On The Road: Food & Travel Memoirs | Collection Development

The following curated list of memoirs and documentaries should appeal to budding cooks and culinary experts, as well as armchair travelers and globetrotters.

"So much of who we are is where we have been,"stated author William Langewiesche. This is never more exemplified than in the impactful stories laid bare by food and travel memoirs.

Food memoirs can be nostalgic, inspirational, and a pleasant reminder of how a meal can bring family, friends, and cultures together. They can also show a darker side, examining disordered eating, obesity, food scarcity, and depression. Likewise, travel memoirs can show us a glimpse of places we have longed to visit, allowing us to live vicariously through the authors' experiences, and to walk us down memory lane of the places we’ve been. And they too can show unexpected and dangerous situations that test us and help us grow.


A recent American Communities Project study shows that there is consistent overlap in interests in reading, cooking, food, and traveling among various community types. In fact, "reading books remains one of the most popular hobbies across community types," and "from youth to seniors, about a third of residents in each community type reported cooking for fun in the past year." Travel also consistently ranks as one of the most popular leisure activities, and the rise in culinary tourism, exploring food while traveling, has grown in popularity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered many aspects of life, especially food and travel. Many restaurants are closing or operating at limited capacity, and restrictions have been implemented on domestic and international travel, with each state and country adhering to different guidelines. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, interest in food and travel remains high. One recent survey conducted by Hunter shows that "54 percent of respondents said they cook more than before the pandemic, 75 percent said they have become more confident in the kitchen, and 51 percent said they will continue to cook more after the crisis ends."

The popularity of these hobbies and interests has likely contributed to the growing number of TV and streaming shows that feature celebrity chefs, amateur cooking competitions, and traveling the world in search of adventure and experiences. Luckily for readers, many memoirs offer an opportunity to get to know these people and places intimately through the personal stories they share. Written from the perspective of a wide-ranging group of food and travel lovers such as James Beard award winners, chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants, and amateur adventure seekers, these memoirs and personal journeys include classics, such as Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck; The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara; Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; and My Life in France by Julia Child.

The following curated list of memoirs and documentaries should appeal to budding cooks and culinary experts, as well as armchair travelers and globetrotters. Starred titles are essential for most collections.

David Miller is the Library Director at the Farmville Public Library in Farmville, NC. He has worked in both public and academic libraries and has reviewed history titles for LJ since 2017.



Bosker, Bianca. Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me To Live for Taste. Penguin Pr. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780143128090. $17.
Fascinated with the expertise of sommeliers, Bosker becomes a "cellar rat" in fine dining restaurants and trains her senses with wine experts while showcasing the highs, and less glamorous life, of a somm.

redstarBourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly: Updated Edition. HarperCollins. 2007. 352p. ISBN 9780060899226. $16.99.
Before Bourdain became a popular food and travel guide on TV, he wrote this bestselling memoir about his battle with addiction and hitting rock bottom, as well as a shockingly honest view of what goes on in the kitchen.

Eat a PeachredstarChang, David. Eat a Peach. Clarkson Potter. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781524759216. $28
A raw and vulnerable memoir from Momofuku chef and Netflix star Chang that recounts his experiences with anger and depression, as well as his highs and lows in the restaurant business. Those considering entering the business will also appreciate his honest "33 rules for becoming a chef."

Fechtor, Jessica. Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home. Avery. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781594631320. $25.95.
After a near-death experience from a brain aneurysm left Fechtor without a sense of smell, she turned to cooking and baking to guide her path to recovery, and to explore how food connects us to ourselves and each other. Includes 27 recipes.

Hamilton, Gabrielle. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Random. 2012. 308p. ISBN 9780812980882. $16
This engaging, James Beard Award–winning memoir details Hamilton’s wild life experiences that positioned her to become chef-owner of New York’s Prune, from her self-reliant childhood, experiences with drugs and crime, uncertainty about career aspirations, and complicated relationships.

Mitchell, Andie. It Was Me All Along. Bantam Dell. 2016. 235p. ISBN 9780770433253.
Popular blogger Mitchell describes her battles with depression, body image issues, and dependency on food during her early years through college in this memoir about struggling with food and weight loss from a self-help angle.

Young Black ChefredstarOnwuachi, Kwame. Notes from a Young Black Chef. Knopf. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9781524732622. $26.
Award-winning chef Onwuachi shares his unlikely journey, from dealing drugs as a youth to gracing the kitchens at top restaurants. A personal story of defying the odds and rising to the top of the fine dining world.

redstarRegan, Iliana. Burn the Place. Midway. 2019. 250p. ISBN 9781572842670. $25.
This memoir from a Michelin-starred chef who achieved success in a male-dominated industry shines as a personal story of gender identity and substance abuse recovery.


Allen, Samantha. Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. Little, Brown. 2019. 320p. ISBN 9780316516037. $27.
The current state of LGBTQ rights inspired a queer, trans woman to take a six-week road trip through traditionally conservative states to find their LGBTQ communities. Her insightful journey squashes assumptions and paints a more complete picture of states that traditionally lean right.

redstarThe Best American Travel Writing 2020. Houghton Harcourt. 2020. 336p. ed. by Robert Macfarlane. ISBN 9780358362036. pap. $15.99.
Timely essays from authors as diverse as the subjects—from overtourism to "voluntourism," and the U.S.-Mexico border to climate change. Essays of note include an instance of racism on a National Park Service bus, and a reimagination of what travel is from an individual with a neurological disorder who cannot process distance, directions, or space.

