Go On a Quest: Write a Food Memoir

Aug 282012
 

Food memoirs are shaping up as “quests” these days, quite tidy and well organized. If you can master the form, there’s room for your story.

But first, as always, you’ll have competition from chefs, who are still writing traditional memoir. Typically, these books bore me (except for Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). But then I read Blood, Bones & Butter, an adrenaline-fueled memoir of Gabriel Hamilton’s relentless ambition to make good food and find love. It won the Beard award for Best Writing & Literature earlier this year.

Like Bourdain, Hamilton has the writing chops to craft an exceptional story. Lest you think these two were both just chefs when penning their memoirs, The New Yorker published Bourdain’s first story, and he had already written a novel. Hamilton had an MFA in Fiction and had already written for several prestigious national magazines.

If you’re not a restaurant chef or famous food person, you’ll have your chance if you embark on an adventure, as these writers did:

Most of these authors are journalists and successful freelancers, but you don’t have to be. Memoir is about your ability to tell a story well. As these examples show, it’s not about your whole life. That’s an autobiography, much harder to get published unless you’re famous. Autobiographies tend to be big messy stories that need lots of focusing and shaping, because they cover decades. (Although if you want to read a beautiful autobiography that made me cry, try Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen.)

Quest-based memoirs like those I listed above, however, take only a year or so. The trick is to come up with an intriguing adventure and tell a concise tale with a plot. Memoirs are considered narrative non-fiction, so these books have tension and a story arc that propels readers forward. It would also help if you were transformed by the journey, write with introspection, research your subject well, and oh yes — you write with humor and self deprecation.

Too long of a list? I don’t think so. The problem is the “quest” part. If you’re still doing what you always do, at home in your kitchen or in front of your computer, a memoir is probably not what’s next for you. To go for it, come up with an idea that challenges you and takes you in a different direction.

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Now, a writing exercise: The ability to boil a book idea down to one sentence can’t be underestimated because it forces you to be concise and specific. If you have a memoir idea, try writing the concept in one sentence, in the comments here. Or maybe you read a great memoir lately. If so, please recommend it, also in one sentence. Let’s see what you’ve got.

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  59 Responses to “Go On a Quest: Write a Food Memoir”

  1. I could not put down Blood, Bones & Butter!

    Thank you for clarifying some of what makes a good food memoir. I’m not sure if I have lived enough of a food life to merit writing one yet but it is in the back of my mind as a future project.

    • Me either. Hamilton is a wonderful, emotional storyteller.

      There’s always first-person essay if you don’t get to a memoir. That’s the beauty of blogging.

  2. How bout; Two degenerate pizza chefs drive from Geneva Switzerland south through the Alps to Monaco and then up through Burgandy visiting many bakeries along the way and end winning the first-ever World Pizza Championship held in Paris France.

    • Brave soul, John, to be first.

      Is this a fantasy novel? Hah.

      I like this idea. I would like to see more drama and suspense for a full-length book. Maybe someone has a hangover so severe they miss the first day of the contest, etc. But I don’t think you’re making this up!

  3. I read a lot of food memoirs (have yet to read Gabrielle Hamilton’s – need to get on that!) and while it’s one of my favorite genres, the predictable story arc often bores me as well (it usually goes something like: person with passion for food works their way up the sweaty and exhausting ranks of restaurant chefdom, telling you along the way how most people would probably never make it. They do make it, thus proving to themselves that they can, then decide that ultimately it’s not the life for them and want to write instead). My Life in France by Julia Child is my favorite, and Grant Achatz’s Life, On the Line is up there (also because it’s about so much more than food). I also really enjoyed Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum.

    Aaaand that was way longer than one sentence :-) I’ve wondered if my current experience (living for three years in Israel) could turn into a food memoir at some point. We shall see. Great post as always, thanks!

    • Hah! I love your description of the chef memoir. So true. Many people have told me My Life in France is their favorite memoir, so you are in good company. I enjoyed Grant Achatz’s book too, even though it was weird how half of it was written by his business partner.

      Living in Israel for 3 years could be a food memoir if there is a dramatic story to it. Something to ponder.

  4. Travel through the cities and the villages of Turkey to find and learn differrent cheese recipes and techniques and portray the life of people from all walks of life.

    • I like that Ilke! Is this something you plan to do, or did it already happen? Was there any drama?

