So many books, so little time! Reading can be one of life’s sweetest luxuries. But how to quickly find the next great volume to dive into? To lend a hand, we’ll share our Dandelion Chandelier Recommended Reads: books that we’ve personally read and loved – some brand new, and some published long ago. Selected to suit the season or a particular theme, we think they deserve a place on your nightstand. Or your e-reader. In your backpack. Or your carry-on bag. You get the idea.
As voracious readers, here at Dandelion Chandelier sometimes we inexplicably start craving a book about food. Particularly in the winter, we love curling up with a cookbook. We don’t spend all that much time in the kitchen – but reading a great recipe is like reading a well-told story. It’s transporting, and educational, and it leaves you feeling nourished. We also love reading novels set in restaurants. And chefs’ memoirs. And food histories. Pretty well anything that allows us to escape into the world of food and life in the kitchen.
What follows is a curated list of great culinary reads. There are hundreds of additional books that could be added to this list: Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse; essays by M.F.K. Fisher and R.W. Apple; and of course, Tom Jones. We’ll return to this theme again in future posts. For now, here are some of our favorite books about food and those who work to nourish us, body and soul.
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is comedy of manners and a love story set in the tech world. Highly reminiscent of Jane Austen, it’s the tale of two sisters in their 20’s – one bookish and one analytical – and the two men who orbit around them. The elder sister runs a tech start-up and is quite wealthy; the younger is a philosophy major and environmental activist who works in an antiquarian bookstore and is quite poor. She’s hired away to catalog the valuable cookbook collection of a reclusive cerebral Microsoft millionaire. You can see where this is going, and it’s a fun and literate journey.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, is a debut novel that tells the story of child food prodigy-cum celebrity chef Eva Thorvald, told through her voice and many others’. It’s also a stroll through the region’s various cookery traditions and norms, including lutefisk and Resurrection rolls. If you’ve ever been to a Midwestern potluck and remember it fondly, or if you love stories of women taking on the challenges of a traditionally male industry, this one’s for you.
Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen is the tale of three brothers in the restaurant business in a struggling fictional Pennsylvania town. Its written in a knowing tone; we were fascinated by the peek inside the back of the house in two very different restaurants, and the challenges of creating a restaurant menu and hiring a pastry chef. But what kept us hooked was the realistic portrayal of the rivalries between the brothers, and of the emotional difficulties of starting anew as an adult in your hometown at any and every age.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is a bildungsroman about a young woman’s first year in Manhattan circa 2010. She works as a back-waiter in a lightly-fictionalized version of the Union Square Café, and thanks to some tangled relationships, the bitter frequently overwhelms the sweet. Published well before the #MeToo movement began, the novel foreshadows a lot of what we now know about what life is like for women in the food service industry. It feels totally ripped from the headlines, even though it was published over three years ago.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is the first in a trilogy of sharp and smart spy thrillers set in present-day Russia that also include a meta-commentary on the narrative in the form of recipes. A former CIA officer, the author is deeply expert on espionage; the two spies (American male, Russian female) locked in combat move through Moscow, Helsinki, Rome, and Athens. Each chapter concludes with a recipe for a dish that a character has just eaten. Foodies and thriller aficionados both love this series, which is hitting the big screen in just a couple of weeks, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the Russian spy. Yum!
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller is a charming rendition of a year in the life of a 32-year-old pastry chef who loses her job at a swanky Boston club and retreats to Vermont to work in a bed-and-breakfast. That set-up sounds like a twee ‘70s sitcom or a late-‘90s rom-com, but Miller delivers something far more contemporary and artful.
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali is set in two milieus emblematic of Great Britain: the kitchen of a hotel restaurant in London, where the protagonist is an executive chef surrounded by a multicultural, multilingual staff; and an old mill town in the north of England, where his dying father has worked all his life and where the Anglo past is actively mourned. A prescient look at pre-Brexit Britain, this is timely and good food for thought.
The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, author of Lost in Translation, features a newly- widowed columnist for a food magazine who is forced to go to Beijing to deal with a patrimony claim filed against her dead husband. While there, she’s assigned to cover a male chef’s quest to win a contest to join the national cooking team for the 2008 Games (he’s the grandson of a legendary Chinese chef). It’s a well-informed exploration of the tangle of Chinese food and culture, plus a sweet romance.
Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is set six years after the genocide in Rwanda. Cake boss Angel has recently moved to the country from Tanzania with her husband, and each of the fourteen chapters contains the tale of one confection she bakes, and how the shadow of loss still hangs over even the happiest of occasions for which a special cake is needed. The novel is fierce in its portrayal of female survivors, and tender in its hope that reconciliation is actually possible. The power of cake should never be underestimated.
Memorable memoirs and conversations with chefs:
Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by Kim Severson is an account by a New York Times food critic of her interactions with iconic female chefs Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcella Hazan, Rachael Ray, Edna Lewis, Leah Chase and her own mother, Anne Marie Zappa Severson. It’s both a memoir and a commentary on women and their roles in the kitchen and in the world.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg is the story of a life with food and the kitchen at its core. The author leaves Seattle for Paris after the death of her father, and discovers her heartfelt desire to make food her lifelong profession. Her blog Orangette begins as a hobby, but soon develops a following, and no wonder – her recipes and stories are delicious.
Something to Food About: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs by Questlove is the result of the artist’s ongoing effort to build a bridge between music and food, and to fully mine the depths of the creative process. The author has been a Top Chef judge and a James Beard award presenter – he’s also the head of the house band for The Tonight Show. This chronicle of in-depth interviews with 10 chefs is as cool and unusual as he is in its exploration of perfectionism and obsession as common elements in all creative acts. We’re hungry for more books like this.
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin is a lovely book by a novelist who sadly passed away too soon. It is both memoir and cookbook; it was one of the first such books we ever read, and it actually got us hooked on this genre. Along with its sequel, this slim volume will cause you to nod in wry recognition and to reflect on the best and most emotional times at your own kitchen table. And then you’ll want to immediately begin making her chicken soup.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron – it’s not possible to talk about great books about food without including something from the inimitable Ms. Ephron. This classic roman a clef still rings achingly true: a novel about a pregnant and jilted married cookbook author that also includes recipes, it’s hysterically funny and reminds us of how much we still miss her. Best line in this book? “If I had to do it over again, I would have made a different kind of pie.”
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova – we learn about butter from every conceivable angle in highly digestible prose. Plus there are recipes for many classic dishes and sauces. We had to stop reading several times for buttered toast, popcorn with butter, and bread-and-butter breaks, so stock up and plan accordingly.
Salted: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes by Mark Bitterman – we now understand that salt can be a luxury item; this was the book that initiated our education about the big wide world of salt.
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman – the author’s thesis is that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha. Read about what brings us all to the table.
The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World by Padma Lakshmi – the Top Chef host has assembled a truly comprehensive reference volume and user’s guide to spices, herbs and blends. It will make you want to travel, to rummage through your pantry to sniff and taste-test, and also to roll up your sleeves and cook up something spicy.
The Red Rooster Cookbook: The Story of Food and Hustle in Harlem by Marcus Samuelsson – the author of the New York Times bestselling Yes, Chef, and a frequent judge on Chopped delivers a wonderful mash-up of recipes from his lively and stylish uptown restaurant, an homage to Harlem’s past, and an affectionate portrait of the neighborhood that he calls home. The biscuits alone are worth the price of the book (believe us).
Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook by Kristen Miglore is a terrific collection of iconic recipes from master chefs like Julia Child, Alice Waters, and David Chang. Curated by the team at this leading food blog site, it’s an educational read with gorgeous photographs. Oh, and if you choose to actually make any of them, these are great classic dishes to have in your repertoire.
Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, as well as their three follow-ups, Explorations, Elements and Occasions, are among our very favorite dessert cookbooks. The partners, who opened their classic American bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn several years ago, give us fun and manageable recipes for all manner of sweets. It’s baking at its most chic.
The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins remains one of our all-time favorite go-to cookbooks. It has become both a treasury of great recipes and a font of memories – “remember when we cooked that for Thanksgiving? Remember the time we made that pie?” If you haven’t read it lately, this is a great time to renew your friendship with this pair.
Bon appétit! Whether you’re reading, cooking or making reservations, we hope you have a delicious time.
Join our community
For access to insider ideas and information on the world of luxury, sign up for our Dandelion Chandelier newsletter. And see luxury in a new light.