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The Rise of Cookbook Memoirs

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Every month my book club gets together to discuss our latest read. So far we’ve made it through a whole host of genres: literary fiction, historical nonfiction, graphic novels. But at our next meeting, I’m going to propose a category we haven’t read yet and that I bet most book clubs tend to overlook: cookbooks.

Over the past few years, cookbooks have become more literary, shifting away from pure instruction manuals into a format that includes personal essay, political writing, and memoir. Of course, these books still contain the delectable recipes and beautiful images that have come to define the genre, but they also feature stories, anecdotes, and lessons that extend well beyond the kitchen. Essentially, they teach us just as much about life as about how to perfectly roast a chicken or make gooey lasagna.

Julia Turshen is one of many chefs who understand the power of the personal. The author’s latest cookbook, Simply Julia, is her most intimate yet. The pages are filled with Turshen’s musings on mental health and diet culture, among other topics. And she doesn’t just dip a toe into these ideas; she shares her thoughts via her own lived experience.

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Simply Julia: 110 Easy Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food

Reading her words feels like having a deep conversation with a close friend. And Turshen’s vulnerability helps her feel connected to readers too. “When I share my stories, I get to hear other people’s stories” in return, she says. “It kind of opens the door to that, and it’s allowed me to have this incredibly fulfilling relationship with my readers. I value that so much because cooking can be very isolating and lonely.”

This desire to connect has always been central to cookbooks, says political theorist Kennan Ferguson, author of Cookbook Politics. These books, he explains, first became necessary in cultures where family members moved away from one another and could no longer pass down recipes or techniques as easily. Cookbooks offered a straightforward way to communicate that knowledge and forge communities across time and distance. They were also pathways to greater intimacy, Ferguson adds.

Chef Reem Assil, who recently released her first cookbook, Arabiyya, hopes this communion and understanding will beget social change. Before working in kitchens she was a labor and community organizer, and she feels her career as an Arab chef cooking Arab food is inherently political. At first Assil wanted to write a more classic memoir, but she found ways to weave her story together with recipes, creating a book that seamlessly combines an exploration of Arab foodways with her own experiences as an Arab woman in America.

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Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora

The language throughout Arabiyya is deeply human and conversational, which makes Assil’s core message resoundingly clear. Arab foodways “don’t only tell the story of our beautiful culture,” she tells me over the phone. “They tell the story of war, of occupation and our displacement, and xenophobia in this country. And I didn’t want to shy away from that because I felt if readers knew the story behind the food, the experience of eating that food would be more transformative for them.”

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