Deep in our brains, somewhere near the part that says it's time to eat, there's a little plate of leftovers. Whether it's Mom's apple pie or that first oyster, food memories can propel even the most indifferent of eaters back, back into the night kitchen of nostalgia.
Much as Proust had his remembrances of madeleines past, a banquet hall full of chefs, cookbook writers and restaurant critics have been turning their personal epiphanies of gustatory glory into a thriving literary genre: the food memoir. In the past year alone, a baker's half a dozen have hit the market, often shelved near the cookbooks and sometimes indistinguishable from them. Indeed, many food memoirs have recipes sprinkled throughout or stuck on the end like dessert.
Consider the newest item on the menu, Gordon Ramsay's Humble Pie. The Michelin-starred British chef trots briskly through, as he puts it, "The tough childhood [poor]. My false start in football [a brief stint with Glasgow's Rangers]. The years I spent working literally 20 hours a day [dues paying in the U.K. and France]. My battles with my demons [his bullying father]. My brother's heroin addiction [which resisted Ramsay's efforts to cure]." No recipes, alas, but lots of spice. As a young cook at a country restaurant, he knew he was destined for a food career because "I loved making the jugged hare more than I did having sex with the boss's wife." As a private chef on a yacht, he had to call his mother for instructions when asked for shepherd's pie. Ramsay and his wife used in vitro fertilization to have three of their four children because "I had a low sperm count, the result of my balls being in front of all those hot ovens."
Ramsay's well-warmed ramblings should be read alongside Marco Pierre White's White Slave, published just a few weeks earlier and peppered with culinary tips (top your fried sweetbreads with flaked almonds and pine kernels). Ramsay worked for White at his iconic London restaurant Harvey's, but they later fell out for reasons neither chef convincingly explains. Much like Ramsay, White recounts the tough childhood (in Leeds), the distracted father (White's mother died when he was six), the obsession with fame (White became the youngest British chef to win three Michelin stars) and, of course, his demons. White threw plates at errant subordinates, tossed unappreciative customers into the street and, at least once, had sex with a female diner in his office while her husband sat oblivious waiting for dessert. After concluding that "there has got to be more to life than cooking," he hung up his toque in 1999 to become a restaurant entrepreneur. But cooking does have its moments as when White makes dinner for 200 of Prince Charles' guests. He gets dragged off to meet the royal host, who addresses him effusively in French for a full three minutes until White interjects that, despite his middle name, he grew up in Leeds and doesn't speak the language.