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.
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.
Here, Have a Cookie
Has a cookbook ever moved you to tears? Tell us about it in the comments below.