Go Ask Fannie
An old edition of Fannie Farmer’s famous cookbook provides a tantalizing puzzle to the three grown children of Murray Blaire. More than just a collection of recipes, it’s a time capsule from when they were a family of six, and their mother Lillian would write ideas for stories in the margins while whipping up meatloaf. As Lizzie, Ruth, and George revisit these culinary snapshots, they unlock the mysteries of their late mother’s creative life.
Roberta is used to cooking for herself and apologizing for taking up space—until she meets eccentric artist Stevie and embarks on an exhilarating friendship that forms the eponymous Supper Club: a female-only cabal whose members break into university buildings and Selfridges after hours to cook lavish feasts that are only the amuse-bouche to greater hedonism. Bookending these escapades are exquisitely rendered recipes, as Roberta guides the reader in how to create their own supper clubs around sourdough, puttanesca, and lamb.
Dying for Devil's Food
By the eleventh Cupcake Bakery Mystery, it’s not the first time that Fairy Tale Cupcakes co-owner Melanie Cooper has been accused of murder; somehow her and Angie’s delightful creations seem to show up at many a crime scene. But this time Mel’s catering her high school’s 15-year reunion, and the former homecoming queen slash mean girl is found dead in the bathroom.
Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune
When Natalie discovers that her lǎolao’s restaurant was the jewel of Chinatown, she wants nothing more than to continue her grandmother’s work. But her agoraphobic mother’s fears of running a restaurant drive a wedge between the two of them—until her mother’s death ends their estrangement, and Natalie inherits the restaurant. There’s a catch: she must cook three of her lǎolao’s enchanted recipes to help three neighbors before the restaurant can shine again.
The Lager Queen of Minnesota
J. Ryan Stradal
When the Blotz family patriarch wills his entire farm to steely younger daughter Helen, instead of splitting it between her and her bighearted sister Edith, it creates a rift that won’t have a chance of repair for two more generations. Decades later, Edith’s granddaughter Diana hopes to reverse her family’s fortunes by studying the craft of IPA… through the brewery that Helen established with that money, long ago.
LJ Delisle struggles to find work as a Black cowboy in Montana, where he must deal with the locals’ distrust—except for Andra Lawler, who hires him to train foals on her family farm. There, LJ follows the old adage of reaching the heart by way of the stomach, mostly by replacing Andra’s TV dinners with lemon velvet cake. But their fledgling romance is threatened by a family emergency that sends him back to New Orleans, and Andra’s trauma that prevents her from following him.
The Late Bloomers' Club
Forty-two-year-old Nora has always loved helping run the family business, proud of how the Miss Guthrie Diner is the beating heart of their Vermont town. But when she and her sister Kit unexpectedly inherit the home and land of Peggy, the local cake lady, she’s at a loss for what to do: sell the land to a big-name developer and create opportunities in Guthrie, or take a chance on trying something that’s entirely hers?
When 7-months-pregnant cookbook writer Rachel Samstat discovers her husband’s affair, what angers her most is that she, unknowingly, had given his mistress her recipe for carrot cake. So are heartbreak and food interwoven in Ephron’s autobiographical novel about a marriage collapsing like a bad soufflé. As Rachel spins her tale, she juggles the roles of food writer and novelist, in a meta commentary on telling two stories at once through different yet equally humanizing mediums.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
From her first bite into the eponymous birthday cake, which reveals her mother’s hollow loneliness like a burst of flavor, Rose is doomed to taste every emotion that goes into every bite, sip, or lick of what she consumes. Bender’s fabulist take on the notion of precocious children has Rose feeling an entire factory’s worth of moods, answering the question of whether vegetables can feel, and catching on to her mother’s eventual affair.
Like Water for Chocolate
“Everyone’s past is locked up in their recipes,” said Esquivel, whose magical realism novel charts young Tita’s 15th year: born on a kitchen table, this youngest daughter is forbidden to marry, forced to stay home and take care of her Mamá Elena. Heartbroken over being separated from her love, Pedro, Tita expresses herself through cooking. But when her bitter tears cause Pedro’s wedding guests to vomit and her erotic longings send her sister to a brothel, Tita must learn which emotions should be cooked versus resolved.
“The kitchen is where we deal with the elements of the universe,” Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate, told the New York Times in 1995. “It is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.” In these books—from cozy mysteries to magical realism to incisive commentaries on what it means to hunger—cookbooks serve as spell books, as encyclopedias, as diaries. Some protagonists are born into the cooking life (one literally birthed onto a kitchen table), while others inherit restaurants and diners. Treat each story like a recipe: study it, take it in, and see what it inspires in you.
Featured Image: @mskatherineq/Twenty20