In 1998, Modern Library announced its selection of the top 100 nonfiction titles released since 1900. Memoirs ruled that list and dominated two lists compiled last month by the New York Timesand the Guardian. In February, Library Journal published a survey showing that 67 percent of respondents named cookbooks as the most popular nonfiction genre. Blend all this together, and what do you have? The tantalizing food memoir! Here are three of the latest.
1. To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine, France, and Brotherhood , by Roy Cloud (Lyons; paperback, $16.95). Savvy oenophiles may recognize the author as the proprietor of Vintage ’59, a local wine import shop specializing in the best of the French vignerons. This charming chronicle of his first foray to France as a buyer for a newly launched import business finds an eager and trepidatious Cloud with a few tricks up his sleeve: an excellent palate and sound connections, thanks to his time employed at MacArthur Liquors and his older brother, Joe, who was living in France. Did we mention that Roy didn’t speak any French? That’s just one of the challenges in store for those willing to follow the Cloud brothers around the French countryside over 12 days that would forever alter their lives.
2. Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion , by Michael Levy (Holt; paperback, $15). The path of memoir-cum-travelogues by jejune Americans may be well-worn, but it’s also still wildly popular, and, with the right author (Mary Morris, Bill Bryson, Bruce Feilercome to mind), the results can be extraordinary. Levy’s journey begins as a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to teach English in China’s rural Guizhou province. It’s a jarring, often hilarious experience for an American Jew amid the Bouyei ethnic minority. Part of China’s “other billion,” those not living in the modern coastal metropolises, Levy’s provincial hosts wind up having much to teach him. An episode dining on millipedes sets the tone upon his arrival.
3. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, by Molly Birnbaum (Ecco, $24.99). While savoring a perfect bite of food, most people don’t dwell on how entwined the gustatory and olfactory systems are. Yet Molly Birnbaum knew that essential link only too well, especially when it was severed. As an art history student with a yen to be a chef, Birnbaum pored over cookbooks, chefs’ biographies and food journals, and cooked feverishly. That passion earned her a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America and an entry level position in the kitchen of an illustrious Boston restaurant. But then came the car accident that shattered parts of her skull and robbed her of the ability to smell. This is a pilgrimage out of devastation toward reclaiming the dream of being a chef. Along the way, Birnbaum broods over the science of smell and pheromones, visits the University of Connecticut Taste & Smell Clinic and confers with physician and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Where she ends up will surprise you, much as it did her.