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Food History Reading List

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Backlist has published an excellent food history reading list for those of you interested in those sorts of things. I did a labor history reading list for them a few months ago. These are good lists and excellent primers for smart readers like you who want to read more history and support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

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  • efgoldman

    support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

    “Penurious” not “incompetent”, correct?

    • ChrisTS

      Presumably. :-)

  • c u n d gulag

    Here in in the Mid-Hudson Valley, on Sunday’s at 2:30p, my Mom’s and my favorite còoking show, “A Taste of History,” where Chef Walter Steib, recononstructs late 18th Century American reicpes, but also goes to the Carib islands, and has local Chef’s cook for him.

    It’s a GREAT show!

  • joel hanes

    I understand that the focus of that list is hunger,
    so it’s perhaps understandable that it doesn’t include anything from Raymond Sokolov — but if you’re interested in the history of foods, you should read his stuff.

    I first encountered him in his food history articles in Natural History Magazine. Those ended years ago, alas.

  • Weed Atman

    I took a great class in college called Food, Gender & Culture. I’ll see if I can dig up my old syllabus. Might be lost in the ashes of time.

    • ChrisTS

      I would love to see this. Also: what department/discipline?

  • CrunchyFrog

    In the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento there is a dining car that has been outfitted with a different place setting and menu on each of the dining tables – all from the golden era of passenger railroad travel (30s-50s). My wife loves the variety of china on display, but I love the menus. Mind you, I wouldn’t actually like to EAT the stuff on the menus, but it’s fascinating to see what passed for higher-end dining less than a century ago – and how drastically eating habits have changed since then.

    • I also love old menus. When I was in Vienna, we went to the Habsburg residence. They had room after room of their state dishes. Mostly it was boring. But some state menus? Now, that’s my kind of history.

      • Juicy_Joel
        • Honoré De Ballsack

          That NYPL list is fascinating!

      • SamChevre

        I’d love to hear more about what you saw/liked in Vienna.

        • Yeah, it was really cool but totally whirlwind. After a few days in Munich and a couple in Salzburg, we had about 3 1/2 days in Vienna. And what I realized pretty much right after I got there was that this was like New York, I should stop even beginning to try to see everything, and just hang out. So we did a day at the Schonbrunn Palace and that was pretty neat. And we did the Habsburg residence as well, which was more fine than great, but whatever. Walked an absolute ton. Went to the crypt where the Habsburgs were buried and then the church where their innards are in jars and where they have giant piles of plague victim bones on display, which was certainly in your face. Hit a couple of microbreweries, ate a ton of sausage and the like. Went to the Vienna Museum as well, which was pretty cool but I should have gone to the Freud Museum, which my wife did and it sounded better. I really wanted to get out to the Karl Marx-HOF but the museum is only open a couple of days a week and it’s really out of the way so it didn’t happen. That’s what I would have done with one more day.

          And of course I went to the park with the ferris wheel from The Third Man and rode it and took tons of pictures and quoted lines from the movie to my wife who has not seen it but is used to me doing this kind of thing.

          Pretty great overall, wish I had more time. Didn’t even get to an art museum.

          • SamChevre

            Yes. I spent a month in Vienna (language school) and saw maybe 1% of what there was to see. Sorry you weren’t able to get to the HGM–that was my favorite.

            • In a way, I think Salzburg was more jaw-dropping to me, but Vienna was absolutely outstanding as well.

              I later watched the Around the World with Orson Welles episode on Vienna, which was the travel show thing he tried to do in the mid 50s. It consisted of the zither player from The Third Man and Welles eating his favorite pastries around the city for an hour.

          • heckblazer

            What, no sewer tour?!?

    • CaptainBringdown

      Mind you, I wouldn’t actually like to EAT the stuff on the menus, but it’s fascinating to see what passed for higher-end dining less than a century ago – and how drastically eating habits have changed since then.

      I haven’t seen any of those railroad menus that you are talking about, but I had the exact opposite reaction to the 150 year old menu Erik posted here. I was struck by how similar the fare on offer there was to today’s and by how I’d probably have no issue eating 90% of the stuff on it.

      The Juicy_Joel’s links posted above do not portend well for my productivity today, that looks like a fun rabbit hole.

  • Origami Isopod

    Margaret Visser’s books on food history (and on cultural history in general) are worth a read.

  • JMV Pyro

    Well, this should keep me busy for a while. Thanks.

