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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Eating History by Andrew F. Smith

Posted by fromagebob on January 7, 2011

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.


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A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Posted by fromagebob on December 9, 2010

Start a discussion about history, and you’ll be mining a rich topic that runs the gamut of the human experience: battles and conquests, migration and survival, kings, queens, religion – you name it. One topic you probably won’t touch on, though, is beer. Or wine, coffee, tea, spirits, or Coke, for that matter.

It turns out that those six beverages (or at least the first four), had a huge impact on our survival and the development of our civilization. “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage, is a great look at how beverages that we take for granted today were at the foundation of our development as a people. Beer and wine were accidental discoveries that provided the basis for early survival. Coffee took the place of beer as the morning beverage of choice, and tea laid the foundation for the English empire. But all of them played a fundamental role in the story of us, and how we became who and what we are today.

As we moved from hunter-gatherer to more urbanized settlements, one of the big problems became the disposal of waste and the subsequent contamination of water supplies. When you’re hiking through the jungle, any stream will do to quench your thirst, but as the population became more urban, drinking downstream from the neighbor created some real issues.

Beer was one of the earliest non-water beverages that was safer to drink than water. The fermentation process, and the alcohol content, negated the contamination that was very common in the population. Plus, it contributed to the nutritional well-being of the imbiber, which helped to improve general health. Wine also became an important beverage for the same reason – it was safer than water, and also provided benefits to the drinker in the form of polyphenols, anti-oxidants, and more.

The more fascinating of the four were coffee and tea. Because beer and wine were safer than water, and because they were fairly easy to produce, they were the drink of choice for a very long time- up until the late 16th century in Europe. Coffee originated in the Middle East, and became a fairly common drink in the 15th century. Up until that time, it was very common to start the day with a watered-down glass of beer, and to imbibe beer or wine as a beverage throughout the day.

Coffee changed that; as it became popular in Europe – especially in England, coffeehouses began to appear, and became the center of science, finance, and industry in a fairly short period of time. The reason (as we know today) was simple – a cup of coffee is stimulating, where a glass of beer is not. Men began to congregate in coffee houses to discuss business and the news of the day; coffee houses began to specialize in a particular area of knowledge, such as finance, marine affairs, science, and so on. Lloyds of London started in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house. The London Stock Exchange started in Jonathan’s Coffee House on Exchange Alley. In France, Joseph Priestly (“The Invention of Air”) met Benjamin Franklin and other notable scientists and philosophers in a coffee house.

Because coffee was made from boiled water, it was safer to drink than plain water, and because it stimulated rather than sedated, it became the drink of choice of business men and the intelligentsia alike.

Tea also played an important role in the rise of civilization and the foundation of our country; like coffee, it was safer to drink than water, and like coffee, it provided stimulation from its caffeine content. Tea played a large economic role in the rise of England to power, because it was such a valuable commodity. In the cities, women were not permitted in coffee shops; their venue of choice became the tea parlor, and the custom of afternoon tea became quite common. As the production of tea became more widespread, the cost came down, and it became the beverage of the workingman in England.

This is a great book for anyone interested in the minutia of history – of those things and events that played an important role in the rise of man, and the development of civilization. We tend to think of history as a grand movement from level to level, but – as this book aptly shows – history is more of a series of accidents and opportunities, from which greatness may (or may not) arise.

Best part of the book for me was finding out the truth about Coca Cola! Read it for yourself, and see.

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