Cookbooks

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

by:
July 27, 2018

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.

Shop the Story

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“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.”
— Pomme D.
Comment

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

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.

75 Comments

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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
Author Comment
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. <br /><br />Sent from my iPad
 
Author Comment
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." <br />
 
Author Comment
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.
 
Author Comment
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.
 
M P. June 18, 2018
Not really a cook book crier but as a passionate home cook, I spend hours in my kitchen planning and prepping for my weeknight family meals. So when we replaced our kitchen countertop tiles with new granite countertops, I was completely caught by surprise when I began sobbing (yes, literally) when the workmen removed my kitchen sink to prepare for a new one. Remembering all the meals prepped, dishes washed, loved one's washing up before dinner, precious family and friends no longer with us who would never again stand above my old sink. How about cuts and scrapes cleaned, babies bathed, laughter and joy shared while cleaning up after years upon years of family celebrations, tears shed... Sounds so simplistic but I really loved my kitchen sink. But to think of all the specific memories we had made as a family that included baby bottoms, children's birthday parties, graduation after parties with high school friends, bridal showers, funeral luncheons...its downright poignant.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. July 20, 2018
Oh my goodness! I'm just now seeing this comment, it's so sweet... What a meaningful kitchen sink.
 
Robin June 17, 2018
Not exactly tears, not exactly from the text...but some years back I secretly snitched my mom's old binder with recipes and re-did it with a handmade cover. And I recently was looking through it because now, going on 96 she has dementia and hasn't cooked in at least a couple years. I came across one that said it was my "favorite"; I re-created Paul Lynd's (sp) stew from when he was on the Mike Douglas show and you sent a SASE in to get a copy that was typed:-)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Robin, sounds like a priceless cookbook. You should post the recipe here. I'm sure everyone would love to read it and cook from it!
 
Robin June 18, 2018
At work right now but will do so later:-) You know what really makes me want to cry is that mom had the traditional red/white cover Better Home's and Garden cookbook from around the time she was married in 1949. I'm not sure exactly which one she has...or I should say had...She got rid of it without my knowing. I imagine the dementia was creeping in and since she took over MY version of the cookbook, which BHG sent as a kindness, she saw no need to keep it. But I like the OLD recipes to look at, which I'm sure you understand. Worst of all, absolutely HORRIBLE, was the terror of thinking my favorite cake recipe was now gone. I was so relieved to find it in my own binder...it too was from that decade and was when BHG would print a page with recipes you could punch holes in to add to your binder. A Mocha Pound Cake. Actually called for shortening (i.e. Crisco). But the texture is like velvet. I'll have to post that one too and hope it is okay with BHG. Stay tuned:-)
 
Robin June 18, 2018
Ok...you asked for it:<br />The Mike Douglas Show, Paul Lynde's Stew (original; see notes)<br /><br />3 lbs of stew meat on the lean side<br />ADD:<br />1 #2 can of sliced carrots<br />1 #2 can of small onions<br />1 #2 can of whole tomatoes<br />1 #2 can of tiny peas<br />1 #2 can of small green beans (not French cut)<br />1/2 can of beef consomme<br />4 T of tapioca<br />1 T of brown sugar<br />1/2 C of prepared bread crumbs<br />1 bay leaf<br />1/2 C of white wine<br />1 1/2 T (???) of salt and pepper to taste<br />Drain all vegetables except tomatoes. Bake at 250 degrees for 6-7 hours with cover.<br />Mom's notes say that a #2 can =2 1/2 C or 20 oz. I have no idea if that is accurate or not. She subbed potatoes for the onions and used some sort of soup cube/powder in 6 oz of water for the consomme. <br />Now, here's what I did: I am not a red meat person...so the meat was gone. I used fresh sliced carrots, small fresh potatoes, halved or quartered, I wound up with a can of diced tomatoes and used them instead with little impact. I used frozen peas and green beans, skipped the bay leaf, and used cheap white wine from Trader Joe's. I used more or less of the veggies depending on what I had. I put it all in a container the night before, and then into the slow cooker on low the next day. Prior to serving I made a couple of the Beyond Meat burgers, cut them into chunks, and place about 2/3 of a burger in the bottom of a bowl and then covered it with the stew mixture steaming hot. <br />
 
