Table for One

5 Cookbooks So Touching They've Made Me Cry in Public

I'm not crying; you're crying.

July 27, 2018
Photo by James Ransom

Around these parts, I’m known for tearing up at my desk while editing Food52 essays. If you’ve read this, or this, or this, then you might know what I mean.

One morning, while I was sniffling through a first draft, my editor turned to me and asked, “Can you write a story called ‘Why I Cry Every Day at Work’?” She was joking, of course, but this did start a real conversation about why I get so emotional at the office. “I just cry a lot,” I explained. “You'll get used to it.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t cry when I’m sad. I cry when something’s touching, or devastatingly beautiful. Or involves rescue dogs. Or soldiers coming home. Home renovations, that kind of thing. And cookbooks. Cookbooks make me cry.

Which leads me to my main point: Cookbooks are worth reading for more than just the recipes. Coming from academia (as a doctoral student in literature), I’m easily moved by words and their contexts. A good cookbook, for me, does so much more than just teach me how to cook a dish; it brings me into the personal history of the cook and, if the writing is strong, into the cultural narrative behind that dish. Because none of us live and eat in social vacuums, food is always more than just fuel, even those quotidian recipes that might feel plotless. In them they carry meaning, histories, even aspirations. You’ll find that when pressed, most things we cook have a story—a past, present, and future.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I thought I was the only one who sees beyond the recipes in cookbooks and appreciates the story behind it. Thank you so much for these beautifully written reviews. I was bawling too when reading the excerpts you shared. I’m so glad I found your columns—just today. I admire your writing, It’s inspiring. While at school uptown, I often was helped by English Doctoral candidates, and their helpful prompts to my own essays would invariably make it a stringer piece. One of my favorite classes was The Nineteenth Century Novel with professor Dames. I was entrhalled. I’m in the field of engineering with a soul that stirs with the flow of words and turns of the phrase. Maybe I will give writing another go, as I feel quite vulnerable and open to its beauty myself today. ”
— Mischa_nyc

I’ve always felt that the life of a recipe lives in its headnote (the brief blurb at the top, above the ingredients list) and the soul of a cookbook in its introduction. And a good introduction with a slew of bone-deep headnotes, delicious recipes that work, and a strong acknowledgements page? The combination alone can make an adult cry. So I’m sharing with you a few of my favorites—cookbooks that have left me in tears, whether I wanted them to or not.

Microwave Cooking for One, Marie T. Smith

This vintage special from the ’80s has become somewhat of an internet meme, coined “the world’s saddest cookbook,” featured (and ribbed) by BuzzFeed, Serious Eats, HuffPo, The Mindy Project, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, among others.

Smith’s daughter Tracy V. Grant has since published a response:

Mom spent 10 years developing and kitchen testing the almost 300 recipes. She died in 1987, two years after she enjoyed seeing her labor of love published. Mom developed the book because she foresaw that we would become a society of smaller households (one or two people), especially when the baby-boomers' children grew up and left the nest. Over thirty years ago, Mom believed that there would be a need for this type of book years into the future. It is a testament to her foresight that Microwave Cooking for One is still in print after all these years, when other microwave cookbooks from that era have long been out of print.

I’ll admit, I first bought Smith’s book because I thought it was funny, too. My old boss and I pointed out the (microwaved?) milkshake on the cover. But then, I read the introduction: “When a woman finds her children grown and her husband away often on business trips, she continues to cook large meals because practice has become indelible routine.” And in that image I saw my own mother, who, according to my father, broke down in tears when she first walked into my high school bedroom after I had left for college. Even now, when I call her every Sunday, the first thing she always asks is if I’ve eaten—and I ask it right back, “Have you eaten?” It’s disheartening to hear that she doesn’t cook for herself anymore, instead opts for cold white rice and kimchi for dinner (though, I think, as someone from a more austere age, she may genuinely love that combination of index foods).

Microwave Cooking for One may be sad to some, but it’s a narrative that speaks to the very real way we all change the way we cook when we suddenly find ourselves alone, even in this day and age.

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, Michael Solomonov

I remember the day this book arrived at my desk in 2015. It would go on to win the James Beard Awards for Book of the Year and Best International Cookbook in 2016. As an avid fan of Solomonov’s restaurants, I tore it open and started reading the introduction immediately, and was surprised to find myself in tears by the end of it. As "the chronicle of a journey," Zahav isn’t just about how he translated modern Israel's "delicious and soulful, vibrant and elemental" cuisine for the American palate. It’s also an ode to his late brother David.

I think this paragraph started it, for me:

Right before I left for the airport to return home, I embraced David, squeezed the shit out of him, and kissed him on the cheek. I told him that I loved him and that I was proud of him. We said our goodbyes while he shook me off. I returned to Vetri, and Dave went back to the army for his final month of service. I remember wondering when I would see Dave next, if he would try college in Philly or go back to Pittsburgh.

And this line finished it: "My brother had died fighting for Israel, and nothing I could do would change that. But for the first time, I began to see cooking as a powerful way to honor David's memory." Again, food is always so much more than just fuel. If the act of cooking can be in itself a means by which to make sense of tragedy and to extend a loved one’s legacy, then Zahav, both the cookbook and its restaurant, is a testament to that.

Excerpt from Zahav, © 2015 by Michael Solomonov & Steven Cook. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Rux Martin Books. All rights reserved.

Feast: Food to Celebrate Life, Nigella Lawson

I may have cried the second time I met Nigella Lawson in person (the first time I was too in shock to feel my legs, let alone produce tears). It was actually here at the Food52 offices. I walked up to her, introduced myself, and told her how much she’d meant to me over the years—which was an understatement. She’s the reason I changed careers, the one who taught me how meaningful and rigorous it can be when food and culture come together on the page. I remember the exact words that made my face break: “You’ve meant so much to me—.” I had to stop talking. She touched my arm and said, “I don’t know whether to feel good or bad that I’ve made you cry!” And with humor, we brushed it off and talked about Feast, my all-time favorite book of her 11 illustrious titles.

I don’t think I can name just one particular part that’s made me cry in public (there are too many). Maybe it’s the “Ultimate Feasts” chapter, where she lists, per the Texas Department of Corrections, the death row inmates’ last-meal requests. Where everyone else had asked for the usual contenders like fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and French fries, one inmate's request was just: “One cup of hot tea (from tea bags) and six chocolate chip cookies.” I remember crying on the train when I read that. I wanted to know the story behind that request, so simple yet specific. It destroyed me.

Or maybe it's the "Funeral Feasts" chapter, where she writes,

I am not someone who believes that life is sacred, but I know it is very precious. To turn away from that, to act as if living is immaterial, that what you need to sustain life doesn't count, is to repudiate and diminish the tragedy of the loss of a life.

This, coming from someone who lost the most important people in her life very early on (including her mother Vanessa, her sister Thomasina, and her first husband John to cancer), and honored them by cooking the meals they cooked, eating the foods they loved. Lawson’s words, and indeed her recipes, have always reiterated for me the notion that eating is an act of great respect for the dead—because self-sustainment, especially in the face of great depression, is an act of survival, a direct reverence to life itself. As Lawson would write years later in Simply Nigella, “the act of cooking for yourself is in itself a supremely positive act, an act of kindness.”

Excerpt from Feast, © 2004 by Nigella Lawson. Reproduced by permission of Hyperion. All rights reserved.

Risotto With Nettles: A Memoir With Food, Anna Del Conte

Okay, this one isn’t technically a cookbook, per se (at least in the way a publisher would market it). But it’s in the style of those “memoirs with recipes” we kept seeing in 2009 and on. The "unutterably chic and to be relished" Del Conte, as Lawson called her cookery-writing hero, closes her memoir—probably my favorite food book after Feast—with a postscript detailing the death of her husband of 57 years:

There are so many things I forgot to ask him, like how does it feel when one knows one is dying. Now it is all too late and I have to come to terms with the three big Ss in my life: silenzio, solitudine and stanchezza. Silence and solitude are self-explanatory, but tiredness is an old feeling. I am not tired in the physical sense, but everything I do, think, feel seems to have a negative edge which tires me. And of the three big Ss, stanchezza is the one which I find most difficult to fight, because I don’t know how.

I don’t know that I’ve ever bawled so much finishing a book. It didn’t help that I was on holiday in Maine, sitting alone at a bar, mind and heart open and vulnerable. I'm sure people thought I was crazy. Still, it was one of the most formative reads of my life, especially because Del Conte kept me company in that new city, in that new juncture of my life when I needed it most.

It was March. I remember it started snowing as I was leaving the bar, walking down a cobbled road back to my motel, and in that moment I pictured a young Anna Del Conte on the other side of the world in Italy, 70 years ago, walking down another cobbled road with a salami sticking out of her purse, the darkness of war approaching.

