Previously published in the monthly e-newsletter Digestible Bits & Bites. Subscribe here free of charge.
- 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today by Stephen Le
- Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition by Vicky Straker
- At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell
- Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello
- Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky
- Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
- Bong Appétit by the editors of Munchies & Elise McDonough
- The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy by HP Newquist
- Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi
- Brewing Revolution, Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton
- Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
- The Canadian Receipt Book, Containing over 500 Valuable Receipts for the Farmer and the Housewife, First Published in 1867, ed. Jen Rubio
- Cannabis Cuisine, Bud Pairings of a Born Again Chef by Andrea Drummer
- Chillies: A Global History by Anne Arndt Anderson
- The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History of the Old South by Michael Twitty
- Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum
- Dinner with Dickens, Recipes Inspired by the Life and Work of Charles Dickens by Pen Vogler
- Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change by Scott Kennedy (Dundurn Press, 2017)
- Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman
- Fats: A Global History by Michelle Phillipov
- Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food by Patric Kuh
- Food and Museums, edited by Nina Levent & Irina D. Mihalache
- Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate by Robert Dirks
- Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain by Carolyn A. Nadeau
- France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt
- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France: Recipes Inspired by the Cafés and Bars of Fitzgerald’s Paris and the Riviera in the 1920s by Carol Hilker
- Gifts of the Gods: A History of Food in Greece by Andrew & Rachel Dalby
- The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World by Laura Kumin
- Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis by The Stoner’s Cookbook, Melissa Parks & Laurie Wolf
- Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray
- I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg (Penguin Random House, 2017)
- King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from around the World by Joan Nathan
- Madrid: A Culinary History by Maria Paz Moreno
- Melon: A Global History by Sylvia Lovegren
- The National Trust Book of Scones: 50 Delicious Recipes and Some Curious Crumbs of History by Sarah Clelland
- Onions and Garlic: A Global History by Martha Jay
- Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
- Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, edited by Kristine Kowalchuk
- Provence to Pondicherry by Tessa Kiros
- Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton
- The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, edited by Roxanne Swentzell & Patrician M. Perea
- Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada, ed. Elizabeth Baird & Bridget Wranich
- Rose Murray’s Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook: Easy, Feel-Good Food for Family and Friends by Rose Murray
- Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen
- The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about Eating from Prehistory to the Present by Christine A. Hastorf
- Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro
- Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey by Lenore Newman
- A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman & Andrew Coe
- Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid
- Tasting Rome, Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill
- Tea with Jane Austen by Pen Vogler
- Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams
- The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich - A Faithful Recreation of the Original 1909 Edition by Eva Greene Fuller
Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray (Prospect Books, 2009). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
You may recall that I reviewed a new biography of cookbook author Patience Gray in Digestible Bits and Bites’ December issue, titled Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray, by Adam Federman. I enjoyed it very much, even though I’d not read any of Gray’s books. It prompted me to get a copy of her best-known cookbook, Honey from a Weed, a title I was familiar with from reading other authors. I said I’d report back. It may not be a recent book, but it is a book new to me, and perhaps to you too, so worth reviewing. And recommending.
Alan Davidson’s Prospect Books first published it in 1986, then re-released it in 1987 and 2002, and again in 2009. It’s considered to be one of the most influential 20th-century cookbooks. I found it mesmerizing. Rhapsodic. How did I manage to miss it during my 32 years of professionally reading cookbooks and culinary history books?
Patience Gray lived the last half of her long life (1917–2005) among the country people of the lowermost point on Italy’s peninsular heel, Apulia. Stretches of time were also spent in Carrara, Tuscany, in Catalonia, northwest Spain, and in the Greek Cyclade Islands, especially Naxos. She and her partner, sculptor Norman Mommens, became an integral part of the Apulia community, although they never lost their foreignness and Englishness. By living on a small rustic plot alongside their farm neighbours, they participated fully in the region’s seasonal and daily rhythms, making their own wine and olive oil, preserving fruits and lard, foraging for edible weeds and growing vegetables. They also cooked on an indoor hearth and grill, carried pails of water from pump to sink and eschewed refrigeration.
I think the cookbook became a classic because its narrative and recipes captured these rhythms and activities so evocatively, respectfully, with both scholarship and familiarity. I can understand the inspiration others must have felt when it was originally published. I can’t forget to mention Corinna Sargood’s dozens of wonderful line drawings, which are integral to the book’s charm.
Honey from a Weed is both autobiographical and archival. Gray knew she was recording the fading communal practices of ancient farming and foraging. Her meticulous observations and wide-ranging historical research, not to mention her frequent acerbic comments on what the 20th century wrought, really bring alive the very old culinary and agricultural continuity of these regions.
Cannabis Cuisine, Herb and Bong Appétit: Three Books About Cooking with Cannabis, reviewed by Elka Weinstein, pictured above
Now that cannabis is legal in Canada, it seems high time to review some cookbooks that utilize and celebrate the aromatic plant in “edibles,” as they are referred to in the new pot parlance.
Bong Appétit by the editors of Munchies & Elise McDonough (10speed Press / Penguin Random House, October 2018)
Munchies, an offshoot of VICE Media, is a website and digital video channel out of Los Angeles, hosted by self-professed cannabis-cooking experts Ry Prichard, Vanessa Lavorato and Abdullah Saeed. As the introduction says, the team at Munchies has experimented with adding cannabis to various kinds of food, some more successfully than others. (The most difficult recipe involves using nitrous oxide to make an alcoholic infusion with mezcal.)
Most recipes are credited to well-known chefs at specific restaurants, such as executive chef Sam Smith at Tusk. Beautifully illustrated, Bong Appétit features clear instructions and ingredient lists. Though it does not suggest specific cannabis strains for each recipe, it does have a section titled “Ry’s Pairing Suggestions for Popular Strains.”
In spite of the cutesy title, this book is the one that I would purchase as a total novice in using edible cannabis. The introductory chapter has sections on equipment and on the usable parts of the plant and its derivates, including kief, water hash, concentrates and extracts. It also explains terpenes (a critical chemical component of cannabis), how to buy weed, where to buy it, and how to prepare it—all very important if you don’t want to be disappointed with your first tries at cooking with cannabis.
Whether you’re looking to try some of these recipes as a first-time “edibles” consumer or you’ve used cannabis before and want the experience to be less experimental, you will find some pretty heady (and delicious) recipes in this book.
Cannabis Cuisine, Bud Pairings of a Born Again Chef by Andrea Drummer (Mango, 2017)
In this part-biography, part-cookbook, chef Andrea Drummer traces her transformation from vehement anti-drug counsellor to “born-again” cannabis advocate to her current status as a celebrity chef and one of ten Top Cannabis Chefs in the USA. Cannabis Cuisinereads like a revelation of Drummer’s discoveries of herself as a chef and of the culinary, medicinal and personal properties of cannabis as a flavour and mood enhancer. Her philosophy is clear: “To orchestrate a great dining experience, one must first identify the participants of choice.”
This is an entertaining read. Childhood memories are interspersed with chapters grouping foods together (slightly idiosyncratically), while many recipes suggest “Bud Pairings” (cannabis strains) for their specific properties, taste and THC percentage. Drummer’s recipes are fairly innovative; most use cannaoil or cannabutter as substitutes for the usual lipids, and the cannabis pairings make sense.
My only quibble is that, although Drummer does explain the fundamentals of how to prepare cannaoil and cannabutter, she does not provide a glossary of terms. I would have liked one, particularly for the cannabis strains. Leafing through the book to find which kinds are suitable for which dishes is a bit tedious, and since most strains are now standardized and available, it would have been helpful to have them all in one place.
Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis by The Stoner’s Cookbook, Melissa Parks & Laurie Wolf (Inkshares, 2015)
This book is very clearly produced for states where cannabis is legal, and indeed, according to their bios, the chefs live in Portland, Oregon and Colorado. Another American practice—warnings about the possible deleterious effects of foods not cooked thoroughly or treated the wrong way before consuming—is featured in a note from the publisher and a disclaimer in bold type that precede the introduction.
The introductory chapter is a clear and easy-to-read how-to on the effects of cannabis, its medicinal properties, and how to produce cannaoil and cannabutters. The recipes are grouped into recognizable cookbook chapters (Dips and Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts), but the recipes do not include suggestions for selecting particular strains of cannabis for dishes, leaving it to the reader to choose the best fit.
Except for the addition of cannabis, these are fairly standard recipes that would work perfectly well without cannabis. And again, there is no glossary. However, the food photography really makes this book shine; photographer Bruce Wolf is Chef Laurie Wolf’s husband, and his eye for detail and light make all of the recipes look mouthwateringly beautiful.
Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
While retrieving a library book I’d put on hold, I caught sight of an arresting black-and-white photo on the front cover of a new book, of an old woman with windswept hair. She radiated a fascinating life well lived. My eye immediately saw the name Patience Gray in the title. I was familiar with food writer Patience Gray, having seen her and her book Honey from a Weed mentioned admiringly by other food writers. I also recalled having read pieces by her in early issues of PPC*. Quixotically, I could even remember that those PPC pieces were cowritten by her son Nick Gray. Of course I had to get that book too—I had to read the life behind that face.
And what a life. Unconventional, for sure. Born in 1917, she started as a well-to-do middle-class English schoolgirl, but by her early 50s was living an ultra-simple rustic life in the remote Italian countryside with her companion, sculptor Norman Mommens. (I confess to not recognizing his name.)
Along the way to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, Patience was a single unwed mother in a primitive English cottage during the war, a research assistant to various magazine editors, a freelance writer about art and design, a wallpaper designer, a contributing translator of Larousse Gastronomique and a friend to many well-known people in literary, music, art and journalism circles.
It turns out she wrote other cookbooks too, although Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia (1986, 1987, 2002), remains her best known. It’s based on her decades of life wandering the hillsides of these places, both alone and in the company of the peasant women and children who were able to teach her to identify the hundreds of wild leaves, roots, fruits and mushrooms that constituted a huge portion of daily fare before the consumerist world started to replace the old ways in the 1960s.
Her biographer, Adam Federman, had a lot of sources to work from. Patience Gray befriended many people, with whom she corresponded prolifically. Many of those letters survive, as does all her journalism, as well as her and Mommens’ private papers, photographs and recorded BBC interviews. Her son and daughter, Nick and Miranda, and various family members, colleagues, friends and children of friends all shared memories with Federman, not all of them flattering. With her unusual life came some self-interested attitudes and actions, many hurtful and therefore not forgotten.
As a reader, I found myself being simultaneously impatient with her egotistic impracticality, especially about money, but appreciative of her single-minded insistence on honouring a vanishing food culture by living it with Mommens. However, as an experienced copy editor, I found myself sometimes confused in places where Federman leaves out explanatory details, such as the title of a very small handmade book of historical Catalan recipes that Gray wrote in 1969 to honour a friend (and it’s not included in the bibliography, nor on Wikipedia). He is not always clear about which friend he was referring to; he sometimes skips around time periods and locations.
Federman does all this enough to exasperate me, but nonetheless he evokes an extraordinary person, life partnership, era and place with skillful comprehension that is at times thrilling. The reader journeys toward Honey from a Weed and why it’s considered one of the greatest 20th-century cookbooks.
I thus see Gray’s life in her wrinkled, sun-brown, wise-woman face, but now wanting to read her own words. I’ve ordered her book from the library; I’ll let you know in the next issue what I learn.
*Petits Propos Culinaires: Food, Cookery, Cookery Books
Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada, ed. Elizabeth Baird & Bridget Wranich (Whitecap Books, 2018). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above).
In the world of culinary history, there is a certain divide between the academic stream of primarily textual researchers and those who actually cook from historic recipes, often in the context of interpretation at museums and historic houses. Like its predecessor Setting a Fine Table, which covers recipes of the later Georgian period (likewise produced at Fort York National Historic Site), Recipes for Victory doesn’t so much cross this divide as ignore it entirely, with the result of offering a unique view into the period of the Great War as seen from a Canadian perspective through the lens of food.
There are few if any such thorough guides to First World War cooking. The text—including articles by Toronto’s Chief Curator Wayne Reeves, Program Development Officer Kevin Hebib of Fort York and retired Parks Canada Military Curator David Webb—is a fine example of rigorous scholarship presented in language that would be easy for the average high-school student to read.
The contributors have mined military attestation records, contemporary newspapers, personal letters and notebooks, genealogical sources and, of course, cookbooks of the period to create a compelling historical account of cooking and eating at home, overseas and on the battle lines. The book contains plenty of engaging stories of individual soldiers and cooks, as well as copious historical images and photos of food prepared from the recipes.
