When we pour a bowl of cereal or enjoy a dish of vanilla ice cream, we’re not usually thinking about the origins of these foods. We consume them because they are nutritionally beneficial or taste delicious. But even though food is a basic need (and one of life’s great pleasures!), its story is still vastly misunderstood.
For example, try to imagine a life without french fries, ketchup or tomato sauce. These are some of the most popular foods in America, yet their sources were once feared and shunned. Tomatoes were thought to be poisonous, and people believed potatoes harbored an illicit connection to witchcraft and devil worship. Food and culture writer Matt Siegel dishes out these and hundreds of other little-known nuggets in his fascinating debut book, The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat.
Organized into 10 chapters focusing on themes ranging from the history of swallowing to obsolete and dated food beliefs, Siegel shares countless “did you know?” factoids. Foodstuffs have been used as weaponry, for example, and the domestication of corn is considered an anthropological game changer on par with the discovery of fire. His choice of subjects is ever surprising, such as the conundrum that is the chili pepper. This fiery fruit (botanically, it’s a berry) contains pain-inducing capsaicin yet is consumed by humans across the world. As it turns out, spicy food is a natural preservative and “may have functioned as a primitive form of air conditioning” in hot climates.
Siegel’s book is as entertaining as it is informative, sprinkled with humorous anecdotes and connections to popular culture. He takes intel gathered from nutritionists, psychologists, food historians and paleoanthropologists and weaves together a tale that moves seamlessly from one topic to the next. Written in a style that is accessible yet scholarly, The Secret History of Food will delight and enlighten anyone looking to find out more about food’s rich backstory.