Okay, everyone. It’s time to talk about one of my FAVORITE shows on television. I love, love, love the Great British Bake-Off; it’s just the coziest, happiest, most wonderful show. I mean, if there were a show that epitomized the feeling of being cuddled up inside of a red velvet cupcake with a cream cheese pillow, it’d be this show.
Since the season finale debuts this Friday, I thought now would be the most appropriate time to share a massive food-ish book list!
I also know that basically everyone loves this show, and for good reason! It’s a fantastic show!* There are 9 seasons available on Netflix (including the season that is currently in progress), and I cannot suggest it highly enough. When I had my first quaran-panic attack back in March, this is the first show I started re-watching. There is nothing more reassuring than watching Mary Berry calmly eviscerate a person’s bake or seeing Noel dance around the tent pestering people as they try to manage time in the most important bake of their entire life. It’s perfection in a reality show: competition, British accents, and camaraderie among contestants. Ugh, I cannot ever get enough of it.
Now, as I like to do, I thought it would be most appropriate to create a list of books that would nicely accompany your Bake Off-binging. Books about cooking and baking are one of my niche genres, so I’m really excited about this batch (HA, see what I did there).
*I will say, if you are not someone who watches GBBO but wants to, make sure you start from the beginning. The current season is the worst yet, and I don’t think that’s a spicy take. Of course, I’m still eating it up! I’ll take whatever I can get in 2020.
First and Foremost, all the Jenny Colgan.
Jenny Colgan isn’t just one of my favorite writers in this niche genre, she’s one of my favorite writers in general. I love her authorial voice, and her characters are always both relatable and memorable. She chooses settings that I would deem nearly perfect, and I leave every book feeling as warm and cozy as a preheated oven.
Little Beach Street Bakery
There are currently three books in this series, with one expected to publish in the Summer of 2021 (and trust me, there will be a countdown going on my personal computer FOR SURE). I’ve read them all, and each is as precious as the last.
This (Little Beach Street Bakery) is the first book in the series, and probably my favorite thus far. In this book we are introduced to Polly Waterford, a sweet protagonist escaping a failed relationship in the city. She finds a new home in Polbearne, a seaside town known largely for its tourism. She moves into a small apartment located over an abandoned storefront; when her favorite hobby (baking bread) becomes more of a passion, she decides to see what she can do with the sad little shop downstairs. There is, of course, a love interest. Unexpectedly, though, we meet a charming puffin that comes to be Polly’s personal pet (oof, the alliteration) and sidekick. Every good protagonist should have a puffin, I think.
The next two Little Beach Street Bakery books follow Polly as she becomes more serious about both her baking and the boy. She finds her own place in the world, and settles in as Little Beach Street’s very own resident baker.
If you even slightly like baking or romance or small towns and happy endings, I can’t recommend this series more highly.
All the Rest:
I liked this one a lot, too, though not as much as The Little Beach Street Bakery. I will say, however, that I found the love interest of Meet Me at the Cupcake Café much more swoon-worthy than the love interest of Little Beach Street. So that’s something!
The main character of this series (I literally just found out that it’s a series today, and then immediately bought Christmas at the Cupcake Café on Kindle; just in time for the holidays!) is Issy, a fantastic baker. Her creations are a bit more technically difficult and fancy than the comforting things Polly bakes, but that doesn’t take away from the overall charm of the story. When Issy gets laid off from her boring job, she decides to go out on a limb and fully pursue the baking thing, armed with her grandfather’s recipes. The grandfather element is actually so sweet; he lives in a care facility and suffers from memory loss, so this is a way Issy can connect to and remember the way her grandpa once was as a baker. Anyway, she gets two very different women to accompany her on her café journey, and the results are just delicious (pun fully intended).
Just like Little Beach Street Bakery, The Café by the Sea has a main character who has left the big city (London, in this instance) for the seaside. In my opinion, this protagonist is unlike most others I have encountered in Jenny Colgan’s books. She is a bit meeker in her interactions with others (though intensely clever and driven), more quiet and a somewhat less expected female character in my opinion. Something I really loved about this book in comparison to the other books I’ve mentioned is that this one has a really strong focus on family. Flora finds a love for cooking by revisiting the recipes her mother used before she died. And, of course, she finds a new appreciation for the island she once couldn’t wait to escape.
