50 Essential Novels for Foodies


‘Tis the season, as they say, to stuff your face. Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of highly caloric foods and oft-tempestuous family relations, is upon us. To celebrate — or just to escape the festivities for a while — why not nourish the foodie in you with some gourmand-friendly literature? Behold, a spread worthy of kings: 50 essential works of fiction (no memoirs or travel narratives here, that’s for another list) to whet your appetite, and then satisfy it, and then satisfy it some more. And as ever, if your favorite got squeezed out, just pile it on the plate in the comments.

The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen

Was there ever a more deliciously misanthropic narrator than Hugo Wittier? He’s dying from a rare disease that could be cured if he’d just stop smoking, but he won’t — and Hugo compares his diary, that is, the novel, to a long, garum-filled “suicide note.” He rebuffs the advances of his sanctimonious brother and his ex-wife and gets his pleasure from nothing but smoking and cooking and being right. Just a taste of his attitude to whet your appetite: “I sputtered off at a fuck-you stately pace up the long driveway to Route 23, and then to Stewart’s, of course to buy cigarettes, but incidentally to chat up the cashier, a gormless, lumpen girl who has captured my heart with her idiot-savant-like chatter. We are both high-school dropouts, and, as such, are soulmates.”

The Dinner, Herman Koch

One meal can change everything. The proof is in the pudding: that is, this dark and delicious novel that turns from social satire to psychological thriller as the courses (not to mention the truths) come out. Plus: another sinister and unreliable narrator for the ages — what is it about these foodies?

Pow!, Mo Yan

The Times’ Dwight Garner calls the Nobel Prize-winning Mo Yan “a demented poet of the appetites,” and indeed his novels are filled with food and sex and power and all the other things humanity lusts after. Though many of his books include lush descriptions of edibles, Pow! is notable for its raging obsession with meat — fraudulent butchers, the Meat Appreciation Parade, and “delicacies such as donkey lips, cow anuses, camel tongues and horse testicles.” Yum!

The Book of Salt, Monique Truong

Monique Truong’s first novel shows the world through the eyes of Bình, the personal chef to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in their Paris home. Food and salt and sex and one of literary history’s most fascinating couples: how could you refuse?

The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester

Another wickedly clever (and actually wicked) snob narrating an ode to food. You’ll never forget cheese as “the corpse of milk,” nor this faux-cookbook/memoir that gets both funnier and more sinister as you devour it.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Sure, it’s not about food, but Joyce had a more than passing interest in the stuff. On the list for the over-the-top descriptions alone: “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all, he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” Um, delish?

Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Eli Brown

Food and pirates, you guys. Food and pirates.

John Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk

A lush historical novel that tells of an orphaned kitchen boy who is destined to become one of the greatest chefs of all time, and whose food might just tempt a beautiful woman out of her despair.

Redwall, Brian Jacques

Ah, the Redwall series, where every child learns to crave candied chestnuts, strawberry cordial, and turnip’n tater’n beetroot pie. The feasts here are for the ages.

The Belly of Paris, Emile Zola

Anthony Bourdain once called Zola’s classic ”the Citizen Kane of foodie books.” There is also a famous scene about the sensation of walking into a cheese shop that is referred to by those in the know as the “Cheese Symphony,” which is something every book should probably have more of.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris

For lovers of chocolate and magic and the many places at which those two intersect.

The Flounder, Günter Grass

Grass’s 1977 masterpiece, which Dwight Garner called “a weird and briny chowder of a novel,” is loosely based on the fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife — that is, a fisherman catches an immortal talking fish, and the two of them change everything, for better or for worse. With quite a bit of explicit sex and explicit gastronomical indulgence on the way. Well, what else is there?

Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais

Everything is outsized is this bawdy Renaissance classic, especially the appetites of its giant protagonists. For those as amused by pages of creative insults as they are by culinary delights, or for those who contend, as Rabelais did, that “Master Gaster — Sir Belly — is the true master of all the arts.”

