Whether they include tiny tales at the start of each dish, feature longer stories woven into menus, or tuck recipes at the end of chapters, narrative cookbooks combine the twin pleasures of cooking and reading. These story-rich and recipe-laden concoctions can take many forms, including memoir, travelog, and treatise. Yet whatever the form and however long the stories, there is nothing like spending a few hours with a cookbook that is meant to be read.
Joan Nathan begins Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf. 2010. ISBN 9780307267597. $39.95) with a vivid history of the flavors, cooking practices, and culture of French Jews, weaving her own travels into the detailed and nicely paced essay as well. It makes for a fascinating start to the recipes that follow, most of which are introduced with a tiny tale to provide context and through which are interspersed short vignettes related to Nathan’s travels and food preparation. Because the author is on a quest to recapture the legacy of Jewish cooking, both historical and modern, many of her dishes are tied to traditional flavors—such as riz au safran, a Sabbath rice dish from Provence, and salade d’oranges et d’olives noires, a centuries-old combination of oranges, grapefruit, scallions, and olives.
In 2008, Alton Brown went on a road trip that lasted 26 days and crossed 11 states. Along the way he visited local food icons, hidden gems, and roadside restaurants. He also saw a landscape that centered on the Mississippi River and met people creating the soul of American cookery. He chronicles his trip in Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run (Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 2008. ISBN 9781584796817. $30), a gazetteer (complete with a map) rich in anecdotes and notes, overflowing with photographs, and featuring 40 recipes ranging from bread pudding to BBQ ham and sauce. Brown is a gregarious, detailed, and lyrical author with a fine eye for landscape and a talent for describing both food and character. His accounting of this motorcycle ride between Louisiana and Minnesota is observant, charming, and great fun.
David Tanis is, along with Alice Waters, one of the brilliant culinary minds behind Chez Panisse. An advocate for simple, seasonal, and soulful food that satisfies both body and being, Tanis is also a reflective, wry, funny, and personable writer, and in Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys (Artisan. 2010. ISBN 9781579654078. $35), he offers delightful anecdotes to accompany his recipes. Tanis shares tidbits about his life that clearly illustrate his approach to cooking before delving into descriptive menus tied to the seasons. In instructive, smart, mouth-watering, and deeply engaging prose he creates dishes to highlight American cooking and ingredients.
Melding memoir, a travel narrative, and cookbook, Susan Loomis, a food writer who worked with Patricia Wells, shares the quirks, charms, and joys of living and cooking in France in her intimate and warm-hearted On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town (Broadway. 2002. ISBN 9780767904551. pap. $16). Loomis spins out her story with graceful attention to detail, a skill for characterization, and a lovely sense of pacing as she fills her memoir with a deep joy of place and a wonderfully descriptive precision about food. Interspersed with her adventures and discoveries are recipes tied to the events, characters, and locations of her narrative, such delicious delights as Walnut Gateau Breton, tiny baked potatoes with cream, and Maria’s Chickpea Soup.
In A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home (Clarkson Potter. 2011. ISBN 9780307464286. $32.50), Martha Hall Foose takes readers into the humid heart of the Mississippi Delta, exploring its food and culture while sharing her connection to its landscape and people. Most of the recipes, from carrot cake to dandelion cracklings, are introduced with a short story, but the narrative heart of the cookbook are Foose’s longer tales, about deer, corn, duck hunting, and the vagaries of inherited china. Her friendly, casual, and observant style is a perfect match for her approachable dishes. As a result, this follow-up to her first cookbook, Screen Doors & Sweet Tea, is as inviting and intimate as a lighted front porch at twilight.
Essays and stories overflow in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s astonishingly vibrant and nearly magical collection of recipes from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent (Artisan. 2005. ISBN 9781579652524. $45). Arranged by types of food—from dals to sambals—and supported by lush photographs and lyrical travel stories, their beautiful amalgam of coffee-table book, cookbook, and travelog is an extraordinary and sensory delight. The recipes are surprisingly accessible, and all are presented in such a reassuring and welcoming manner that they stand as an invitation to pleasure.