Last Christmas, I read the holiday-themed accompaniment to this book: Christmas on the Island. I actually read this before I read The Café by the Sea, but I liked it well enough that I wanted to read the original inspiration for the character of Flora! This story meets Flora in a season of discontentment and fear, and it also mixes that with the story of a community member (Saif) who is both a refugee and acting single father as he spends the first Christmas on the island without the presence of his wife. Don’t worry, it wouldn’t be Jenny Colgan if there weren’t a happy ending.
A J. Ryan Stradal Free-for-All
In my opinion, J. Ryan Stradal is the Fredrik Backman of the food/beverage-related literary fiction genre. He is FANTASTIC. I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest shortly after my son was born (and if you’ve read it, you’ll understand why those first 20 pages killed me) and really, really liked it. I originally gave it a 4.5 star rating, but it was one of those that I kept thinking about for days and then came back to rate higher.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Stradal’s debut) is a love story between Eva and her craft: cooking. And really, it’s almost more creating than cooking. She’s amazing and innovative in a way that, even though you know she’s a fictional character, leaves you in awe of how great she is. She grew up without her parents, but her father had been a chef before his death; food was the thing to which he had most looked forward to introducing her. It follows Eva from birth to culinary superstardom, and I think it’s a book worthy of respect.
Now, let me tell you about The Lager Queen of Minnesota*. WHAT A FREAKING BOOK. It was one of my favorite books of last year, and I knew only a quarter in that it would be a five-star read for me. It was SO GOOD. It examines sister relationships (and you know how I feel about those) and women as pioneers in the brewing community. Like Kitchens of the Great Midwest, it also follows lives over decades. I don’t want to say too much about this one, except that it maintained the same wonderful tone and voice Stradal had in his debut work while being an entirely original and new story.
*I know that this book is mostly all about beer and alcoholic drinks, but I’m pretty sure Prue Lieth’s favorite thing about Bake-Off is when people serve alcohol-inspired bakes, so I think it’s acceptable.
Sarah Addison Allen, or, as I like to call her, Literary Catnip
SAA was one of the first chick-lit, contemporary romance authors I ever read. She is delightful in a way that feels fairy tale-esque, almost otherworldly. There’s an element of magical realism in her books that is completely enchanting.
Waverley Family Series
There are two books in her Waverley Family series that deal very specifically with food: Garden Spells and First Frost. Garden Spells is the first (and the better of the two, in my opinion). The Waverley family is known for their cooking, but there’s something really interesting about their skill: the food they cook can change people’s emotions. It’s like culinary magic! So cool. They’re heavily female-lead books, too, and that can be really fun. In addition to that, there’s a romance element that is fine, but not too heavy-handed. It doesn’t take over the story by any means.
If you have a sweet tooth, you will definitely relate to the main character of this SAA book. Josey is 27 years old and fiercely addicted to sweets– that being said, the other major player in this novel is a magical book, so it’s a really fun time. This is actually probably my least favorite of Sarah Addison Allen’s books, but I still liked it well enough to give it three stars; it was a fun read, if not a revolutionary one. I will say, this is a FANTASTIC read for winter, if you’re one of those seasonal readers. Also, I found a really fun list from the In Literature website that lists all of the treats mentioned in The Sugar Queen.
A Whole Bunch of Other Food-Related Books I’ve Liked
The Coincidence of Coconut Cake (Amy E. Reichert)
I resisted reading this for a long time because I felt like it was popping up all over the place: Kindle book deals coming to my inbox, recommended on What Should I Read Next podcast, Goodreads, and yada yada yada.
I wish I hadn’t resisted this, because it was adorable. The two main characters are a chef and the food critic (COME ON, you know I’m going to ship that) in Milwaukee. Also, I feel like I’d never read another book that was set in Milwaukee, so I didn’t even know they had a food scene; this book made me want to plan a road trip to Minnesota so I could eat all the fun things.
Anyway, it’s a love story I actually liked, and I can be kind of picky about those. I highly recommend this book!