Reading through accounts of the time, I found myself experiencing low-level anxiety as I pictured myself trying to churn out meals—perhaps for 50 to 100 soldiers at a time—using makeshift equipment cobbled from jerrycans, canteen tins, sheet metal and raw earth. I imagined myself surviving on the meagre soldiers’ fare. Although the authors take pains to point out that the stereotypical bully beef and hard tack were seldom the only food available, there was certainly deprivation in terms of taste and quality, if not calories. (The book dwells on the importance of baked gifts from home, offering recipes for durable cakes that could be shipped, gladdening the hearts of their recipients.)
Even at home, the strain would have been considerable. Apart from constant injunctions to stretch food, use less appealing ingredients and avoid waste, by 1918, the book tells us, Canadian homemakers faced jail or imprisonment for icing cakes or stocking more than 15 days’ flour or sugar at home: a true hardship at a time when most still did a lot of baking!
Nonetheless, ingenuity found a way. No sugar? Use dates! Flour in short supply? Make delicious potato-based breads! Along with trench fare, Recipes for Victory provides instructions for the sweet treats that continued to be served at Canadian tea parties and other such gatherings despite (or because of) the looming shadow of war. They come from well-known cookbooks of the time, recipes created by the companies that sold cookware and ingredients, government pamphlets and compilations by home cooks such as The Women’s Patriotic League Cookery Book by the Women’s Patriotic League of Brockville, Ontario (1918). Many of the recipes are sourced from Aunt Hanna’s War-Time and Peace-Time Recipes (Toronto, 1918), a fundraising cookbook published by the Ladies of Ward 2 Patriotic Association of Toronto, with proceeds going toward the purchase of a motor ambulance.
Each recipe is presented in its original version as well as in an adaptation for the modern kitchen, all meticulously tested at Fort York by the Volunteer Historic Cooks (most of them members of the CHC, including the editors themselves, as well as Mark D’Aguilar, Brenda Dalglish, John Hammond, Jan Main, Peggy Mooney and Sherry Murphy). Mark D’Aguilar and Melissa Beynon contributed photography. It should be noted that our own Julia Armstrong, who proofreads this newsletter, was responsible for copy editing and proofreading Recipes for Victory—an impressive achievement.
In sum, this book is a priceless resource for anyone wishing to recreate WWI-era cookery; I know of no other that offers such a wide range of recipes faithfully redeveloped for today’s cooks of all skill levels. Its subtitle is clever, because ultimately Recipes for Victory is not just about food of the Great War, but also great war food.
I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg (Penguin Random House, 2017). Reviewed by Fiona Lucas, pictured above.
Bracing, caustic, perceptive and often funny. Wonderful too, from her in-your-face title through to the last pages outlining the vision for what would become her popular Grey Gardens restaurant in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Jen Agg has penned a substantial no-holds-barred account of her so far 40-plus years, from happy Scarborough childhood to rebellious teen to neophyte bartender to naïve restaurateur to high-profile businesswoman. She experiences life wholly and vividly. I loved this memoir by one of Toronto’s best-known, most innovative restaurateurs.
Agg is the force of nature behind The Black Hoof (charcuterie), Cocktail Bar (self-explanatory), Rhum Corner (Caribbean food, rum cocktails), Grey Gardens (wine bar, seafood) and, in Montreal, Agrikol (Haitian food and cocktails). Her most recent place is Le Swan (French bistro). She gives full credit to her skilled front-of-house and kitchen staff, and her artist husband, Roland Jean, but in truth she’s the fiery visionary.
Her personal style is fully reflected in her writing style—bland she ain’t. Witty, humane, potty-mouthed, decisive, blunt, jubilant, intense, intelligent, acutely self-aware, critical, bawdy, impatient, motherly. Shouty and opinionated too, as she gleefully admits. Outspoken in the best of ways—speaking out on behalf of women in the restaurant industry, challenging long-held sexist attitudes and actions. She views the world through joyful and wrathful feminist eyes. My only complaint: there’s no index.
Agg writes about the chronology of her restaurants as she learns, sometimes the hard way via bankruptcy and toxic partnerships, to become an effective entrepreneur within a largely male environment. She adds in life lessons about being a daughter, wife, stepmother, good friend, bad friend, den mother to various staff, and about becoming unapologetically herself. She doesn’t let herself off the hook about the many questionable decisions made along the way, but neither does she downplay her innovative successes. For those seeking case studies about what to do and what not to do while creating new restaurants, here are some real stories.
A cracking good read.
Don Mills: From Forests and Farms to Forces of Change by Scott Kennedy (Dundurn Press, 2017). Reviewed by Laura Reilly, pictured above.
This interesting book is not a cookbook. It is a history of the development and eventual demise of the abundant farms and small Ontario communities that were established in Don Mills and surrounding North York in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a brief introduction and informative background chapter, each of the subsequent 27 chapters focuses on a farm in the area. Each farm reveals an intriguing story that readers may have some familiarity with.
There is the story of the Maryvale Farm, owned by Frank and Ellen O’Connor. They are the founders of the Laura Secord Candy Company, which they started in 1913 with a bit of savings and a candy recipe. The Oriole Lodge Farm became a model farm under the care of George Stewart Henry, who “helped form the Farmer’s Dairy, a co-operative created to ensure fair prices for the farmers.” Miner-turned-farmer F.M. Connell raised Ayrshire cattle, which produced milk that children with dairy allergies could tolerate.
The history of early Ontario settlement is woven into the accounts of the expansion and development of the most productive farms and farmlands (Class 1 farmland) in Ontario, which are now entirely covered by urban features: shopping malls, parks, roads and residential neighbourhoods. Descriptions of local families, property ownership, architecture, politics, community networks, agricultural practices, education and religion ebb and flow throughout the narrative.
Culinary historians will find the book of interest because of the descriptions of what was raised and grown on these farms, which supplied food to Toronto and area. Local seasonal supplies (“wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, turnips, apples”) provided the foundation for recipes created and adapted in Ontario homes and institutions.
The material is very well researched and supported with comprehensive notes and a bibliography and index. The author writes in a friendly and open manner that easily engages the reader. The lively text is accompanied by relevant photographs from different time periods. The combination of historical facts and Scott Kennedy’s opinions makes for entertaining and thought-provoking reading.
Rose Murray’s Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook: Easy, Feel-Good Food for Family and Friends (Whitecap, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, pictured above.
I thoroughly enjoyed leafing through CHC member Rose Murray’s latest Comfortable Kitchen Cookbook, and I think most cooks will find the recipes therein easy, comforting and delicious as well. I will definitely buy this book to have on hand when my family and I need a change from my usual cooking, or when I want a variation on something that I already make.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the anecdotes that Murray shares in each chapter, and the pointers provided with each recipe. Her memories of cooking with her family are poignant and sweet, and the information on how to serve, when to serve, and special garnishes for plain dishes are very welcome. Murray also borrows a few recipes from friends, such as Elizabeth Baird’s Chorizo and Chicken Paella and Monda Rosenberg’s Easy Spicy Lasagna. These recipes remind one that although the book is meant for home cooks looking to make easy comfort food, it is also based on the author’s deep experience of creating many books for the Canadian cook.
The beautiful photos make the dishes seem very accessible. Indeed, in the acknowledgments, Murray thanks the Light Imaging Production team for “making the food in the book look like mine.”
I would highly recommend this book to anyone new to cooking, and as a gift for those who love cooking with local Canadian ingredients.
Provence to Pondicherry by Tessa Kiros (Quadrille Publications, 2017), reviewed by Gary Gilman, pictured above.
Tessa Kiros is a well-known culinary and travel writer who has focused on Mediterranean cuisines. The author was born in the UK and raised in South Africa, and now lives in Tuscany, Italy. The book seeks to show how French cooking and culinary techniques influenced food in territories formerly under French rule—in this case Guadeloupe, Vietnam, La Réunion, and Pondicherry in India.
The book handles the political history well but lightly: the prime focus is flora and fauna, food, peoples and cooks. In a word, this is not a work of political or social history but a popular work on food and travel. The book’s design has flair, with a cover that evokes a somewhat distressed 19th-century French volume.
The photography, by Manos Chatzikonstantis, is superb. It is often presented in a colourful “picture book” collage that complements the narrative. The combination gives a palpable sense of the areas visited. The narrative points to the various elements that together make a cuisine and culture: not just produce of land and waters, not just kitchen savvy, but also weather, architecture, what people wear.
French pays such as Normandy and Provence get close attention as the author asserts that they influenced the foodways of distant lands. The link results, she suggests, from ships having departed their ports to discover, settle and provision new colonies. Classic cream-based dishes from Normandy abound, as well as less familiar French recipes, to show connections to foreign recipes.
The author gives a mussels recipe from each area surveyed, thus five or six of them, which allows one to “compare and contrast.” There are many good travel observations, often of a lyrical turn. One, aptly underscored by a Kodachrome-like photo, describes a pleasing dissonance of brightly coloured plastic chairs and old weathered walls in a Vietnamese city.
Despite the inspirations of French cooking, the former colonies’ foods often exhibit a unique local character. A bananas-and-rum dish suggests this, as does the way the French-inspired wheat loaf is used with local ingredients and techniques in Vietnam. Another example: a white fish of Guadeloupe’s waters bathed in lime juice.
Kiros makes the point with regard to Provence that almost any element of its cuisine will match another, even when chosen at random. Her book shows that, in general, the ingredients and methods of La Francophonie, as widespread and diverse as they may be, can combine to similar effect. Somehow, things in a cuisine system just “fit” over time, a slow process of adaptation and accretion. (In a different but parallel context, one thinks of the Anglo-Indian kedgeree, or generic British “curries.”)
One hopes that a second volume will follow, covering areas settled by the French that are not canvassed in Provence to Pondicherry. Louisiana and Quebec in particular would be ideal for this treatment.
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America by Laura Shapiro (Viking, 2004). Reviewed by Sonja Pushchak, pictured above.
If you find yourself picking through frosty-furry boxes of lasagna and butter chicken, hating yourself for having neither the time nor the inclination to cook, you can relax. We’re not the first generation to fall prey to the narcotizing effect of convenience food.
And stop thinking that the servitude of heat-and-serve was an industry response to consumer demand. No matter how much the corporate food world wants you to believe it’s really you that’s the customer, Something from the Oven reminds us that this prickly invention sprang from a cluster of wartime technologies looking for a permanent home.
Ever had a frozen entrée that made you think of expired field rations? Surprise! Fighting during the Second World War was challenging in terms of feeding the mobilized, so American factories retooled to produce assembly-line meals impervious to battlefield conditions. At war’s end, the relative inconvenience of a peacetime market and the distasteful expense of disassembling facilities got industry think-tanks busy devising processed products for civilians. Trays of airline sustenance, sometimes called food, were lateral no-brainers. But several other débuted shortcut products, such as concentrated mineral water (“just add water”) and canned hamburgers, went down in flames—no pun intended.
Eventually the industry got hip, cultivating astonishing allies in the war against scratch cuisine. Culinary professionals James Beard and Dionne Lucas were just two of the people who stopped casting deprecating glances at mixes just in time to sign lucrative spokesperson contracts. Luckily, Julia Child swept in on the backlash, and I’ll leave you to judge Masterchef’s deftly edited high tragedy of the underdone.
Available almost immediately when you place it on hold at your local library, Something from the Oven (2004) will feed your understanding of how we arrived at contemporary habits of mastication, especially while waiting for the microwave to ding so we could stir halfway through. For those interested in buying Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book, used copies start around $10.19; new copies start around $20 for softcover; and hardcover copies, courtesy of the bizarre pricing practices of the Internet, are $400.
France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt (Thames & Hudson, 2017). Reviewed by Sonja Pushchak (pictured above)
Well, Julia. Julia Child joined the ranks of extraordinary women recognized by a first name long ago. Her culinary philosophy, exuberantly launched with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, championed making over heating-and-serving in an era queasy with TV-dinnerism. By now, everyone who knows cooking has bought or read something by Julia. For Julia-philes, the pursuit of a library that encompasses her life, wit and expertise is something never quite finished.
You might expect France Is a Feast to be another cookbook, orchestrated to awe with gastronomic delights overlooked by her other publications. Not quite. Husband Paul is first in the subtitle because it’s his passionate devotion to photographing postwar France that provides the book’s purpose. How he seems to have captured it, if you’re a fan of Hollywood musicals, shares curious similarities with An American in Paris (1951). I’m just guessing, but the image opposite the title page looks a lot like the lamplit staircase that Leslie Caron descends to be swept into the arms of Gene Kelly. Paul Child, despite the analytical seriousness of his artist statements, prefigures Vincente Minelli’s vision in bringing that film to fruition: a desire to selectively create a magical French landscape; part materiality, part mind.