My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki

A novel about the meat industry! No, don’t groan yet. Ozeki’s delightful novel brings together two women, the first a documentary filmmaker popping into American households to film attractive women cooking beef for the Japanese TV show My American Wife!, the second the wife of the show’s ad man, who joins up with the filmmaker after seeing her subversive episode about lesbian vegetarians. So, probably the most fun you’ll have hating on the meat industry this year.

The Devil’s Larder, Jim Crace

This book is truly a larder, though whether it’s the devil’s you’ll have to find out for yourself. Crace has put together 64 short tales about food, with desire and family and pain and all the other things that tend to get intermixed with that life-giving stuff. Soup stones, strip fondue, a mother and daughter tasting food from inside each other’s mouths, a woman sprinkling her cremated cat onto her food. A sumptuous mix indeed.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg

The classic in down-home, foodie, murdery goodness.

Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder

All of Wilder’s books are heavy on the prairie cooking, but Farmer Boy perhaps most of all. For the budding foodie in your family who wants to know where all the milk comes from.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron

An autobiographical novel, sure, but a novel nonetheless, starring a thinly veiled Ephron as Rachel Samstat, a cookbook writer in a rapidly disintegrating marriage. Recipes for food to reheat the heart abound, and Key lime pie plays a pivotal role. Plus, well, it’s Nora Ephron.

Cooking With Fernet Branca, James Hamilton-Paterson

What if you’re a foodie who’s read all the foodie books? Try this hilarious send-up of the Italian/cooking/romance genre, filled with acerbic asides and mounting ridiculousness, both in food and everything else.

The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood

Now here’s a novel that will sink into any foodie’s nightmares: After her engagement, Marian McAlpin finds herself slowly unable to eat. First it’s one thing, then another, and then everything. But it’s worse: she feels that she herself is being eaten by some celestial foodie — or maybe someone closer to home.

Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto

Not only a delicious foray into a Japanese kitchen, but also a luscious, whimsical account of life, death, family, and cross-dressing.

Edible Stories, Mark Kurlansky

Kurlansky is a talented food writer outside of the fictional realm, so it’s no surprise that the food sometimes outshines the people in this charming book, billed as “a novel in sixteen courses” but more truly a witty story collection.

The Hundred-Foot Journey, Richard C. Morais

The New York Times called this novel “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille.” Um, sold.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

Sure, the Great American Novel doesn’t exactly scream out “foodie classic” — but when you’ve got an entire chapter on chowder, certain food lovers have got to sit up and pay attention. Plus: you know you’re a real foodie if you can make something delicious out of whale.

Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

Another classic of food literature, Esquivel’s debut is subtitled “A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies,” and on that count, it doesn’t disappoint. It also manages to weave a beautiful and magical story about love and passion — and how such things can seep into your food while you look the other way.

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

“Your family has a diseased relationship with food,” Caroline tells her husband Gary in Franzen’s celebrated novel. Indeed, they do, but mostly because of all their diseased relationships with each other, reflected onto the table: “Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish. Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver. When the liver was lifted, a faint suction could be heard. The sodden lower crust was unspeakable.” For the foodie who likes to gawk at the freaks.

The Food of Love, Anthony Capella

A young American girl on her first trip to Italy! A handsome Italian named Tomasso who might not be exactly what he seems! A shy and sexy chef in the background! Sure, this is the kind of novel that the aforementioned James Hamilton-Paterson is mocking, but it’s delicious nonetheless.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

For lovers of surreal and impossible foods. Also, candy.

White Truffles in Winter, N.M. Kelby

This delicious novel throws historical fiction, essay, romance, and page upon page of sumptuous descriptions of food in a pot and sets it to simmer. An exquisite novel based on the life of famous chef Auguste Escoffier, this is definitely one to savor.

Babette’s Feast, Isak Dinesen

A shimmering, short jewel of a novel, for those who believe (or need to be reminded) that a good, shared meal has the power to transform.

Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

A book to delight those for whom food is strongly linked to memory (read: everyone). Or for the madeleine-lover extraordinaire.

