger political and social stories she’d telling. In this way, the recipes act as symbols, their creation not unlike writing metaphors.
The third book I grabbed was James Beard’s Delights and Prejudices, which is the closest this gargantuan food figure ever came to writing an autobiography. Between a density of recipes, he describes his childhood in the early twentieth century, living under the authority of his food-loving mother and spending time in the kitchen with Jue Let, their Chinese cook, who was a father figure for Beard. Beard’s love of food is so extreme it almost greases your fingers as you flip the pages. For a moment I feel I’m living in the past, experiencing the abundance of seafood in Gearhart, on the Oregon Coast, tasting skate wings with black butter, capers and vinegar “which is, of course, the prescribed method,” he tells us.
Delights and Prejudices isn’t a book I’ve ever thought of cooking out of. Most of the recipes assume I know things I don’t (for example, what is “black butter”?). But it doesn’t matter to me because I treasure how these recipes are artifacts of Oregon’s past. Like Beard, I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. My home state has a messy and often disturbing past, marked by virulent racism, which Beard touches on only obliquely. You can see the Chinese Exclusion Act and its aftermath in his descriptions of Portland’s Chinatown. This book, and these recipes, show me viscerally what it felt like to be an observant, young, white, gay boy in the 1910s, shouldered with a ravenous appetite. I want more personal accounts like this, and I want them from more diverse authors.
Like Delights and Prejudices, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s spirited Vibration Cooking or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl is neither narrative nonfiction nor cookbook, but an inspiring mix of both. Smart-Grosvenor describes growing up in a Geechee community in South Carolina, packing lunches in shoeboxes, and learning from relatives about how to eat well from the land. She tells anecdotes from her years living in France and New York and takes us into kitchens in both. She writes with tremendous charisma and humor, sharing her pride in Black Geechee cooking, specifically, and Black Southern cooking, in all its diversity. She also has a lot of fun! A recipe for peacocks reads, simply, “are too beautiful to be eaten.” A littler further along, she quotes her Aunt Verta, who lived in Philadelphia and would cook for anyone passing through her home: “They my family, I got to do what I can for them… It ain’t nothing but some food.”
That line—“It ain’t nothing but some food”—strikes me as both true and beautifully hyperbolic because, as Smart-Grosvenor goes on to say, food is a currency of love. The recipes in Vibration Cooking are historical artifacts as well as inspiration for how to live. Smart-Grosvenor is letting us in on the secret to her abundant life-force: food, love, and their interplay. In the face of racism, sexism, and classism, Smart-Grosvenor doesn’t shrink; she becomes enormous and vibrational.
Another unusual entry in this category is Joan Dye Gussow’s This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. Gussow was (and is, even in her nineties!) a groundbreaking nutritionist and professor at Columbia University who was among the first people I read to draw the clear line between soil health and human health. This Organic Life is a mashup of memoir, sharp observations on food politics, excerpts from her garden journal, and, yes, recipes. I vividly recall her descriptions of the Hudson overflowing its banks and drowning her garden, which was the first account I ever read that confronted the lived experience of climate change. Her voice feels at once clarion and calm, a tone appropriate to someone who’s devoted their life to teaching and gardening. She has an agenda: to get more people thinking about ecology and the health of the planet. The recipes make her words actionable on a personal level.
Reading Gussow’s recipe for “Blue and Green Potato Salad,” I noted for the first time that recipes are almost always written in the imperative mood: Boil. Drain. Peel. Cut. These commands change the authorial voice, instructing the reader to do something in the real world, which makes them closer to self-help than memoir—a true blurring of genres. There’s interaction and something of the mundane. And because most of us have cooked a potato, for example, we have opinions. I can see how these interruptions remove the author from a certain pedestal, but something powerful is happening as well: recipes can bring narrative nonfiction palpably into our lives.
Gussow’s commitment to living on and with the land reminded me of the Indigenous concept of the honorable harvest—a covenant between people, animals, and the land for mutual thriving—which I first encountered in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. This sent me on a search for books of narrative nonfiction by indigenous authors with recipes. Doing a little research, I found dozens of stunning cookbooks, but couldn’t unearth many memoirs or books of narrative nonfiction with recipes by indigenous authors (please share in the comments if you have recommendations!).
Curious about why some authors might make the decision not to include recipes in narrative food writing, I reached out to Gina Rae La Cerva, whose book Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food explores foraging, subsistence hunting, and various indigenous wild food gathering practices around the world in the modern context. It’s a beautiful blend of food memoir, travelogue, nature writing, and environmental history. Each chapter is named for a meal, for example, “Forest Flesh with Roots and Tubers” and “Smoked Game and Fake Caviar.” When I asked La Cerva why she didn’t include recipes, she shared: “I did consider it… In retrospect I think the reason I didn’t have them is twofold: One—it didn’t feel like it enhanced the narrative. Two—maybe more pertinent—was that the ingredients I write about (wild foods) are not very easy to source and much of the book is about the ethics of eating wild, so it didn’t entirely fit.” She reminded me that recipes need to serve a specific purpose. Otherwise, they distract. But her book pushes boundaries and blends genres in a way I find meaningful.
