Ten great books about food and cooking that aren't cookbooks

The late TV personality, writer, and entrepreneur Anthony Bourdain.
The late TV personality, writer, and entrepreneur Anthony Bourdain.  Photo: Shutterstock

"It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others."

So wrote M.F.K. Fisher in 1943's The Gastronomical Me, a classic of food writing that helped define a whole genre – books about food that aren't just illustrative and instructional, but instead deal with food as a powerful force in thoughts, dreams, and life.

Why round up 10 great books about food that aren't cookbooks? At a moment in food culture that is both frequently glorious and frequently ripe for satire – from the little things, like the quest for the perfect avocado on toast, to the big things, like the use of avocado on toast as a metaphor for the housing affordability crisis – it's nice to remember that food has an indelible place in life, sometimes the same place as characters, plots, and themes, and certainly the same place as good ideas and great sentences.

There are some classic books that aren't on this list, and it's certainly missing some bestsellers. And the no-cookbooks rule meant we had to skip some of the best food writing today, much of which is made by people who manipulate ingredients for a living.

In the age of the chef, they also emerge as compelling character studies; there's a case to be made that Jamie Oliver is one of literature's most interesting protagonists, with his memorable catch-phrases, his suspenseful biography, his strange predilections and foibles.

Cut out cookbooks, and what do you have?

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Photo: Bloomsbury

Memoirs, novels, journalism, one picture book, and one treatise – books that favour narrative immersion over practical use. Some are acknowledged food classics, and some are not often treasured for their gastronomical values. They belong here anyway.

When we write about food, we are really writing about people; and of course, when we write about people, we are really writing about food, because – and this is M.F.K. Fisher again – "First we eat, then we do everything else."

1. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

By Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, 2000)

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We start here because this list is alphabetical by surname, but we also hope to stress the significance of Bourdain's life and work. Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential after sending an unsolicited essay to The New Yorker that showed the grit and grime of the restaurant world. By the time we lost him, he was both a renaissance man and a humane writer who scoured the world for flavours and ideas. It's hilarious and dirty and real, and most of the ways we write about food in 2018 can be traced back here.

Further reading: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.

2. Heat

An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford (Vintage, 2007)

Heat by Bill Buford (Vintage, 2007).
Heat by Bill Buford (Vintage, 2007). Photo: Vintage

Buford was a home cook who wanted to know how a real restaurant functions. He ended up joining the serious kitchen of Mario Batali, coming back to show the rest of us how this miraculous work is done. Many gonzo journalists are capable of getting in over their heads for a story; few have the temperament to stay there for as long as Buford does, starting at the bottom and staying there for a very long time.

Further reading: Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Buford; Anything That Moves by Dana Goodyear.

3. The Urban Farmer: How to Create a Productive Garden in Any Space

By Justin Calverley & CERES (ABC Books, 2017)

The Urban Farmer by Justin Calverley & CERES.
The Urban Farmer by Justin Calverley & CERES.  Photo: ABC Books

There are lots of books about gardening – that's a whole other countdown – but this one is local, useful, modern, and totally focused on food. Want to keep chickens in the sock drawer and grow tomatoes in the light fittings? This book doesn't quite get you there, but for everything else, you're sorted.

Further reading: The Education of a Gardener by Russell Page.

4. Heartburn

By Nora Ephron (Knopf, 1983)

Heartburn by Nora Ephron.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Photo: Knopf

You don't need the audiobook (or the movie) to hear this in the voice of Meryl Streep, who is the ideal vessel for Ephron's semi-autobiographical narrator – a hero who responds to a dreadful situation, her husband leaving her while she's pregnant, with wit, outrage, brittle industriousness, and commitment to vinaigrette. Also a perfect book club book, especially if you make the food.

Further reading: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.

5. The Gastronomical Me

By M.F.K. Fisher (Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1943)

The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher.
The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher. Photo: Duell, Sloan and Pierce

Often collected in the bulky compendium The Art of Eating, this is the most influential of Fisher's many influential books. With the flair of a memoirist and a baker's precision, Fisher narrates her life through measured, perceptive essays, organising experience around times of hunger and plenty. Most of our lives are punctuated by meals, whether or not we notice. In more ways than one, this book takes care with the punctuation.

Further reading: Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

6. Eating Animals 

By Jonathan Safran Foer (Little, Brown, 2009)

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Photo: Little, Brown

We endorse Eating Animals not because it's the most comprehensive or scientific book about the ethics of food, but because Foer does it with a novelist's eye for meaning, diving swiftly and naturally into the reasons food matters to us in the first place. Of course animals' feelings are only part of the story – it's about our feelings, too. In the end, this book makes a serious case that we honour those feelings through examining our habits, which even the most committed omnivore will be persuaded to do.

Further reading: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.

7. The Vegetarian

By Han Kang (Portobello, 2015)

The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Photo: Portobello

A South Korean home-maker decides to stop eating meat after a series of vivid, violent, not-that-human dreams. From there, this "completely unremarkable" woman stops being quite this way, as the novel cuts between points-of-view and gets astoundingly strange. This won the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, and it will change the way you think about bodies, genders, and plants.

Further reading: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Photo: Hamish Hamilton

8. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

By Eric Carle (Hamish Hamilton, 1969)

Who among us, when children, did not move through the world eating everything in sight before (metaphorically), spinning cocoons and transforming into butterflies? Who among us, when parents, have not seen our children in the same light? Like the best children's classics, this takes messy desire and expresses it through powerful symbols – like when the caterpillar gets a tummy ache and heals it by eating a basic green leaf.

Further reading: The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff by Norman Lindsay.

The Cook by Wayne Macauley.
The Cook by Wayne Macauley. Photo: Text

9. The Cook

By Wayne Macauley (Text, 2011)

When Zac is plucked from a no-hope background to work as a personal chef, he becomes a witness to the ridiculousness of his employers' lives. But beyond this upstairs-downstairs setup are even saltier questions about class and materialism in Australian life; a funny, smart, lacerating, and challenging novel.

Further reading: The Dinner by Herman Koch.

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola.
The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola. Photo: Chatto & Windus

10. The Belly of Paris

By Emile Zola (Chatto & Windus, 1896)

Sometimes translated as the pulpy-sounding Savage Paris, and before this as The Fat and the Thin, this novel is set in Les Halles, the Parisian fresh food market that was demolished in 1971 and turned into an underground mall. It contains an infamous scene known as the Cheese Symphony about the various smells of cheese, but even without that, it's a sensual fever dream – both a historical document and a true page-turner.

Further reading: The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.