holiday gift books for literary foodies

“My cat, Sneaky Pie, is writing a cookbook for cats, but I don’t think dried mole would be appetizing.” ~ Rita Mae Brown

“My Eldest Daughter” by Carl Larsson (1907)

‘Tis the season for wishing and gifting, feasting and singing, prancing and jingling your tinkly bells. Surely the best holiday gift to give or receive is a book with bite.

For today’s menu, a platter of twelve tasty titles sure to please the literary foodies on your list. Whenever I crave a little smackerel of something, I pull one of these from my shelves and dip, sip and savor. Whether cookbook, anthology or compendium, there’s something here for every appetite, especially for those who, like me, love food trivia and are endlessly fascinated by what writers, other famous people or characters in novels eat and cook. Bon Appétit!


gwThe New Great American Writers Cookbook, edited by Dean Faulkner Wells (University Press of Mississippi, 2003).

An eclectic collection of 150+ recipes submitted by American writers — novelists, journalists, playwrights, essayists, and screenwriters, with a particular emphasis on contemporary Southern writers. Delightful mix of standard recipes, witticisms, essays, tributes, and treatises on food representing various regions, cultures and ethnicities. Naturally, I am most attracted by the quirky and offbeat:

  • I Left My Hearts under the Volcano Pasta (Robert O’Connor)
  • The Wind Blew a Tree Down and It’s Blocking the Driveway Again Cioppino (Pete Dexter)
  • Thighs of Delight (Nathaniel Tripp)
  • Baked Camel, Stuffed (T.C. Boyle)
  • Killer Gumbo Ya-Ya that Won’t Kill You (Rick Cleveland)

*Graphology buffs will enjoy seeing all the contributors’ signatures.
**Extra ♥: “The Most Wonderful Soup in the World” by Nikki Giovanni.

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literary feastsLiterary Feasts: Inspired Eating from Classic Fiction by Sean Brand (Atria Books, 2006).

Not a cookbook, so don’t expect recipes here, but brief, wry commentaries on various food scenes from world classics, served up with excerpts, tips for themed meals, spot illos, and tongue-in-cheek ratings. Feast categories: Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, Dinner, Eating Outdoors, Children’s Meals, Special Occasions. Works cited include Kidnapped, Little Women, Wind in the Willows, Macbeth, Emma, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, Brideshead Revisited, Tom Jones. Fun, spiffy little tome that screams, “gift book.”  Will likely whet the appetite for more feasting between the covers, and make you glad you don’t actually have to eat Mr. Quilp’s breakfast in The Old Curiosity Shop (“useful for houseguests who have overstayed their welcome”):

He ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again.

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great ateWhat the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food & Fame by Matthew Jacob & Mark Jacob (Three Rivers Press, 2010).

A fascinating, intriguing, amusing smorgasbord of food tidbits about famous people, past and present, who have “influenced human development.” Nibble on “the peculiar culinary likes, dislikes, habits, and attitudes” of emperors and kings, prophets, philosophers, sports figures, politicians, musicians, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, actors, military leaders, scientists and explorers. How does food impact history or influence higher accomplishments? What is the fuel for genius? Open to any page for endlessly fun, thought-provoking trivia all served up in easy-to-digest bite-size chunks.

Al Pacino doesn’t read when he eats. And he doesn’t like to watch others who do both at the same time. During an interview at a hotel restaurant, Pacino told a journalist: ‘That guy there, reading and eating, annoys the hell out of me. He’s not tasting his food, I can tell you that right now!’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe observed that northern Italians were more attractive than those who lived farther south. The German poet and author of Faust attributed this to the different way in which the two groups ate polenta.

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food oxfordFood: An Oxford Anthology edited by Brigid Allen (Oxford University Press, 1995).

A bountiful feast of food-related excerpts from primarily English and American published sources (novels, diaries, letters, poems, essays, plays, historical narratives, biographies). They’ve been collected here “to satisfy curiosity (about what and how people ate, what they felt about food, how they celebrated with it, and how it varied from country to country and region to region), and to provide both pleasure and literary reflection.” Sections devoted to: People, Foodstuffs and Cooking, Eating at Home and Abroad, Lavishness, Austerity, and Food and the Emotions. Recommended for food historians or those with a scholarly palate ravenous enough to devour its riches, everything from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hardy, Brontë and Milton to Thackeray, Joyce, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Nabokov.

by William Makepeace Thackeray

Three pounds of veal my darling girl prepares,
And chops it nicely into little squares;
Five onions next procures the little minx
(The biggest are the best, her Samiwel thinks),
And Epping butter nearly half a pound,
And stews them in a pan until they’re brown’d.

What’s next my dexterous little girl will do?
She pops the meat into the savoury stew,
With curry-powder table-spoonfuls three,
And milk a pint (the richest that may be),
And, when the dish has stewed for half an hour,
A lemon’s ready juice she’ll o’er it pour.
Then, bless her! Then she gives the luscious pot
A very gentle boil — and serves quite hot.

PS — Beef, mutton, rabbit, if you wish,
Lobsters, or prawns, or any kind of fish,
Are fit to make a CURRY. ‘Tis, when done,
A dish for Emperors to feed upon.

~ from ‘Kitchen Melodies’, 1846

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books and my foodBooks & My Food: Literary Quotations & Original Recipes for Every Day in the Year by Elisabeth Luther Cary & Annie M. Jones (University of Iowa Press, 1997).

A reproduced facsimile of Cary’s charming day book, first published in 1904. These short quotes from mostly well-known British writers paired with historic recipes were meant to show the wide variety of foods appearing in English novels, and reveals a mindset well ahead of its time when it comes to illuminating the food/art connection. Cary was the New York Times’ first art critic and says in her introduction: “it is impossible to read English novels without realizing how important a part food plays in the mental as well as physical life of the Englishman.” A treat for culinary history buffs who like to start each day with a smidgen of flavorful antiquity.


“Clouted cream so seldom comes to London quite fresh.” ~ Charles Reade (“Peg Woffington”)

Every housekeeper may have Devonshire cream on her own table if she will take the trouble to prepare it. Rich new milk is put in a very shallow vessel, which is set on the range, where the milk will be warmed, but on no account must it boil or even scald. The cream will rise to the surface in a short time, and the pan is then taken off and placed in the ice-box. When thoroughly chilled the cream may be skimmed, and it will be found very thick. Put it in a jar and use for cereals, berries, everything that ordinary cream is used for, its merit being that it is the richest of cream and also that it will keep for several days.

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food lovers treasuryA Food Lover’s Treasury by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy (Frances Lincoln, 2008).

Whether you’re a high brow foodie or a casual grazer, you’ll likely find lots to satisfy your hunger in this delightful treasure trove of delectable extracts and quotations. A mix of the bizarre, hilarious, tragic, nostalgic, comforting and inspiring, this artfully curated buffet falls into the guilty pleasure category. Turn any page and indulge to your heart’s content, feasting on crumbs, slices, and servings from beloved literary works. Each extract is referenced for further feasting, and everything is indexed by author as well as food type. Highlights: Clive James’s description of a typical Australian Christmas lunch, Samuel Johnson’s diatribe against cucumbers, James Bond never getting enough toast for his caviar.

Mmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the little nuts tiptoes up against the dour savour of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. ~ Tom Wolfe (Radical Chic, 1970)

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dinners with famous women (2)Dinners with Famous Women: From Cleopatra to Indira Gandhi by Eugenia R. Van Vliet  (iUniverse Star, 2000).

This is a “culinary history cookbook with a different twist — women from different centuries recount the meals of their time. Enjoy dinner with Cleopatra, Annie Oakley, and Mata Hari as each famous woman describes the food of her generation. Each chapter provides a menu and recipes for a succulent dinner inspired by these women of antiquity.” Chronological arrangement shows the evolution of culinary practices, and the fascinating, accessible first person narratives give the book an intimate rather than esoteric feel. Good resource for those planning themed parties or who love to cook with an eye to historical and cultural context.

Women were the cornerstones of the history and development of cuisine. Although the more distinguished culinary professions were largely reserved for men, it was primarily women who shared recipes and introduced new foods into each culture . . .

Highlights: Helen of Troy’s Wedding Feast, Anne Boleyn’s Dinner with Henry VIII, Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth Dinner, Queen Victoria’s Dinner at Balmoral.

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bl cookbookThe Book Lover’s Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature, and the Passages That Feature Them by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen (Ballantine Books, 2003).

