1. The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin
What it’s about: Calvin Trillin is a staff writer at the New Yorker and expert connoisseur of traditional American cuisines. This book assembles three collections of his best food writing, written in the 1970s as an attempt to rebel against the same old classical French and Italian restaurants that were heralded as haute cuisine. He writes with wit, and a genuine passion for Kansas City barbecue, pizza, and hot dogs. He is a national treasure.
Best enjoyed with: a big, floppy slice from the pizza place around the corner, folded in half and eaten very quickly.
2. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
What it’s about: Ruth Reichl opens her memoir with a story about her mother, “The Queen of Mold,” that is instantly relatable to anyone who is intimidated by the kitchen. This book takes you through her culinary awakening, from learning to cook at the elbow of her family’s maid to her time spent in a commune in Berkeley in the 1970s, all the way to her time as food critic for the New York Times.
Best enjoyed with: biscuits, fresh out of the oven, split in half, and spread with honey butter.
3. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
What it’s about: M.F.K. Fisher is the mother of American food writing — and an incredible talent. It was hard to choose just one of her books, but this story of the start of her love affair with French food best showcases her writing prowess and her rapier wit. A classic of the genre.
Best enjoyed with: a handful of tiny, sun-ripened strawberries and a half-dozen bracingly cold oysters.
4. The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
What it’s about: As the food critic for Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten has tackled everything haute cuisine, with hilarious results. He made it his mission to conquer his distaste for things he didn’t like — clams, kimchi, Greek food — and handles it with a humor and grace that makes this collection a pleasure to read. We could all learn a little something about stretching our palates from him.
Best enjoyed with: a fresh-baked loaf of pain du levain, some butter, and a sprinkle of sea salt.
5. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
What they’re about: Laurie Colwin champions the kind of food that we all really want to eat: simple and comforting, made with basic ingredients, some invested time, and love. Tackling subjects from cooking for one to the dinner party disaster, with recipes written in the voice of a friend perched on a stool in your kitchen, these books are best read with a pen in hand, to make a grocery list for what you’ll want to cook.
Best enjoyed with: a simple dish of hot buttered noodles, dressed with parsley, and a hint of cheese.
6. Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
What it’s about: Gabrielle Hamilton is the executive chef of Prune in New York City, a restaurant that specializes in elevated home-cooked classics. Her memoir opens with an idyllic, pastoral scene of a lamb roast in springtime when she was young. The rest of her story concerns itself with the search for a career that truly fulfills, and it is genuinely inspirational.
Best enjoyed with: slow-roasted root veggies and a crisp, very cold beer.
7. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
What it’s about: Best known as the curmudgeonly braggart who founded Baohaus — and who has appeared on the most recent season of Top Chef — Eddie Huang delights in giving the establishment the finger and doing food and business his way. His story is a hilarious must-read about the Asian-American immigrant experience, and important for that reason alone.
Best enjoyed with: steamed white rice, red cooked pork, and some Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
What it’s about: You know him from Top Chef, No Reservations, and ABC’s under-the-radar but completely compelling new show The Taste, but Anthony Bourdain is more than just a blowhard with a penchant for being kind of a dick. The first half of this is your standard narrative of how he came to love and appreciate food, but the best part about this is the second half, full of juicy, insider-y secrets about cooking as a profession.
Best enjoyed with: seafood from your favorite restaurant, but never on a Sunday.
9. The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones
What it’s about: A senior editor at Knopf with the distinction of being the woman who read and recommended the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank, Judith Jones has led a life stuffed with accomplishments. As the American editor and publisher of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Jones has worked with a lot of luminaries in the culinary world, from Irene Kuo to Lidia Bastianich, and this book is a lovely, gracious telling of her experiences. Also, there are recipes!
Best enjoyed with: a good pâté and some fresh bread.
10. The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky
What it’s about: During the Great Depression, under FDR’s administration, the Federal Writer’s Project was born as a means to get America’s talented writers out in the world to document the regional ways of life that were on the cusp of extinction. A little-known part of the FWP was “America Eats,” a compendium of regional recipes about food traditions across the U.S. The project was abandoned at the start of World War II, but Mark Kurlansky has done the good work of collecting the archives of this project in this volume, which presents brief writings and recipes from the original project. It’s a fascinating look into our nation’s food history.
Best enjoyed with: hush puppies and good, strong coffee.
11. Heat by Bill Buford
What it’s about: Bill Buford decides one day that he wants to learn how to cook, so he calls up his friend and Croc enthusiast Mario Batali, and starts from the bottom in the kitchen at Babbo. What follows is a harrowing, dramatic, and compellingly readable account of what it’s like to learn a new thing. We get the highs and lows of Buford’s culinary journey, interspersed with Mario Batali’s rise to culinary infamy.
Best enjoyed with: a thin slice of lardo, placed reverently on your tongue by Mario Batali himself.
12. Born Round by Frank Bruni
What it’s about: The former restaurant critic of the New York Times takes us along on a journey through his eternal love-hate-love relationship with food, from his childhood eating a lot of pasta and yo-yo dieting with his mother through a brief flirtation with bulimia, all the way to his career as professional critic and eater. Bruni’s story is relatable, and the rapturous descriptions of the stuffed pastas of his childhood will have you craving ricotta.
Best enjoyed with: a big bowl of pasta and gravy, eaten very slowly.
13. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler
What it’s about: This is a beautiful meditation on the art of making good, simple, resourceful food, and it proves that ingredients don’t have to be fancy, expensive, or hard to come by. Starting out with a chapter called “How to Boil Water,” Adler takes you on a slow-winding journey through the basics of cooking and manages to make things like boiled vegetables and a pot of beans sound exciting, delicious, and inspiring.
Best enjoyed with: half an avocado, smashed onto a thick piece of garlic-rubbed toast.
14. My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
What it’s about: In her own words, Julia Child takes a look back at her life, pieced together through letters and writing by her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, starting from her time in the Cordon Bleu, where she first discovered her passion for cooking, to the genesis of her books and television career.
Best enjoyed with: a good roast chicken.