And that, if you amble along the book’s charming avenues while reading Paul’s letters, just about sums up how the two feel about their adopted home. From the moment Paul and Julia step off the boat and head for La Couronne, France’s oldest restaurant, for a lunch of oysters, Dover sole in “sputtering butter,” salad and local cheese, both husband and wife are wholeheartedly entranced and remain so for the years that Paul occupies various diplomatic posts for the US Information Service.
France Is a Feast is a journal with personality, ambitiously weaving the heady early days of bistro-hopping that feed Paul’s cultured soul and propel Julia toward a now legendary career with Paul’s many shots of Paris, Marseilles and Julia as you haven’t yet pictured her (in shorts, sundresses and cocktail ensembles). In an almost indispensable complement to My Life in France (2006), authors Alex Prud’homme and Katie Pratt have crafted this text as treasured partner Paul’s story, where haute and hardship, American pluck and French tradition converge to shape a diplomat’s career and the lives of a thoroughly dynamic couple.
The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World by Laura Kumin (Post Hill Press, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Hamilton Cookbook chronicles the life of American founding father and Revolutionary hero Alexander Hamilton, with a specific focus on eating and drinking during the late 1700s. Hamilton’s life was relatively short but fairly action-packed, so the historical description that comprises the first two chapters is very interesting reading.
The success of Hamilton, the Broadway musical, may have inspired Kumin to write the book, but she has been very thorough in creating a context for her theme, drawing on original historical texts such as Hamilton’s letters to his friends and fellow founding fathers. She also draws on cookbooks that were popular during Hamilton’s lifetime, many of which will be very familiar to culinary historians, such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy and The English Art of Cookery by Richard Briggs. Ice cream for dessert was a particular favourite of Hamilton’s family, and he was apparently extremely pleased to have introduced George and Martha Washington to the treat at a dinner in 1789.
Kumin’s explanations of how the meals were cooked, and by whom, includes a discussion of the fact that most middle- and upper-class houses would have had slaves, indentured servants or servants to help with various chores. Chapter 6 is a compendium of original and adapted recipes; the originals are reprinted from cookbooks of the time, and Kumin’s adaptations of them are in the spirit of the original versions. All of the day’s meals are covered in the recipe contents, and none of the recipes look too complicated or difficult for a home cook.
Kumin is an experienced food writer, cooking coach and author of the website MotherWouldKnow.com, which encourages readers to become confident home cooks. She also writes for the website Jewish Food Experience, which endeavours to “bring people together through the universal language of Jewish food.”
Snacks: A Canadian Food History by Janis Thiessen (University of Manitoba Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong (pictured above)Lots has been written about iconic Canadian dishes such as butter tarts and regional specialties like Montreal bagels and saskatoon berry pie. Now author and University of Winnipeg associate professor Janis Thiessen gives us the scoop on the origins of equally iconic Canadian snack brands.
The story of Hawkins Cheezies, a family-based business since its founding, starts with the company’s development in the United States and eventual move to Tweed, Ontario, in 1949, and then to Belleville in 1956. Founding owner W.T. Hawkins and Jim Marker developed a technique of extruding cornmeal into various shapes that were cooked in vegetable shortening and then coated with aged cheddar cheese. Fifty-two years later, a small team of employees in Belleville continues the tradition using the original equipment, producing just enough bags to satisfy the market without having to expand.
Old Dutch potato chips, with the windmill on the bag, have been a Winnipeg success story since 1954. Western Canadians who grew up with Old Dutch consider them to be the only chip worth eating; those who move away enlist family members to send supplies. You’ll also read about Ganong, established in New Brunswick in 1893—Canada’s oldest independent family-operated chocolate business.
By digging through archives and business records and conducting oral histories with manufacturers, employees and others, Thiessen has uncovered fascinating details about how these companies started, how they have marketed their products through the years, and their struggles through labour disputes, plant fires and marketplace competition. The result is a thoroughly researched and well-written social and business history in which Thiessen touches on all her academic interests: 20th-century labour studies as well as food and oral history. Researchers and general readers alike will find much to munch on in this celebration of snacks.
Madrid: A Culinary History by Maria Paz Moreno (Big City Food Biographies, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Big City Food Biographies are intended to celebrate the food history of a city that is a culinary destination. The other three cities highlighted so far (New Orleans, San Francisco and New York City) are all in the United States, so Madrid is a bit of an anomaly.
In her introduction, Paz Moreno confesses that she is not from Madrid, and for a long time did not even like the city all that much. Until, that is, she was introduced to its delights by her brother-in-law, who organized a memorable tapas and wine tour of old Madrid for her and her husband.
Tapas are a tradition in Madrid, and Paz Moreno explains how these welcoming “small bites” became Madrid’s signature. Their name is derived from the Spanish verb tapar, “to cover,” and a common explanation is that the “top,” or tapa, would cover a drink to protect it from flies. Eventually, it became a courtesy for the bar or tavern to serve a (salty) snack on the cover. There are several other theories (mostly involving various kings of Spain) for the tradition of tapas, but this is the most common, and the most convincing.
Paz Moreno’s discussion of the history of food procurement, preparation and eating in Madrid follows the fairly traditional linear path of a historical account. The Romans, Iberians, Celtiberians, Moors, Jews and eventually the Christians who reclaimed the city from the Moors all contributed to the multi-ethnic mix that is madrileño cooking today. Madrid is well written and clearly well researched, although oddly, At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell (2017, reviewed in this newsletter last year) is not cited.
The best part of the book is, in fact, its last three chapters, which deal with historic Spanish cookbooks, historic eating establishments (restaurants, tabernas and cafés) and, finally, Madrid’s traditional dishes. It also includes recipes from some noteworthy eating establishments. The recipes are a nice addition, as always, to a book about food history.
Gifts of the Gods: A History of Food in Greece by Andrew & Rachel Dalby (Reaktion Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
Reaktion Books, the UK-based publisher of the Edible series of food history books, has launched a new series called Food and Nations: longer and more thorough examinations of the culinary history of various countries, starting with Al Dente (which covers Italy), Beyond Bratwurst (Germany), Feasts and Fasts (India), Rice and Baguette (Vietnam) and A Rich and Fertile Land (America), as well as the title under discussion here.
Andrew Dalby is a linguist, classicist and professor at the University of Westminster who has already written a number of books about the food and drink of Greece, Byzantium and Rome, as well as philological works and—somewhat surprisingly—a book about the social impacts of Wikipedia. Rachel Dalby is his daughter, a long-time resident of Greece, who runs a restaurant on Paros. So we know we’re in good hands.
There’s a lot of textual and archaeological evidence for Greek culinary history, and the authors begin right back in the Stone Age with a 12,000 BC site called the Franchthi cave, an opportunity to discuss the many food resources that Greece has been blessed with from earliest times. The discussion moves more or less chronologically through the Bronze Age, classical Athens, medieval Constantinople and the periods of Genoese, Venetian and Ottoman rule before it doubles back to consider the evolution of particular foods and beverages throughout the full sweep of history.
The authors mine Greek philosophy, Roman comedy, ancient texts on cooking and medicine, the memoirs of travellers from Byzantine and Victorian times and the works of more modern writers like Lawrence Durrell for evidence about everyday cooking, the food of the monasteries, seasonal customs and foreigners’ mixed reactions to Greek specialties like resin-flavoured wines, sheep’s eyeballs and even yogurt (“it is hard to remember now how unfamiliar it used to be”).
We learn about silphion, a delightful resin that resembled fennel and was so prized as a flavouring in the classical period that it was harvested to utter extinction. We discover volvoi, the edible bulbs of the tassel hyacinth, which can be pickled or mashed with oil like chickpeas. Then there’s salepi, the hot, sweet, spiced drink made from orchid roots that was known to Georgian London as “saloop.” And there’s an explanation as to why such a quintessentially Greek dish as moussaka includes a distinctly French béchamel topping.
As someone with a background in ancient languages, I enjoyed the frequent reminders of word origins like our “apricot” through Arabic al burquq, Greek brekokion and Latin praecocium (for “precocious” or “early-fruiting”). I was captivated by the evocation of the markets of Constantinople, with their “saffron, scammony, squinanth and smoked sturgeon.” I was struck by a repeated observation that, although we may think of souvlaki and roast lamb as key Greek dishes, much of Greek cuisine has typically been light on meat, and the area’s poorest inhabitants subsisted for centuries largely on a vegan diet.
And are there recipes? Yes: brief, practical instructions for recreating some of the ancient, traditional and modern foods that are so capably covered in this satisfyingly substantial survey, which is, to the best of my knowledge, the most comprehensive recent work on this topic.
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2014). Reviewed by Michael Gallant (pictured above)
James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton followed up her first book, Blood, Bones and Butter, with Prune, a cookbook titled both for her childhood nickname and the name of her successful NYC restaurant. Born to a French mother, Hamilton grew up eating meals that were different from those of most of her peers in rural Hope, Pennsylvania. Her mother taught her not to waste and to forage for wild foods in the nearby streams and forests. She also maintained a kitchen garden, and what was bought from the store was not the norm: oxtail, kidneys, olives and capers.
Hamilton’s introduction to professional cooking came while she was vagabonding about Europe, followed by a few years working in large-scale U.S. catering companies. Her decision to open her own restaurant emerged from a deep commitment to tasteful, simple cooking. Thus Prune is both a recipe book and an homage to her childhood and her development as a chef.
A recurring theme in her kitchen is simplicity and love of simple garnishes like lemon and parsley. Her recipes are disarmingly unassuming (as in Triscuits with sardines). A whole chapter is dedicated to reducing kitchen waste; see what she does with Parmesan rinds!
If you have already become a fan of Hamilton’s writing, you will also enjoy her profile in the fourth season of the NETFLIX series Mind of a Chef.
The Canadian Receipt Book, Containing over 500 Valuable Receipts for the Farmer and the Housewife, First Published in 1867, ed. Jen Rubio with a preface by Melissa McAfee (Rock’s Mills Press, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
A facsimile of an 1867 publication by the Ottawa Citizen, with a useful new index and a short preface by Melissa McAfee, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Guelph. The original title page notes that “the very best authorities on the various subjects have been consulted in compiling,” and indeed they have—to the extent that the work would today be considered a shameless act of plagiarism.
The “receipts” (recipes or instructions) cover not only cooking, but also household cleaning and repairs, animal husbandry and beekeeping. McAfee rightly surmises that the culinary recipes “appear to be of British origin,” as pages 6 to 48 have been lifted verbatim from Maria Rundell’s 1806 classic A New System of Domestic Cookery.
It’s interesting that many of Rundell’s recipes were still considered current 60 years after they were first published. When compared with an 1816 edition of Rundell’s book, very few changes are evident. These might have been tweaks by the Ottawa compilers, or by some intermediate republisher. They include a recipe for pickled “walnuts” changed to “butternuts,” one for “damsons” changed to “plums,” and what seems to be simply an error, in which a recipe that appears directly below “A Good Pound Cake” and titled “Another Way” is not a pound cake recipe at all, but Rundell’s instructions for Queen Cakes. (The direction to bake them in “small pattypans” is a bit of a giveaway.)
The rest of the food-related receipts have a very different voice. Instead of being presented in Rundell’s prim and precise tone, they’re in the folksy manner of Alvin Wood Chase, author of the—apparently extremely popular—Dr. Chase’s Recipes, first published in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1864. He gives advice on such topics as food preservation, pest control and the making of homemade dyes and glues. His affable personality is evidenced in his jocular directions for candying watermelon rind to stand in for candied citron in baking: “Call in the neighbours, to help eat about a dozen good sized melons; and you will have enough for the experiment. And if the doctor is near, he will help without a fee.”
Pages 138 to 172 of the Canadian Receipt Book come straight from Dr. Chase. Online sleuthing reveals that the entire beekeeping section is taken from Beekeeping for the Many by J.H. Payne (London, 1852), and much of the farming advice is abridged from The Family Farm and Garden and the Domestic Animals, edited by E.G. Storke (Auburn, NY, 1859). No doubt further exploration would show the entire book to be reprinted from other publications without acknowledgement.
Whatever one may think of the manner of compiling The Canadian Receipt Book—and despite the fact that none of the sources actually seem to be Canadian—it’s a useful little compendium for anyone wishing to imagine life in Canada’s Confederation year. Some of the domestic tips would make good museum workshops or demonstrations (like the instructions on making china glue with oyster shells and egg whites, or the notes on varnishing straw hats black). Many would however not be considered safe today, like the one that recommends handling strychnine in your bare hands to prepare rat poison.
Also, on almost every second page there are advertisements for Ottawa businesses that will be of interest to local area historians. For instance, one shows an engraving of a long-vanished business at 14 Rideau Street. All in all, a valuable addition to the resources for Canadian historians, culinary and otherwise.
Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin Random House, 2012). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
Birdseye is the story of a man who is not well known today but who revolutionized the frozen food industry in America. Kurlansky examines how Clarence Birdseye, a thoroughly American inventor and adventurer of the early 20th century, changed the history of food in North America. The book has also been edited and abridged for younger readers, and is published as Frozen in Time: Clarence Birdseye’s Outrageous Idea about Frozen Food.
Not having read any other books by Kurlansky, I was not sure what to expect, since the others he has written seem to be about one thing: salt or cod, for example, or paper. He has also written many books and articles about his varied professions (actor, playwright, commercial fisherman, dock worker, paralegal, cook and pastry chef) as well as about the many places in which he has travelled.
Birdseye is not a new book. I read it hoping for a story about a really interesting personality who changed American history, but I was rather disappointed. Birdseye seems to have defied Kurlansky’s ability to explain the psychology of the man, in spite of his copious research, and Birdseye’s lifelong habit of writing everything down. The book is really a “yarn” about an insatiably curious man who ate pretty much any kind of animal or vegetable he came across, and in the process invented flash freezing. Birdseye was clearly a genius, responsible for more than 300 patents during his lifetime. He also foresaw the beginnings of the globalization of the food industry.
Kurlansky writes about Birdseye’s business dealings, his family life and his time in Labrador (where he met the more famous Dr. Grenfell), but Birdseye comes across as an outline rather than as a real person. I would recommend the book for readers who are just beginning to learn about the history of the food industry in North America, but not for more sophisticated readers who want to know about Clarence Birdseye’s life and works.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2012). Reviewed by Michael Gallant (pictured above)
I read somewhere recently that the sign of a good book is that you felt it was too short. If so, Gabrielle Hamilton is a gifted writer, and her book is well worth the read. Hamilton is the chef-owner of a restaurant in NYC called Prune. She also writes a monthly column for the New York Times.
The author first takes you through her childhood and brilliantly outlines her parents’ eroding marriage. She later kicked around Europe and the Mediterranean, learning about the food, the terroir and the people. She returned to America and ended up working for numerous catering companies. Eventually, she had the opportunity to open a small restaurant and to strike out on her own. She vividly explains the challenges of being a small business owner: suppliers, staffing, repairs and maintenance, and the eventual toll it took on a personal relationship.
The latter third of her book outlines her subsequent marriage, children and their annual trek to Italy, the home of her in-laws. It is the saddest part of the book—once again, she is questioning the reality of her marriage, her relationship with her in-laws and where her life is going.
I’ve been deliberately cheap with detail, as I don’t want to ruin the story! Happy reading!
The Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich - A Faithful Recreation of the Original 1909 Edition by Eva Greene Fuller (The Harvest Commission, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong (pictured above)
The Harvest Commission, a new Canadian publishing company “devoted to readers obsessed with excellent ingredients, cooking, farming, and food ethics,” has issued a 182-page softcover reprint of a cookbook published in 1909 in Chicago. The interior pages are printed exactly as in the original (there are no images). Why reproduce 400 sandwich recipes? As the publisher says, “a glimpse into a century-old pantry is both inspiring and entertaining.”
Indeed, some of Eva Greene Fuller’s titles are amusing, such as the unfortunately named Cannibal Sandwich (chopped raw beef and onions!). And I did chuckle at the notion that instructions for a Mustard Sandwich are necessary. Other entries are surprising, such as the Nasturtium Sandwich (white bread spread with mayonnaise dressing, topped with nasturtium blossoms, and rolled up). Or how about thin slices of orange served on bread and dusted with powdered sugar?
The book is organized into sections: Fish, Eggs, Salad, Meat, Cheese, Nut, Sweet, Miscellaneous, Canapés. As the publisher admits on the back cover, some fillings will not appeal to modern-day readers, which I found to be true (e.g., creamed codfish). But then another entry triggered a happy childhood memory of my grandmother serving a snack of brown sugar sprinkled on lightly buttered bread (here called the School Sandwich). White, rye, wheat and Boston brown bread are commonly listed, and I was intrigued to see a mention of “gluten bread” in a recipe labelled Dyspeptic Sandwich. In the sweets chapter are offerings such as whipped cream enveloped by ladyfingers.
Some commentary on the original book and its “up-to-date” ingredients, as well as a culinary historian’s take on the popularity of sandwiches, would have been welcome introductions to this collection. Still, there is lots here to inspire if you’re looking for ideas for “dainty” nibbles to serve at a bridal shower or afternoon tea, including pairings such as walnut and fig or crab meat simmered in sherry. For such special occasions, the author provided a tip for early-20th-century readers to bake their own bread “in pound baking powder cans. These should be only half filled, and then allowed to rise before baking. You then have a round slice without crust.” It would be fun to choose some of Eva’s recipes for hosting an evening themed around historic party games and sandwich sampling.
Finding the Flavors We Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food by Patric Kuh (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
A deceptively simple book that traces the renaissance of artisan food in America from the late 1970s to today’s expectation that hand-made bread, aged cheese, small-still bourbon, craft beer and homemade tacos will be readily available—at least in any mid-sized urban centre of the Unites States (and Canada).
Patric Kuh is an award-winning restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine. He writes for Gourmet, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Salon and Food & Wine, and he is also the author of Last Days of Haute Cuisine, a history of the American restaurant business, which won the James Beard Award for Writing on Food in 2002. A former restaurant cook, Kuh became the front-of-house manager for the upscale South Bay steakhouse The Arthur J. in November 2017.
Kuh traces the advent of industrial food in America from the end of WWII and the transfer of wartime industrial processes to food producers. The beginnings of “craft” and “artisan” food are attributed to a number of food pioneers who wished to reclaim them from the economies of scale that had produced the bland, homogenized, nutrition-poor and tasteless staples eaten by the majority of Americans. These bakers, cheesemakers, brewers and delicatessen owners wanted to disconnect from the standardized products then sold in supermarkets by producing unique, flavourful foodstuffs that were not widely available, unless one happened to know someone who made a product themselves and would either give it to you or sell it to you under the table.
Each chapter in the book deals with foods we recognize as “artisan-produced”: cheese, bread, bourbon, beer, barbecued meat and so on, but also skilfully weaves the history of industrial food production versus the new artisan breed of food producers in and around the narrative. Chapter titles are slightly odd because of this; for example, “To Land, To Craft, To Place, To Market, To Table.” But this does not detract from the fascinating trail, particularly through New York City, that Kuh follows in his quest for the early antecedents of artisan food. Anyone who is interested in food history in North America and the current fascination with handcrafted food should read this book.
Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight That Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello (University of Illinois Press, 2017). Reviewed by Susan Peters (pictured above)
Baking powder is a simple pantry staple to which we rarely give a second thought. This dry chemical leavening agent, first patented in 1856, is a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and weak acid salt used to improve the volume or lighten the texture of baked goods. Most of us, when baking, simply reach for it without wondering about its origins and evolution. It was essentially created in an effort to bypass yeast, to produce even-textured baked products more easily, quickly and without the resulting taste that yeast can impart to the finished product.
While we as consumers trust that the baking soda in our cupboard is a safe and effective product, this was not the case for our ancestors. This book is a testimony to the view that “Business is war. Cooking is chemistry. Food is political.” It’s a scholarly examination of 100 years of war between competing businesses. Linda Civitello, a professor of food history in Southern California, examines not only the history of alternative leavening agents, but also the history of bread making and of those who made it.
Baking Powder Wars follows four major baking powder producers in 19th-century America—Rumford, Royal, Calumet and Clabber Girl—although hundreds of small companies all clamoured for a piece of the pie. Civitello examines an evolution of cookery books through the ages and also looks at who was doing the cooking. The book scrutinizes not only what was being prepared, but also the ingredients and where they would have been sourced throughout various eras.
While Civitello does look at the culinary resources of Europe and the U.K., the focus is on America. She looks in depth at the individuals who were conducting the experiments to invent the best leavening agent. Thus, this is the story of men competing with each other to come up with the most stable form of leavening agent, and to be able to get rich producing it. It is also a story of the evolution of marketing and advertising through the 1800s and 1900s. Each of these companies employed advertising images that would today be deemed shocking and racist. Many early versions of baking powder contained chemicals we now know to be very harmful when consumed.
This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in culinary history, including the social history of gender roles in food preparation. Civitello lays out the background in which the baking powder wars erupted and explains the differences between the various leavening agents. It also reads as a crime story when looking at all the acts of industrial espionage among the various companies represented. You will never look at that simple container of baking powder the same way again.
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher (Oxford University Press, 2012). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco is an entertaining read and quite obviously the work of a scholar whose knowledge of Mexican food, food politics and food history is encyclopedic. The book’s central theme is that tacos, an Americanized version of Mexican food, became globalized through the fast-food industry’s adoption of Mexican-American dishes and the migration of Mexican workers to America. Along the way, Mexicans themselves rediscovered their “ancestral” foods.
Planet Taco begins with an exploration of the origins of maize and its use in Mexican Indian food throughout Mexico and Central America. Corn, chiles and chocolate were the foods transported to Europe and Asia by Europeans who first came to the Americas, and they had very distinct effects on global cuisines. Corn, in particular, became a ubiquitous crop because it was easy to grow in inhospitable environments, but because the knowledge of its admixture with limestone or wood ash to release niacin—called “nixtamalization”—was not transferred along with the seeds, it also became the source of a wasting disease called pellagra.
Mexican food traditions were rapidly transformed, first by the invasion of Spain, and the subsequent blending of cultures, and then by the aspirations of the Mexican elite and middle class. Pilcher explores the tension between “authentic” Mexican foods—usually a mestizo version of what people ate at home—and what was still considered peasant food. The working class, peasants and rural Mexicans still ate corn tortillas, usually with beans and chiles, and, as Mexican workers began to move across the American border, their food went with them. The chapter on the Chili Queens of San Antonio, a prominent mining centre where migrant workers congregated, illustrates the attraction and repulsion exercised by “hot” foreign foods on the American psyche.
The globalization of Mexican foods took place after WWII, with the expansion of mechanized tortilla-making and the widespread acceptance of canned chili con carne. Entrepreneurs such as Glen Bell (of Taco Bell fame) capitalized on the increasingly favourable reception of Mexican-American food. As with many “traditional” cuisines, chefs and restaurateurs also capitalized on this new and exotic fare, and transformed “Mexican” cooking into a desirable commodity. In the 1980s, fashionable restaurants and hostesses adopted Mexican cooking as the most authentic and healthy cooking in the world. Its rapid spread to Europe, Asia and Australia was also facilitated by surfer culture.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves Mexican food in general and wants to know how tacos became a food you can eat pretty much anywhere in the world.
The Book of Chocolate: The Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy by HP Newquist (Viking Books / Penguin Random House, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
The Book of Chocolate is eclectic. Although it is ostensibly about the “Amazing Story of the World’s Favorite Candy,” it actually examines how an exotic commodity from South and Central America became first a European luxury and later an American staple. Where chocolate comes from, how it was made palatable to Europeans and how it eventually made its way into soldiers’ rations are all discussed in the book.
Whether you call it cocoa or cacao, chocolate has earned its place in the canon of amazingly delicious foods. And as “one of the most complex chemical combinations known to man,” with more than 600 known chemical compounds in raw chocolate, it is also clearly a miracle food.
A subject that is not discussed by the author is the recent DNA sequencing and the release of information about the genome of cacao by scientists from Mars and Hershey, in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture. The ultimate goal of the sequencing is to freely allow anyone studying the genome to improve current chocolate varieties for a higher resistance to disease, more robust growth and better taste.
The book does discuss the not-so-sweet side of chocolate, in that, on some African plantations, where most of the world’s cacao is produced, children may work for little or no pay. This information has been the subject of a number of news reports, creating pressure on some chocolate companies to examine the work practices of their producers. Fair Trade chocolate claims to source the cacao from plantations that pay their workers a fair price for their labour.
HP Newquist has written over 20 books on a great variety of scientific subjects and is clearly a good researcher. His writing is clear and concise, and aimed at a general lay audience rather than children, although his books are obviously meant to appeal to school librarians. For this book he spent time at a cocoa plantation, learned how to make chocolate and sampled chocolate all over the world.
I would recommend this book as light reading, or as an introductory source for a school project.
The National Trust Book of Scones: 50 Delicious Recipes and Some Curious Crumbs of History by Sarah Clelland (National Trust Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
At this festive season of the year, even those of us with little direct connection to the UK (my last ancestors to cross the pond cast off 182 years ago) are once more reminded of the charm of an English Christmas, with holly and ivy and carols—and especially traditional baking. Well, you can’t get more British than a book of 50 scone recipes from historic houses!