      • Thanks Dianne, I would like to do it at some point in my life, there are some traditional Turkish staples that show a wide variety among the regions. My goal is to introduce the Turkish cuisine to the people in the US with my blog but with a book like that I believe I can learn a lot.

  5. A physician and newly wed young woman moves to the US following her husband, forbidden to work (visa issues) and bored with maternity, star volunteering at community gardens and writing a cooking blog, now get more than 140.000 pageviews a month and grows many pounds of sustainable veggies.

  6. One family take a journey of food discovery around China, meeting cave-dwelling farmers, itinerant beekeepers, yak herdsmen and wild mushroom collectors, while discovering that the adventure of a lifetime is really a journey into the soul, and that food is indeed the common language of humankind.

    • Wow! This is really different from most memoirs. It sounds fascinating, Fiona. Has the quest begun?

      • Thanks Dianne for your always encouraging comments. Our travels began two months ago, seeing Inner Mongolia and following the Great Wall along much of its course. We just started westwards along the Silk Road to Kashgar. Another four months of wonderful food and exciting places to go!

  7. How about this?

    “Considering the countless days of sweaty armpits, frustration, and situations where humility is the only thing on the day’s menu – daily life when learning a new language and culture through immersion – having a garden was a godsend.”

    OR

    “The concept of growing and preparing food as a way of perpetuating culture, and one’s sense of self, takes on a whole new meaning.”

    Here’s the blog post I wrote this winter, from which these two sentences were excerpted: http://fruitrootleaf.blogspot.ca/2012/02/eat-here-live-herebelong-here.html.

    Maybe a publishable memoir concept, maybe not. But a memory, yes, indeed.

  8. I recommend Robin Hemley’s “A Field Guide for Immersion Writing” to help you with immersion writing in general and immersive quest memoirs in particular.

    • Excellent suggestion. I do not know about that book, or much about the idea of “immersion memoir.”

      And I looked at your bio Ann. We have a past job in common, but mine was at Four Wheeler a little earlier than yours. Small world.

  9. Such a helpful blog, Diane! Thank you! Everything I’ve read or heard from you has been so valuable. And I loved Hamilton’s book!
    I think saying things in one sentence is the hardest part of writing. But here’s a stab:

    The tale of a marriage between a straight woman and a gay man, a history of a woman’s search for home, and a chronicle of the exhilarating powers of food, The Joys of Cooking-A Love Story draws us into an extraordinary, yet familiar, journey through the cuisines, cultural spirit, and politics of the 1940s to the 2000s complete with recipes.

    I have a zillion versions of this sentence.

    • Thank you, Judy.

      You had me at the very first part, up to the comma. I’m not sure how your sitaution is connected to food. Maybe that’s what you need to figure out.

      • This was helpful, Diane. My original one sentence included the relation to food. Hopefully, this one explains the connection better: THE JOYS OF COOKING: A LOVE STORY is the tale of a marriage between a straight woman and a gay man, a history of a woman’s emotional education, and an exploration of the ways in which cooking lays the groundwork not only for personal healing and intimate relation but for political community as well. Organized by decade and by cookbook, The Joys of Cooking draws us into an extraordinary, but also familiar, journey through the cuisines, cultural spirit, and the politics of the 1940s through the 2000s complete with recipes.

        • I’m intrigued. You might have 2 different books here, Judy. One is about your relationship to food, and the other is about your marriage. These are two very big subjects. It might seem less overwhelming if you could focus it in a little more.

          • Thank you for replying, Diane. This is very helpful. I may give my relation to my husband too much emphasis in my two sentences by mentioning it first. (Several readers felt it should come first. because it was unusual, so I moved it there, but I may distort the real story by doing so.)The memoir is primarily about my relation to food, how cooking was a way of recovering from childhood loss, of reinventing myself, of finding a sense of home in the world. My relation to my husband is a large part of this story since my cooking and our dining together and rating the dishes was our primary way of bonding to each other for twenty-five years. (Our relation went through many iterations–marriage, roommates, co members of a commune– but cooking and eating together and rating the food was a constant..) When he died of AIDS, I had to begin over. I found other kinds of home in cooking with my young daughter and cooking for a cross race community I helped create on my campus by hosting large buffets. Cooking was a way of bringing people together and instilling a sense of common cause.. So the memoir is mainly a story of how cooking led to personal healing and to relations that made me feel the world was home. Now, how to put that in one sentence.

