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Ice might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of coveted “luxury” goods. In fact, many Americans take ice for granted as a now-ubiquitous product that is dispensed out of their refrigerators and can be purchased in bags from nearly every grocery store, convenience store and gas station.

But as Amy Brady (co-editor of The World as We Knew It) explains in her new book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, ice has indeed been a very “hot commodity” throughout history. Flash forward to today on our rapidly warming planet, and ice is in even higher demand. This paradox was not lost on Brady. As she writes, “The irony lay in the fact that I was driven to seek out and consume ice because of a phenomenon that’s eliminating ice on the planet.”

Amy Brady, author of ‘Ice,’ recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

Brady found ice to be an untapped subject and did enormous amounts of research to fill in the gaps in its history. Divided into four parts that each focuses on an aspect of ice—obsession, food and drink, ice sports, and the future—Ice outlines how frozen water “profoundly has shaped the nation’s history and culture.” Commentary from food writers, scientists, physicians and historians are interspersed with historic resources such as newspaper articles, diaries and journals, creating unique connections between the past and present.

Historical facts and statistics help contextualize the important role ice has played in events like Prohibition, when breweries pivoted to other business ventures that would make use of their existing ice cellars. (Yuengling opened a dairy, Anheuser-Busch made infant formula and Pabst sold cheese.) Another especially interesting chapter covers ice’s use as a medical treatment for injuries, chronic ailments and even cancer. Throughout the book, Brady uses timelines to help illustrate the trajectory of ice’s journey from an amenity to an everyday item, emphasizing how quickly it became mainstream. Taken all together, Ice makes an important case for securing the future of those freezing cold cubes in a warming world.

Amy Brady uses commentary from food writers, scientists and physicians to illuminate how something as commonplace as ice came to shape America’s history and culture.
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William Alexander delivers a tasty culinary chronicle with Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History. With authority, humor and an instinct for flavorful anecdotes, Alexander tracks the evolution of the tomato from its first cultivations in the Americas to its first encounter with Europe via the Spanish in the 1500s to its current widespread popularity. Along the way, he considers tomato-related innovations such as the creation of ketchup and the rise of hybrid tomato specimens. Alexander touches on themes of contemporary farming practices and food production that will provide great talking points for book clubs.

Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America is a surprisingly dramatic account of the rise of the beef industry and how the meat came to be an American favorite. Focusing on the 19th century, Specht explores the cattle ranches of the American West and the Chicago meatpacking industry and looks at how urban expansion affected production. His shrewd analysis of meatpacking practices, factory conditions for workers and labor developments underscores the impact of beef on American business. Specht’s nuanced account sheds new light on a mealtime mainstay.

In Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, Mark Kurlansky traces the science, history and mythology behind the life-giving liquid. Fans of the author (who has also dedicated books to salt and cod) will welcome this study of a beverage that, as Kurlansky demonstrates, transcends cultures and eras. From milk production and dairy farming to the role of milk in economics and its significance in countries across the globe, Kurlanksy presents a multifaceted look at the vital beverage. Ever attuned to the offbeat factoid, he writes with typical crispness in a book that’s sure to intrigue readers.

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast delves into the fascinating past of a controversial crop. Millions of people around the world rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods, and Pendergrast takes stock of how the little bean has shaped international commerce and politics over the centuries. He brews up plenty of tantalizing coffee lore, assesses the dominance of Starbucks and explores the worlds of coffee snobs and fair-trade advocates. Global economics and the centrality of coffee to our daily lives make for rich discussion topics.

Psst . . . pair them with thematic snacks and/or drinks!
Behind the Book by

“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?” These were the questions that ran through my head in early 2019 as I filled a cup with iced tea at a gas station in Apalachicola, Florida, a tiny town on the Gulf Coast. The day was sweltering, and the thick scent of palm trees wafted through the air, mixing with the smell of melting asphalt. At the time, I was deep into writing my book Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, about all the unexpected ways ice has shaped America’s history and culture. I’d come here to learn more about the man who made the nation’s first ice machine.

That man was John Gorrie, a 19th-century, New York-born doctor who moved to Apalachicola in the 1840s to treat yellow fever, which plagued the region every summer. Without knowing that mosquitoes transmit the virus (no one knew that yet back then), Gorrie thought that ice might be a cure. After much trial and error, he succeeded at building a working ice machine, the nation’s first, but his invention didn’t receive the response he’d hoped for. This was an era of superstition and skepticism toward science. A man who claimed he could make ice? Why, only God can make ice! Or so went the thinking of the day.

Read our review of ‘Ice’ by Amy Brady.

Gorrie was ridiculed by his peers and eventually died a penniless laughingstock in his early 50s of the very disease he was hoping to treat. A mere decade later, his rediscovered ice machine patent would serve as the blueprint to build America’s first commercial ice plants. From then on, ice became not only a luxury but a necessity across the country.

I wanted to learn more about Gorrie, but despite his extraordinary contributions to science, hardly anyone then—or now—knew who he was. Few of his personal papers were saved after his death, and many more were lost in a fire. Writing Gorrie’s story—and the ways it intersected with the larger history of ice—was going to be a challenge, but the historian in me couldn’t have been more excited to take it on.

My trip to Apalachicola brought me first to the John Gorrie Memorial Museum, where I spoke with a staff member named Peggy. I thought I’d begin by asking her about what historians already know, but even the basics, I learned, are up for debate. Gorrie’s birth records were lost to history, she said, so no one knows for sure whether he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, or on Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean Sea. Almost everyone agrees on when Gorrie moved to Apalachicola (the 1840s) and why (to treat yellow fever), but no one knows for sure how a doctor of such little means (he was broke when he arrived and even more broke when he died) treated so many patients.

“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?”

