Review of “The American Plate: Culinary History in 100 Bites” by Libby H. O’Connell

This is a marvelous gem of a book by Libby O’Connell (chief historian for the History Channel, inter alia), who tells the stories behind the food and drink of America in 100 “bites.” But this is not just a culinary history; it is an excellent account of American history reflected through the lens of what we have been eating all this time, and why.


If you follow this blog, you know that I am very critical when it comes to narratives about American history, but O’Connell pretty much astounded me with her coverage and accuracy, though the book isn’t that long and is filled with recipes and anecdotes about food. You couldn’t ask for a more interesting way to learn history, although it’s all conveyed as if you are learning about it incidentally.

And what interesting things you will learn at this “feast” for the mind. It’s full of tidbits you won’t be able to resist sharing, such as the reason “American as apple pie” is a misnomer, why bourbon became so popular, the origin of the phrase “high on the hog,” the inspiration for Baked Alaska and Oysters Rockefeller, whence the name of the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, and the role the Woodstock Festival played in the popularization of granola.

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska

In the process, you also get the basics of the history in America of Native Americans (as well as the ironically named anti-immigration “Nativists”), the Chinese who helped build the railroads, the Harlem Renaissance, women’s rights, the Great Depression, the effects of war on food supplies, the effects of inventions on food choices (refrigeration, freezing, canning, etc.) and occasional broader perspectives when applicable (such as the tendency of the Romans to serve stuffed dormice as appetizers in the section on canapés).

Not all the recipes are necessarily ones you will want to try, such as an old recipe for cooking beaver tail, but there are plenty of recipes you will be eager to test, such as Strawberry Rhubarb Pie or Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken.

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

As the author writes, a significant part of any people’s history is revealed by what is on their plates.

An excellent collection of sources and references is included in the End Notes, and has the potential to occupy your time as much as the book itself.

Evaluation: This book is fun, fascinating, and extremely informative. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Sourcebooks, 2014


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19 Responses to Review of “The American Plate: Culinary History in 100 Bites” by Libby H. O’Connell

  1. Ruth2Day says:

    oh my word, I’ve not had Baked Alaska since I was a child.

  2. Beth F says:

    Oh I want!!! Thanks for bringing this great book to my attention.

  3. jama says:

    I want too! Adding it to my WIsh List. Thanks!

  4. sandynawrot says:

    OMG! This sounds amazing! I swear you find the coolest stuff.

  5. Care says:

    PIE! Don’t forget, strawberry rhubarb pie day is June 9.
    I am going to make a coffee pudding meringue pie for Natl Pie Day on the 23rd.

  6. BermudaOnion says:

    I find books like this fascinating and tend to drive everyone crazy with the tidbits I glean from them.

  7. Athira says:

    I have a feeling I’ll be very hungry while and after reading this book. But love the idea of this book being packed with little trivia. Those are always fun to read.

  8. Rachel says:

    This sounds like a really fun book!

  9. Belle Wong says:

    I love food books, and this one sounds perfect! I want to know the answers to everything you mentioned, especially the origins of Baked Alaska, because I’ve always wondered, how did anyone come up with the idea of baking ice cream?

  10. sagustocox says:

    I love this! Wonderful idea. My nana used to make the best Strawberry Rhubarb pie! You are making the wish list grow!

  11. Trish says:

    History and food and tidbits that I can bug Scott with.,..”Did you KNOW!” 🙂 I definitely need to check this one out. Guessing it would be silly to seek it out on audio??

  12. jilllora says:

    Yes, but does it talk about CHOCOLATE?

  13. litandlife says:

    What great fun!

  14. Teddyree says:

    Now this is one I’d have overlooked if not for your post … Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken OH YUM!

  15. Esme (@cococroissants) says:

    The books sounds fascinating.

  16. Oh great review! I read this a few months ago and so enjoyed it. I keep meaning to reread it and try some of the recipes. Thanks for the reminder!

  17. I like the sound of this one! I love learning history in ways that don’t feel like I’m learning history 🙂

  18. stacybuckeye says:

    I saw this at the library today and didn’t pick it up! 😦 Maybe it will be there next time.

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