I’ve been reading quite a bit of “food history” lately; it’s quite fascinating to dig in to the meat and potatoes of how and why we eat what we eat (sorry…). “Eating History”,by Andres F. Smith, focuses on American Cuisine, in a series of “30 Turning Points in the making of American Cuisine” according to the author. Some of the vignettes are very interesting, and provide some fascinating insight into the development of the American food scene.
Some of the things that I found fascinating included the impact the Erie canal had on the distribution of food in the US. It allows the midwest to become the chief producer and supplier of grains to the East coast; that is something that most people know. The other effect was to provide the basis for New York to become a financial center; the canal was the largest public work undertaken, and required the sale of bonds to finance it’s construction. Because most of those bonds were sold in New York, it really strengthened the city’s financial industry.
Another chapter dealt with the impact that Delmonico’s restaurant had on the eating habits of New Yorkers, and then on the rest of the country. Giovanni Del-Monico started by opening a wine shop in New York, in 1824. Unhappy with the business – American’s weren’t big wine drinkers at that time – he sold the shop, and opened a cafe and pastry shop late in 1827, under an americanized version of his name. He expanded the cafe into a French restaurant in 1830, which became the model for the American restaurant industry.The side effect was that because Delmonico’s created such a demand for French food, it was widely imitated, to the detriment of other styles of cuisine that were also becoming popular at the time.
The most fascinating chapter was that on Thanksgiving. Basically, everything we “know” about this holiday came not from the Pilgrim’s getting down with the Indians, but from a fictionalized portrayal of the event. The author was Sara Josepha Hale. In 1827, she wrote a story about the first Thanksgiving dinner that described the meal as an elaborate feast. That account became quite popular, and moved from being a story into the mainstream of american lore; in 1870, the fiction found its way into history books, where it remains today.
If you’ve ever wondered how the microwave was invented, or how the vegetarian movement got started, or the backstory about Julia Child, this is the book for you.