Excerpt from Risotto With Nettles, © 2009 by Anna Del Conte. Reproduced by permission of Vintage. All rights reserved.

An Alphabet for Gourmets, M. F. K. Fisher

There are 26 essays in here (plus a couple handfuls of recipes) that I love and that have, probably, made me cry in public. For our purposes, let's talk about "S is for Sad." In it, Fisher writes about "the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty." Regarding grief, she discounts the "prettifiers of human passion" who choose to believe that those of us who've lost loved ones are "lifted above such ugly things as food," when in reality, food is probably the one thing we need most during times of mourning.

(As I reread this essay now, as an adult, I see the exclamation point !, heart <3, and frowning face :( that the teenage me must've scribbled in the margins next to the passage that moved me most.)

In this passage, Fisher cites a scene in one of my favorite novels, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, where two grieving brothers go to their late brother's favorite restaurant to eat "an enormous, silly meal." For Fisher, this is a truer, more honest response to "the mysterious appetite" than asceticism. And though I believe everyone should grieve however they need to, this thesis around food and mourning, not dissimilar to Lawson's, reminds me of how Koreans celebrate the life of a person after their funeral: They gather around a large table, drink, eat, and talk for hours and hours about the loved one. And the food is really important; it's usually something starchy and comforting and easy to cook. Usually something with rice.

This article was originally published in June 2018, but we're running it again because our Senior Editor loves crying we love it and were moved by your responses to it.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


