Snacking on The Past: 5 Books about Food History

Tea espionage? Doctored wine bottles? The use of measurements in recipes?  Food history can be both a wonderful and terrible place. Our favorite foods have fascinating backstories. For instance, I recently read that German immigrants and their beer houses in Texas helped popularize chili powder. Who knew! But other food histories uncover dark dealings, such as the role that cheese played in the slave trade or the level of collaboration between cheese producers and Nazis. What draws me to these histories is the fact that a single food item (or items) helps to uncover all the histories of an era such as the political, economic, social, and cultural instead of segmenting one out. Below are five food histories/narratives that explore different kinds of food from all over the world.

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine – Sarah Lohman

Lohman looks at eight popular flavors — black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha— in US cuisine. It’s a fascinating lens to look at US history and, in particular, how we and our food relate to immigrants. It was delightful to learn that the history of curry powder goes back much further than you would expect in US cuisine. It was really fascinating to see how certain tastes became adopted based on our feelings towards immigrants. For instance, many people reviled garlic since it was associated with Italians, but gained acceptance through French food. I also loved that she talked about the recent history of Sriracha and how it has become such a widespread spice in our day and age.

Consider the Fork

Consider the Fork: A History of Invention in the Kitchen – Bee Wilson

Ever wondered about the history of forks, spoons, knives, mixing bowls, and even recipe books? Then Consider the Fork is for you. Each chapter is dedicated to a different food utensil and its delightful world history. I was surprised to find out how late the Western world started using the fork compared to its brothers, the spoon and knife. Like the adoption of many new technologies, it was regarded poorly and denigrated as feminine. Bee Wilson also explores the evolution of recipe books; what a revelation it was when measurements were included in recipes!

On the Noodle Road

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta– Jen Lin-Liu

Jen Lin-Liu’s work is a combination of a food history and travel narrative. Jen Lin-Liu runs a cooking school in Beijing. After her honeymoon, she decides to explore the claim that Marco Polo brought noodles to Italy from China.  She starts in Beijing and makes her way to Rome through all of China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and then Italy.

Her descriptions of the food are positively mouthwatering. I want to go find the delicious noodles she has in China or the rice plov dishes that she has through Central Asia. Throughout the book, she goes into the homes of people on her journey and gives us little snapshots of what it is like to be in Uighur territory in Western China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey. She also explores the gendered aspects of food preparation and consumption throughout her trip while also trying to figure out her role in the world as a new wife and professional.

Wine and War

Wine and War:  The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure– Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup

This book is a fascinating exploration of the wine industry during Nazi occupation in France. What I love about it is that it shows the degrees of collaboration and rebellion that any culture faces in time of authoritarian occupation. Some people completely rebel against Vichy France and the Nazis, whereas others are completely complicit. More interestingly there are people in between that rebel in their own special ways. For instance, Parisian restaurants bricked away their best wines and placed spiders over those new walls to keep the best wines from the Germans. Also, there’s an entire chapter about a POW camp holding a wine party to keep up morale.

For All the Tea in China

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink– Sarah Rose

Rose talks about how the British wanted to break China’s monopoly on the tea trade. People outside of China knew very little about tea; no one even knew if green and black tea came from different plants. Rose explores the crazy story about botanist Robert Fortune going to China to uncover the secret of tea and to steal specimens. The object? So that the British could grow their own tea in India. Fortune was also charged with convincing tea laborers to leave China to share their secrets about cultivating tea. Sarah Rose labels it “the world’s biggest corporate espionage” and she’s absolutely correct. Not only is it a dark story about tea, it also explores the progress in plant cultivation.

That’s just a small snack of food histories out there!

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