This book arose from a personal quest that author Sarah Clelland set herself: to visit every one of the 500 National Trust sites, which include venerable family estates, as well as cottages, castles, post offices, foundries and lighthouses. Part of her goal was to collect a bit of lore and eat a scone in every single one; along the way was born her National Trust Scone blog, in which she charted her journey.
You might think that every scone is alike, but you’d be wrong. There are sweet ones and savoury ones: the simple, the fancy, the fruity and the festive. There’s a whole chapter devoted to chocolate scones. Of course, there are some typically British oddities, like the Wet Nelly Scones from Liverpool’s Speke Hall. These are made with crumbled, day-old Wet Nellies, which Clelland describes as “a moist version of a fruit cake known as Nelson cake. It was originally made from broken biscuits and pastry remnants; dried fruit was added and the mixture was soaked in syrup.”
From the Surrey estate Polesden Lacey (seen in numerous television productions like Agatha Christie’s Marple and Midsomer Murders) come Earl Grey Scones, made with tea-infused milk. Bodiam Castle in East Sussex—a setting for the Doctor Who series and the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail—contributes scrummy-sounding Raspberry and White Chocolate Scones. Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, which stood in for rooms in Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley estate in the classic 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, is the home of Stilton and Cranberry Scones.
This is a pretty book, with a clear layout, page borders that resemble antique wallpapers in pastel shades, and charming watercolour scone portraits by Amy Holliday. As a scone aficionado myself, I’m looking forward to some holiday baking time, when I can dig into this scone compendium at my leisure.
At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain by Jodi Campbell (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein (pictured above)
At the First Table is about food consumption, exchange and manners, and how social identity was created and maintained during the Early Modern period in Spain. Early Modern Europe was the period between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, roughly the late 15th century to the late 18th century, so in Spain, this period spanned the time between feudalism and the beginnings of globalism. It was also the era when the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World brought back new foods to Spain, such as chilies and chocolate, and the Spanish Inquisition began to apply charges of heresy to un-Christian practices, including foodways.
The book is both a scholarly and accessible read, which clearly articulates the links between Basic Food Practices and Beliefs; Social Groups and Collective Identity; Status and Change; and Vice and Virtue (all chapter headings). Campbell’s research into such archival resources as cookbooks, court and monastery kitchen lists, and municipal records, show how the divisions between social classes, identities and status changed over time with the introduction of hidalguia (nobles who were made, rather than born) and for merchants who could afford to buy privilege and set a fine table.
Using food customs and privileges to dissect social change in Spain is an interesting read. I would recommend this short book (178 pages) to people who have read more general books about European foodways and who are interested in how Spain differed from other countries. The Notes and Glossary at the end of the book are a useful addition for readers unfamiliar with Spanish terms.
Dinner with Dickens, Recipes Inspired by the Life and Work of Charles Dickens by Pen Vogler (CICO Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood (pictured above)
No lightweight picture book, Dinner with Dickens is a satisfying excursion into the work and life of one of the best-loved English authors. Pen Vogler (also the author of Dinner with Mr. Darcy) has done her homework, both on the author himself and on the culinary writing of his time.
Full disclosure: I’m a Dickens fan who had eagerly read all his novels (and several biographies) before I turned 18. I was prepared to find that this book might offer a few quotations from his writing, framed in curlicues, next to ersatz Victorian dishes. Instead, Vogler delivers thoughtful and well-informed commentary on his life and work, especially as it had to do with his ideas of family, social responsibility and—of course—Christmas.
One of the things I had completely missed is that Dickens’ wife, Catherine, was a cookbook author. She’s often maligned as a dull woman who was not his intellectual equal; however, in 1851, she penned a book called What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck. A number of recipes from this book and some insightful thoughts on the marriage are included in Dinner with Dickens, along with others from such classics as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy of 1747; William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle, first published in 1821, and books from later writers like Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton (who enjoyed Dickens’ writing enough to name a dish for one of his characters).
The book is divided into thematic sections that match episodes from Dickens’ writing; for example, Christmas foods are discussed with reference to both Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. A full range of earlier and later Victorian recipes is included, from snacks to dinner entrees to desserts. Vogler covers all the expected items: the Cratchits’ roast goose and Christmas pudding, Scrooge’s Smoking Bishop, the Pickwick libations, and—yes—Oliver Twist’s workhouse gruel, from a cookbook of the period for charity workers.
In most cases, Vogler reproduces an original recipe along with a modern adaptation. Some are almost the same in both versions; in others, Vogler works around ingredients that are no longer easy to find, like isinglass (used for thickening). A few are fairly free adaptations or even modern versions, but Vogler makes it quite clear which is which.
Dining with Dickens would make an excellent starter book for someone interested in learning how to use 19th-century recipes, as it provides an introduction to some of the most important cookbooks of the period, notes on adapting period techniques, and sumptuously staged photos of just about every mouthwatering dish in the whole book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France: Recipes Inspired by the Cafés and Bars of Fitzgerald’s Paris and the Riviera in the 1920s by Carol Hilker (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2016). Reviewed by Shirley Lum, Toronto (pictured above).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Taste of France is a culinary tour to Paris and the French Riviera in the 1920s, a time when American and Canadian writers and artists flocked to the Continent.
After working as a pastry chef in California for four years, author Carol Hilker returned home to Chicago to retire into food writing full time. She is the author of the hugely popular Dirty Food, among other books. Here, she has collected over 60 recipes inspired by the decadent food and drink enjoyed by Fitzgerald and his fellow expatriates, including Ernest Hemingway (who also worked in Toronto), Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter.
Food historians will love being able to recreate the simple yet traditional French breakfasts, lunches, hors d’oeuvres, soups and salads, dinners, dessert dishes and drinks savoured by Fitzgerald and the other expatriates. Each chapter is supplemented with a “feature” page, providing readers with rich and brief historical/social context: The Americans in Paris, Fitzgerald’s Riviera, The Jazz Age, The Cafés—A Home from Home, and the famous French chefs of 1920s Paris.
Fans of Fitzgerald will find themselves transported to a Parisian appartement to breakfast on Fitzgerald’s Ham and Eggs accompanied by a Bloody Mary, or they can imagine themselves in a Montparnasse café supping on French Onion Soup and Salade Lyonnaise, or be inspired to throw a party to rival The Great Gatsby’s most glamorous soirée and serve Harlequin Salad and Gin Rickeys. Cheers!
Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum (Coach House Books, 2017). Reviewed by Sarah Hood, Toronto (pictured above).
A new addition to Coach House Books’ Exploded Views, a gently provocative series of extended essays, Curry is as much about literary taste as it is about the flavour of spice blends.
Ruthnum, a Toronto journalist and fiction writer with Mauritian family roots, draws upon his own background as well as cookbooks, movies and fiction to explore images of South Asian cultural identity. “In the steadily building mass of South Asian diasporic writing and discussion of identity, curry is an abiding metaphor for connection, nostalgia, homecoming, and distance from family and country,” he writes. Thus, the early sections of the book explore literary and real-life evocations of curry, from its historical roots to “the worldwide outbreak of turmeric lattes in 2016.”
He notes that the idea of curry is itself a construct, since “[e]ven the most commonly understood characteristic of curry [its heat] came to be by way of the machinations of international trade and colonialism.” He examines recipes and literary descriptions of South Asian food, considering reappearing tropes, like the mother who withholds her recipes from the rest of her family and the expat who experiences alienation from, or reconnection to, the homeland culture through food.
Such tropes are often to be found in the genre of writing that, when he was younger, Ruthnum dismissed as “currybooks”: lightweight fiction written for “non-South Asian readers and nostalgic brown readers” that often conjures up an imagined India (or, as it might be, Pakistan) in terms of sentimental cliché. The later parts of the book are devoted to a more thorough discussion of these types of publications, as well as some that break this mold and others that, like the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, construct a privileged outsider’s artificial version of South Asian culture.
Here, Ruthnum moves from the specific to a more universal examination of what it means to be South Asian in Europe or North America, and beyond that, to question ideas like “authenticity” (is it even a worthwhile concept in a creolized world?)
Although it is only partly about food, Curry will intrigue anyone interested in culinary history with the way it dissects the connections between our ideas about food and our other cultural preconceptions.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History of the Old South by Michael Twitty (Harper Collins, 2017). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
The Cooking Gene is a unique interpretation of culinary traditions in the Southern United States. While author Michael Twitty’s focus is on the origins of the cuisine in the American South, his examination illustrates how culinary history is a two-way street. It is continuously evolving, adapting and integrating into a local culture. The culture, in turn, continues to influence those who experience it, thus creating yet further changes to these adaptions. In other words, culinary history is forever evolving.
Twitty brings to this study a background in ethno-cultural history. He is known for his blog Afroculinaria, which discusses African foodways and culture of the Old South. This book is essentially a personal memoir. It is a narrative which melds investigation into genealogical research, DNA of ethnicity, archival research and culinary history all in one. Twitty has embraced oral history, as well as archival records. Of course, while he emphasizes his own personal roots, his ancestors did not live in a vacuum.
While examining the story of his ancestors, he shows them within their historic or cultural context. Of course, a study of the forced migration of enslaved peoples from Africa deals with a very complex mix of individual cultural groups. Although one can never be entirely sure of their cultural mix, at least modern methods of genetic DNA testing for ethnicity can help to narrow things down a little. Twitty explains in detail his own personal DNA ethnicity results, as a basis for the cultural groups he is most interested in studying. While his focus is on the ethnic groups he has a connection with, he does look at the cultural influences from all the different groups noted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This book is a great read for anyone interested in examining foodways and their evolution within history. It is also very useful for those interested in the cultural ethnicity of the slave trade. It is especially of interest to anyone examining the Old South of the Antebellum period. Twitty’s use of research from various non-traditional resources helps give a balanced and full interpretation of the culinary history of this region. While he explains methodologies of preparing certain traditional foods, he does so from the vantage point of someone who himself cooks with these methods. As a culinary historical interpreter, he brings this aspect of culture alive.
Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books, edited by Kristine Kowalchuk (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
Preserving on Paper is a critical edition of three receipt books housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Editor Kristine Kowalchuk, who holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta and is an instructor of critical reading and writing at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, has compiled a volume that will appeal to enthusiasts of culinary history, book and print culture, and literary criticism.
The Englishwomen to whom the manuscripts are attributed (which date from about 1640 to 1750) carefully recorded culinary recipes, medical remedies and household tips. Kowalchuk provides transcriptions that preserve the “richness” and “peculiarities” of the original texts, but with emendations, informative footnotes and a comprehensive glossary of terms that make them accessible to modern readers.
While the recipes are fascinating to peruse (and much easier to decipher than they would be in their handwritten form), they would mean little without Kowalchuk’s 52-page “Historical Introduction.” I learned so much from this background text and highly recommend it as an introduction to understanding not only the genre of receipt books but also aspects of the culture of the period and the reasons recipes were recorded.
As Kowalchuk explains, food and medical preparations were not seen as separate entities in this period. For example, in the manuscript attributed to Mary Granville and her daughter Anne Granville D’Ewes, one finds entries that range from “To make minced pyes” to “A Drinke for the Ricketts.” Taking an analytical approach to the texts, Kowalchuk argues that the receipt book represents an important form of women’s writing that has been largely overlooked. As she also asserts, such collections prove that literacy was not necessarily as limited to upper-class women as some scholars have suggested.
These women were recordkeepers, gathering knowledge and passing it from one generation to the next. Because “the sharing of food was so intricately tied to conceptions of utopia in the late medieval and Renaissance periods” and “folk culture recognized eating as an overcoming of mortality,” Kowalchuk cautions against “forcing our own assumptions on receipt books” (such as the concept of a published cookbook written by one author). The texts in question were “carriers of an entire world view that was very different from our own; they preserve different meaning.”
All cooks will enjoy reading what the editor discovered and understood more fully after making select dishes for a 17th-century dinner party for friends. Hosting a similar meal using some of these receipts would be a delightful project for CHC members to undertake and recount in this newsletter.
The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about Eating from Prehistory to the Present by Christine A. Hastorf (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Christine A. Hastorf is well known to archaeologists for her contributions to paleoethnobotany, agriculture, meaning and the everyday, food studies, political economy and ritual in societies of the Andean region of South America. She has done fieldwork in Mexico, California, New Mexico, Italy, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Turkey (at the site of Çatalhöyük). She currently directs an archaeological project on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.
This book is written for academics, or for people who have at least a working knowledge of past and current anthropological thought about food in the context of culture. Examples of pertinent fieldwork studies illustrate the author’s points, and many of them are taken from her own fieldwork. In her introduction, Hastorf writes that the book is a “meditation on thinking about eating.”
Imagining the past through interpretative insights about culture is called “postprocessual” thinking in archaeology. It was first proposed as a radical departure from processual (scientific) archaeology by archaeologists from the United Kingdom, who emphasized the subjectivity of archaeological interpretation. Hastorf was married to Ian Hodder, one of the early proponents of postprocessual archaeology, and has undoubtedly adopted many of the tenets of postprocessualism.
As an example of this way of thinking, the first chapter of the book is entitled “The Social Life of Food,” echoing The Social Life of Things, a book edited by social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai at Cambridge in 1988. The essays in his book examine how taste, trade and desire for specific things are regulated by social and political mechanisms. Similarly, Hastorf examines how social and political mechanisms, such as gender, hierarchy and the concept of family, affect eating and food resources.
Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Christine Hastorf’s work and have read many of her articles and books with great pleasure. As a former archaeologist, I am always game for a well-written scientific examination of gender and plants, and the ways that humans perceive both in the context of culture. Thus, I was looking forward to reading this book and was not disappointed, although it is pretty dense.
The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, edited by Roxanne Swentzell & Patrician M. Perea (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Toronto (pictured above).
This book examines the Pueblo Food Experience Project, which was carried out with the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. The project involved many members of the Pueblo Indigenous community in New Mexico and was essentially an exploration of how their ancestors lived. It had been observed that owing to the trend towards a westernization of the culture, traditional ways had fallen out of use. The community had become reliant on processed foods that offered little in the way of nutrition. As a result, the community experienced a crisis of diseases such as diabetes.
The community had not thrived under the so-called modern processed diet, and the lack of connection with the land had resulted in not only poor health but also a starvation of the spirit. The people had lost their connection to the land and their ability to survive in balance with nature.
The project began with health exams and blood work for volunteers who had committed to consuming only the foods that their ancestors would have known prior to contact with Europeans. This essentially meant living off the land: they relearned traditional ways of hunting, gathering and farming, and examined how their ancestors had lived sustainably in the Southwest.
The community found great improvement in their members’ health as well as a profound sense of empowerment. They learned how to live in harmony with their environment and within a community that respects the nourishment of all. This book essentially documents their communal journey to well-being, with essays contributed by various members of the project.
The book includes a history of Pueblo traditional foodways. It examines how the diet evolved in response to external factors such as climate change, migration and western cultural influences. It also illustrates how the “modern American diet” had a detrimental effect on the Pueblo peoples—not only their health, but also their spirit. There are articles about the traditional methodologies that were adopted, such as communal gathering of salt from salt lakes.
The journey continues with discussions about traditional farming techniques and hunting. It was the improvement in health that most impressed some members of the community. That, in turn, enticed more people to participate in the study. The journey to reducing reliance on modern conveniences was a challenge for some, but in the end the payoffs were profound.
The second half of the book provides recipes for this whole-food, largely plant-based diet. While some ingredients are a little challenging to obtain in Canada—such as buffalo tongue, prickly pear, grasshoppers and pinon—a lot of the recipes are enticing.
This book is a gem for anyone interested in traditional Indigenous cultures and foodways. Students of Indigenous studies would find this a very useful account. We can also learn from the experiment about how our “modern” diet is not doing us any favours with respect to our health. I certainly recommend it for students of nutrition as well.
Brewing Revolution, Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton (Harbour Publishing, 2016). Reviewed by Sarah Hood, Toronto (pictured above).
The last quarter of the 20th century saw a sea change in food attitudes, as those consumers who had gladly embraced the convenience, economy and abundance of mass-produced food and beverages changed their tack and began to seek out small producers, traditional manufacturing methods and unadulterated recipes. For the brewing industry in Canada, the early 1980s were a turning point, largely due to the efforts of one man: Frank Appleton.
His memoir, Brewing Revolution, tells how he left his position with one of the “Big Three” brewers to help found the Horseshoe Bay Brewery in Vancouver in 1982. It was one of few craft breweries in North America at the time (San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer was another pioneer). Although Canada had once had numerous small brands, they had either died out or been absorbed into Labatt, Molson or Carling. Appleton recounts how the tide turned in the ’80s as a trickle of small brewery and brewpub openings soon became a steady stream and, eventually, a “tsunami” of “real beer,” made in relatively small batches using traditional methods.
He emphasizes that craft breweries have a freedom the larger concerns simply can’t match to test a batch of anything they choose: a high-alcohol maple-pumpkin beer? Why not! A light, pink raspberry beer for summer sipping? Sure.
Appleton’s chatty accounts of the early days of the craft beer renaissance read like a series of highly specialized adventure tales, as he searches for perfect tank-welding techniques, squeezes brewing equipment into oddly configured spaces, confronts the challenges of designing breweries across national boundaries and combats the rogue micro-organisms that creep into the hoses and vats of unsuspecting brewers.
In the final chapters, he skims through some basic beer know-how, discussing technical topics like “yeast washing” and “stuck fermentation” clearly enough for the lay person to understand them.
Focused mainly on British Columbia, the book doesn’t cover the founding of other pioneer craft breweries (like Ontario’s Brick Brewing, Amsterdam Brewpub and Creemore Springs, or Quebec’s Unibroue, for example). It does dish some dirt on the corners cut by large-scale breweries—such as using significant proportions of corn in their recipes—as well as on the questionable marketing strategies of some who present themselves as craft concerns while not actually being so.
All in all, an engaging read, with enough of both brewing wisdom and cautionary tales to intrigue anyone who’s ever thought it might be nice to brew some beer of their own.
Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey, by Lenore Newman, foreword by Sarah Elton (University of Regina Press, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
What is Canadian cuisine? Lenore Newman’s research quest took her on a four-year journey through a vast amount of literature and across the country by plane, train, ferry and more than 40,000 kilometres of roads. From Charlottetown to Chinatown, from dulse to doughnuts, from Saskatoon berries to salmon, Newman shares a comprehensive and satisfying mélange of history and insight as well as her own memories and discoveries. Her academic background (Newman holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia) and engaging first-person writing style have yielded a book that is both a scholarly reference and a treat to curl up with.
Part I sets the scene with what Newman refers to as the “sideboard diplomacy” that played an essential role in the nation’s founding—it seems that feasting together brought the Fathers of Confederation together. As Newman goes on to discuss, unlike many countries, we may have few truly Canadian recipes, but our cuisine is “extremely rich and varied,” and is underscored by characteristics that are worthy of flag waving.
For one, we are ahead of other nations when it comes to putting fresh, local ingredients at the forefront, and we have a deep appreciation of the seasonality of food. Second, our cultural mosaic has resulted in the introduction of many diasporic influences on our tables, and “the combinations that emerge from those flavours are increasingly framed as Canadian rather than hyphenated dishes.”
From this trend has emerged what Newman calls a Canadian creole. Her research confirms that our cuisine is “particularly grounded in the regions,” and in Part II she shares examples organized geographically, with stops in Montreal for a deli sandwich, the coast of B.C. for a Nanaimo bar, Yellowknife for Arctic char and elsewhere. Some may feel that this section surveys too much ground too quickly—but this is perhaps inevitable as it is a challenge to cover a country as vast as ours within the confines of one book.
In the final section, Newman looks ahead, discussing the growth in public markets, foods eaten on the road, and the impact of climate change on some of our iconic ingredients, such as maple syrup. Here, she circles back to earlier discussions of the failure of the cod industry (which she finds difficult to talk about as the daughter of a Newfoundland fisherman) and the reason for the book’s title: “Cod tongues are a monument to the fragility of culinary cultures grounded in wild stocks.”
While she expresses concern about projections for the salmon fishery, increasing loss of farmland, and the consequences of overpicking wild leeks and more, she is also excited about the innovations to come. Newman admits that this voyage of discovery changed how she views the country, food, and herself. Without a doubt, her book will inspire readers to embark on new culinary adventures of their own. There is a lot to celebrate and savour.
King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from around the World, by Joan Nathan, foreword by Alice Waters (Knopf, 2017). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
I put off reviewing Joan Nathan’s new book until I could try some new recipes for the Passover holiday. I made Slow-Cooked Brisket with Red Wine, Vinegar and Mustard, which was absolutely delicious, and Joan’s matzoh balls (for chicken soup with matzoh balls), which were a revelation! Who knew you could put dill and ginger in matzoh balls and make them taste amazing?
Nathan is an award-winning American cookbook author and newspaper journalist who has produced TV documentaries on the subject of Jewish cuisine. She has written ten cookbooks (six about Jewish cuisine and two about Israeli cuisine) over 40 years, and her unofficial title is “the Queen of American Jewish cooking.” Nathan’s goal is to preserve Jewish traditions by interviewing cooks and documenting their recipes and stories for posterity.
King Solomon’s Table continues Nathan’s quest for Jewish recipes around the world, complete with anecdotes from the cooks she interviews. The conceit of the book, that “the biblical King Solomon is said to have sent emissaries on land and sea to all corners of the ancient world, initiating a mass cross-pollination of culinary cultures that continues to bear fruit today” works to the extent that the 170 recipes reflect the incredible breadth and depth of Jewish cooking. The anecdotes that accompany them are interesting, often very personal, and amply illustrate what the Jewish diaspora has done for food.
The only quibble I have is the number of recipes for haroseth, the sweet mixture of nuts and fruit that represents the mortar mixed by Jewish slaves for the Egyptian pharaoh’s city-building. Haroseth is only served at the Passover Seder (the Jewish High Holiday in spring), yet there are five recipes for this side dish in the book.
That is a minor quibble, however, as the text and colour images are both outstanding and instructive, as one would expect in a hardcover cookbook of this calibre. This would make a lovely gift for someone who wants to try new recipes for the High Holidays or simply wants to know more about Jewish cooking. Highly recommended!
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman & Andrew Coe (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
An exploration of arguably the greatest dietary crisis every experienced in America. Since a crisis in malnutrition is rooted in its causes, it obviously examines the historic and political context from which the Great Depression developed.
Ziegelman and Coe come to this project with a background in culinary history research. Ziegleman is also the author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and she has curated food-themed exhibits in New York’s Tenement Museum. Coe specializes in food history; he has also written Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States and has been involved in several documentaries.
In this book, the authors examine the economic and environmental causes that shaped how Americans ate during the Depression. While their focus is on American history and the impact of political decisions on U.S. citizens, there is some comparison to Canada. While our politicians may have made different decisions about how to deal with the environmental crisis of drought and crop failure, the root causes of the crisis were the same for both countries.
Our Prairies suffered the same successive droughts and subsequent plagues of locusts. Our western farmers were starving like their American counterparts. Masses of people were losing their jobs in the cities, and the stock market crash also affected both countries.
The barter-for-food system reached its height when people were trying to trade something that they had for food, any food. I was fascinated with the investigation into the daily rituals of a prairie farmer’s wife versus a labourer in a city with respect to how they put food on their table.
This book also offers a history and evolution of culinary tools. Rural and city cooking are compared with respect to elements such as access to vegetables, fruit or soda fountains. The evolution of tools and equipment like electric mixers, refrigerators and electric ranges is discussed. Each had an impact on daily life. The evolution of the technology to preserve foods had a huge impact on health, especially in the height of the Depression, when food was scarce.
The greatest part of this book is an examination of how the Great Depression was a period of despair for so many people in America. Between droughts that resulted in a lack of agricultural productivity and a lack of prosperity and jobs due to the economic crash, a great many people in America became quite desperate. Malnutrition and starvation were huge problems during this era. With widespread need, government-sponsored social welfare was developed, with a realization that a country must care for its vulnerable citizens.
I did enjoy how the authors have put the Great Depression into an historical context. Nothing happens in isolation; it is, therefore, valuable to learn how dietary circumstances in America developed from the First World War through the 1920s and ’30s. This rich social history of how life circumstances affect diet and the result of diet on health is a very enlightening read.
Tasting Rome, Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla & Kristina Gill (Clarkson Potter/The Crown Publishing Group, 2016). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
It’s wholly apparent that the authors of the IACP Award Winner for Best International Cookbook 2017 are in love with their adopted city as they explain to readers their preference for exploring Rome from an unconventional viewpoint: “The cobblestoned streets, baroque fountains, pastel palaces, and lively piazzas have obvious appeal. They’re easy to love but we’re more drawn to the city’s surreal bits like the pasta-factory-turned-opera-warehouse next to a giant ruin.”
Their approach utilizes Rome’s food and drink as a vehicle to explore the city’s non-touristic side—like highlighting the working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio versus the expected sights. The chapter on Testaccio (a former meat-packing district) opens with a recipe for Fettucine con rigaglie di pollo—a chicken innards ragù—then follows with an informative history and overview of this colourful district known as Quinto Quarter.
