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

Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at Texas A&M University and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.  I teach and research broadly in the histories of Britain and its empire, North America, and the Atlantic world. I am the author of four books, including Making Headlines: The American Revolution as Seen through the British Press and The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812. I am especially fascinated with how imperialism shape colonizers’ cultures.


I wrote...

Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

By Troy Bickham,

Book cover of Eating the Empire: Food and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

What is my book about?

When students gathered in a London coffeehouse and smoked tobacco; when Yorkshire women sipped sugar-infused tea; or when a Glasgow family ate a bowl of Indian curry, were they aware of the mechanisms of imperial rule and trade that made such goods readily available?

In Eating the Empire, Troy Bickham unfolds the extraordinary role that food played in shaping Britain during the long eighteenth century (circa 1660–1837), when such foreign goods as coffee, tea, and sugar went from rare luxuries to some of the most ubiquitous commodities in Britain—reaching even the poorest and remotest of households. Bickham reveals how trade in the empire’s edibles underpinned the emerging consumer economy, fomenting the rise of modern retailing, visual advertising, and consumer credit, and, via taxes, financed the military and civil bureaucracy that secured, governed, and spread the British Empire.

The books I picked & why

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Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz,

Book cover of 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.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

By Sidney W. Mintz,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sweetness and Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating persuasive history of how sugar has shaped the world, from European colonies to our modern diets

In this eye-opening study, Sidney Mintz shows how Europeans and Americans transformed sugar from a rare foreign luxury to a commonplace necessity of modern life, and how it changed the history of capitalism and industry. He discusses the production and consumption of sugar, and reveals how closely interwoven are sugar's origins as a "slave" crop grown in Europe's tropical colonies with is use first as an extravagant luxury for the aristocracy, then as a staple of the diet of the new industrial…


Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

By Rachel Laudan,

Book cover of 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. 

Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History

By Rachel Laudan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cuisine and Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rachel Laudan tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of the world's great cuisines from the mastery of grain cooking some twenty thousand years ago, to the present in this superbly researched book. Probing beneath the apparent confusion of dozens of cuisines to reveal the underlying simplicity of the culinary family tree, she shows how periodic seismic shifts in culinary philosophy" beliefs about health, the economy, politics, society and the gods prompted the construction of new cuisines, a handful of which, chosen as the cuisines of empires, came to dominate the globe. Cuisine and Empire shows how merchants,…


Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures

By Marcy Norton,

Book cover of 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.

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures

By Marcy Norton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before Columbus's fateful voyage in 1492, no European had ever seen, much less tasted, tobacco or chocolate. Initially dismissed as dry leaves and an odd Indian drink, these two commodities came to conquer Europe on a scale unsurpassed by any other American resource or product. A fascinating story of contact, exploration, and exchange in the Atlantic world, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures traces the ways in which these two goods of the Americas both changed and were changed by Europe.

Focusing on the Spanish Empire, Marcy Norton investigates how tobacco and chocolate became material and symbolic links to the pre-Hispanic past…


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

By Lizzie Collingham,

Book cover of The Hungry 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.

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

By Lizzie Collingham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hungry Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*WINNER OF THE GUILD OF FOOD WRITERS BOOK AWARD 2018*

'This is a wholly pleasing book, which offers a tasty side dish to anyone exploring the narrative history of the British Empire', Max Hastings, Sunday Times

The glamorous daughter of an African chief shares a pineapple with a slave trader... Surveyors in British Columbia eat tinned Australian rabbit... Diamond prospectors in Guyana prepare an iguana curry...

In twenty meals The Hungry Empire tells the story of how the British created a global network of commerce and trade in foodstuffs that moved people and plants from one continent to another, re-shaping…


A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport,

Book cover of 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.

A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Thirst for Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How the global tea industry influenced the international economy and the rise of mass consumerism

Tea has been one of the most popular commodities in the world. For centuries, profits from its growth and sales funded wars and fueled colonization, and its cultivation brought about massive changes-in land use, labor systems, market practices, and social hierarchies-the effects of which are with us even today. A Thirst for Empire takes an in-depth historical look at how men and women-through the tea industry in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa-transformed global tastes and habits. An expansive and original global history of imperial…


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