Touchy-Feely Food Memoirs

Kate Moses grew up with a glamorous, self-dramatizing mother who instructed her children to refer to her as the babysitter. Starved for maternal affection, Moses turned to cake—first eating it, then baking it. "I looked for sweetness wherever I could find it," Moses writes in Cakewalk, her new recipe-studded memoir. Cakewalk is a lovely book, just as the newly released Spoon Fed by Kim Severson is a lovely book, just as the three food memoirs by former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl are lovely books. Not a lovely book? Cook to Bang: The Lay Cook's Guide to Getting Laid, also out this month, by Spencer Walker.

Admittedly, the last entry barely qualifies as food writing. But looking at this list, you might draw the depressingly gender-stereotypical conclusion that women write about food as a substitute for love, while men write about food as a way to brag about sex. (We don't have to take Walker's word for it: according to celebrity chef Mario Batali, "There's two ways to make someone happy—both are by putting something in them.")

It seems every month brings a new crop of food memoirs, the majority of them by women. Almost inevitably, the story is about how food helped them reconnect with their family, get over a broken heart, find a sense of self. In the beginning I was sad, then I made brisket, and now I'm content.

When men write food memoirs, they have no time for cuddling over the crème brûlée. They're too busy throwing pots at their garde-manger, insulting customers, and sexually harassing any female who makes the mistake of walking into their kitchen. The ur-text for this sort of swaggering, cooking-is-hell memoir is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Cooking Dirty, The Devil in the Kitchen, and Heat follow Bourdain's model.

The exceptions, like pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen's Spiced, out in paperback this month, remind you how nice it can be to read about the experience of preparing food without all the drama. Jurgensen worked in plenty of testosterone-infused kitchens and engaged in some of the same drinking-and-screwing that her male counterparts so eagerly detail. But she never mistakes the work environment for the work, nor does she see cooking as balm to some psychic wound. She is a pastry chef simply because she enjoys the job. So why aren't there more books like Spiced?

One answer is that because there are more A-list male chefs than female ones (just three out of the 24 American "masters" on Bravo's Top Chef Masters show were women), food memoirs by men tend to be by professional chefs, while food memoirs by women tend to be by amateurs. It would make sense that a nonprofessional cook would need a dramatic personal story to get a book contract. Maybe if more female chefs wrote memoirs, they would be as matter-of-fact as the ones by their male counterparts.

Another answer is that, like Moses, we want Mom to be as warm and sweet as a pan of hot cinnamon rolls. In the Gastronomica article "Why Are There No Great Women Chefs," Charlotte Druckman notes, "if a male chef serves a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese, it is lauded for its 'in-your-face,' 'rich,' 'intense,' 'bold' flavors, while a woman's plateful of the same indicates 'homey,' 'comforting' fare, 'prepared with love.' " We may have the same expectations of what comes out of men's and women's typewriters as what comes out of their kitchens.