The Ten Best Books About Food of 2023 | Arts & Culture

Smithsonian‘s picks for the best books about food of 2023 include Invitation to a Banquet, For the Culture: Black Women and Femmes in Food and More Than Cake.
Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

Food is always a portal into a place. Whether it’s a straightforward cookbook, a deeply personal memoir, or an exploration of one ingredient or several, food books can bring a culture to life. This year’s best food books traverse West Africa, China, the United States and beyond, and they include a deep dive into the onion, a historic account of Rome’s Jewish community through food, a tome on how to use leftovers and some of the most unique dessert recipes out there today. These ten titles are bursting with delicious food, as well as entertaining and engaging storytelling.

Simply West African: Easy, Joyful Recipes for Every Kitchen by Pierre Thiam

When Pierre Thiam, who originally hails from Senegal, was cooking at restaurants in New York City in the 1990s, he realized African cuisine was hard to find in the food capital of the world. Thus began his mission of sharing West African food and culture with the United States. Aside from owning various West African restaurants and starting the Yolélé food brand to bring West African ingredients like fonio (a gluten-free grain) to the U.S., he’s also written several cookbooks on the region, with Simply West African being his latest.

This time, his aim is to share everyday, easy-to-cook recipes like shrimp and fonio grits, chicken yassa tacos and baked ginger-chili plantain kelewele. He first teaches readers the basics of West African cuisine, demystifying the spices, ingredients and techniques, and then explains how so many dishes and ingredients from the American South and other regions can trace their origin to West Africa. The 80 vibrant recipes are accessible and present a range of traditional and modern takes on the cuisine.

The Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage: Seasonal Recipes and Traditions that Celebrate the Alaskan Spirit by Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton

More than just a cookbook, this volume explores the traditions of Alaska alongside its food. This means that in addition to its 60 recipes, The Salmon Sisters delivers 35 illustrated rituals, from pressing flowers to lighting up the night with ice lanterns, alongside numerous stories of Alaskan women from the close-knit community of the state’s remote Aleutian Islands.

“Salmon sisters” Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton harvest seafood from the surrounding waters, as well as wild-growing berries, herbs and seaweed. In 2012, the pair co-founded Salmon Sisters, a company selling sustainably caught fish and ocean-inspired clothing. This is their second cookbook, and the recipes are organized by season: sauteed fiddleheads in the spring, berry muffins in the summer, pan-seared scallops with honey-cider glaze in the fall, and fish pie with lemon-dill cream sauce in the winter. The sisters even serve up special menus for the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.

The Core of an Onion: Peeling the Rarest Common Food—Featuring More Than 100 Historical Recipes by Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky has made a name for himself with deep dives into singular ingredients, as seen in his previous titles Salt and Cod. Now he gives another cooking staple a thorough analysis with his latest book: The Core of an Onion. Anyone who has ever picked up a kitchen knife will know the onion as a basic building block of the majority of savory recipes from around the globe. What they may not know is that Greek Olympians would eat a pound of onions and rub them on their bodies, either for strength or good luck.

Kurlansky delves into the science and history of the allium, including its 20 varieties, how and where it grows, and how it has become such a central ingredient worldwide. The book showcases historical images alongside the author’s own ink drawings, and its robust recipe section has more than 100 dishes, from French onion soup to Ecuadorian encebollado stew to the Gibson cocktail, which is garnished with a pickled onion.

Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen by Leah Koenig

Most people may not realize that some of the classic and ubiquitous Roman foods like fried artichokes, ricotta cake, and pasta and chickpea stew came from the longstanding Jewish community of Rome, which goes back more than 2,000 years. Rome is home to three Jewish communities: the Italkim, who arrived in the second century B.C.E.; the Sephardim, who fled to Rome from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s; and Libyan Jews, who settled in the 1960s, a time when many Jews were leaving Arabic-speaking countries.

Portico is Jewish food expert Leah Koenig’s love letter to Roman Jewish cooking. The book thoroughly explores the history, culture and food of this community, who helped shape so much of Roman cuisine, through extensive research and interviews with local Jewish home cooks, professional chefs, historians and tour guides. Stracotto di manzo (wine-braised beef stew), pizza ebraica (fruit-and-nut-studded bar cookies) and the beloved carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style fried artichokes) are just a few of the more than 100 mouthwatering recipes featured in the book, alongside countless stories and cultural explorations.

The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z by Tamar Adler

Tamar Adler is on a quest to make leftovers more appealing—and lower food waste in the process—with her latest book, The Everlasting Meal Cookbook. Not sure what to do with that single carrot and a near-empty jar of peanut butter? Adler, a writer and former professional chef, has the solution in the form of her “empty jar nut butter noodles.” Even seemingly hopeless leftovers like a soggy dressed salad gain new life in no less than five different recipes, from a savory pancake to gazpacho. Organized like an encyclopedia, with likely leftover ingredients ranging from potato chip crumbs to stale doughnuts to scallions, this clever tome contains around 1,500 recipes. This isn’t what you’d call a beautiful coffee table-style cookbook—it’s utilitarian and without illustrations (otherwise it would be thousands of pages)—but the creative secrets within are truly mind-blowing.


The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z

Award-winning author Tamar Adler’s inspiring, money-saving, environmentally responsible, A-to-Z collection of simple recipes that utilize all leftovers—perfect for solo meals or for feeding the whole family

Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food by Fuchsia Dunlop

The James Beard Award-winning Fuchsia Dunlop is known as one of the world’s foremost writers on Chinese food, and this latest book confirms she deserves that credential. Each of the 30 chapters of Invitation to a Banquet examines a classic Chinese dish, like soup dumplings, mapo tofu and even steamed rice.

The dishes discussed here are focused on Chinese food from China, as opposed to ubiquitous Western Chinese food that was toned down for British and American palates by immigrants who primarily cooked Cantonese-style food. “As far as the Chinese themselves were concerned, takeaway food was hardly Chinese food at all,” writes Dunlop in the prologue, when sharing her memories of eating Chinese takeout as a child growing up in England. The book meshes history, philosophy, cooking techniques, and Dunlop’s on-the-ground research conducted over three decades to present a fascinating and comprehensive exploration of this multifaceted and dynamic cuisine.

For the Culture: Phenomenal Black Women and Femmes in Food by Klancy Miller

From Klancy Miller, founder of For the Culture magazine, comes this beautiful book casting the spotlight on Black women who are entrepreneurs, chefs, food stylists, mixologists, historians, farmers, writers and more. For the Culture: Phenomenal Black Women and Femmes in Food begins with profiles on the matriarchs of Black food, including Edna Lewis and B. Smith, and then moves into profiles of today’s most impressive culinary Black women, showcasing their stories and philosophies through interviews, recipes and portraits.

It features a mix of well-known names and exciting new voices, including historian Jessica B. Harris, chefs Carla Hall and Sophia Roe, farmer Leah Penniman, and wine expert Julia Coney. This important book offers a special kind of oral history that finally gives Black women in food their due.


For The Culture: Phenomenal Black Women and Femmes in Food

A must-have anthology of the leading Black women and femmes shaping today’s food and hospitality landscape—from farm to table and beyond—chronicling their passions and motivations, lessons learned and hard-won wisdom, personal recipes, and more

More Than Cake: 100 Baking Recipes Built for Pleasure and Community by Natasha Pickowicz

Natasha Pickowicz is an innovative pastry chef known in New York and beyond for her creative and tasty pastries as well as her popular bake sales benefiting nonprofits like Planned Parenthood. More Than Cake is her debut cookbook, and it’s chock-full of unique creations with surprising ingredient combinations—like her pecan and black cardamom sticky buns, shoyu peanut butter cookies, and nectarine and miso tarte tatin—that celebrate her Chinese and California heritage.

The book is also full of invaluable tips like how to build a layer cake, why you should under-beat your meringue, and how to boil plum stones to extract even more plum flavor. But aside from great baking recipes, this cookbook tries to live up to its name by sharing how baking can provide so much more than just tasty sweets—it can give community, purpose, activism, joy and love.

The Ark of Taste: Delicious and Distinctive Foods That Define the United States by Giselle Kennedy Lord and David S. Shields

Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste project is a living catalogue of more than 6,000 heritage foods from across the country, many of which are endangered and virtually unknown today, and this book is a partial representation of that work. Distinctive breeds and heirloom varieties showcased in The Ark of Taste include New York’s Cayuga duck, Massachusetts’ Wellfleet oysters, Maryland’s Fairfax strawberries, Florida’s Tupelo honey, Kansas’s Turkey Red wheat and South Carolina’s Carolina Gold rice. Did you know that the Fairfax strawberry, introduced by small-fruit breeder George Darrow in the 1920s, was integral in causing people to prefer darker, redder strawberries as opposed to the paler pink ones that had been popular before? Previously, people had thought a berry that was dark was a sign of its decay.

Throughout the book, readers can find recipes from each area that use one or more of the ingredients mentioned—dishes like Carolina Gold rice and coconut pudding with Tupelo honey-roasted Georgia peaches, yellow Creole corn soup with roasted tomatoes and garlic oil, and mojo-braised American Guinea hog—alongside whimsical illustrations by Claudia Pearson.

Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food by Chris van Tulleken

Ultra-processed food, or UPF, is explored as a public health issue in this book by British broadcaster Chris van Tulleken. As chemical-filled UPFs have taken over our grocery stores, van Tulleken digs into connections between them and the rise in diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes, explaining how UPF companies are destroying traditional diets and health, all in the name of money. UPFs, he argues in Ultra-Processed People, are engineered to be addictive and have been linked to early deaths and environmental issues.

Van Tulleken didn’t just rely on the research of others but actually did an experiment on himself: He spent a month eating a diet of 80 percent UPFs and let himself be observed and analyzed by his colleagues at University College London. He details the experience in this book, alongside his discussions with leading experts in food science and industry.

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