Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Joan Didion’s Favorite Recipes

Chicken hash for Patti Smith, parsley salad for forty guests, and other edible fragments of a life that feminized the literary myth.

I have a voracious appetite for unusual cookbooks, particularly ones at the intersection of cuisine and literature — from vintage treasures like The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook and Found Meals of the Lost Generation to loving homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and those real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books to creative twists like Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction. How irresistible, then, to devour the recipes and menus that Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers of our time, holds most dear. “Part of Didion’s innovation was to feminize the literary myth,” Nathan Heller wrote in his beautiful essay on the writer’s living legacy — and her relationship with cuisine was an epicenter of that revolution.

As a supporter of the Didion documentary, I was treated to a copy of the author’s personal cookbook — a florilegium of sorts, assembling handwritten recipes, culinary clippings from various magazines and books, and menus of meals she served while entertaining at her home, to guests like Patti Smith (chicken hash with roasted yellow peppers and baguettes) and Richard Roth (baked ham with mustard and Alice Waters’s coleslaw).

Tucked into the recipes and menus are subtle clues to Didion’s life and social circle — sometimes amusing (parsley salad for 35 to 40?), sometimes poignant (fewer and fewer guests listed on the menus as the years roll by), always deeply human (cross-outs, inconsistent punctuation).

Recipes, by their very nature, are also strangely reflective of Didion’s stylistic signature as a writer — a directness at once unembellished and undry.

Here are a few favorites.

(for 6)

2 lbs lean stew beef.

brown + put in stewpot w/ 1 c bouillon, 2 qt water, clove, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic, 1 chopped onion.

Simmer 1 hr.


4.5 peeled + grated beets,
1 cut-up potato (large)
3/4 head shredded cabbage.
Juice a couple of beets. (Brown Sugar)
Dill weed.
Simmer another hour.
Serve with bowl of sour cream.

(Serves 8)

2 (9 oz.) pkgs. frozen artichoke hearts
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 cup butter
dash white pepper
1 t. onion salt
1/2 t. prepared mustard
3/4 t. salt
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup reserved artichoke liquid
1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 egg slightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
2 T. dry bread crumbs

Heat oven to 450 F.
Cook artichokes according to pkg. directions adding lemon juice to water. Drain, reserving 1/2cup liquid. Place artichokes in a single layer in a 9-inch shallow casserole.

Sauce: melt butter, add spices and flower, stir until smooth. Gradually add artichoke liquid and milk. Cook, stirring, until thick. Remove from heat, add egg and half of cheese. Blend. Pour over artichokes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese, bread crumbs and paprika.

Bake for 15 minutes.


Sauté 1 onion, chopped, in 2 T olive oil, until soft.

Add 1 c rice, stir to coat, add 1/3 c white wine, let evaporate — add, bit by bit, 5 cups broth (1 can beef broth plus water to 5c).


For 1 pound of crabmeat:

Melt 4 T butter, sauté 1/4 tp 1/2 cup chopped celery and 3 chopped scallions. Stir in 1/2 t dry mustard, 1 T flour, cayenne and salt. Add 1 container heavy cream, thicken a bit, stir in crabmeat.

Pour into baking dish, finish with dried bread crumbs, Parmesan, and paprika. In oven 15 minutes, finish under broiler until brown.


For a pound of pasta,

a cup and a half (about one ounce) of basil leaves, loosely packed
a handful of parsley leaves
1/8 ¼ cup pine nuts
several garlic cloves
a teaspoon of red pepper flakes
a quarter ½ cup olive oil

Blend together, gradually adding oil and then mixing in pepper flakes.

(for pound of pasta)

1 stick butter, 1 t red pepper flakes, 1 c vodka, 1 8-oz can tomato sauce, 1 tomato, 1 c heavy cream

(For 12)

  1. Melt 1 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water in saucepan + cook until golden. Line 12 cups with this caramelized sugar + let it set.
  2. Scald 4 cups milk with long piece of vanilla bean. Meanwhile, beat together 6 eggs, 4 additional egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar.
  3. Remove vanilla bean + trickle hot milk into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour this mixture with care over caramel in cups.
  4. Place cups in pan of hot water + into 350° oven for 20-25 min, until point of knife comes out of center clean. (water must not boil.) Chill + unmold.


2 1/2 cups Bisquick
3 T sugar
3 T melted butter
1/2 cup milk

Knead 8-10 times —
Roll 1/2 in thick — cut — ungreased pan — 10 min at 425°.


8 bunches Italian parsley
Blend 16 T olive oil with one head parsley until smooth
Blend in 4 T balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper
When ready to serve place parsley in 1 1/3 C grated parmesan in bowl, toss with dressing

Complement with a reading list of Didion’s all-time favorite books and her sublime meditations on grief and self-respect, then treat yourself to The Modern Art Cookbook, Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic gastronomy, Patti Smith’s lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and a few favorite recipes of favorite poets.

Published February 11, 2015




Filed Under

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated