Reading succulent books on food and its history is almost as satisfying as eating a great meal. This season our tables are laden with five luscious books sure to appeal to the foodies on your holiday list.
SPICE IS NICE
In Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman traces the evolution of our culinary culture by exploring the histories of eight ingredients that have come to characterize modern American cuisine: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate and Sriracha. Drawing on deep research into cookbooks, as well as her own travels in search of flavor origins, Lohman introduces us to the explorers, merchants and cooks responsible for changing our tastes. For example, in the early 19th century, merchant John Crowninshield and his father, George, brought 1.5 million pounds of black pepper from Sumatra to the U.S. over a period of two years. Americans have been using hot sauce to spice up their dishes since 1807, Lohman discovers, and the popularity of Sriracha, first produced by Huy Fong Foods in 1980, continues to turn up the heat in our meals. Lohman’s delectable book illustrates the deep connections between culture and food, reminding us that the flavors that enhance our foods represent the people who cook it.
Also noticing that Americans love a little spice in life—and on their vegetables, pork roast or chicken wings—journalist Denver Nicks offers an enticing overview of this passion in Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession. He discovers that sales of hot sauce in the U.S. far outstrip sales of other condiments. These peppery potions have long been an integral ingredient in the cooking of the world’s poor because hot sauce is inexpensive, tasty and has a long shelf life. Fast food chains, such as Wendy’s and White Castle, have introduced dishes such as spicy chicken sandwiches, jalapeño burgers and Sriracha sliders to their menus to satisfy the cravings for capsaicin (the chemical in peppers that causes the sizzling sensation). Nicks’ burning questions about our love of Tabasco and its many cousins eventually move beyond the taste of the sauce and on to the mystery of why we love it. He concludes philosophically that we devour hot sauce “to enliven our meals and to dance with pain,” transcending, at least momentarily, the agony induced by the capsaicin rush.
Matt Goulding’s love of Spanish cuisine began when he shared a meal with the woman who would become his wife. In Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture, Goulding does for Spain’s food what he did for Japan’s in Rice, Noodle, Fish, except that this time it’s more personal. In a foreword, Goulding dishes out the elements of Spanish cuisine that he’s fallen for: “beautiful local ingredients, impeccable techniques, and a ravenous appetite for all manners of flora and fauna. The Spanish suck the brains from shrimp heads, crunch sardine spines like potato chips, and throw elaborate wine-soaked parties to celebrate spring onions.” Goulding’s succulent prose celebrates nine regions of Spain, commending the food, drink or manner of preparation that makes each area memorable. In Barcelona, for example, it’s foraging for dinner in the markets across the city, from the sheep market to the pig market. Galicia reigns supreme for its gooseneck barnacles, while Basque country produces Spain’s finest wines. Goulding sprinkles useful advice throughout the book; thus, on “how to drink like a Spaniard,” he counsels to “order it local,” “drink it small and cold,” and “skip the Sangria.” Affectionate and amusing, Goulding’s book provides a tasty guide for travelers grazing through Spain’s food cultures.
TASTE OF THE TOWN
As the late food historian Joy Santlofer demonstrates in her elegant Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York, the Big Apple has long been a crossroads of food cultures. Santlofer vividly traces the evolution of New York City as the capital of the food industry from the mid-17th century to the present. She focuses on the big four of food production in New York—bread, sugar, drink, meat—and chronicles the ways that the production of each moved from the artisanal to the industrial and back to the artisanal. During the height of industrialization, New York was home to National Biscuit Company, Hebrew National and American Chicle. Readers familiar with the city will be surprised to learn that the pedestrian mall on 42nd Street functioned in the 19th century as a trail where cattle were driven to slaughterhouses along the East River. Santlofer brings to life the colorful history of “food city,” emphasizing that the future belongs to young artisans who continue to create new products.
A REAL PAGE-CHURNER
In Butter: A Rich History, food writer and former pastry chef Elaine Khosrova whips up a tasty chronicle of the indispensable dairy product. Khosrova demonstrates that “the life and times of butter have been deeply entwined” with events far from kitchen or creamery. She explores, for example, the use of butter in Tibetan Buddhism to sculpt sacred figures; the staple also took on sacred properties in the Middle Ages when the Roman Catholic Church banned consumption of butter on fast days. Khosrova points out that butter’s rich texture and flavor enhance other ingredients and make sweets irresistible. She provides a range of recipes, from croissants and shortbread to hollandaise and butterscotch pudding, that butter made possible, as well as recipes for making your own butter. Khosrova’s richly textured history melts in your mouth.
This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.