It’s hard not to love this perennial favorite, which is packed not only with delicious doable recipes, but sprinkled throughout with quotations about books/writing and poems (!) in addition to the passages that inspired the recipes. Lots of Breakfast, Main Dish and Dessert Recipes, plus an entire section devoted to SOUP(!) and COOKIES(!).

  • Jo’s Best Omelette . . . Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • No Dieter’s Delight Chicken Neapolitan . . . Thinner by Stephen King
  • Extra-Special Rhubarb Pie . . . The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
  • Grand Feast Crab Meat Casserole . . . At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon
  • Persian Cucumber and Yogurt . . . House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
  • Tamales . . . Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  • Bev’s No-Fuss Crab Cakes . . . Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
  • Macaroni and Cheese . . . The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

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lfeastsLiterary Feasts: Recipes from the Classics of Literature by Barbara Scrafford (iUniverse, 2005).

Truly a lovely way to revisit your favorite classic novels, Scrafford’s succinct, insightful, highly readable essays define the various roles of food in literature — to illuminate character, as part of a larger metaphor, a means of adding visual detail, enriching cultural or historical contexts. Just as we long to visit the Brontës’ Yorkshire moors, Joyce’s Dublin or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, we crave our favorite characters’ foods, not only to extend our enjoyment of their stories, but to  inhabit their personas in a sensual, visceral way. These recipes were adapted from historic cookbooks for the modern palate, and made to be as accurate to the time and place of each novel as possible. Behold:

  • Anna Karenina — Nettle Soup and Cabbage Piroshki
  • Cannery Row — Pineapple Pie
  • Emma — Apple Dumplings
  • Jane Eyre — Seed Cake
  • Madame Bovary — Veal Casserole
  • Moby Dick — Clam Chowder

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eat my wordsEat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano (Palgrave Macmillian, 2002).

When is a cookbook more than a cookbook? In this meticulously researched work by a prominent social historian, we see how for at least four centuries, cookbooks provided women a means not only for nourishing their bodies, but also their minds and souls. More than a collection of recipes, these cookbooks were diary, journal, memoir, life record, a means to “assert their identity, develop their minds, and structure their lives.” Especially prior to the 1970’s, the domestic sphere of women’s lives was not considered important or interesting enough for serious study by historians in their attempts to reconstruct the past. Theophano’s work, based on some of the only available and long overlooked documents that women (some barely literate) have written themselves, is a welcome addition to the growing knowledge about women’s everyday domestic lives. Chapters are arranged thematically:

  • Cookbooks as Communities
  • Cookbooks as Collective Memory and Identity
  • Lineage and Legacies
  • Cookbooks as Autobiography
  • Cookbooks, Literacy, and Domesticity
  • Becoming an Author: Cookbooks and Conduct
  • Recipe and Household Literature as Social and Political Commentary

The themes found in cookbooks are timeless: life and death, youth and age, faithfulness and betrayal, memory and forgetfulness. Yet cookbooks also tell us how to make beauty and meaning in the midst of the mundane — a concept especially important for women, whose lives often are punctuated by the demands of feeding others.

Though highly palatable for the general reader, this would probably be of greater interest to culinary history or women’s studies buffs.

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literary gourmet (2)The Literary Gourmet: Menus from the Masterpieces, written and edited by Linda Wolfe (Harmony Books, 1962).

A culinary classic featuring famous food scenes from world masterpieces accompanied by historically accurate recipes which were tested in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Restaurant in NYC. Fascinating to see the variety of historic cookbooks and master chefs lost to antiquity who are cited. At once a wonderful literature anthology, cookbook, and history of cooking, this tasty tome is a rich, enlightening and satisfying feast for anyone who loves the written word, whether he/she cooks or not, and is an invaluable primer for writers seeking to “make a world set down on paper seem authentic and . . . to signal, with a minimum of detail, the essential aspects of a character’s personality.” Recipes are arranged chronologically in four parts:

  • Pottage and Peacocks’ Tongues: The Ancient World
  • Sugar and Spice: The Medieval World and the Age of Elizabeth
  • La Cuisine Classique: The Old World, 1700 to Today
  • Melting Pots and Pepper Pots: The New World, 1700 to Today

Sample Menu:

Washington Irving, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)

Doughnuts (Oliebollen)
Oly koek
Sweet cake (Almond cake)
Ginger cake (Ginger cookies)
Molasses cake (Stroophoek)
Pumpkin pie

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cc (2)The Cook’s Companion, edited by Jo Swinnerton (Robson Books, 2004).