With the Fire on High (Elizabeth Acevedo)
This is such a good book! If 2020 gave me anything, it was Elizabeth Acevedo, and I could not be more grateful. She’s a fantastic, beautiful writer; I mean, the way she epitomizes the teen mood and experience is just astounding. Anyway, this is the story of a young mother who has a serious talent and interest in culinary arts. When her high school offers a culinary course, she jumps at the opportunity. Emoni recognizes that food is her chance to overcome the circumstances into which she was born and achieve a future with more potential for herself, her grandmother, and her daughter.
Sugar (Kimberly Stuart)
This is a really good book if you’re looking for a fictionalized version of the high-intensity, mega-pressured kitchens of fancy schmancy restaurants. Sorry for the lack of a better adjective, but also that description just feels most appropriate.
The main character, Charlie, was working as an assistant pastry chef under a sort-of-tyrant in NYC when her ex-boyfriend invited her to come work for him as executive pastry at his restaurant (Thrill) in Seattle. One thing she didn’t know when she accepted the offer, however, was that this new restaurant was the focus of a new reality television show.
I liked this, but honestly found it a little bit forgettable. I read it a few years when I was in first-time mom newborn fog, so that could be part of the problem. That being said, though, I think this could be a really fun read for a very specific audience.
Also, of course, there’s a love angle involved.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows)
This 2007 epistolary novel (novel told in letters) relates to food in a different way than any other book on this list. It’s a historical story that describes the power of food in a time of shortage and rationing, as the options for food during WWII weren’t nearly as plentiful as other periods. It’s a story of the innovative nature of cooking when one is forced to explore other culinary options, as well as the intense ability of food to connect people who come from different lives and backgrounds. It’s beautiful. I listened on audio, and I found that to be a great method of reading.
This book is also really special when you consider that Annie Barrows, the niece of Mary Ann Shaffer, had to step in and make sure the book actually happened when Mary Ann Shaffer became incredibly ill with cancer before the book’s publication. Shaffer had finished the book, but it needed editing; she approached her niece for help. Thankfully, Shaffer was able to see a copy of the finished manuscript before she died in February of 2008.
There’s a Netflix adaptation, but I can’t vouch for its quality. I haven’t seen it yet! If you have, maybe you can tell us in the comments whether it’s worth the time. Lol.
Sourdough (Robin Sloan)
Have you heard of this book? Because I would be happy to introduce the two of you.
I’ve NEVER in all my days read such a quirky, delightful book. I honestly think about it all the time, and I wish I hadn’t donated my copy. Alas, it was a lapse in judgment.
So, there’s a magical realism quality to this book that I’m not even sure I can explain. Essentially, the main character ends up with a sourdough starter that just won’t be ignored, so she begins baking bread. It’s almost like the sourdough starter becomes a child Lois must care for. Tech and food end up having a massively weird and unexpected hybrid in this story, and there’s also a super underground farmer’s market environment going on. If you can handle a read that’s outside the box, PLEASE look into this book. I liked it so much.
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living (Louise Miller)
If you’re looking for a book that’s basically Gilmore Girls in the fictional novel form, this is it.
The main character, Livvy Rawlings, sets a building on fire while flambeeing a desert and escapes into the Vermont countryside. She finds the most adorable and charming inn where she can hide away from the rest of her life, and she meets the most wonderful characters. Of course, she gets a Sookie St. James job offer and starts working in the kitchen at the Sugar Maple Inn.
This is probably one of my favorite foodie reads because it is just SO INCREDIBLY DELIGHTFUL. I loved every second of reading it. It had a very Little Beach Street Bakery vibe to it. I mean, this one earned a place on my Keep Shelf, for sure.
Heartburn (Nora Ephron)
Nora Ephron technically already made it on this list (she made the film Julie and Julia), but I think this novel deserves a read. I have read Ephron’s nonfiction, as well, but this is the very first book written by her that I ever read.
I listened to it on audio, and I HIGHLY recommend that method. It’s read by none other than the legend herself, Meryl Freaking Streep.
This novel recounts the end of a marriage, but it’s also quite funny. The connection to food comes from the fact that the main character, Rachel, is a cookbook writer. Recipes are seamlessly worked into the story. It’s pretty good, a four-star read for me.
