15 Food Books to Read For Women’s History Month
This year, dig into how food shapes us, and how women have long shaped the culture of food.
March is Women’s History Month, and one great way for food lovers to honor the celebration is to learn more about how women have shaped food and cuisine, in modern times and throughout history. The books below run the gamut from cookbooks to memoirs to historical deep dives, but each shines some light on various aspects of food culture — from family traditions to diaspora to media — through the perspectives of incredible women.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to work at a classic food magazine, this recipe-filled memoir by Ruth Reichl, the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet, should satisfy some of that curiosity. Set in the decade prior to Gourmet’s end, it chronicles a time when the internet was just starting to creep into food media, and big magazine publishers still had big budgets for print issues and the editors that made them. It’s Reichl’s eighth book, and it’s one of her best.
In this James Beard Award-winning book, Toni Tipton-Martin explores the history of African American foodways by highlighting over 150 cookbooks written over the course of two centuries. Earlier cookbooks are written by enslaved people, while later ones are written by modern Black chefs like Edna Lewis (a James Beard Award winner herself). Overall, The Jemima Code gives readers a look into how Black women shaped American cuisine, giving credit where credit has long been due.
Before Michael Pollan was popularizing the slow food movement with phrases like, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," chef Alice Waters was embodying it at Chez Panisse, her legendary restaurant in Berkeley, California that’s infamous for popularizing the farm-to-table concept and shaping what we now think of as California cuisine. The Art of Simple Food, as its title suggests, is approachable even for beginners. Alongside plenty of recipes, you also get plenty of advice and insight about Waters’ food philosophy.
Although Samin Nosrat is now a bona fide celebrity chef, she was relatively unknown when Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was published in 2017. A cookbook that can also serve as a learn-to-cook manual, it features illustrations instead of photography, and it’s written in Nosrat’s deeply knowledgeable yet lighthearted style. You might know her best as the woman who got all your friends making focaccia a few years ago, but give the book a read and you’ll have an entirely new appreciation for both Nosrat and the art of cooking itself.
A fun read for anyone who’s ever wondered where their family recipes come from, this book by James Beard Award winner Laura Schenone chronicles the author’s quest from New Jersey to the coast of northwest Italy. Yes, it’s about pasta, but it’s also about family, migration, and the sense of home that food can bring no matter where you are.
For too long, American food media featured flavors and cooking techniques from around the world without giving credit to the immigrants who brought them here. In Taste Makers, published in November 2021, author Mayukh Sen (the only male author on this list) writes biographies of seven immigrant women who made significant contributions to food culture. It’s about food, but it’s also about race, gender and the systems of oppression that often lead to certain figures being erased from their own contributions.
Originally published as Made in India, Cooked in Britain, food writer Meera Sodha’s first cookbook is a tribute to the traditional Indian cooking she grew up eating at home, which was different from what she’d find at local Indian takeout places in England. Alongside more than 130 recipes, the reader gets insight into three generations of cooks in Sodha’s family: one growing up in India, the next in Africa, and the last (her own) in Britain. It’s a gorgeous book that also makes a perfect gift.
An interweaving of two stories, this historical biography focuses on Cleo Silvers and Aylene Quin, two Black women who used food to fuel political movements (literally and figuratively) in 1969 and onwards. Quin hosted secret meetings for civil rights leaders in her Mississippi restaurant. Silvers and a few Black Panther party members created free breakfast programs for neighborhood children, using food as a political tool powerful enough to attract the FBI’s attention. For activists who love food, this one is a must.
M.F.K. Fischer’s How to Cook a Wolf is a food book written in 1942, during World War II. Fischer talks about food shortages and rationing, and provides a sort of instruction manual for eating well even when ingredients are scarce. The world that the book exists in may not exist any longer, but it’s still a fascinating, and often funny, take on cooking, written at a time when food preparation was a chore and not a pleasure. Plus, it’s fun to read one of Fischer’s earlier works.
When it was published in 2012, chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir was positioned as the female version of Kitchen Confidential. It chronicles her lifelong journey through various kitchens, in both homes and restaurants, focusing mostly on the one at Prune, the Manhattan restaurant that the author opened in 1999. In April 2020, Hamilton wrote this New York Times piece about Prune’s uncertain future due to COVID-19, and the restaurant remains closed although it hasn’t officially shut down. If you never had the chance to sit at Prune’s bar with a plate of radishes and butter, this book is the next best way to experience the place.
Edna Lewis, a Black chef famous for redefining Southern cooking, published several cookbooks after this one. But if you want to get a sense of what her food was all about, The Edna Lewis Cookbook, originally published in 1972, is the one to read. Lewis, a James Beard Award winner, includes over 100 recipes in the book, and organizes them by four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Christmas.
Tung Nguyen is a Vietnamese refugee who escaped the fall of Saigon and landed in Miami in 1975, then later went on to open Hy Vong, an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant. This is her memoir, co-written with three other women, including Kathy Manning, the graduate student and waitress who first took Nguyen in and became the co-owner of Hy Vong. There are twenty recipes included, but the book is really about the relationship between the two women, and how food shaped it.
Although Betty Crocker wasn’t a real person, her name and face are central to twentieth century American food culture. Created in the 1920s and eventually updated to be a 1950s happy housewife, Betty Crocker started as a figure who answered women’s cooking questions by mail, then began doing the same thing on the radio. If you’re interested in how she eventually became a household staple, this relatively easy read has the answers.
Before vegetarian eating got rebranded as "plant-based" and overtaken with fake meat alternatives, Najmieh Batmanglij wrote a vegetarian cookbook celebrating the cuisines and influences of various cultures along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road. Along with the recipes are stories and photos of her travels, as well as deep dives into the history of various ingredients. The recipes and culinary influences hail from many countries, including China, Iran, Turkey, and Italy, all tied together by Batmanglij’s writing and cooking style.
In Crying in H Mart, musician Michelle Zauner grieves the death of her Korean mother by interweaving memories of their complicated relationship with memories of food. Born in Korea and raised in Oregon, Zauner found that the best and safest way to bond with her exacting, perfectionistic yet fiercely loving mother was through food. The book has many themes, but chief among them is the power of food to connect us.