linda January 2, 2024
‘In Memory’s Kitchen’ :
The sheets of paper are as brittle as fallen leaves; the faltering handwriting changes from page to page; the words, a faded brown, are almost indecipherable. The pages are filled with recipes. Each is a memory, a fantasy, a hope for the future. Written by undernourished and starving women in the Czechoslovakian ghetto/concentration camp of Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt), the recipes give instructions for making beloved dishes in the rich, robust Czech tradition. Sometimes steps or ingredients are missing, the gaps a painful illustration of the condition and situation in which the authors lived. Reprinting the contents of the original hand-sewn copybook, In Memory's Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín is a beautiful memorial to the brave women who defied Hitler by preserving a part of their heritage and a part of themselves. Despite the harsh conditions in the Nazis' "model" ghetto - which in reality was a way station to Auschwitz and other death camps - cultural, intellectual, and artistic life did exist within the walls of the ghetto. Like the heart-breaking book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, which contains the poetry and drawings of the children of Terezín, the handwritten cookbook is proof that the Nazis could not break the spirit of the Jewish people.
luvcookbooks April 21, 2022
Love many of the same books and love reading as much as cooking and eating. Thank you!
Jean P. April 25, 2019
Anything by the late Bert Greene. I have all but one of his cookbooks. Every recipe has a story about friends, family, childhood, how he came to love to cook. They will make you laugh and cry. My biggest regret is that he passed away, and I would never get to meet him, and tell him how much I loved his books.
linda April 5, 2019
2 books: ' Holocaust Survivor Cookbook", collected recipes and memories from holocaust survivors, the money raised is used to support soup kitchens for the poor. This book is amazing, including both the experiences suffered during the holocaust, and memories and recipes of the food from their families, which help to sustain them.
Also a new one coming out, " Just add Love: Holocaust Survivors Share their stories and recipes" by Irris Makler. This one was recently published through kickstarter.
These will definitely make you cry.....
Alex S. April 5, 2019
Wow, through my grandmother who then lived on Clark Street, south of Beverly Blvd. in (west) Hollywood, I met two female neighbors and friends who were survivors. I was in high school and took the bus to visit Grandma. I didn’t know much about that era of World history as I attended a girls’ school (why didn’t they teach it?) Her two friends showed me their tattoos; I didn’t understand, but I was extremely respectful. Now, I devour books on that subject, non-fiction & fiction (Daniel Silva, etc.) WW2. Thank you for telling us about these two books.
linda April 7, 2019
Yes, I grew up where all my friends parents were holocaust survivors.
I have collected holocaust literature for a long time, mainly autobiographies. I frankly don't like fictional stories, because I feel they somehow demean the true stories of survivors, which sometimes are difficult to believe are NOT fiction. If you look on amazon (holocaust) there are many survivor accounts of their experiences, written in the first person. They are all very moving, and very important for people to keep reading as this population unfortunately dwindles.......thank you for reading.
KellyinToronto April 2, 2019
I have read all of MFK Fisher’s work multiple times, and her writing still makes me cry, every time.
Andrea H. March 31, 2019
Just like a bite of food can send us down memory lane, often another person's recollections can trigger some of our own and connect us to the author's words on a deep, emotional level. Thank you for reminding me of what I love most about food writing and sharing your favorite titles.
Eric K. April 1, 2019
I love that sharedness, too.
Alex S. March 3, 2019
I’ve can’t believe I forgot this one, but Laurie Colwin wrote an essay before she was married and it was in “Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone.” (Laurie’s is Alone in the Kitchen an Eggplant.) Another book you can pick up when you can’t sleep, open up at any page (drool) and you’re in dream land.
Eric K. April 1, 2019
I know it! A great collection and essay.
Sami F. February 23, 2019
A few years after my family had emigrated from Egypt, my father came home with a new cookbook. He often bought cookbooks, but Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern Food was different. It was full of stories, whimsical memories and literary references. It was glorious, and I suddenly realised I missed the old country. Dad must have read three chapters to us on the first night we had the book. Later, we would ask, tongue firmly in cheek: "Father, read to us from the good book." Food is love, companionship, comfort and sex. So of course a cookbook has to be more than a list of recipes.
Eric K. April 1, 2019
Oh, I'm a huge fan of Claudia Roden as well. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Indeed, a good cookbook is certainly more than just a list of recipes.
Carole B. April 8, 2019
Sam F. I traveled with Claudia Roden through Liguria on a travel/food tour and loved her work. I was, at that time, in the process of writing my own books which encompassed food, tradition and history. I have since published a historical novel, A Cup of Redemption, followed by the companion cookbook, Recipes for Redemption. I will follow that this summer with a book series entitled Savoring the Olde Ways. Claudia Roden was, indeed, an inspiration as well as M.F.K. Fisher to embrace place, history, and the people with the foods they enjoyed together.
Laura February 20, 2019
Oh I am going to read some of these, I too love Nigella! You should read, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Modern Library Food). It is a beautiful book. Part memoir, part recipe, liturgy, and lots of reflection.
Kit February 20, 2019
That’s a great suggestion, Laura. Thanks!
Eric K. April 1, 2019
Oh, I've never read that one. Thank you, Laura.
Linda January 23, 2019
I read every cookbook like a novel...front to back, then the forward or dedications. It's a story of the writer's area, how he or she spent their days in the creation of the book...I reread my cookbooks, for inspiration and ideas. I read antique cookbooks understanding of flavor and measurements.
Eric K. April 1, 2019
Carrie H. January 21, 2019