We know that he married the daughter of a wealthy hotelier not long after he arrived in Florida, but no one knows for certain why. I wanted to think it was for love, of course, but it was hard not to wonder how a woman of her social stature got away with marrying a poor, blasphemous doctor of ill repute at a time when women were rarely allowed to make significant decisions without input from their families. When I looked at their relationship from Gorrie’s perspective, I thought that perhaps Gorrie saw his wife’s family as a source of wealth to fund his ice-making experiments, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the couple barely had enough to live on.

Then there was the biggest question at the heart of my research: Why did Gorrie think that ice would cure disease? What possibly could have led him to that conclusion?

With so many holes in the doctor’s story, I realized that archival research—my favorite kind!—would be most useful. Back in my hotel, I revisited what I knew. I had Gorrie’s basic timeline and at least a few names and locations. I pulled out my laptop and searched newspaper databases to find articles related to 1840s Apalachicola. An hour later, I stumbled across a notice of Gorrie’s marriage in the Apalachicola Gazette. Interestingly, the bride’s father didn’t attend the ceremony. (So the union had caused a familial stir!) Next I turned to a database of 19th-century medical journals, where I learned about the leading theories of the day surrounding the dangers of heat. As a doctor, Gorrie would have read those journals and learned that too high of a fever could damage a patient’s internal organs. That’s probably at least one reason why he sought to create ice: to cool his feverish patients.

“That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.”

Finally, I turned to digitized records housed at the Library of Congress, where I discovered a series of articles that Gorrie wrote under a pen name about the use of ice to cure yellow fever. His argument aligned with the one in the medical journals, further confirming my suspicion that he believed ice cured yellow fever by lowering patients’ body temperatures. I also found a letter he wrote to a fellow doctor about his ice machine. The letter’s uncertain tone painted a portrait of a man in the throes of self-doubt and frustration and would serve as the emotional centerpiece for my chapter on Gorrie. At long last, the ice doctor’s story was revealing itself more fully.

On my last day in Apalachicola, I stood across the street from the museum where Gorrie was buried and thought about how his story was spread across time and space like a thousand puzzle pieces. That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.

Headshot of Amy Brady by Cate Barry Photography.

The author of Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

By the mid-20th century, Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures were turning heads in France and Germany, ushering in cubism, a new artistic style that challenged older styles. At this same moment, American art was dominated by a devotion to realism and the old masters, and therefore resistant to and repulsed by the “modern art” of Picasso. In 1939, that all changed when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit titled “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” featuring pieces that two Americans, who never met, worked tirelessly to make available to the public. Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War tells the scintillating tale of how John Quinn, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and others brought Picasso’s work to America and changed the face of American art.

Irish American lawyer Quinn championed modernist novels and poetry and avant-garde art, introducing Americans to William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” A great collector, Quinn had a “growing aversion to what he called ‘dead art,’” Eakin writes, and wanted to promote painters and writers who could “express the values and forces of his own time.” Although he personally never understood cubism, he believed that “American art needs the shock that the work of some of these men will give.” After he met Picasso, the artist started reserving his best work for Quinn, who built a modest collection. Quinn dreamed of opening a museum devoted explicitly to modern art, since the Metropolitan Museum of Art excluded such art as “degenerate.” He never saw his wish come true, however. He died of cancer in 1924.

In 1926, Barr took up Quinn’s vision for such a museum, aided by wealthy patrons who shared Quinn’s hope. Three years later, Barr opened the Museum of Modern Art using pieces from Quinn’s collection, striving to build a collection of premier work by the most important modern artists. He worked incessantly to open a show devoted to Picasso, but he was hampered at several turns by challenges from Parisian art dealers and even by Picasso himself. By the late 1930s, though, as Adolf Hitler’s campaign against so-called degenerate art ramped up and museums and galleries in Paris began removing and hiding certain paintings, Picasso and his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, tried to get as many of the artist’s paintings as possible to America. Such forces enabled Barr to put on his 1939 Picasso exhibit and to secure a place in the American cultural world not only for Picasso but also for the Museum of Modern Art, which flourished following the Picasso exhibit.

Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about this illuminating chapter in cultural history.

Hugh Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about the fight to bring Picasso’s art to America.
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Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.
Review by

It may seem impossible to ascertain what fish sauce, cardboard and volcanoes have in common, but as Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History reveals, the answer is, well . . . tomatoes.

Author William Alexander takes readers on a world tour through history, from the tomato’s regional origins in Mexico to its ubiquity in the present day. (Thanks to pizza, the tomato is now the most famous fruit in the world.) Much of each chapter relies on historical research, even as Alexander frequently questions the veracity of what he uncovered during said research; after all, everyone wants to be celebrated for having invented some of the world’s favorite foods. But Ten Tomatoes is also a travelogue of sorts, as Alexander visits important locations from the tomato’s history, especially Italy, and enjoys many culinary experiences firsthand.

Alexander’s playful sense of humor—perhaps best described as “dad jokes about vegetables”—makes Ten Tomatoes a delight to read. It’s this humor that takes a range of disparate and unexpected topics, such as legends about who first brought tomatoes to North America and rumors that circulated during the 1800s cholera epidemic, and makes them equally digestible. (Yes, that was a tomato pun.)

However, Ten Tomatoes isn’t just filled with tidbits that will help readers dominate at pub trivia night (especially if “pasta” or “ketchup” are categories). More broadly, the book proves that food history isn’t a niche topic. Through entertaining stories and fun facts, Alexander shows how culinary decisions have often been made based on the politics or business interests of the day, rather than anything to do with flavor or health. Taken all together, this book about the history of this beloved fruit (or vegetable—it’s debatable!) is endlessly surprising.

With a combination of offbeat history, travelogue and dad jokes, William Alexander takes readers through the endlessly surprising history of the tomato.

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