Snacking on the Past Part 2: 5 More Books on Food History

After writing my first list of books about food history, I couldn’t help reading even more about food history. I read several books specifically on the world of cheese after a delightful trip to Monroe, Wisconsin. So based on my readings and trips, here are five more books about food history and culture. Only two included actually tackle the wonderful world of cheese. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.

 

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty

In this memoir, Michael Twitty tries to uncover his family history through the food. He explains in his conclusion: “The only question I’ve ever wanted to answer for myself was, how was my destiny shaped by the history of southern food?” (404). His journey takes us through the complex and at times uncomfortable narrative of American history.

One thing that this book reminds me is how the slavery really was a defining feature of the modern world. Little was not impacted by it. What we ate and what we wanted to eat were also heavily influenced by the slave trade. He mentions the work of Stephen D. Behrendt who noted that “The slave trade was timed to make deliveries of enslaved Africans in tune with the agricultural cycle, especially those of maize, rice, and yams”(Twitty, 208). He also dives into the world of rice, barbecue, religious importance of food, and so much more.

The book made me think about how political the idea of genealogy can be. Michael Twitty likens the challenge of tracing family history to the Japanese art of Kintsugi. The memoir also explores the legacy of slavery on soul food and/or Southern cooking. It’s really an important work that should be required reading.

Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance by Patricia Rain

I never knew how crazy the world of vanilla could be. Rain’s text goes into the history of the cultivation of vanilla to the current state of the market. Vanilla is a highly demanded commodity in the world; demand always outstrips supply. Also, the cultivation of vanilla is all thanks to Edmond Albius, a slave on the island of Réunion (or Bourbon at the time), who figured out how to hand pollinate the plants.

Combat Ready Food: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat by  Anastacia Marx de Salcedo

This thoroughly researched book looks into history and influence of the US military has had on the food US people eat. So much of what we know today in our food system can be traced back to military research tackling the issue how feeding a lot of people quickly and efficiently. It’s an incredibly detailed and scientific  explanation on how advances by the military has impacted our food, everything from chocolate bars, Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, Lunchables to refrigeration. If you eat it, it’s likely been influenced by the military.

Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese and Cheesemonger: A Life on The Edge by Gordon Edgar

I included both of his books in this list because they are both delightful and informative. Cheddar looks specifically at the world of Cheddar in the US and the UK. It really expanded my knowledge of what cheddar could be. I didn’t even know there were cheddars made of goat’s milk. Also, the discussion of different storage practices, plastic rinds v. hand packaged, was very illuminating. When I finished the book, I ran out to my closet cheese shop to try various things he talked about.

Cheesemonger talks about Edgar’s experiences as a cheesemonger. He talks about how he stumbled into the role and grew to really love cheese. He talks about the paradox that people (urban elites) want artisanal cheeses but the available land needed to make cheeses is being bought up. We want local foods but land near cities is being gobbled up. The memoir covers his experiences working at worker owned co-op and so much more. Each chapter ends with two recommendations for cheese. I’ve got my notes ready for a feast!

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee

In this delightful work, Jennifer 8. Lee looks at the history and legacy of Chinese food in the US. She attempts to unravel the American love for Chinese food (or Americanized Chinese food). Lee dives into the controversy of who made the first fortune cookie with surprising (and unexpectedly dark) results. She also tries to uncover the truth behind General Tso’s Chicken and the origins of chop suey in the US. Lee also tries to understand why American Jews love Chinese food so much. She also talks about the darker side of this love including the human smuggling of restaurant workers, the targeting of delivery men, and much more.  It’s a worthwhile read, looking at the intersection of food, race, and immigration in the US.

That’s all for now!

It's bootcamp for your reading muscle! Listen to All the Books! on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
Elisa Shoenberger: Elisa Shoenberger is an academic out of academia. She is a freelance writer, historian, oral historian, musician, performer, and general troublemaker. Elisa Shoenberger writes the travel and art blog Not Without My Bowler Hat and is working on an oral history about women in the arts in Chicago called: “It Will Keep Your Heart Alive.” She is the co-editor and co-founder of the Antelope Magazine.