Food for Thought: Ann Smith’s Desert Island Picks

Food for Thought: Ann Smith’s Desert Island Picks

Image: Kobayashi Kokei, Fruit, 1910. Ink and color on paper, Yamanate Museum of Art, Tokyo, [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

We might think of summer, with its long days and children out of school, as prime reading season. But October’s longer nights and chilly mornings signal the kick-off for months of reading. After all, what is cozier on a cold day than curling up with a good book? Inspired by New York Times Style Magazine‘s and One Grand‘s recent series “My 10 Favorite Books,” we’ve challenged ourselves to name our own 10 “Desert Island” picks. This week, Founder and Executive Director Ann Smith shares her choices.

Reflecting on my top ten desert island books, my thoughts turn, without hesitation, to cookbooks. Bear with me here – I have not gone completely mad. I do NOT mean the classic instructional book (my husband often jokes that I could not follow a recipe to the letter if my life depended on it). Rather I mean a narrative sub-genre of the cookbook – as a memoir, a testimony or a love letter to the human relationship to food.

Along with air and water, food finds itself among the foundational physiological elements of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but food is so much more than air and water. Food is legacy, history and culture – both personal and generational. It’s an invitation to link to other human beings across lines of difference: “breaking bread together” is as powerful an image of peace as the extension of the olive branch (wait … an olive branch?). But food (and its preparation) is work – real work – that connects the heart, the hands and the soul in the most essentially human of activities.

When we share our food, we share our stories. When we share our stories, we share ourselves.

1. My first foray into this genre happened years ago when I first read the late Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. Colwin’s essays (compiled from her work for Gourmet and other magazines) intimately explore cooking for, and with, her young daughter. As Colwin herself described, “The sharing of food is the basis of social life, and to many people it is the only social life worth participating in.” And her Damp Gingerbread, from More Home Cooking, is a triumph worth sharing.

2. Among the earliest and most prolific writers of this genre, M.F.K. Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf  (1942) (in The Art of Eating) to illustrate creative cooking during rationing and wartime shortages. Her own words explain best why How to Cook a Wolf has remained a culinary classic: “War is a beastly business, it is true, but one proof that we are human is our ability to learn, even from it, how better to exist. If this book, written in one wartime, still goes on helping to solve that unavoidable problem, it is worth reading again.” And worth reading again, it is.

Cover image from

Cover image from

3. In 2011, Tamar Adler updated Fisher’s narrative approach for modern readers in An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I have given this book to many friends who despair of feeling at home in the kitchen. Adler doles out courage and just enough expertise to make a confident cook out of anyone, with interesting and amusing anecdotes and whimsical chapter titles that evoke Fisher’s originals, including “How to teach an egg to fly.”

4. If the narrative recipe helps one find one’s personal cooking style, Tom Higgins’ Spotted Dick, S’il Vous Plait deftly illustrates the marriage of cultural traditions through food. Higgins and his wife opened an English restaurant in the French gastronomic capital, Lyon. Albeit a slow start, the couple manage to win over their patrons, convincing French gourmets and gourmands that fine English food might deserve a second look. Laugh-out-loud funny, this book reminds us that perseverance and quality – with good food – create opportunities for unlikely bedfellows.

5. Changing geopolitical realities often mean lost traditions. Colette Rossant’s Memories of a Lost Egypt: A Memoir with Recipes is a historical love letter to her own family, bringing back the sights, tastes and smells of a large and vibrant Egyptian Jewish community. Sitting with her dying mother, Rossant revisits her childhood in Cairo, peppering the narrative with favorite recipes and the contexts in which (and the colorful relatives with whom) they were eaten.

6. An ode to professional pride, Samuel Chamberlain’s Clémentine in the Kitchen is another favorite for its light-hearted marriage of food cultures. Clémentine, the Chamberlain family’s French chef, works hard to create her traditional French dishes with ingredients found in an American grocery store in the 1940s. This amusing book includes, without a doubt, the most hilarious passage on cooking snails in literary history.

Cover image via goodreads.com7. A beautiful novel that would make a fabulous Books@Work selection, Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel features an American food writer who travels to China to defend her late husband in a paternity suit. But she embarks on an adventure that changes her life, meeting a young chef who introduces her to the magic and mysteries of southern Chinese cooking, a historical art form linked closely to centuries-old literary traditions.

8. Cal Peternell, Twelve Recipes: This is the book I would have liked to write myself had Cal Peternell, with far more expertise and authority than I could ever have, not beaten me to the punch. Peternell, a chef at the famous Chez Panisse, wrote this book as a cooking guide for his college-aged son. With each chapter devoted to a specific food (e.g. toast, beans, pasta) or a strategy (e.g., braising, grilling … cake), the result is a narrative blueprint for American home cooking.

9. Ruth Reichl, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life.  I still mourn the tragic loss of Gourmet magazine, and I have yet to find a replacement for its outstanding mix of recipes, essays, histories and travelogues. In this book, Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl shares her own dismay. My Kitchen Year is a collage of stories, memories, photographs, tweets and recipes that provided her succor in the year following the magazine’s closing. Her journey is touching, real – and delicious. If you pick up the book, consider starting with her Roasted Tomato Soup.

10. Paul Bertolli, Cooking By Hand.  This is a book I have yet to read, but I need a few days on a desert island to push away all the distractions and relish every word. Creator of the world’s most magical Cauliflower Soup (try it!), Bertolli’s book calls to me. Why?  He has a chapter devoted to the twelve ways to appreciate a tomato (among them, taste, but also color, scent, shape, size, essence).  In another chapter, he positions a meal as theater and the ingredients as actors, with Barolo, Treviso, Oxtails and Panna Cotta having speaking parts. What more can I say?

Finally, in each of these books, I would tuck a few of my grandmother’s recipe cards, not for the recipes but for the personal history they represent. Every time I see her unmistakable handwriting she comes back – for a short moment – to remind me of the things I ate with her as a child and the colorful stories she told of family meals when she herself was a child.

If, as they often say, we are what we eat, then I am ready for my island adventure. Mango, anyone?

Further Reading:

From Terabithia to Dark Materials: Karen Nestor’s 10 Children’s Books for a Desert Island

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

Books at Work: Clémentine in the Kitchen

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.