Rabbit Cake (Annie Hartnett)
If you’re ready to read about a totally endearing coming-of-age story (and FIVE STAR READ), buckle up.
Elvis Babbitt is THE MOST WONDERFUL protagonist of all-time. I mean, that might be a slight exaggeration, but I definitely think she’s up there. She’s thoughtful and brutally honest and full of spunk; she’s got a head full of facts (smart as a whip) and a deeply analytical thought process as she reflects on the tragic death of her mother and tries to keep her sleep-walking sister safe.
Food comes into the picture because Elvis’s mother made rabbit cake (a normal cake in a rabbit cake pan) only for special occasions, namely birthdays. When her mother burns the rabbit’s ears on her 10th birthday, Elvis takes that as a sign that bad things are to come. And boy, was she ever right.
If you want to try your hand at your own rabbit cake, there’s a fun post about it here!
Non-Fiction Nibbles (Yes, you’re allowed to hate me for all the food jokes)
Garlic and Sapphires (Ruth Reichl)
This book is SO COOL. Basically, Ruth Reichl became the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and every restaurant instantly started treating her with absolute priority. So, to get a legitimate impression of the restaurants, Reichl started wearing disguises into restaurants. As if that weren’t enough, she also completely revolutionized the restaurants that were garnering attention from The Times; she went to high-brow classic cuisine as well as incredibly specific ethnically-based restaurants, which was totally different than expectation.
To make a long story short, this is Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her time working in this capacity. She describes many of the experiences she had as she traveled from restaurant to restaurant and also her own disillusionment with the position. It was good, I really liked it.
I also read Tender at the Bone (another memoir by Reichl). It was good, but not as good in my opinion. Tender at the Bone goes further back and tells the history of Ruth Reichl’s relationship with food and cooking from her childhood onward.
Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books (Cara Nicoletti)
Voracious was my first experience with foodie lit. Cara Nicoletti’s grandfather owned a butcher shop, and as a young girl she spent many hours sitting in his shop reading. She loved books from the start, but over the years she came to love food, as well. In this book, Nicoletti combines those two loves and writes a book that highlights the recipes and food of favorite books, and it’s every bit as delightful as it sounds. Some of the literary works she alludes to in this book include, but are not limited to:
- Emma, Jane Austen
- Moby Dick, Herman Melville
- Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
I will say that this is a nonfiction book that reads like nonfiction. It isn’t boring, but it definitely doesn’t have the driven plot that a novel normally would. Expect a steady, consistent, fun series of essays and recipes when you approach this one.
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (Julie Powell)
How could I not mention this book? I think it’s probably one of the most famous literary nonfiction pieces, largely because of the film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Readers, don’t attack me, but the movie is better than the book in this case. I honestly cringed writing that, but it’s the truth. Enter *shrugging emoji* here.
Regardless, the premise is fantastic: a slightly aimless Julie Powell finds purpose in cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking (by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck) in one year. In addition to cooking the recipes, she blogs about them. It’s genius, and I love the experience of both reading this book and watching the adaptation. I mean, Meryl Streep as Julia Child? COME ON. Here’s the trailer.
Personally, I gave the book 3 stars because I liked it, but wasn’t blown away by the book. The average Goodreads review is 3.71 stars. Like I said, check out the movie! It’s a blast to watch, and I would actually suggest watching THEN reading. I don’t normally say that, but hey, that’s how I feel about this.
I found the link to the archived blog The Julie/Julia Project here, if you feel like falling down a foodish literary internet information wormhole.
And just in case that wasn’t enough for you, I’ll end with a bunch of food-ish books on my TBR:
Recipe for Persuasion (Sonali Dev)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
Save Me the Plums (Ruth Reichl)
Relish (Lucy Knisley)
My Life in France (Alex Prud’homme)
Give a Girl a Knife (Amy Thielen)
What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories (Laura Shapiro)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)
The School of Essential Ingredients (Erica Bauermeister)
Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler)
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (Barbara Kingsolver)
All Four Stars (Tara Dairman)
Heartless (Marissa Meyer)
Chocolat (Joanne Harris)