Endlessly interesting, amusing, fascinating and addictive — this compilation of “the wise, the weird and the faintly absurd” is chock full of foodie facts, fiction, science, history and trivia, in the form of puzzles, lists, cartoons, excerpts, quotes, tips and anecdotes. Perfect stocking stuffer!

There are some things in life that you simply need to know.

That scientists recommend the butter be one-seventeenth the thickness of the toast. That a Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke. That cannibals consider the French to be the most delicious and Spaniards barely edible. That to ask the Duke of York for your Jack the Ripper in a cockney caff is to ask for a fork for your kipper. And that you can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk.

On a need-to-know basis, this book is more useful than Delia, more stimulating than Jamie and more tempting than Nigella. It has the answers to questions you have never thought to ask. The perfect companion for people with a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for amusement, it does exactly what good food does: nourish, sustain, and make you feel better.

~ from the Intro by Jill Dupleix, The Times Cook

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There you have it: a dozen delights — treat yourself to one of these this holiday season or surprise a friend. I leave you with a “need to know” tidbit from The Cook’s Companion:

One of the largest banquets ever served took place in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris on 22 November 1900. Emile Louber, then President of the Republic, invited 22,295 mayors from across France to a Mayors’ Banquet, with the intention of reviving their republican spirit. Tents were specially erected in the gardens for the occasion, and the visiting dignitaries were served a feast of Rouen duck loaf, fillet of beef Bellevue, chicken from Bresse and ballotine of pheasant. The waiters covered the four miles of tables on bicycles.

Don’t you feel so much smarter now? Think of all the people you’ll impress at your next dinner party! If you know of any other great literary foodie books, please mention them in the comments. 🙂

♥ See also:

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weekend cooking buttonThis post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts (fiction/nonfiction/cookbook/ movie reviews, recipes, musings, photos, etc.). Put on your bib and come join the fun!



Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

41 thoughts on “holiday gift books for literary foodies

  1. I would love to go to a restaurant that is literary-themed. Maybe one that uses a different one of those cookbooks every month. Wouldn’t that be great?


    1. I agree! That would be so much fun. Also would like to stay in one of those hotels that have rooms named after famous literary people.


  2. Of course dried mole wouldn’t be appetizing. Everyone knows it needs to be braised in a garlic-tomato sauce first. DUH.

    Seriously, this is a wonderful list! As someone who has worked in the food service industry, there are at least 5 or 6 books this foodie would love!


    1. LOL! I know, right? What was that cat thinking?

      I can’t resist books like this — wish that more (or any) food history/studies programs were available when I was college age (Neanderthal period).


  3. Jama, these books look good enough to eat – yummylicious! I have one more that I think would be perfect in this list. Have you read Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses yet? It seems absolutely perfect for you, my dear. 🙂


  4. Oh wow! There are several here I haven’t heard of (and now must buy!). Great post — I love these kinds of roundups, which add to my wish list and remind me of books I haven’t pulled from my shelves in a while.


  5. Awesome post, The Book Lover’s Cook Book is on my wishlist but Dinners with Famous Women caught my eye. Bahaha love the Sneaky Pie quote 🙂


    1. Dinners with Famous Women has just enough history and menus of doable recipes to make you want to host a themed dinner party.


  6. Terrific list!

    Thanks for the quote — I do feel smarter and have the lovely visual of waiters on bicycles!


  7. wow,. I knew there is a lot of food described in novels, but had no idea there was so much written about food. will have to keep my eyes out and get a few of these or similar works. Thanks for the eye opener.


  8. I got caught up in browsing the “” site that opened when I clicked on “My Eldest Daughter.” You know I am soft for all things Scandinavian (except lutefisk – blargh).

    Lovely list of yummy books. 🙂


      1. It is codfish dried to the point of no return, then tenderized by soaking it in lye before being rinsed and consumed. Slimy, smelly and ick! I prefer the lefse, which is a crepe-like latke, to keep your theme going. 🙂


      2. Interesting! I grew up eating taegu (Korean dried codfish, shredded and seasoned) and loved it! I remember my Grandmother buying pieces of whole dried codfish (yes, very smelly), and shredding it by hand. Lefse sounds delicious!


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