I love the presence of recipes in books where I least expect them. I think of Ada Smailbegović’s The Cloud Notebook, a dense and moving reconfiguration and exploration of her experiences in Yugoslavia during wartime as a kid. At one moment in this 200-page poem, she includes a recipe from a cookbook published in 1994 in Zagreb by Enesa Śeremet. The recipe, “Cottage Cheese Made Out of Rice,” instructs people living on humanitarian aid how to cook rice for a long time, add a spoonful of vinegar, let is set overnight, and then fold in a small amount of powdered milk and salt to create an imitation of cottage cheese. The recipe echoes Śeremet’s description of the twenty months she spent under siege in Sarajevo as “an imitation of life.” I could almost taste it—this rice pudding that is not sweet, this cottage cheese that is not cheese. What a powerful way to make her experience visceral. And reading this recipe, I found myself wondering what people are eating (or not eating) in Gaza now.
This year, von Bremzen released a new book, National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home, which maintains her smart, vivacious voice. In it, she dives into the dishes that have come to represent national identities globally, from Neapolitan pizza and pasta in Italy to ramen and rice in Japan. She’s working in reverse from what she did with Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, taking the symbol and unraveling it. And this time, recipes weren’t necessary (and she didn’t include them) because her project wasn’t as personal—it was about national mythos. Her fascinating book asks us to look at collective myth making and helps us decode a dish for everything hidden within it. Von Bremzen reminds us, at every turn, about the power of propaganda and marketing to shape what we believe.
I reached out to von Bremzen, and she agreed to talk to me from Istanbul, where she lives for part of the year. She confessed that her decision to include recipes in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and exclude them from National Dish was a marketing decision—which felt almost too apt given the focus of her recent book. Cookbooks are a big category, she told me, and including recipes allowed her memoir to reach a cookbook-loving audience. With National Dish, many of the recipes are exceedingly challenging—a Oaxacan mole negro has some 34 ingredients. Including it seemed impractical and didn’t necessarily help the book reach a larger audience.
We also talked about how historically so many canonical recipe books were the work of white upper-class men, for instance François de La Varenne, author of Le Cuisinier François. (Von Bremzen writes about him extensively in the first chapter of National Dish.) Even the women who wrote about food in the next generations were bourgeois, writing for the literate class, which was, at the time, relatively small. Food writing from its beginning was exclusive, uninterested in the experiences and dishes of poor people. I’m fascinated by the way recipes can maintain power structures or challenge them, unite or divide people, and obscure or illuminate diversity. National Dish is a reminder to seek and interrogate the stories packaged with the foods we consume. Although cookbooks can do this, narrative food writing is uniquely positioned to contextualize what we eat and why.
My truly incomplete survey of this genre made me realize how expansive the role of recipes within narrative nonfiction can be. Recipes often perform multiple roles within a text: social history, artifact, desire fulfillment, memory portal, nostalgia, cultural education, gift, inspiration, marketing, political instruction, empowerment, propaganda, metaphor, humor, sarcasm, heightened sensory description, and interactivity with the substance of a book.
Generally, books that include recipes are categorized as food writing. In that sense, recipes do pigeonhole them, signaling that these books are only for an audience who reads food writing. But I would argue that this genre should be exploded, by which I mean scattered beautifully across the sky of publishing. Recipes don’t belong everywhere, but they could play meaningful roles in more places than we currently imagine. I’ve always loved that food is food—a consumable thing that gives us life each day. But of course, food is also a force shaping the culture and shaped by the culture. Foods are symbols that we regularly bring into our bodies. We are consuming ideas about who we are while also interacting with and influencing the physical world, other people’s lives, and our own health. Recipes in narrative nonfiction enact that complexity.
Putting down my stack of books, I found I want more books that defy genre and challenge the rules, blurring the lines between food writing and other kinds of writing. I especially want more books that get into the nitty gritty of daily life from perspectives I haven’t inhabited. I believe recipes in narrative nonfiction are always a conversation between the personal and the collective. Some may see recipes as shrinking the scope of a book. I see them as portals to new terrain.
Also by Lola Milholland:
Lola Milholland is a food-business owner, social-practice artist, and writer. Her debut book, Group Living and Other Recipes, is coming from Spiegel & Grau in August 2024. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and runs Umi Organic, a noodle company with a commitment to providing nutritious public school lunch. Find her writing on her substack, Group Living.