  10. I just remembered this and wanted to share: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I really enjoyed reading it. It is about a year of commitment to eating local, growing your own and making due with what you have.

    http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Vegetable-Miracle-Year-Food/dp/0060852569/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346258259&sr=8-1&keywords=animal+vegetable+miracle

  11. A young woman, a recovering drug fiend & ravenous alcoholic, rediscovers her creative self in the kitchen, trading dives, dance parties, and one night stands for a fresh life of farmer’s markets, writing recipes, and photography shared with her idiosyncratic partner, a poet and ex-heroin addict, in their bungalow situated in the hills above the meandering Tennessee River.

    • Well, that’s a story you don’t read every day. It sound like a good mix of wholesomeness and darkness. And drama. Lots of drama.

  12. Dianne,

    One of my current writing projects is a food memoir, and I’ve been writing it off and on for over two years. In fact, it took more than a year for me to figure out what I was really writing about.

    Of course, I don’t have an MFA, or a published book. Although I have a small, but growing list of published credentials, completed several writing courses, attend writing webinars and conferences and have been building my platform. And I’m in the middle of writing a second draft mystery thriller. (It’s fiction)

    I have two working titles for my memoir. “Fresh Fish and Scrambled Love: One Woman’s Unexpected Culinary Adventure,” and “Handcuffs, Hurricanes, Pepper Spray and Scrambled Eggs.”

    Which do you like better?

    It’s a memoir of a young, reckless chick with a dead-beat job chasing shoplifters, who was saved by learning to cook in a run-down diner on a tropical island.

    I love Zinsser, his “Writing About Your Life,” and “Inventing The Truth,” are superb books, in addition, of course, to your recommendation. Also, Judith Barrington, “Writing The Memoir: From Truth to Art,” is another gem.

    I love seeing the other one sentence memoir ideas. Thanks for posting this, Writing memoir is truly like going on a quest.

    • Oh this sounds good! I can relate. I love the young & reckless protagonist with a dead beat job in a run down diner on an island. I would totally read that.

      • Beth,
        You’re too kind. Thanks. I’m gearing up to continue where I left off from January and my goal is to have a book proposal by next spring. Next month I’m going to KY Womens Writer Conference for a memoir seminar. Will you be there, by any chance? There are some great speakers, including Ruth Reichl, as keynote speaker. It’s in Lexington, KY. I’m assuming your blog is local milk? Let me know. Thanks again for the encouragement. You, too, have quite the story to tell.

        • This is the first I’ve heard of it! Ruth Reichl for free…. if I have the time I will absolutely be there. Besides I would relish the opportunity to spend a little time in Lexington eating and taking photos! I don’t, at this juncture, even know what a book proposal would entail. Currently I’m simply working on finding my voice again after all those years of not being able to write. It’s hard to know who you are as a person after all of that, much less as a writer, which is hard to know no matter what your story is!

    • It takes a really long time to write memoir, because you need to see what you have and untangle and shape it, so I’m not surprised.

      You have good credentials. For agents and editors, it’s more about the storytelling.

      I like the second working title. It’s intriguing. Also I like your one-sentence description for the same reason.

      Thanks for the recommendation about Judith Barrington’s book. It’s one I don’t have.

      • Thanks Dianne,
        I wonder if the professional chefs, like Hamilton, write their own or collaborate with a ghost writer? Do you know?
        I really enjoyed Blood, Bones & Butter, btw.

        • I’m pretty sure Hamilton and Bourdain wrote their own books, but I suspect that the rest used ghostwriters.

  13. This post is so fortuitous. I had a eureka moment and thought of what I want to write as a memoir :) I’ve been on the look out for some stuff to help me with the process as honestly I do not know how to go about it (Though I have a working title, some chapters outlined and notes already)

    My memoir would be about my love story with Dubai: hating, loving and, of course, eating in the City of Gold / the Las Vegas of the Middle East as a discriminated majority, an Asian. I noticed and read of stories from Westerners and native Middle Easterners, but none from Asians :( I feel that our side of the story has to be revealed on paper to the rest of the world.

    Would you read something like this? Any one?

