One of my favorite things about learning history is that it adds new dimension to the things I already enjoy, and this is especially true for food history. For example, I have always loved pumpkin pie, but it hits me differently knowing that I’m eating Sri Lankan tree bark mixed with a spicy root that can grow just about anywhere and was as common in medieval Europe as pepper. These flavors are complemented by an aromatic flower bud from an Indonesian evergreen and a seed whose origins were so jealously guarded that it was dipped in lime juice before it was sold or exported so no one could grow their own. (Those are cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg, respectively.) Every ingredient and every recipe we enjoy is born of a long journey, both geographical and historical, and there is an absolute feast of books that tell those stories.
“The Story of Food: An Illustrated History of Everything We Eat” breaks food history down into bite-sized pieces by taking things one ingredient at a time, from adzuki beans to zucchini. Every beautifully illustrated page gives the story of a food’s variations, cultural relevance and uses in different cuisines. Think of it as a colorful food history sampler platter.
“Salt” by Mark Kurlansky is what is known as a “microhistory,” a method of historical investigation that zooms in on one small, defined unit, usually in a way that shows its larger implications in macrohistory. Salt is probably the most taken-for-granted seasoning (the vanilla of the savory world, if you will), and it does a lot more than make food more flavorful. Kurlansky investigates this tasty rock’s history and its significance to human civilization.
“The Seven Culinary Wonders of the World: A History of Honey, Salt, Chile, Pork, Rice, Cacao, and Tomato” by Jenny Linford and illustrated by Alice Pattullo offers a deep dive into the history, folklore and uses of these seven ingredients, chosen for their ubiquity and influence on human history. It also includes 60 recipes from a range of the countries it mentions.
There’s a whole wide world of food out there, and “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide” by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras wants to help you taste it all. Organized by country, this foodie travel guide will trek your palate all over the globe. Each entry also features a “How to Try It” section which tells you where to find the dish or how to make it at home.
“The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” by food historian Michael W. Twitty explores the complicated history of Southern food, which is inextricably linked to African cuisine and the legacy of slavery. Twitty traces this complex culinary history via his Southern Discomfort tour, which takes him to plantations, civil war monuments and black-owned organic farms. Along the way, he learns more about his own family history.
Moving beyond which plants and animals we consume, “Consider the Fork” explores how we consume them. Contrary to what the title implies, this book does not limit itself to one food-to-mouth vehicle. Rather, it explores a multitude of tools that humans have used to prepare, serve and eat food.
As 21st-century Americans accustomed to the food safety regulations of the FDA, it might be difficult for us to imagine just how “wild west” things were in the early days of mass-produced food. “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee” by Bee Wilson covers a wide swath of corporations that have tampered with (or even poisoned) food sold to the public and pays special attention to 19th and 20th century America and England, when science advanced enough to start combating food fraud.
Food is such an intimate part of our daily lives, and we all have our own unique tastes, recipes, comfort foods and eating habits. Whether it’s the jar of honey you buy at the farmer’s market, your go-to takeout order from a local restaurant, or a grilled cheese, there’s always a little slice of history on your plate.