“Conventional wisdom says that food writing should steer clear of politics and religion,” writes chef Edward Lee in his new book Buttermilk Graffiti. “But how do I do this in a place — Dearborn, Michigan — that is defined by its religion and cultural isolation?” Of course, Lee’s question refers to a specific city where religion and social politics jockey for attention. But it is a truth that all food is political, and that those politics apply to our past, present, and future.
This season’s most notable food books — some with recipes dotting each prose-filled chapter, and some without — apply that line of thinking. Timely, poignant, and brave, they speak to what it means to dine in the U.S. today. They tackle issues related to immigration law (The Monk of Mokha), how private wealth can shape a city (In Chocolate We Trust), and the ever-shifting multi-cultural diasporas that dot the American landscape (Buttermilk Graffiti). They explore how subverting 19th-century norms helped shape our present (to the era when one of the fathers of French cuisine, Auguste Escoffier, reached great heights) and appreciate the long-reaching legacy of culinary trailblazers (like that of cookbook author, chef, memoirist, and restaurateur Edna Lewis).
They move the currents in our collective cultural conversation — however difficult, however mysterious — forward. Here are the ones most worth space on your shelf:
Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, The Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class
Clarkson Potter, out now
Through intensive research and crafty storytelling, author Luke Barr recreates the Belle Époque era of the late 1800s in his tale of hotel magnate César Ritz and history’s most influential chef, Auguste Escoffier. Their potentially dry history comes alive thanks to Barr’s incorporation of real quotes and private moments culled from biographies and historical texts.
The thrust of the narrative centers on the Savoy, the groundbreaking hotel that allowed Ritz to showcase his tastes, obsessions, and unique-to-the-time philosophy on hospitality. Tricked out with modern luxuries (electric lights, indoor plumbing) and aesthetics (lighter decor, flowers everywhere), the hotel was a sensation, not just because of what it offered, but to whom. At a time when women never dined unaccompanied and royalty comprised high society, the Savoy opened its doors to women, artists, the nouveau riche, Jews, and financiers — as well as royals and aristocrats.
And Ritz couldn’t have done it without his culinary partner Escoffier, himself a pioneer of creativity and kitchen organization — he’s a father of the brigade system, which led to increased efficiency and quality. Ritz and Escoffier were among the first to recognize a restaurant’s power in cementing a cultural destination, a notion that hoteliers continue to relearn today. — Amanda Kludt
The Monk of Mokha
Knopf, out now
When news hit San Francisco that $16 coffee was about to debut in the city, the cries of “this is so SF” were heard far and wide, matching the $7 toast think pieces that had become en vogue. To many, the expensive coffee seemed to signal a death nell of the San Francisco that many people knew and loved. That anxiety was, well, wrong.
In his latest, Eggers, who is perhaps best known for founding the publishing house McSweeney’s, tells the story of the $16 cup of coffee — its precise origins, the difficulty in its harvesting, the exactitude in its roasting — in a deeply engaging way.
His wit-prone writing introduces readers to a young Yemeni man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who grew up in SF’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood learning how to hustle, make deals, and navigate his way through life with charm and street smarts. Eventually Alkhanshali’s work as a doorman — aka “lobby ambassador” — at a glossy high rise gave him a glimpse of success. Alkhanshali’s lightning-rod realization that coffee was his legacy (literally, as coffee originated in Yemen 500 years ago, but also serendipitously, as readers will discover), and subsequent journey of bringing Yemeni coffee from a sidebarred cash crop to global notoriety, is an instance of instant inspiration.
To know San Francisco and the Tenderloin is to know the city’s wealth disparity: There’s a dearth of opportunity for denizens who aren’t immersed in the tech scene. The story gives hope to those with a dream, but also unearths the very complicated business of being an immigrant. Alkhanshali’s travels to Yemen during its brutal civil war, and meetings with the coffee growers there, highlight the normalcy with which immigrants are forced to understand their worlds — and illuminates what Americans may mistake as normalcy in theirs. — Ellen Fort
Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original
Sara B. Franklin
The University of North Carolina Press, April 2018
Like Frida Kahlo and Helen Gurley Brown, Edna Lewis is widely revered among those who know her work, but not always easily described. She’s also not as well known. Probably most famous for her cookbooks — especially The Taste of Country Cooking — Lewis lent her voice to the culinary arts and politics at a pivotal time in American history.
As the New York Times’ Kim Severson notes in her foreword to Edna Lewis: At the Table, “although food has always been cultural currency, it has never enjoyed the kind of crossover into the arts, politics, and health as it has in the past decade. How we eat has come to underscore issues of race, class, and environmental degradation.” America’s heart appears somewhat more open, today, than in decades past, to acknowledge: the harder truths about our history; the true origins of foods that grace menus from North to South and East to West; who cooked it first, and why.
A woman born into a community of freed slaves, Lewis spoke directly to her people and those at the sidelines, and taught with authority on a subject she lived. In this part-biography, part-homage, writer and food historian Sara B. Franklin collected some of the food world’s most prolific voices for a multi-faceted look at the woman who inspired generations of home- and professional cooks. Lewis’s sister, Ruth Lewis Smith, and niece, Nina Williams-Mbengue, contribute snippets of memories while those who knew her or are intimately familiar with her work — including chef Mashama Bailey, Patricia E. Clark, Michael W. Twitty, Natalie Dupree, John T. Edge, Vivian Howard, Francis Lam, Alice Waters, and Toni Tipton-Martin — build out the bulk of this important look at Lewis’s culinary legacy.
Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine
Artisan, April 2018
Part memoir, part oral history of the diverse culinary diasporas in the North, South, and Midwest, Lee peels open the layers of what it means to be American today. The chef, who was the subject of Season 3 of the Anthony Bourdain-produced documentary show Mind of a Chef, writes like a culinary anthropologist — albeit one that also happens to understand how food is prepared in personal and professional settings.
The book contains a level of awareness that’s often missing from chef memoirs. Lee puts his story in the backseat as he examines the history of the beignet in New Orleans; (accidentally!) participates in Ramadan in Dearborn, Michigan; feasts on Cubanos and vaca frita in Miami with Cubans “united against Castro” just before Fidel’s passing; and pays his respects to the Korean matriarchs of Montgomery, Alabama. New Yorkers and Angelenos will delight in chapter 15, when Lee travels to Indiana to go to Shapiro’s, a Kosher deli that bests both LA’s Langer’s and New York City’s Katz’s.
The chef straddles a line that’s somewhere between referential, innocently curious, and refreshingly self-conscious. Lee is just as well-read and reflective as master of the genre Bourdain, but he brings a fresh take to the food travelogue.
Other notable titles
In Chocolate We Trust: The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped by Peter Kurie. University of Pennsylvania Press, Out now
The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone. Dutton, Out now
Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by Jonathan Kauffman. William Morrow Cookbooks, Out now
Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh. Serpent’s Tail, Out now
The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston. Abrams, Out now
Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky. Bloomsbury Publishing, May 2018