    • Yes, I would Didi. I would love to know about the culture and food world of Dubai.

    • An interesting angle, Didi. It sounds like you have figured out the bones of it. The hard part is to write it! I like the Asian angle to the story. Definitely there’s not enough writing on that topic.

      • Thanks Dianne! Yup its a story that somehow never made it out into the open. And agree that an idea only remains to be idea unless one works on it. I know the only way to start is to write! Outlined some chapters already based on interesting stories I’ve experienced and am finishing a chapter this weekend ;)

  14. I, too, consider this post fortuitous because I am right in the middle of writing a memoir. I have a B.A. in Writing and Literature but I only recently fulfilled my dream of going to culinary school. The thing is, I enrolled at the age of 42, which meant that my perpective, and perhaps even my motives, were different than most culinary students, who are in their 20s. I wasn’t the only “older” student in the class, but I wanted to tell of my experience.

    This is all easier than done because tying classroon experience with emotions, psychology, physical wellness, and other issues is complicated. Add to that other writing projects and it can be an overwhelming task. But I am determined to finish it . I’m aiming for 6 months.

    • So many career changers who are older enter culinary school now. I think a lot of people could relate to your experience.

  15. Those of you who want to write a memoir reflecting your experiences with food in a foreign country–go for it! Books on iInternational cuisine and culture are HOT these days. I think you would definitely have a winner. :-)

  16. I agree that a book length food memoir has great potential to be a tedious read, but as a short form, food memoirs are fabulous. My blog http://kosherhomecooking.com is a collection of mini food memoirs but if you want to read the best of the best (sorry, that isn’t me) try Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and it’s hysterical too.

    • Laurie Colwin’s books are among my favorites. They don’t neatly fit into cookbooks and they aren’t quite memoir, but her voice is very strong. People treasure her intimacy, humor, kindness, and expertise.

  17. What an interesting way to showcase a family’s history – a food memoir ! I’ve had some story lines in mind, they are so true to life, and will mirror both the positive and the negative anecdotes of our family. If I write some of these true to life stories, it will surely get the ire of my relatives. But thanks for giving me something to think about !

    • Elizabeth, yes, I know what you mean. Memoirs tend to be positive and leave most of the negative parts out, especially those about food. Even when Reichl wrote about her dotty mother in Tender to the Bone, it was endearing.

  18. You’ve got me thinking about that Chocolate memoir i started writing and then shelved…hmmm! Where to pick up the pieces?…

  19. Alone in Italy again…1972 asleep in a damp Napoli pensione and dear Roberto died…now it is 2012…who did blow up the USO? Reflections from an aging, all-American girl with an Alsatian palate!

  20. Dianne, you know I have been pondering – and scratching bits and pieces of – a memoir, but the more I think about it and discuss it and jot down notes, the more I realize that it isn’t about food at all. Well, food saved me many times, but what started as a food memoir has grown into something bigger and more important. I think writing down ideas and chapters helps each of us clarify what we are trying to say and really what needs to be said. I have read many memoirs and food memoirs, some excellent, some lousy and others simply okay. But each one I read helps me clarify my own a bit more. Thanks for a great post!

    • No food at all? Hmm. Well, that’s fine of course. But you can tell a good story through food too. You said “something bigger and more important.” That’s intriguing, but also, the bigger it gets, the harder it is to wrap your arms around what it’s about and the more overwhelming it gets to write. Just sayin.

  21. Nice post – and advice – Dianne. I recently started my blog and most of my posts, to my surprise, have been about food, or rather how closely food is connected to my Italian-Australian upbringing. The more posts I write, the more I remember anecdotes about things that seemed trivial at the time, but now seem to reflect my late father’s personality and my aged mother’s peccadilloes. I’ve also been involved with film festivals for many years, so some film segues have found their way in too.

    • Sounds like a fascinating story to me! Especially the film segues.

      • Thanks Dianne. Not sure I know who my audience is yet, but working on it! I notice that you’ll be presenting at a food bloggers’ conference in Adelaide in November. Sounds great, but it’s fully subscribed. Are you coming to Sydney?

  22. Tossing aside a successful, albeit staid, career as an English teacher, I convinced my principal to allow me to teach cooking to 240 at-risk, urban middle school students sans funding, a kitchen, or running water; we are in year three and expanding.

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