I loved this article! I cried, of course. Food is my love, it's how I show love, it's how I show myself love. I believe that a starchy comfort meal together with people we love is more meaningful and healthful than a salad alone. Thank you for this.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
I love that people are still reading this piece. Thanks for the comment, Carrie.
Mischa_nyc January 20, 2019
I thought I was the only one who sees beyond the recipes in cookbooks and appreciates the story behind it. Thank you so much for these beautifully written reviews. I was bawling too when reading the excerpts you shared. I’m so glad I found your columns—just today. I admire your writing, It’s inspiring. While at school uptown, I often was helped by English Doctoral candidates, and their helpful prompts to my own essays would invariably make it a stringer piece. One of my favorite classes was The Nineteenth Century Novel with professor Dames. I was entrhalled.
I’m in the field of engineering with a soul that stirs with the flow of words and turns of the phrase. Maybe I will give writing another go, as I feel quite vulnerable and open to its beauty myself today.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
So funny story... I was one of those English doctoral candidates in the writing dept. at the university you're speaking of. Maybe we even crossed paths? :) I never took a course with Dames or TA'ed for him, but was fond of him as a person. Students loved him, too.
Mischa_nyc January 21, 2019
I may have realized you did while reading your piece about the Hungarian pastry shop! :) Good times! Professor Dames was one of the best on Campus. Whenever I pick up Dickens or Austen to reread, I can still hear his explanations. One of our assignments, which had a few alternate choices, was a do-it-yourself Thacheray. (After reading Vanity Fair)
I got an A on that prize posession. :)
I don’t think we may have crossed paths, maybe. I was there 2003-2007.
But you guys were the best! Your writing skills helped mine. (Sorry about the typos, though)
I look forward to reading all your stories.
Eric K. April 1, 2019
I was there a little later, but I love that we crossed paths in alternate universes. x
patty@bryce January 7, 2019
Love how thoughtful these reviews were. For probably most of us on this site, cookbooks are more than food. And food is more than calories+nutrients.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
Couldn't agree more. Thanks, Patty.
Naomi R. November 18, 2018
My "allergies" kicked in as I read through the comments. Eye-opening: I have a new perspective and appreciation for cookbooks. I'll get started with Nigella's. Thank you.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
Ha! I have "allergies" all the time...
Pomme D. September 27, 2018
Completely delicious! Thank you Eric for both this heartfelt and eloquent list, and the essay about Nigella which led me to this one. I just wanted to give you a hug. Feast has been on my all time favorites list forever, though I have and love all her books...and, like several here, I love the two Laurie Colwin books in much the same way. Soulful writing and great food.
Alex S. November 18, 2018
When I can’t sleep I often reach for Laurie’s books. But Ruth Reichl’s books are great too, especially her fiction, Delicious. She’s had (having) an amazing career.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
Thanks, Pomme. And for the rec! I'll check Laurie Colwin out; never read her.
Karen L. March 3, 2019
You will adore Colwin.
esugg September 23, 2018
Wonderful! Thanks to all for for your stories and to Eric Kim for the lovely essay. I’m not much of a weeper, but the 3 books I cannot part with (besides Laurie Colwin’s HOME COOKING & MORE HOME COOKING) are Edna Lewis’ IN PURSUIT OF FLAVOR, Maria Josefa Lluria de O’Higgins, A TASTE OF OLD CUBA, and THE PAT CONROY COOKBOOK. All three are full of wonderful stories and great recipes.
Alex S. September 25, 2018
esugg, I have both of Laurie’s Home Cooking books (then went on to get her Fictions, too). Someone else talked about Edna Lewis recently, that means I must get it. :) I make picadillo all the time, now I’ll get A Taste of Old Cuba. I love love love stories in cookbooks, so Pat Conroy is heading home. Thank you for my friends.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
I actually ordered a copy of Home Cooking per another reader's suggestion and it's sitting on my coffee table right now. Apparently I need to open it, finally...
Danielle July 30, 2018
I can't believe no one's mentioned Emily Nunn's The Comfort Food Diaries. I LOVED it, but was almost sobbing at multiple points.
Eric K. August 2, 2018
That's a good one. We're a huge fan of hers here.
Kit July 29, 2018
Sitting in a restaurant in Vancouver BC, my husband of 45 years across the table, also reading. It’s boiling hot outside. I’m overtired for various reasons. And I came upon this conversation and feel I’ve met a dozen new friends. And of course, I can barely see to type, suddenly everything is blurry - and you all know the reason why. I’m remembering my grandma’s Sunshine Cake, an orange sponge cake she would make when the Presbyterian minister came to visit. I remember the old chocolate box where she kept her recipes. I wanted that more than anything as a memory of her, but it seems to be lost forever. And now I am an old lady myself, grandma gone, mom gone, remembering meals made, getting misty when I get to feed my grandchildren their first solid food, grateful for each day. I have so many cookbooks, but for a humble choice that never failed I loved The Picnic Gourment by Connie Maricich and Joan Hemingway. Thank you new friends, and yes, I’m crying.

Sent from my iPad
Eric K. July 29, 2018
Dear Kit, thank you so much for sharing your story. Also, I can't believe I had no idea Hemingway's granddaughter published a cookbook!
BocaCindi August 5, 2018
I love the Picnic Gourmet too. Am going to try to find it again. Thanks so much for the reminder.
Slayton T. July 28, 2018
I commend to your attention a very recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg, "The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table."
Eric K. July 29, 2018
Thanks for the rec!
Courtney C. July 16, 2018
Yes to Feast - it was one of my first cookbooks and I will love it forever. I can't make carbonara without thinking of her (albeit controversial) recipe. Also love Kale & Caramel by Lily Diamond. She's very emotive and her recipes are full of heart.
Eric K. July 20, 2018
My copy is a battered, spineless (signed) wreck. Though I love a simple, guanciale-egg carbonara, the vermouth in Nigella's version always made sense to me (it deglazes the pan and sweetens the pasta slightly!). Thanks for the rec, Courtney. I love heart.