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.
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.
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!
Published by Sourcebooks, 2014