Last night, I went to meet a friend for a drink at Laurel Hardware, a restaurant in West Hollywood that has a killer cocktail called The Vig that combines tequila, pineapple, vanilla bean, and green chartreuse. As is my wont, I arrived fifteen minutes early and found myself standing in the entryway where the staff was having a meeting and the chefs in the open kitchen were prepping for the dinner rush. These facts would normally be totally lost on me, but because I’d been reading Molly Wizenberg’s fantastic new memoir, Delancey, I suddenly felt a surge of recognition. “These people are girding themselves for an onslaught,” I told myself, studying the scene with fascination. “In one hour, they’re all going to be elbow deep in the muck.”
When I had the opportunity to interview New York Times writer Alex Witchel about her beautiful new memoir All Gone, I spent a whole day reading the book and I positively tore through it, I found it so moving and powerful. The book details Witchel’s mother’s decline into dementia and Witchel’s struggle to recreate the recipes she knew and loved from her mother’s kitchen. What’s so original about the book is that, unlike so many food memoirs, it doesn’t pretend that food can cure all ills–in many ways, as Witchel discovers over the course of the book’s journey, it simply distracts us from our harsh reality. But it’s not all bleak: there are bright spots, including bits about Witchell’s marriage to columnist (and former theater critic) Frank Rich, how she became a writer for The New York Times, and–most amusing to me–her lunch with Elaine Stritch.
The first food book that I ever read (and the first food book that changed my life) was Calvin Trillin’s Feeding A Yen. I don’t recall what led me to it, but I remember the first chapter incredibly well: Trillin’s daughter no longer lives in New York and he thinks he can woo her back if he rediscovers the pumpernickel bagel that she loved in her childhood. This feat of food writing–which deftly juggles comedy, pathos, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the New York bagel scene–immediately revealed to me that food writing didn’t have to be stuffy or pretentious. Though Trillin takes food seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously; his lightness of touch is unmatched in the business. Which is why this book tops the list (though the rest of the list is no particular order); it’s the book that made me want to be a food writer.