It was February, the sun setting pink on the ice-crusted Hudson river through the window from my train into Manhattan, and I was dreaming of lemons. In between station announcements, I was reading Under the Tuscan Sun, a memoir most favored by women of my mom’s generation who enjoy books about middle aged women who have gentle adventures. The memoir deals mostly with the author’s move to Tuscany and her attempts to patch up a dilapidated farmhouse into bucolic bliss, aided and abetted by her neighbors and Italian bureaucracy. But, because it’s set in Italy, every third page includes a lavish description of what the author was eating at the time, and a solid third of those passages, it seemed, were about lemons.
I could taste the limoncello, the tarts, the brightness of a pasta with that last squeeze added before plating. On my cold train ride and colder nights in wintry New York, that imagined taste of lemons fueled my frigid walks. Books can often serve as departure gates for armchair travel, but I’ve always been drawn to dining room travel, or rather, books about food that are also about new places and traveling.
Below, I’ve outlined a few different ways to look at travel literature and food writing and given recommendations to pack in your own suitcase (or on your plate):
Food Stunt Journalism
Travel memoirs are full of stunt journalism pieces writ large, with plots like “I Saw Seven Things on Seven Continents in Seven Days” or “We Drove a Car A Very Long Way: Please Read.” Food writing has much the same impulse, with reasonable things like “150 Cookies” cookbooks to equally interesting if more niche “Vintage Recipes I Tried.” Combine the two and you have highly readable travel writing based around food stunts. I usually like these for a lighter read.
Hitting 30 countries in a year, the author quit his lackluster day job to go eat. Half memoir of a colorful childhood in a culturally blended family in Northern England, half travelogue, this is for those who look at a globe and see 360 degrees of possibility (and also those who aren’t afraid of a little stir-fried rat).
Whole libraries could contain only memoirs about “Irish Americans going back to Ireland to find their history” (I know, because I own at least twenty of them). McCarthy’s journey is as individual and similar to the rest, with the caveat that he stopped at every bar with his last name on it, making friends, finding history, and poking at the rising Celtic Tiger in it’s beginning stages. And drinking. Lots of drinking.
Maybe planes aren’t for you, and the open road beckons. Or maybe you’re not American and you find diners and truck stops to be unusual instead of urbane. This couple spent thirty years looking for the quintessential American foods, and accidentally tripped over America’s heart at the same time. Hilarious, charming, includes recipes!
It’s a sad fact that I’m apathetic cook at best, but an enthusiastic foodie. So, similar to how I don’t trust myself with a good tuna steak and let friends who are good in the kitchen deal with them, I like to trust my food travel writing to actual chefs. Sometimes chefs will hunt down foods and recipes, other times one can glimpse a different culture’s cooking best through the chefs who love them.
Bourdain has built a career out of de-mystifying the world of cooking and restauranteur life through his memoirs and tv shows. Here, he goes on a multi-country epic adventure (trailed by a TV crew) in search of the “perfect meal.” Like the rest of his work, this book is full of mishaps, morsels, and more profanity than your average human.
Hamilton’s celebrated restaurant Prune in New York City is a culmination of a lifetime in kitchens. This book, which is more memoir than travelogue, traces her journey through the kitchen of her childhood, through France, Greece, and Turkey, and into her own kitchens, professional and personal. Hamilton’s practicality and sensible relation to the food she eats and prepares is surpassed only by how well she puts words together.
I first came across Mallmann in the Netflix “Chef’s Table” series, watching as he hefted what seemed like entire cows onto wood-fired grills against the breathtaking background of Patagonia. This book is very much recipe-based as Mallmann takes you around the world to a hundred different grills, pictures and anecdotes included. Mouthwatering and stunning. Honestly, what I want as a new coffee table book.
Hear me out here. There’s a very specific genre of history book which librarians sometimes call “commodity histories,” or, viewing history through a single good such as coffee, paper, bananas, or tulips. This allows you to learn snippets of the world’s larger story through the lens of things you are already interested in, or in this case, through things you eat or drink.
New York City is the center for more novels and histories than it is reasonable to read in a lifetime, and a lifetime of living there is not enough. If you’re going to visit (or if you live there and want some context), Kurlanksy’s quick history of the city through its favorite shellfish will give you enough context to glean something further from the hard streets. Shucked open (see what I did there?), you can follow the lowly oyster from New Amsterdam to a robust canning industry through to the reclamation of Long Island’s waterways after centuries of pollution.
Spoiler: I was an anthropology major way back when, which means that my view of beer is less about what IPA is trendy and more about mead from 11,000 year ago found in caves in Iraq. Bounce around the globe for a couple millennia for a bit of easy history based around everything from beer to Coca-Cola.
This slim volume (128 pages!) is enough to enjoy as you work your way through a slice (or, uh, four). Helstosky traces pizza from its humble origins in Naples through the lobster-truffle nonsense you can currently find, and makes a cogent argument against puritanical “authenticity,” arguing instead in favor of the utility of such an adaptable dish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KJ Gormley lives near the water, currently in Brooklyn and recently Europe. They move ISBNs around by day and write by night. Featured writing in Brooklyn Magazine, Millennial Gospel, with plays produced by multiple companies in Manhattan. They are the worst and best person to take into a bookstore. More writing here.