Bourdain World TravelredstarBourdain, Anthony & Laurie Woolever. World Travel: An Irreverent Guide. Ecco: HarperCollins. 2021. 480p. ISBN 9780062802798. $35.
In this work, started a short time before Bourdain's death, each chapter is an amalgamation of quotes from published work he wrote about his travels to more than 40 destinations. Added commentary by his travel companions is interspersed throughout.

Bryson, Bill. The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. Doubleday. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9780385539289. $28.95.
Considered a follow-up to his classic Notes from a Small Island from 20 years prior, this work by Bryson employs his trademark wit and wonder as he travels from one side of Britain to the other to revisit places already seen and discover new sites in a quest to better understand his adopted country.

Downs, Maggie. Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime. Counterpoint. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781640092921. $26.
Downs honors her mother, living with Alzheimer's disease, by postponing her career to backpack through 17 countries from her mother's bucket list that her mother was unable to visit. Her travels and story encourage readers not to postpone their dreams.

Lands of Lost BordersredstarHarris, Kate. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Dey Street: HarperCollins. Aug. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780062839343. $24.99.
A thought-provoking adventure travelogue by a Rhodes scholar and scientist whose fascination with history's explorers inspired her to bike along the Silk Road, crossing borders into areas both dangerous and breathtaking.

McKiernan, Ruairí. Hitching for Hope: A Journey into the Heart and Soul of Ireland. Chelsea Green. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9781603589574. pap. $17.95.
Dealing with burnout and feeling a call to explore, a Fulbright scholar quit his job to hitchhike through Ireland. This powerful and moving travelog shares the personal stories of his encounters, which range from sadness and despair to hope and resilience.

McCarthy, Andrew. The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage To Settle Down. Free Press. 2012. 288p. ISBN 9781451667486. $26.
Feeling unsettled about settling down and not knowing why, the former Brat Pack actor-turned-travel writer embarks on several international solo adventures, with destinations including Costa Rica, Spain, and Ireland, which prove emotional and life changing.

Theroux, Paul. Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads. Houghton Harcourt. 2015. 464p. ISBN 9780544323520. $29.95.
Prolific travel writer Theroux takes a series of road trips to often-overlooked locations in the South. Visiting with locals at restaurants, churches, and gun shows, he develops not just personal histories, but a portrait of our national history. The civil rights movement and Civil War are common themes.


DirtBuford, Bill. Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. Knopf. 2020. 432p. ISBN 9780307271013. $28.95.
Fulfilling his decades-old dream of learning to cook in the French style, Buford leaves New York for Lyon with his wife and young children for a five-year adventure that allows him to experience the culture of the "gastronomic capital of the world." An often laugh-out-loud culinary tale about the origins of food.

Gordinier, Jeff. Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World. Tim Duggan: Crown. 2019. 240p. illus. ISBN 9781524759643. $26.
Food writer Gordinier and a Danish boundary-pushing chef, René Redzepi of Noma, form a bond at pivotal moments in both of their lives. As their friendship takes them to Scandinavia, Australia, and Mexico, Gordinier's front seat for the unraveling and reinvention of Redzepi's famed restaurant inspires him to come to terms with his own shortcomings.

redstarLee, Edward. Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef's Journey To Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine. Artisan. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781579657383. $27.50.
Equal parts memoir, travelog, and cookbook, this work from a chef who is a child of immigrants details his travels around the United States to uncover the stories and people behind its diverse food. Includes 40 recipes. James Beard Award winner.

Locke, Tembi. From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. S. & S. 2020. ISBN 9781501187667.
This heartfelt memoir documents Locke’s story of international travel-turned-romance and how cooking with her late husband’s Italian family, and immersing herself in their community, healed wounds. Sicilian recipes included.

Always HomeredstarSinger, Fanny. Always Home: A Daughter's Recipes & Stories. Knopf. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781524732516. $35.
A feel-good tribute to growing up in a household with famed Chez Panisse executive chef Alice Waters. Singer’s memoir is as much about herself as her family and the culinary travels they have had together. Family recipes complement the heartwarming, personal stories throughout this memoir-cookbook.

redstarTwitty, Michael W. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. Amistad: HarperCollins. 2017. 464p. ISBN 9780062379290. $28.99.
A culinary historian documents and reenacts the history of Southern cuisine, visiting plantations to perform cooking demonstrations in period dress to tell the stories of recipes and his ancestors who cooked them. An essential book on culinary history. James Beard Award winner.


Gather. 2020. Illumine and Ager Meillier Films. 74 min.
An exploration of how Native American food culture has been diminished throughout U.S. history and how four individuals from separate tribes are spearheading change to restore their tribes' food traditions. Streaming available on several platforms, and DVD requests available from nativefoodsystems.org.

redstarA Chef's Life, Seasons 1-5. Markay Media dist. by PBS, shoppbs.org. $29.99.
Spanning five seasons from 2013 to 2017, this series follows celebrated chef Vivan Howard's journey back to her childhood home in rural North Carolina to open a fine dining farm-to-table restaurant. A valuable behind-the-scenes look on running a restaurant, a chef's creativity, and the unique culture of North Carolina's coastal plains.

180° South. 2010. Magnolia Home Entertainment. 87 min. DVD.
An American filmmaker embarks on an adventure that takes him by sailboat from Mexico to Chile and Argentina to surf, climb a volcano, and connect with nature. For the adventure enthusiast whose definition of travel includes making the best of unplanned situations and forging new friendships along the way.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing