Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas is full of interesting tidbits that would make a great trivia quiz: why Icelandic yogurt is so delicious (and is not yogurt at all!); that 14th Century Arabs made a milk and colostrum (!) mixture; that 18th century French physicians recommended ice cream as health food (I’m in!); that cows produce four times as much milk today than in 1942; and that Tibetan yaks serve as snow plows as much as milk producers.
The stories are often interesting, but they seem to be stitched together one after the other, logically perhaps, but in the dry style of a thousand index cards filled in by research assistants. Do research assistants still use index cards? Probably not, but that’s what the book feels like, and the recipes that are interleaved with the text do not dismiss that impression.
Butter: A Rich History is really a cookbook with a history prologue, but is delightful even if, like me, you pretty much skip the cookbook. The author takes us from the Asian steppes to Ireland, along the way covering the technology of butter, butter art (Tibetan sacred art, not the amateurish decorations of Midwestern country fairs), butter as medicine, and the complicated science behind the health benefits of eating butter versus margarine. It’s all very delicious and I suppose reading and making the recipes would only enhance the pleasure.
If you find it completely normal to eat tofu, yogurt, brown rice, whole-grain bread, or kale, it may be surprising to realize that 40 years ago it would have been extremely challenging to find them in a grocery store or restaurant, in the US that is. Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat details how it all started (in California, of course!) with a surprising mix of influences, from “right-eating” maniacs who killed their devotees by forgetting that scurvy happens, to travelers who wanted to replicate delicious meals they enjoyed during overseas travel made possible by cheaper airfare, to environmentalists who decried the hidden costs of eating meats, to idealists who created co-op stores. I was struck by how many of the pioneers had very little background in nutrition, agriculture, or the food industry, and yet they pushed forth a revolution. It’s an interesting look at changes that came slowly but transformed what we eat and how we eat.
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!