The best books on food and empires in history

Troy Bickham Author Of Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain
By Troy Bickham

The Books I Picked & Why

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Why this book?

This book pioneered the blending of anthropology, sociology, and history to explore the impact of a single commodity on the history of the world. Europeans, Africans, and Americans transformed sugar from a relatively rare luxury into one of the most widely available goods and a staple of modern life. This sweetness, as Mintz explains, came at a heavy price—the destruction of indigenous peoples and landscapes, slavery, and the health of the consumer.


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Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

By Rachel Laudan

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

Why this book?

I love this book primarily for the ambitiousness of its breadth. It begins thousands of years ago with the role of early grain domestication in empire-building and stretches to the roles of modern cuisines in global trade, industry, and capitalism. Although a whirlwind of peoples and places from across human history, this beautifully written and illustrated book is easy for any reader interested in the subject to digest. 


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Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures

By Marcy Norton

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures

Why this book?

Focusing on the Spanish Empire, this book explores two of the most imported goods from the Americas. Norton carefully examines the deep cultural significance of Tobacco and Chocolate amongst the indigenous peoples of the Americas and how the goods were adopted and adapted in Europe, ultimately highlighting the profound impact imperialism had on European cultures.


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The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World

By Lizzie Collingham

The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World

Why this book?

Collingham has written multiple books on food and the British Empire, and this one is my favorite. Stretching from 1545 to 1996, each of the twenty chapters selects a historical meal, dissecting its ingredients and manner of preparation in order to explore the imperial forces and experiences that created it. Painstakingly research, each chapter is a standalone history.


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A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

Why this book?

There is no shortage of great books on the history of tea, but this one is my favorite because it is a global history of how a commodity, rather than a people, conquered the world. Carefully researched and engagingly written, the book begins its story in the seventeenth century, when China controlled the trade and Europe was a distant secondary market. The book then moves through tea's history—from exclusively Asian drink to staple at the heart of English identity—and the consequences for the planet and human history.


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