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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.

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.

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