  • As usual I want to recommend Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad

    Perfection Salad, a dish that won its creator first prize in a 1905 cooking contest, consisted of pristine molded aspic containing celery, red pepper, and chopped cabbage. Laura Shapiro, author of this eponymous social history, part of the Modern Library Food series, takes the salad as a model for the domestic science movement, an intriguing women’s crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bent on convincing housewives that the way to domestic order lay in cooking “dainty” nutritional meals from sanitary ingredients in “scientific” kitchens, the movement helped give birth to our mass-market food scene, with its reliance on home economics precepts, processed convenience foods, and no-cook cooking–our cuisine of boil-in bags and microwave frozen dinners. Entertaining and informative, but also unexpectedly moving, the book chronicles in numerous intriguing stories the ways in which an impulse to liberate women from the drudgery and imprecision of daily food preparation led to its debasement. It’s a fascinating story, of interest to anyone who wonders why and how we cook and eat–and think about food–as we do.
    Beginning with portraits of early domestic movement reformers such as Catherine Beecher and Mary Lincoln, and investigating institutions like the Boston Cooking School, home of Fannie Farmer, the Mother of Level Measurements, the book then pursues “scientific cookery” into its mid-20th-century manifestation. “With the help of the new industry of advertising,” Shapiro writes, “the food business was able to reflect Mrs. Lincoln’s values [of food-production uniformity] by keeping its achievements in packing, sanitation, convenience, and novelty at the forefront.” But greater ills ensued: the effect of the reformers, Shapiro contends, was to encourage women to become docile consumers tethered to commercial interests–and to rob our vigorous cooking and eating traditions of their rich life. In making that point, Perfection Salad reveals its true subject: the cultural priorities that defined American 20th-century life and, finally, the sorry nature of the order they established.

    I have a bunch of other great books on the subject–covering things like the rise of “nutraceuticals” or foods that purport to be super nutritious/life saving like Graham Crackers and Corn Flakes. But I can’t find them on my shelf right now. Its a fascinating area of study.

    I think I’d like to throw in a book like Rubbish The Archaeology of Garbage, by William RAthje and also Nature’s Metropolis which explores the linkage between railways, waterways, grain production, and beef distribution during roughly the same time as Perfection Salad.

    Another important book is Sidney Mintiz’s Sweetness and Power. A marvellous exploration of the relatioship between sugar production, cheap food, and industrialization.

    Ooops! Just goes to show you should always click on the link before pontificating in comments! Still, I’m really pleased that my biggest picks (was going to mention changes in the land too!) were right there, front and center!

    • ChrisTS

      I have to admit that any aspic salad reminds so horribly of my childhood that I simply cannot entertain the idea.

    • DrS

      model for the domestic science movement, an intriguing women’s crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bent on convincing housewives that the way to domestic order lay in cooking “dainty” nutritional meals from sanitary ingredients in “scientific” kitchens, the movement helped give birth to our mass-market food scene, with its reliance on home economics precepts, processed convenience foods, and no-cook cooking–our cuisine of boil-in bags and microwave frozen dinners.

      McMegan and her Thermomix were foretold. Haha

  • CHD

    I recently read Sweetness and Power on my sons’ recommendation. Very interesting- more evidence that there are a.lot of ways to look at history and the world. The part about the Caribbean was somewhat chilling; the part about how inexpensive sugar changed life in Britain was very surprising.

    On a lighter note, my cousin’s friend Paula Marcoux is a food historian who recently write a cookbook Cooking With Fire. Mostly it includes recipes from colonial times – she worked at Plymouth Plantation – and includes info on how to make a brick oven, a recipe for flip (rum, molasses and beer, heated with a red hot poker) and even how to make a Tandoor out of a terra cotta chimney pipe. (I said mostly colonial…) It has a nicely irreverent tone and is a lot of fun.

    • Origami Isopod

      even how to make a Tandoor out of a terra cotta chimney pipe. (I said mostly colonial…)

      Different kind of colonial.

      • CHD

        Point taken.
        I suppose I should have used capital-C Colonial, though in either case it reflects the bias of having been raised and educated in a Colonial-era town west of Philadelphia by parents who grew up in Providence.

    • Fascinating, thanks for the recommendation! We used to visit Plymouth every summer on our way to the cape. One of my highschool friends was a re-enactor there for a while. I very much admired the way they left something cooking, or just off the fire, in some of the houses to really give you the feeling of the place.

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