Parla and Gill showcase the best of the city’s cuisine by emphasizing dishes and locales known only to Rome’s residents. They connect traditional and classic dishes with updated versions while showcasing favourite recipes prepared at neighbourhood trattorias or in home kitchens. Carbonara, for example, a classic mid-20th-century dish, varies widely from one home cook and another, and inevitably passionate discussions ensue regarding which recipe or ingredients are correct.
Tasting Rome is an entertaining history lesson, as most recipes are introduced with a historical morsel. The cookbook includes original and adapted recipes with generous dessert and drinks chapters. It’s like a visual travelogue; matte photographs of lopsided tomatoes, graffitied walls and ancient architecture adorn the pages. These visuals enhance the backstory of this culinarian’s city, waiting to be explored the Tasting Rome way.
Chillies: A Global History by Anne Arndt Anderson (Edible—Reaktion Books 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
As with the other volumes in this series (Edible), this mini-book covers a lot of ground. It is better written than many of the other volumes, and the illustrations are well chosen. The author has also written two other books: Portland, a Food Biography (2014) and Breakfast: A History (2013).
Chillies (or chilies) are pervasive and, surprisingly, not as deeply rooted as one would expect in the many world food traditions in which they appear. Cuisines that we would normally think of as having always been spicy, such as northern Chinese dishes or south Indian curries, originally used pepper (black pepper, or Piper nigrum) as their main spice. With the introduction of chillies to Europe and Asia through trade and conquest, the spiciness of capsaicin—the active chemical component of chili peppers—has become an integral part of these food traditions.
All of this hot food begins with the capsicum peppers grown in the Americas. Capsicum belongs to the nightshade, or Solanaceae, family and, like tomatoes (a nightshade plant that has also become an ubiquitous item in many world cuisines), probably originated somewhere in Mexico, Central America or northern South America. Chilli peppers have probably been domesticated several times, but they made their way into food history after the Spanish and Portuguese came to the Americas.
This book traces the taxonomy and ecology of chillies, their introduction into world cuisine, their possible healing properties and their association with North American machismo and sexuality. Chili con carne, “devilled” foods and hot sauces are all part of this theme. One of the most interesting sections of the book mentions the “Chili Queens”—the Latina women who served their homemade food from wooden stands to Texas ranch hands in the plazas of San Antonio during the late 19th century.
It concludes with an appendix (the lyrics to a song about Tabasco) and a selection of historical and modern recipes from around the world. References, websites and associations for chilli aficionados will encourage more research into the myriad uses for this special plant.
Food and Museums, edited by Nina Levent & Irina D. Mihalache (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
The editors of this academic volume set out to “observe and identify intersections between museums and food so that [they] could share accounts of shifting museological and artistic practices in light of food’s increasing presence in museums.” Their work represents the first time that expertise about food and museums has been organized in one collection. Levent is the founding director of Sapar Contemporary Gallery + Incubator in New York City, and Mihalache is an assistant professor of museum studies in the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.
Food and Museums provides a platter of small bites: each chapter is short, in a format that ranges from scholarly discussion to case study to Q & A; topics are as varied as the locations and endeavours of the curators, scholars and practitioners who contributed. The editors have grouped the content into five main sections, and the liberal use of subheadings further allows the reader to sample here and there.
After an introduction of theoretical concepts come sections on audience engagement, collecting and exhibiting, and restaurants in museums. The final section examines historical and contemporary ways artists have interacted with and represented food. The authors were sure to incorporate practical advice where possible. Case in point: their interviews with the historic cooks (and CHC members) of Fort York National Historic Site and Campbell House Museum in Toronto. Some of the elements within chapters and the occasional recipes offered might have been better presented as sidebars, but the basic graphic design did not allow for this. Small images appear throughout; unfortunately, only the attractive cover, which depicts a food collection mounted in a display case, is in colour.
Levent and Mihalache have admirably tapped experts from different countries. There is good representation from Canadian scholars. The editors recognize some gaps, such as Indigenous food culture in museums, and wish they could have added interviews with the public. These areas provide opportunities for further exploration. In the meantime, this welcome collection provides an array of best practices and critical thinking to guide those working to present history and culture using food, to engage audiences through sensory experiences—and even to enhance visits to the café.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi (HarperCollins, 2015). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
An exploration of the foods we love: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer, bread (and octopus?), as well as the foods we overconsume: 30 species provide 95% of our global calories. This book presents the necessity to take responsibility now for our food supply, utilizing agrobiodiversity to ensure global food security: “Eating is an agricultural act.”
With the paperback release, award-winning author Simran Sethi is back on the speaker circuit. As an author, journalist and educator specializing in food sustainability, Sethi has presented at and moderated events throughout the world. She has been named an environmental messenger by Vanity Fair, a top-10 eco hero of the planet by The Independent and one of the top eight women saving the planet by Marie Claire.
As excited as I was to delve into Sethi’s chapters on wine, coffee, beer and bread, I skipped to the final chapter, because its Octopus heading piqued my curiosity. It turns out the octopus (a three-hearted marine mollusc) provides a transcendent experience for the author in many ways. To expand further would demand a spoiler alert.
Sethi shines at taking what could be considered a dry subject and building a narrative around it that leaves the reader wanting more. Her book is like a compilation of short stories; Sethi’s journey to six continents takes her (and the reader) on a tasty adventure that blends scientific research with love and soul. For the author, it’s a journey of personal discovery, healing and new-found awareness.
Exceptionally informative, Sethi explores farming practices, culture and history, flavours and tastings, as well as personal anecdotes and insights. Included are well-organized end notes, colourful flavour guides, a Coffee Cupping Form and infographics like the Grain Characteristics of Bread.
Bread, Wine, Chocolate—although heavily fact-laden—will suit foodies, environmentalists, and globetrotters (to name a few), as Sethi tells a fine tale.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova (Workman Publishing, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Elaine Khosrova’s book is the result of years of research into the alchemical marvel that is butter—its provenance, antiquity and uses, and how it came to be a staple in many types of cuisine.
Khosrova is a true culinary historian, specializing in stories about food and gastronomic culture. A former pastry chef, she began her career in food publishing at Country Livingmagazine and then moved on to Healthy Living, Classic American Home and Santémagazines. Khosrova is also the founding editor-in-chief of culture magazine, a national consumer magazine about specialty cheese, featuring cheese recipes that make your mouth water. In 2013, she left the magazine to pursue her research about butter around the world.
Butter is made from the butterfat that is found as a liquid suspension in milk, mainly cow’s milk, but Khosrova begins and ends the book with stories about yak and water buffalo milk to show how butter is still being made in Asian cultures using ancient methods. Other kinds of butter are discussed along the way, but cow’s milk is her main focus, because it is the most commonly used component in countries that count butter as a staple.
Butter is thoroughly researched here, both its chemical and physical properties as well as its metaphysical and spiritual connotations. In Europe, butter was mostly made by women who were independent producers, contributing greatly to their household’s income. Dairying gave way, eventually, to industrial processes created by men, but nowadays there are still small-batch dairies that produce artisan butter the way it was originally made.
In her final chapter, Khosrova explores the use of butter as an ingredient in rich sauces that make up most of the French chef’s repertoire. She explains why and how butter is used in baking, and why butter that is high in butterfat works better in most recipes. The recipes provided have clearly been tested by the author and add a do-it-yourself aspect that completes the book. I highly recommend Butter, both as a good read and as a thorough treatise about a common ingredient.
Onions and Garlic: A Global History by Martha Jay (The Edible Series, Reaktion Books, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Like the other books in the Edible Series, Onions and Garlic is a general historical survey aimed at a non-specialist audience. It is entertaining and short, and is rather better written and edited than some of the others in the series. The book focuses on the allium family, with more emphasis on onions than garlic.
Almost every culture uses onions and garlic to flavour food, and onions are in fact the second most important horticultural crop in the world after tomatoes. China grows the most onions, followed by India, the US, Egypt and Iran, according to 2010 statistics released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Libyans eat the most onions, on average 33.6 kg (74 lb) each.
Both onions and garlic, like many staple crops eaten around the world today, probably originated in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is considered the “Cradle of Civilization,” and is the place where wheat, barley, goats, sheep and cattle were first domesticated. We know about these crops from the cuneiform tablets that were the first form of writing to emerge from ancient civilizations, wherein early commodities were recorded for accounting purposes. A few ancient recipes survive from these early times, among them dishes that include onions, garlic and leeks.
The word for “leek” in Ancient Egyptian was also the word for all vegetables—Herodotus recorded that inscriptions on the Great Pyramid at Giza detailed how much was spent on onions, leeks and radishes to be fed to the workmen—and indeed the word “leac-tun” in Old English means vegetable garden, and “leac-ward” gardener. And, of course, the humble leek is the symbol of Wales.
Jay’s discussion of the use of various types of alliums is interesting, with excursions to the medieval onion and the improvement of breeds of onions, as well as an examination of folklore with regard to garlic’s anti-vampire properties.
“Onions at War” is also the subject of an online article by Jay, which explores the role of onion growing in Britain and includes a section on “onion johnnies”—the young men from Brittany who sold onions door-to-door on bicycles until just before the Second World War. Finally, the photos and paintings that accompany the writing are excellent illustrations, and are a nice compliment to the text.
Tea with Jane Austen by Pen Vogler (Ryland, Peters & Small, November 2016). Reviewed by Susan Peters, Morrisburg, Ontario (pictured above).
Fans of Jane Austen will delight in this collection of recipes of the Regency era, updated for modern cooks. The book begins with a brief introduction to the history of tea and its important place within Jane Austen’s world. Austen loved tea and her special “tea things,” as she called them. Just as Austen loved to drink and serve tea to her family and guests, the characters in her novels are also depicted in a social setting imbued with the customs of tea, cakes and gossip.
Vogler looks at various treats referred to either in Austen’s personal correspondence or in her novels. Some recipes are gleaned from contemporary Regency sources; in each case, the recipe is updated using today’s culinary methodology and standardized ingredients.
Relying on her strong background in culinary history, Vogler presents a delightful collection. With her wealth of experience recreating and researching culinary history for the BBC, her previous work, Dinner with Mr Darcy (2013), laid a foundation for the examination of Austen’s life and work as a resource for culinary historians. In this book, the author goes beyond simply providing recipes; for each one, she also offers a little history of the availability of a key ingredient and the evolution of methodologies during the Regency era, so as to put all into its proper context.
I would definitely recommend this book to any fan of Jane Austen or her work. I know that I will certainly be trying out many of the recipes. The book also serves as a resource for anyone interested in the culinary history of the mid 1700s to 1845. While it is a small volume, it is jam-packed with delights. One recipe in particular that looks enticing is Buttered Apple Tart, a happy marriage between custard and apple tart. Other tasty treats include Bath Buns, Rout Cakes (as described in Emma) and dainty lemon cheesecakes.
Apparently, Jane Austen is credited with the first written reference to a sponge cake, in her personal correspondence to her sister. So when you enjoy a lovely sponge cake, you can associate Jane Austen with its name.
100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today by Stephen Le (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
A surprisingly easy and accessible read, aimed at a popular audience. After his Vietnamese mother died of cancer in her 60s, Stephen Le, currently a visiting professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, decided to throw himself into researching ancestral diets and lifestyles and learning about risk factors behind breast cancer and other diseases commonly associated with Western civilization.
In this book, Le sets out to demystify many of the ideas that are taken for granted about which foods are healthy and which foods are not, and how much physical exercise human beings need in order to stay healthy and live a long time. His three steps to improving the health of anyone living in modern society are:
- Keep moving: Physical and mental activity, such as routine walking and intellectual stimulation, will help you to live longer and be healthier while you live.
- Eat less meat and dairy when younger, and avoid sugar and deep-fried foods: Hormonal activity, such as that of insulin and IGF-1, goes haywire when we consume a lot of animal protein and sugary and fried foods.
- Eat traditionally: Traditional diets took centuries to develop and are based on how well certain combinations of food support health and how good ingredients taste together. (Culinary historians will find this conclusion particularly interesting.)
Le explores his thesis through such chapters as “The Irony of Insects,” “The Games Fruits Play,” “The Paradox of Fish,” and other interesting discussions—all interwoven with personal anecdotes about his adventures in pursuing and eating strange foods around the world. His chapter on “The Future of Food” explores sustainable food practices, but it also looks at competing claims of specific types of diets, such as the Paleo diet, whose followers eat only high-protein and low-carb foods.
The afterword spells out “Rules to Eat and Live By,” including the previously mentioned “Keep Moving.” Interestingly, a recent article in the New York Times (“Born to Move” by Gretchen Reynolds) concurs; it cites a new study published in the American Journal of Human Biology conducted on a group of modern hunter-gatherers. It showed that most of their activity was moderate and continuous, rather than vigorous; as a result, they typically had low blood pressure and excellent cholesterol profiles across their life spans, even deep into old age. Clearly, we still have much to learn from the history of thought about diet and lifestyle.
Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books, 2016). Reviewed by Shirley Lum, Toronto (pictured above).
CHC members who missed hearing keynote speaker Naomi Duguid talk about citrus in the Persian kitchen at the sold-out 2016 Mad For Marmalade, Crazy For Citrus! will rejoice over this much-anticipated cookbook.
Duguid’s latest endeavour is a cultural ambassador’s treasure box in the guise of a part travel essay and part recipe journal. Astonishing flavours, riveting tales and ancient food history come alive in her collection of nearly 125 recipes from the heart of the Persian Empire.
Food historians, academics and general readers will love that she writes not only about the people and food of the Persian culinary region, but also about immediately neighbouring countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kurdistan. She points out that people speak many different languages and follow many different religions, but at the same time share a rich food history marked by Persian influences dating back to the ancient time of Cyrus and Darius. That history continues to have an impact in the modern era.
The author sets out to “engage” the cook within us, using home cook–friendly recipes, while guiding the reader effortlessly through the chapters. Intrigue begins with the opening line of the introduction: “On the wall of my office, I have a map that shows the Persian Empire under Darius the Great, who died in 486 BC.”
Persia. The very name evokes magic and mystery. Rodica Prato’s hand-drawn maps will help familiarize readers with place names and geographical connections to this culinary paradise. The table of contents and index are well structured. Recipes are organized by common elements: Flavours and Condiments; Soup Paradise; Grilled Meat and Poultry; Stovetop Meat and Poultry, and A Wealth of Fruit.
Those who enjoy immersing themselves in culture, history and geography will love the annotated bibliography’s extensive list of helpful sources that the author personally found interesting and inspiring, from cookbooks and novels to movies and websites. The glossary is extremely useful should readers come across an unfamiliar ingredient, term or name. Words like moraba and merabesse may buzz once apricot jam season arrives across Canada.
This breakthrough book would make a useful educational tool in the classroom and a great gift for anyone, whether they’re familiar with the culture or not. It will generate inspirational conversations over shared delicious food and drinks with both friends and strangers.
Tequila: A Global History by Ian Williams (Reaktion Books Edible Series, 2015). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Agave is a very strange plant: one of the conclusions that Ian Williams comes to in his investigation of the growing habits of the plant that produces pulque, tequila, mescal and a number of other spirits of Mexico. At this season of Mexico’s fall festival, otherwise known as el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, our interest was piqued by this book.
Agave, also known as the century plant in English, or maguey in Spanish, is not a cactus, although it does resemble cacti in retaining water in anticipation of drought and in having spines to ward off marauding animals. It reproduces in three ways: through seedlings, through runners with “babies” that spread from its base, and through an ecstatic flowering and seeding that take place when the plant is seven years old. It is pollinated by bats, which feed on the flowering plants at night. It is no wonder that the ancient peoples who depended on local plants for their livelihood called it “400 Rabbits.”
Tequila is mainly made in the state of Jalisco, where Agave tequilana “Weber Azul” (Blue Weber) grows on the arid volcanic soils of the foothills of Mount Tequila, near Guadalajara, and not far from the tourism centre of Puerto Vallarta in northwestern Mexico. Various kinds of alcohol are made by roasting the piña (heart) of the agave plant, but it is unclear whether the distilling of this liquor was invented by indigenous Mexicans or by the Spanish conquerors.
The coat of arms of the municipality of Tequila features the tower of the main church, the chimneys of the distilleries, rows of agave plants and Mount Tequila. Tequila is, of course, the town’s main industry, and the name “tequila” is protected and highly regulated by the Spanish government under the NOM, or Official Mexican Standard. Tequila can only be made with one variety of agave (the Weber Azul mentioned above), and makers of all other types of similar liquor are forbidden from using the name.
Mescal has also become trendy, and is well on its way to becoming as protected and regulated as tequila. Williams calls tequila the “spirit of the future” for its sustainability and socially conscious production methods, but its powerful yet subtle taste has also made it popular. This book’s explanation of how a once rather down-market product became a global favourite is worth reading.
Melon: A Global History by Sylvia Lovegren (Reaktion Books Edible Series, May 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
A sumptuous read from beginning to end. In fact, prompted by the author’s description on the first page, I bought a charentais melon at an astronomical price at the farmers’ market, and it was, as advertised, incredibly delicious.
Lovegren, author of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, and a long-standing member of the Culinary Historians of Canada, draws on her extensive research skills to explore the complicated history and biology of the fruit, which, like cucumbers and squash, is a member of the family of Cucurbitaceae.
Melons come in many shapes, sizes and flavours—bitter melon is eaten as a vegetable in India, and sweet melons were cultivated as delicacies in the gardens of the Ottoman Turks. Today, melons are cultivated all over the world, some solely for their seeds, which are eaten as a protein-rich, crunchy snack.
Lovegren’s often humorous asides, anecdotes and folktales add a great deal to the book, which takes the reader from southern Africa, where watermelon originated, to southern Asia, where muskmelons still grow wild. Brought from the Old World to the New World early on, both types flourish here and have became an integral part of the local diet.
The photos add a great deal and are nicely reproduced, but one might wish that they were larger so as to really capture the details, particularly in the black-and-white prints of some quite ancient manuscripts. Finally, recipes add a tasty end to the book, and are a useful reminder that melon—fresh, cooked, preserved—is found in virtually every society in the world.
Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate by Robert Dirks, Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Reviewed by Julia Armstrong, Toronto (pictured above).
The period of the late 1800s and early 1900s is known as Gilded Age, satirist Mark Twain’s reference to the veneer of opulence adorning the upper class and cloaking the reality of poverty. This was a time when America’s increasing economic prosperity put more wealth in the hands of a few. The disproportion between the lavish dinner parties of the rich and the modest meals of “ordinary” people could not have been greater.
It is fascinating and surprising to learn that food consumption and dietary studies were being pioneered in the United States at this time. Author Robert Dirks, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Illinois State University, unearthed an extensive series of early 20th-century food inventories (mainly of poor and middle-class subjects) that were authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In this book, Dirks reveals how the scientists undertook the field research. He discusses their discoveries about the eating habits of mountaineers, African Americans, city tenement dwellers, immigrants and others. Accompanying tables summarize the dietaries of the populations in question—that is, the kinds of foods available to and eaten by them. In some cases, the lack of variety is astonishing: in 1904 in East Tennessee, cornmeal, wheat flour, lard and salt pork accounted for three-quarters of the weekly household diet.
Tables showing average nutritional values of the dietaries—for example, the percentage of animal products and vegetables consumed, the percentage of energy derived from fat, and so on—can be challenging to understand, but the main revelations are explained by Dirks in his very readable style, making the book accessible to all.
Also included are 12 recipes from era sources, complete with historical background and instructions (roasted possum, anyone?). Chapter 4 looks at the “Rich and Poor and the Seasonality of Diet,” and a final section examines other contrasts in consumption: between North and South, East and West; immigrant labourers and lumberjacks; and men and women. The latter discussion is based on only one group of students at a particular institution, so the scope is more limited than one might have hoped. Some concluding insight into how government officials acted upon the findings, if at all, would have been welcome. An extensive bibliography is included.
By viewing this early 20th-century data through the lens of contemporary nutrition knowledge and social history, Dirks provides several snapshots of the everyday meals eaten by poor and middle-class Americans in various locations and situations. Perhaps some long-buried Canadian sources would provide similar opportunities for scholarly commentary.
Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain by Carolyn A. Nadeau (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Reviewed by Elka Weinstein, Toronto (pictured above).
Carolyn Nadeau’s book is a scholarly investigation of discourse about food and social values during the era of Don Quixote (which turns 400 this year). Her critical examination of significant food practices draws on the work of sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and sociologist/food historian Stephen Mennell. Nadeau holds that food descriptions from early modern Spain “uncover food’s role as a cultural and social force that defines identity in terms of class, region, ethnicity, nutrition, and celebration.”
Nadeau examines the first cookbook written in Spain: Ruperto de Nola’s Catalan Libre de coch, which was translated into Castilian Spanish in 1525. It contains recipes and medical advice along with advice for young men seeking service in a noble household.
The next major Spanish cookbook was Francisco Martinez Montiño’s Arte de cocina, pastelería vizcochería y conservaría (1611). Martinez Montiño was employed in the kitchens of two Spanish kings, and his work was the most published pre-20th-century Spanish cookbook, with over 25 editions.
Social influences on early modern Spanish cooking are next examined. Nadeau concludes that meat was more important than vegetables, and certain types, such as lamb and veal, went to the more privileged members of society. Salads, vegetables and New World contributions to Spanish fare are examined together—including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and chocolate, adopted during the mid-16th century and now indispensable in Spanish cooking.
Nadeau determines that Jewish and Muslim influences on eating habits not only affected how food practices play into social segregation, but also contributed significantly to the cooking styles and ingredients in modern Spanish recipes and cuisine.
Throughout, Nadeau discusses food as literary metaphor in Cervantes, Quevedo and other Spanish works. For example, in the theatrics of food and celebration, poultry not only occupies a central role at banquets and fiestas, but is also a sexual metaphor. Nadeau ends with a call to other scholars to continue her examination of the ways writers play with their food.
A few recipes in English and Spanish are included, but this is primarily an academic work: not a light read, but an interesting look at how food becomes part of culture and vice versa.
Fats: A Global History by Michelle Phillipov (Reaktion Books Edible Series, May 2016). Reviewed by Dana Moran, Ottawa.
Michelle Phillipov, a senior lecturer in Journalism, Media and Communications at the University of Tasmania, is known for her expertise in death metal music and her authorship of the book Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. Her more recent research considers the ways in which the rise of the celebrity chef and the proliferation of television cooking shows are changing our relationship with food. These cultural changes have informed the lens through which she examines Fats.
Like every volume of the Edible Series, Fats packs a lot in. Although these are historical surveys, this one contains enough information on how popular culture has influenced our consumption of fat to delight even a specialist. With chapters on cooking with fats, nutritional science, the manufacture of fats and fats in popular culture, this book concentrates mainly on recent history. Although a nod is given to fats in earlier times in chapter 1, this book will be of most interest to those who study the 20th century.
Even where the historical land of Cockaigne—a gastronomic paradise—is mentioned, a comparison to the 20th-century African-American Diddy Wah Diddy follows shortly thereafter, with contemporary cultural representations of it. That said, this is a pleasurable read with a well-thought-out structure that describes in detail how the distant past has influenced the present ideology surrounding fat. The book’s colour plates complement the text nicely; so nicely, in fact, that you can use the pictures as a page reference for the content. As with other books in the Edible Series, the recipes at the end seem to be an afterthought, and might better have been integrated into the text, or at least referenced therein.
Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition by Vicky Straker (Amberley Publishing, November 2015). Reviewed by Sher Hackwell, Vancouver (pictured above).
This book provides an overview of afternoon tea: its history, rituals and traditions. Vicky Straker (also the author of Bicycles, Bloomers and Great War Rationing Recipes) succeeds by providing well-researched content that left me wanting more—especially regarding juicy bits like the dangerous, seedy side of tea culture.
With engaging snippets on tea and temperance, tea smuggling, tea tax and the Boston Tea Party, and such chapters as “Expectations of a Mistress” and “The Lost Art of Tea Taking,” the author gives the reader a delightful historical survey. It’s impressive how much detail she manages to present in barely 100 pages.
For example, in chapter 3, “How to Dress for Tea,” Straker explains the evolution of afternoon tea fashions, from the Victorian-era corseted formal attire to the more relaxed Edwardian approach: “The tea dress, tea gown, ‘teagie’ or ‘robe d’intérieur’ was styled on the dressing gown, its natural relation, being worn indoors at a time when comfort was paramount.” She then expands on the fascinating social and political influences behind these fashions.
Straker’s research focuses primarily on the importance of tea for the British aristocracy, the middle class and the high bourgeois as well as the inevitable snobbery and contrasts that existed between these levels of society. The chapter “From the Other Side of the Coin” discusses tea culture from the servant’s perspective. There is a solid bibliography; many well-known texts are cited regarding afternoon tea protocol—including Anne of Green Gables and Howard’s End.
One-third of Afternoon Tea is given over to historical images, many in colour. Another third is dedicated to recipes. Included are the usual suspects (Eccles cakes, scones and Sally Lunn cake) as well as directions for brewing tea and coffee. A bonus is a recipe for Afternoon Tea Biscuits by the author’s great-great-grandmother, Dorothy Peel, who was integral to the teaching of cooking skills to millions of women during the Second World War and the inspiration for the author’s passionate interest in Edwardian cookery.