When I was growing up, there was nothing I loved more than biting into a cold plum straight from the refrigerator, fingers wrinkled after a day spent swimming in the local lake. At dinner, I could not wait to speed through the required amount of mixed vegetables on my plate before diving into a second bowl of neon orange macaroni and cheese. My palette was not refined in any way, shape, or form, but I did enjoy food with a certain gusto even at a young age.
As I read in childhood, there were also certain books I returned to, again and again. If You Give A Pig A Pancake by Laura Numeroff. Who Put the Pepper in the Pot? by Joanna Cole. Sam’s Sandwich by David Pelham. Then I moved from vivid picture books to the feasts of the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. What did each of these books have in common? Food in all its glory. And as I grew up, it would seem my passion for food-centered writing was fathomless. My interest in trying new foods, however, was not.
Fast forward to today, and I work in marketing with a strong emphasis on promoting local restaurants and cafes. Bottomless bowls of spicy ramen, octopus marinated in honey and vinegar, cinnamon rolls so sweet — with a hint of citrus — I want to cry…I am known to eat all these things and become extremely expressive while doing so.
So how did things shift? How did I go from classic pasta dishes and cold cuts to seeking out the tastiest and most daring morsels? If you dream of expanding your culinary horizons and learning to appreciate foods you have not yet tasted, here are four genres of books that changed my life and tastebuds.
1. Food Essays
It often feels easier to try something new when you understand it, so why not read about restaurants, culinary history, the correct terminology for all the components of the most complex of dishes, and more from the professionals?
A wonderful place to start is with The Best American Food Writing 2020 collection edited by J. Kenji López-Alt. This collection is thoughtfully and tastefully curated for both the new and the seasoned members of the cooking scene. From neat exposé pieces to truthful reviews of the swankiest of restaurants, these food essays can open up any reader to a world of fascinating information and inspire hunger in even the most reluctant of eaters.
Personally, words like “tuile” and “tourné were unfamiliar to me before reading an essay by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein in The Best American Food Writing 2020. Learn about foie gras (or perhaps hold back on that one), Époisses, marjolaine, and more previously unfamiliar delicacies from writers who actually have a foot in the kitchen.
2. Contemporary Romance
I think you’d be hard pressed to locate a novel these days that does not reference food at some point, however brief. (Coffee dates? Someone looking like a sweet little snack? You know what I’m talking about.) But books specifically about characters who love food? This is the jackpot. In A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay, an American artist and insurance restorer meets an Italian chef. The chemistry between them sparks almost immediately, and soon Emily and Ben are sharing meals and dreams.
Reay brings readers on a food tour: read about American tourists and their obsession with pizza, watch as Ben prepares soffritto or bistecca alla pizzaiola in the kitchen, and learn about truffle hunting in the woods of Italy, all as characters traverse the bumpy roads of illness, family, and truth. Prior to reading A Portrait of Emily Price, I had limited knowledge or awareness when it came to truffles. But suddenly I had a newfound interest and have since enjoyed many a truffle dish.
(Fun fact: I actually first tried octopus when I met Reay in a Mediterranean restaurant in Chicago years ago. You can read all about my experience in my essay about how books made me brave.)
Reading poetry can be a seductive and sensory experience. Do you know what else can be a seductive and sensory experience? Before you go too crazy with your imagination, I’ll say it first — eating food! So then what better way to discover new-to-you foods and get your salivary glands working than to read a few mouthwatering poems?
One place to start is with a poem I especially love: “América” by Richard Blanco. The poet paints a clear picture of the food culture in his own home while growing up, especially as his family faces the challenges of being immigrants in America. In an excerpt from the poem, Blanco writes:
“There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eve,
even on Thanksgiving day — pork,
fried, broiled, or crispy skin roasted—
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips, and yuca con mojito.”
How can you not be interested in such a meal? (If you want to read other stanzas all about the sweet and the savory, check out a few delectable poems about food and eating.)
4. Young Adult Fiction
Last but not least, add some young adult fiction to your shelf! YA fiction not only boasts lovable characters and inventive settings, but also flavorful food. I can tell you that reading Maurene Goo’s Somewhere Only We Know and Laekan Zea Kemp’s Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet will make you want to drop your cup of tea, grab your wallet, and buy plane tickets to somewhere tasty.
In Somewhere Only We Know, you’ll almost be able to smell the congee and steamed buns in the streets of Hong Kong. The story is a modern retelling of the 1950s Audrey Hepburn romcom Roman Holiday. Follow Lucky, a K-Pop star and Jack, a photographer, as they dodge the paparazzi and explore food and their feelings for each other.
Cocada, biscochitos, alfajores, dulce de leche panqueques, and other delicious Latin American pastries are all on the menu in Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Follow Pen as she pursues her dream of opening a bakery, while also battling a cruel man set on deporting her friends and loved ones. Pen’s passion for food is infectious and will have you seeking out a local bakery that sells the pastries she loves.
Whether you already possess no fear when it comes to trying unfamiliar cuisine, or you’re just dipping a finger in some delicious new sauces for the first time, don’t be afraid to pick up a book or browse a food-related poem to remind you of the joys of food.
If you’re looking for more titles to read about food, take this quiz and create your dream food tour for a foodie YA book rec.