Robin June 18, 2018
By request...the best cake (IMO) or one of them...from <br />Better Homes and Gardens, October 1955, under <br />"Delicious Loaf Cakes" <br />MOCHA POUND CAKE<br />"So velvety it almost melts in your mouth! You'll like the coffee-chocolate blend of flavors--"<br /><br />Stir 2/3 C shortening to soften. Sift in 2 cups sifted cake flour, 1 1/4 cups sugar, 2 (may have been more or less, mom wrote over it) tablespoons instant coffee, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 1/4 teaspoon soda. Add 1/2 cup water and 1 teaspoon vanilla; mix until flour is dampened. Then beat vigorously 2 minutes. Add 3 eggs and one (may have been two) 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate, melted; beat one minute longer. Pour into a paper-lined (mom wrote greased and floured) 9 1/2 x5x3-inch loaf pan. Bake in a slow oven (325 degrees) about 65-70 minutes, or till done. Cool in pan 10 minutes; remove. When thoroughly cool, sift confectioners' sugar over top.<br /><br />OOOHHHHH!! I just noticed!! Credit give to Marjorie Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska...I'm off to see if I can find/google her so I can tell her how much I love it!!<br />hope you enjoy as much as I do...I do believe I tried using butter and it came out as well...
 
Robin June 18, 2018
NOW I could cry!!! GUESS WHAT! Marjorie Johnson is alive and well, about 90, give or take it looks like and she is KNOWN...I mean all I can find has her living in MN with no mention of Omaha, NE...but she has been on the Tonight Show, the View, Martha...WHO KNEW! Even if I'd seen her, I'm not sure I would have realized she made my fav cake! AND she has a cookbook called Blue Ribbon Baking...can't wait to get it! Wonder if the cake recipe is in there...AND she has a facebook page!!! in addition to a website!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. July 20, 2018
I love it! Thank you for sharing all this with me, Robin. I can feel your excitement.
 
Alex S. June 17, 2018
Laurie Colwin, especially when she passed away, that was a tough one. This was a great a great article, thank you. My husband said, what are you reading, are you crying? Me: no just allergies.
 
Nancy June 17, 2018
Yes, a great loss. So sad, reading her last (posthumous) article in Gourmet.
 
Alex S. June 17, 2018
I agree, I subscribed just to read her column.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
My "allergies" tend to flair up most when I'm reading, too.
 
Bridget June 17, 2018
Best cook in the world by Rick Bragg<br />You have to laugh love live cry when you read this book about family recipes
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Writing it down, thanks for sharing.
 
Cheryl S. June 17, 2018
I cried through the whole article. A beautiful sharing. I am writing a family cookbook. Very few of my family members are still living, and I am now 71, so it is important to me to pass on all of my family and friend's recipes to the younger generation. We are Sicilian and our gatherings to celebrate our family love always included a large feast, whether for the living or to honor a passing. Sharing food is loving, welcoming, and comforting. No stranger ever entered my Nona's home without being fed. Thank you for the information and the heartfelt sharing of your feelings. Cheryl
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Cheryl, thank you so much for reading, and for sharing your story. Your cookbook sounds like a v.i.p. project; would love to hear more about it. Eric
 
Carissa June 17, 2018
Wonderful essay, and so happy to know I'm not the only one who cries reading cookbooks. Most recently, Guerrilla Tacos: Recipes from the Streets of L.A.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Thank you for reading, Carissa!
 
Lazyretirementgirl June 17, 2018
Your essay made me cry, and made me remember crying in Trader Joe’s the first time I went alone after my daughter left for college. I just explain that I have a high water table.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
:'( Thank you so much for sharing.
 
Diana A. June 17, 2018
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. Beautiful.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Thanks for the rec, Diana.
 
chelsea G. June 17, 2018
I cried a few times while reading “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson. There is a part about a long train ride when Marcus does not have anything to eat. A family seated next to him shared their food with him - made me sob. It was so beautiful.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Ah, yes! That one's very good.
 
Shameus June 17, 2018
Try "Unforgettable" (The bold flavors of Paula Wolfert's renegade life) by Emily Kaiser Thelin. I savored every page & salted some w/ tears. Sue
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Thank you for the rec, Sue.
 
SuzeIan June 17, 2018
try Ingredienti by marcella and victor hazan<br />it was written by marcella before her death and finished by victor after, victor makes little side notes throughout the book that brought even the most burly of tattooed men like myself to cry like a baby unapologetically
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 18, 2018
Sigh. Sounds devastating but beautiful. Will check it out.
 
kathy June 17, 2018
<br />An: To Eat: Recipes and Stories from a Vietnamese Family Kitchen Hardcover – May 3, 2016<br />by Helene An (Author), Jacqueline An <br /><br />This memoir/cookbook really touched me .. so many times this family lost everything and had to flee and start over .. ultimately earned great success.
 
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Eric K. June 17, 2018
I just ordered it. Thanks so much for the rec.
 
Bethany June 15, 2018
Gave me chills (the good kind)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. June 16, 2018
I know the one.