The subtitle of The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is probably backwards, in the sense that the author mostly shows that the quest for economic domination shaped the food of Britain rather than the other way round. She builds each chapter of the book around a specific meal eaten in a particular place and time that defines some kind of new historical development, some well-known but others not so much, such as the mass importation of British indentured servants alongside African slaves into in the West Indies. And she does not ignore liquid nourishment, from rum distilleries in Massachusetts to pale ale beer in India. It’s a lot of information, spanning 400 years — and with sometimes surprising rationalizations of the greatness of the empire…
Overall, the good news is: as a group, we are eating much better than we used to!
Did you know that Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, was a reluctant and picky eater as a child? T hat she trained and worked as a Montessori teacher? That she almost married David Goines? I did not either, until I read her memoir, Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, which interestingly focuses on her life before she became a restaurant owner, although she interleaves vignettes about the restaurant throughout the book.
She grew up in the turbulent era of the Free Speech Movement (paying $98 tuition at the University of California, those were the days when students could afford to travel and experiment, even taking in count inflation!) and meandered quite a bit before founding the restaurant. This would be a good book to share with a young adult trying to figure out what to do (or the parents of said young adult who wonder when their kids will ever find themselves and contribute to society).
Perhaps I should have expected that a book with the cutest title of As Long As We Both Shall Eat: A History of Wedding Food and Feasts would not be the next organized book around. And indeed, it bulges with all kinds of stories and anecdotes, most related to weddings, but many not, vaguely categorized in chapters that themselves meander quite a bit. We do read eclectic facts such as charging for wedding beer in 17th century England, bride to be force-feeding in Western Africa, and rules for Disneyland weddings (no”non-matching” characters allowed).
Parts of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America are unexpectedly sweet, and I don’t mean sugar-sweet, but emotionally sweet, starting from the very start when the author recalls, fondly, his father’s love of food shopping and his marveling at the variety and convenience of supermarkets. He also follows the family that owns and manages a chain of supermarkets in his home town of Cleveland, giving us a good feel for the remarkably thin margins of the grocery business, the amount of hard work required to physically move all products into position, the skills required to be a good bagger, and the zaniness of food conventions. As for the rest of the book, when he goes preachy on us about agribusiness, the horrible American diet, or vitamins, I could have done without. Turn the pages quickly in those chapters, the rest is really worth it!
If you are a wine connoisseur, you will want to read Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste — and you will undoubtedly like it. What’s more intriguing is that a non-drinker, or a cynic who thinks that the drinkers who mumble about tasting blueberries and grass and dirt (!) must be faking it, will both find the book fascinating. The author spent a year studying wine (and passing a difficult sommelier exam) and it turns out that it is, indeed, possible to taste blueberries, grass, or dirt, although many experts really use the words to telegraph a particular type of grapes rather than a particular taste. Who knew? She also touches on the restaurant business and restaurant people, and her descriptions of the very rich who are able to buy the most expensive wines could have been excised without diminishing the rest of the story at all. But the tasting stories are worth it!
The Temporary Bride made me feel acutely uncomfortable. It is a memoir of a daring Canadian woman who loves to cook and discover new food cultures and has travelled to unlikely locales, alone. (Think Sana’a, Yemen). In this book, she travels to Iran and learns cooking from a homemaker she finds through her son, and the stories of her relationship with this woman living in a world so different from hers are wonderful, as is her avid interest in restaurants, street vendors, and even a camel slaughterhouse.
And then she starts a relationship with the son, one that begins with ambiguous violence and then continues with, to me, unhealthy cultural undertones, as she seems to think of him as slightly inferior, untrained, uncouth. Although she proclaims her love of him, the revelation of so many personal details seemed exploitative and inappropriate.
The author of The Case Against Sugar is convinced that sugar is killing us. He is so sure of it that he sometimes overstreches his argument, almost saying that over-consumption of sugar causes high blood pressure, which does not seem to be supported by research, at least at this point. Still, it would be good to see anti-sugar campaigns similar to anti-smoking campaigns as millions suffer from diabetes, obesity, and other diseases that are clearly linked to sugar consumption.