A look at The Making of a Chef, Babette's Feast, and other books that determined the course of a food writer's evolution
My love affair with the genre peaked when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, a weird school whose unofficial motto is "Where Fun Comes to Die." Naturally, as a form of spirited competition, its library hosted an annual contest for bibliophiles, the T. Kimball Brooker Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting, complete with a cool $1,000 prize.
I had begun collecting food writing in high school, at the suggestion of an English teacher: "Read Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten. I think you'll like them." So I inhaled Tender at the Bone and The Man Who Ate Everything, reading them voraciously, stopping, naturally, only to eat. And these books became the appetizers for what would entice me.
By the time I entered college, I had amassed what I thought were an impressive 79 culinary titles. So I boldly entered my collection into the T. Kimball Brooker competition, along with an essay I titled "The Gastrophile's Library," wondering if the word "gastrophile" had been used in the past 200 years.
Before submitting my application, I researched previous winners. Titles of collections included "Alternatives to, and Defenses of, Mathematical Orthodoxies," "The Epistemology of Meaning and Communication," and "The Marriage of Philo and Sophia: Love and Knowledge in Medieval Islam and the European Renaissance." Was this contest actually a competition for writing titles for theses? To this day I don't know what constitutes an alternative to a mathematical orthodoxy, but some things in life are better left unknown.
Part of the application process required annotating the bibliography. It was time-consuming, but I began to see my culinary education unfold: Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef had fascinated me, undoubtedly planting the seed for culinary school, which I would attend a few years later. I learned more about the pleasures of the table through Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and Elizabeth David's Is There a Nutmeg in the House? Reading Brillat-Savarin for the first time made me understand the food writing category wasn't actually that new. Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential further sparked the eye-opening realization that kitchens weren't all fun and glamour. And then M.F.K. Fisher—or Mary Frances, as she had become to me—reassured me that they always could be.
Calvin Trillin made me laugh. Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power gave me a further glimpse into culinary history. Amanda Hesser's The Cook and the Gardener greatly inspired my own voice and narrative, and also led eventually to a friendship. (I sent a fan letter to the email address she gave in the author bio of Cooking for Mr. Latte. Luckily, she didn't think me a creepy fan-stalker.)