If ever there was a year to cozy up in front of a good book for hours at a time, 2020 was that year. For so much of this pandemic, it felt like my brain was broken for long stretches of time, but the one thing I was able to do was curl up on my couch, or slink into the bathtub, and escape into a good novel.
As a person who writes about food for a living, and thinks about it constantly, I got my fair share of cookbooks and gritty chef memoirs in the mail. Mostly, though, what I read was fiction — so-called literary novels, sure, but also plenty of YA romance novels, diverse middle grade fiction, and tons and tons of manga and other graphic novels. And, as it turns out, that’s where I found some of the year’s most compelling, evocative food writing.
Here are seven of my favorites from 2020:
Memorial by Bryan Washington
Bryan Washington’s moving, searingly beautiful debut novel tells the story of Benson and Mike, a queer couple whose already-rocky relationship reaches a crossroads when Mike decamps to Osaka to take care of his dying, estranged father. In addition to breaking my heart in a thousand tiny pieces, Memorial was a food book at its core. It’s a love letter to the vibrant little bars and restaurants in Houston and Osaka, and it’s full of characters who have trouble saying the things they need to say to one another — so, instead, they cook udon together, or make quiet gestures, like a bowl of steamed rice left still warm on the counter.
Every Night Is Pizza Night by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
America’s preeminent food science-y recipe guy (and San Mateo-based chef) has written a picture book, together with illustrator Gianna Ruggiero, and no less an authority than the four-year-old in charge of my household immediately declared it one of her all-time favorites. Every Night Is Pizza Night tells the story of a kid named Pippo who embarks on a data-based, wholly scientific journey through her neighborhood to prove that pizza is the greatest food in the entire world. Spoiler alert: A whole host of other diverse, delicious foods are discovered.
Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory
Berkeley-based romance author Jasmine Guillory is known, in part, for two things: The first is her affirming and joyful portrayals of the smart, successful Black women who are her books’ protagonists. The second? The fact that characters are always, always, always either eating delicious food with great relish, or having heated, good-natured debates about food. The snack scenes are rendered with as much care and affection as the love scenes. Guillory’s latest, the story of a secret romance in between a hard-working lawyer and the junior senator from California, is no exception: There are diner pies, a Fruitvale taco truck expedition, quick runs to In-N-Out, and cake. So much cake.
Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu by Natsuya Semikawa and Virginia Nitouhei
If you’re anything like me, 2020 has been the kind of year where you crave comfort and gentleness above all else — including the books that you have the mental and emotional headspace for. Otherworldly Izakaya Nobu, a manga series whose English translation completed its seven-volume run this year, hits that sweet spot: It’s the tale of Nobu, a modern-day Japanese izakaya that, through some unexplained magic, opens out onto the fictional, feudal Germanic city of Eiteriach. Each chapter’s low-stakes conflict always gets resolved the same way: with locals marveling at the wonders of a bowl of nikujaga, a katsu sandwich, or a plate of piping-hot karaage.
Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Because I’m a dad to a fourth grader, I read a bunch of middle grade fiction — but even without that entrée into the genre, I’d still recommend Carlos Hernandez’s Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe (and its predecessor, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe) with my whole heart. The narrator, Sal Vidon, is a Cuban-American middle-schooler with an abiding love for magic tricks, wisecracks, and home-cooked Cuban food, and while the plot is almost too outlandish to summarize (it has to do with artificial intelligence, grief, the multiverse, and, of course, true friendship), food lovers will appreciate the affirming way the author handles Sal’s type 1 diabetes. To wit: A picadillo empanada made with almond flour winds up providing one of the book’s emotional high points.
Check, Please!, Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
There aren’t many fictional characters as lovable as Eric “Bitty” Bittle, the figure-skater-turned-college-hockey-player protagonist of Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please! series, the full-color print adaptation of Ukazu’s popular webcomic, whose second and final volume dropped this year. A vlogger, nimble skater, and prolific baker, Bitty spends roughly a quarter of the book cranking out an ungodly number of pies and other baked delights for his appreciative teammates. The rest of the time? He works up the courage to come out to his parents and maybe, just maybe, finds true love with one of his former teammates. It’s a sweet, sweet story, and — among other things — a wonderful antidote to the kind of toxic masculinity you find in a lot of other sports fiction.
My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame
I was first turned onto My Brother’s Husband by Soleil Ho, whom I knew from her excellent anime and manga newsletter even before she became the food critic at our local paper of record. When Yaichi, a single dad raising his young daughter in Tokyo, hosts his deceased brother’s husband — a kind, genial Canadien named Mike Flanagan — Yaichi is forced to reckon with his own prejudices, discomfort, and homophobia. Newly available this year in one super-sized, translated volume, this one had me in tears for long stretches of its second half. A big part of how Mike and Yoichi’s family build connections is through food: a burbling pot of Japanese curry, Purin pudding inhaled through a straw, ankake yakisoba, and even Kraft macaroni and cheese.