Previously published in Digestible Bits & Bites
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Fats: A Global History by Michelle Phillipov
- 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
- 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
- King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from around the World by Joan Nathan
- 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
- The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook: Whole Food of Our Ancestors, edited by Roxanne Swentzell & Patrician M. Perea
- The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about Eating from Prehistory to the Present by Christine A. Hastorf
- 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
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.