Good food can serve as a balm for our souls, whether we’re preparing it, sharing it, or even just thinking about it. In a year many of us would sooner forget, there was some comfort in stories of the 3 million-plus meals served by José Andrés and his army of volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Maria, or the three meals served by Anthony Bourdain for his girlfriend, Asia Argento, and her fellow sexual assault victims Rose McGowan and Annabella Sciorra in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. During this charged, turbulent year, noteworthy food books about the process through which grub is made and even thought about seemed to do the trick as well. Cookbooks, food memoirs, historical narratives, and the like all had something to say and, thus, soothe.
Part cookbook, part public call to service, Julia Turshen’s Feed the Resistance intersperses recipes aimed at hungry SJWs with personal essays from activists like Callie Jayne of Citizen Action of New York, who lays down the ground rules for activism, and Nourish/Resist co-founder Shakirah Simley, who discusses how food can be a platform for change. Cheekily organized by role in the resistance, the book offers recipes couched as “Easy Meals for Folks That Are Too Busy Resisting to Cook,” like culture writer Von Diaz’s variations on the Puerto Rican staple Arroz a Caballo; large-format recipes collected under the heading “Feeding the Masses: Food for Crowds,” including a Brazilian fish potpie recipe from Justice for the Pies’ Maya-Camille Broussard; and a final category that swoops in under “Baked Goods + Portable Snacks,” such as food blogger Erika Council’s righteously named Persistence Bisquits. All proceeds from the book go to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The collection of recipes in The Immigrant Cookbook (edited by Leyla Moushabeck) are pulled from a group of figures that feels less scrappy activist and more bold-faced name and celeb chef — Anita Lo has a simple duck noodle dish that pays homage to her parents’ Chinese-Malaysian-Singaporean roots; Curtis Stone shares a tropical fruit–topped pavlova made for a sunny Christmas back home in Australia; and Ziggy Marley offers up his favorite coconut-poached fish. Each contributor’s recipe is prefaced by notes about his or her background, and how their chosen dish tells the story of their respective homeland and/or family history.
In What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, culinary historian Laura Shapiro composes individual portraits of historically significant women — Helen Gurley Brown and Eleanor Roosevelt among them — through the lens of their food habits, a revealing take on their historical roles, and a long overdue study into the defining, often complex, relationship between women and their food.
After reading about Roosevelt’s predilection for “Jellied Bouillon” and “Stuffed Prune” salads, entomophagy — or, the human interest in insects as food — doesn’t sound so terrible. In On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes, the Nordic Food Lab — established by René Redzepi and his merry band of culinary Vikings — tackles the idea that insects are not only edible, but can be appreciated for their own unique, palatable traits. The textbook-like tome addresses how palates and food preferences are established within cultures while discussing ambitious formats for insect consumption with the sole goal of tasting delicious. The field notes, photography, and insect-centered recipes — dung-beetle grub stew! bee-larvae ceviche! — provide a titillating glimpse into a category of food that’s not going away anytime soon.
Less extreme though equally transportive, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley, calls for wild and foraged ingredients native to the New World in this cookbook on contemporary Native American fare. Sherman grew up on a reservation in South Dakota as a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and went on to become a chef and caterer, as well as a food educator. His efforts to revitalize his culture’s cuisine come from studying the staples pushed aside by the arrival of junk foods like the ubiquitous fry bread, which the book links to outbreaks of diabetes and obesity within the Native American community. Though recipes like Maple-Juniper Roast Pheasant and Venison Chops With Apples and Cranberries aren’t the most conveniently sourced, well, that’s part of the point. And dishes like White Bean and Winter Squash Soup should find room in any home cook’s winter repertoire.
Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market tackles Thai food from the perspective of a second-generation Thai American chef who is the first to admit he has no formal culinary training. At his wildly popular Southern California eateries, the chef filters the bright, wild flavors of his ancestral cuisine through the millennial lens of an NYU film school grad who ended up moving back in with his restaurant-owning parents in Los Angeles, only to take up the family business. It’s a “food is fun” approach that extends to this cookbook, aimed at those who want to learn how to make their favorite Thai dishes — like Pad Thai or Drunken Noodle Pastrami — from an expert more concerned with taste than technique.
Novice cooks — or people who have never, ever cooked, ever, but want to — should be promptly given a copy of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The daughter of Persian immigrants, Nosrat grew up in San Diego with an adventurous palate but no culinary pretensions or even awareness of fine dining. A transformative meal at Chez Panisse during her undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, set her onto an unexpected path and, eventually, to the revelation that mastering the book’s four titular elements was the key to cooking just about anything. Her recipes and methods tackle the basics of Western cuisine, but her writing style approaches the end goal (learning how to cook!) with the dedication of a tutorial led by your chatty and informed best friend. It’s an instructional guide enhanced by witty, useful illustrations that won’t leave your eyelids heavy, but rather will make your hands itch to get into a kitchen to see what might happen.
Thumbing through Melissa Clark’s Dinner: Changing the Game can feel a bit like peeking over the shoulder of someone with more cooking experience than you, who’s tried more signature ingredients, and mastered more different cuisines. That’s because, as the staff reporter for the New York Times food section, it’s Clark’s job to experiment on behalf of home cooks — and it shows in her recipes, which are all housed under the umbrella of “dinner,” but divided up into categories based on the answer to the age-old question: What’s for dinner? The usual sections are all there — chicken, meat, pasta — but she’s also acknowledged the value of ground meats under the category “The Grind,” and gives the multitude of trendy grains a chapter of their own, in addition to another smart chapter for dips, spreads, and what she calls “go-withs.” Clark has written or co-authored 38 cookbooks total, almost ten of which were written after she became a mother. The numerous single-sheet pan or one-pot dinner recipes compiled for her latest, as such, seem destined for greatness in households where time is a precious commodity.
Iconic American sweets get the royal treatment in Stella Parks’s BraveTart, a cookbook wholly devoted to flavors that reside deep in the comfort-food recesses of the American mind. Many of the recipes are for desserts and treats that have fallen out of fashion, or have at least been relegated to a place of secrecy and even shame. There are recipes for Homemade Milky Way Bars, rainbow sprinkles, and even Wonder Bread — Parks’s recipes keep all the fun of these foods intact while doing away with any errant concerns about preservatives and processed foods. She also goes deep on her research, including history lessons for many of the recipes, and divulging the secrets necessary to achieve food-memory success. For example: Safflower and/or coconut oil are the secret to mimicking the moist crumb of a Hostess CupCake!
Having cut his culinary teeth as a London pastry chef in the Nineties, Yotam Ottolenghi mounted a Levantine assault on the food world, complete with Michelin-starred restaurants, acclaimed television specials, and bestselling cookbooks devoted to Middle Eastern cuisine. He’s now turned his attention back to desserts with the aptly titled cookbook Sweet, written with his confectionary partner-in-crime Helen Goh. The recipes include dishes that have wafted in and out of their homes and professional kitchens via former co-workers or life moments cemented courtesy of an edible impression. The Ottolenghi trademark of mashing familiar ingredients with modern, flavorful twists has resulted in a cookbook of recipes as mouthwateringly visionary as they are straightforward to execute — try reading through one like Little Baked Chocolate Tarts With Tahini and Sesame Brittle or Pineapple and Star Anise Chiffon Cake without reaching for pen and paper to draw up tomorrow’s shopping list.