Saturday, Ian McEwan

McEwan’s recent novel is notable for a single dish: a fish stew whose slow boil serves as a flavoring for the entire novel. In fact, McEwan received so many requests from readers for its recipe that he posted it on his website. Now that’s the way to get your book into people’s bellies.

Gourmet Rhapsody, Muriel Barbery

Speaking of food-as-memory: in this novel, a dying and highly snobbish food critic tries to remember the flavor that was “the first and ultimate truth” of his entire life. As you might imagine, delightful descriptions of possible gustatory revelations abound.

The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones

This novel, from the author of Lost in Translation, is like a dumpling: culinary goodness (that is, excerpts from a fictional 1920s masterpiece of cooking) wrapped up in the doughy romance of the frame narrative. But oh so tasty going down.

La Cucina, Lily Prior

Prior’s book is subtitled “a novel of rapture,” and indeed, it may or may not make you throw your head back in all the gluttonous pleasure — food, sex, murder, food, the kitchen, the Mafia. Yum.

The Food Chain, Geoff Nicholson

In which a trendy restaurateur, the namesake of the chain of “Golden Boy” restaurants, is invited to join the Everlasting Club, a kind of epicurean bacchanal that has been raging nonstop for 350 years. Dark and disgusting and delicious.

Bone in the Throat, Anthony Bourdain

But of course — you couldn’t have a novels-for-foodies list without one by everyone’s favorite chef. Might as well start with his tongue-in-cheek first and go from there.

The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman

Two sisters: one, a successful Silicon Valley CEO, the other, a dreamer who works in an antiquarian bookshop and collects cookbooks. For those who love old books, good food, and the nebulous nature of deeply held social values.

The Lives of Notorious Cooks, Brendan Connell

A platter full of 51 fictional biographies of chefs from Ancient Greece to the end of World War I. Kings, slaves, wise men, pastry chefs whose confections raise the dead, all swirl about in this delightful historical fantasy.

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister

Eight students learn the ways of the world (and the ways of the wooden spoon) from a respected chef. Lovely and affecting.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Because Lewis Carroll truly understands the, er, transformative powers of food.

Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth

For its secret refrigerator, filled with “greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons — cantaloupes and honeydews — and on the top shelf, half of a watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

The book that brought the concept of “second breakfast” to widespread cultural attention.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

There’s no one like Dickens for a good Christmas feast, like the one bestowed on old Scrooge: “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam…”

Pomegranate Soup, Marsha Mehran

Three sisters escape the Iranian Revolution and find themselves in a small, and not altogether friendly, Irish village. You know what tends to bridge distances, though, don’t you? Yes, yes you do.

Appetite, Philip Kazan

A young man in Renaissance Florence has a gift: the ability to taste more than the average man, and a sense of passion that will lead him into joy and trouble.

The Chef’s Apprentice, Elle Newmark

A Venetian street urchin becomes apprentice to a chef whose powers seem nearly magical. Then there’s the mystery of the book that holds all the world’s secrets, and a murder, and a great love… plus you know, all the food.

Crescent, Diana Abu-Jaber

Half love story, half quest, all exquisite prose and exotic foods.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Oh, of course. Any fantasist foodie with a serious sweet tooth will be unable to resist the candy shops of the wizarding world, where you will find “creamy chunks of nougat, shimmering pink squares of coconut ice, fat, honey-coloured toffees; hundreds of different kinds of chocolate in neat rows; there was a large barrel of Every Flavour Beans, and another of Fizzing Whizzbees, the levitating sherbet balls that Ron had mentioned; along yet another wall were ‘Special Effects’ sweets: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (which filled a room with bluebell-coloured bubbles that refused to pop for days), the strange, splintery Toothflossing Stringmints, tiny black Pepper Imps (‘breathe fire for your friends!’), Ice Mice (‘hear your teeth chatter and squeak!’), peppermint creams shaped like toads (‘hop realistically in the stomach!’), fragile sugar-spun quills and exploding bonbons.”

Hunger, Jane Ward

A search for flavor in life and in food. After all, they coincide more often than you’d think.