The best books on food and history

Who am I?

I first became interested in food when I was researching my PhD on the use of the body as an instrument of rule in British India. The British in India developed a language of food to demonstrate their power and status. I discovered that food is a rich subject for the historian as it carries a multitude of stories. I have since written five more books exploring these complex stories, always interested in connecting the broad sweep of historical processes to the more intimate level of everyday life and the connections between the food world of the past with the food world of the present.

I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

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, reshaping landscapes and culinary tastes. The Empire allowed Britain to harness the globe’s edible resources from cod fish and salt beef to spices, tea, and sugar. Lizzie Collingham takes us on a wide-ranging culinary journey, revealing how virtually every meal we eat still contains a taste of empire.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Feast: Why Humans Share Food

Lizzie Collingham Why did I love this book?

The joy of this book is the way it lays bare the detective work of archaeology. Martin Jones shows us how archaeologists build a picture of the past using fragments of bone; food residues on the inside of cooking pots; grains of pollen; berry seeds and whipworm eggs. He takes us from a group of chimpanzees foraging in Tanzanian fruit trees and the beginnings of sociable eating to the development of cooking among Neanderthals in the Iberian Peninsula and on to a newly-permanent Mesopotamian farming settlement and the competitive dining of a Roman table in Colchester. Organized around the central question of ‘why humans share food’, the book is a history of the meal itself.

By Martin Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Is sharing food such an everyday, unremarkable occurrence?

In fact, the human tendency to sit together peacefully over food is actually rather an extraordinary phenomenon, and one which many species find impossible. It is also a pheonomenon with far-reaching consequences for the global environment and human social evolution.

So how did this strange and powerful behaviour come about? In Feast, Martin Jones uses the latest archaeological methods to illuminate how humans came to share food in the first place and how the human meal has developed since then.

From the earliest evidence of human consumption around half a million years…

Book cover of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage

Lizzie Collingham Why did I love this book?

I love this book as it enables me to travel vicariously. It is not a conventional travel book, even though it is filled with the stories of a kaleidoscope of Hawaiian people. Nor is it a straightforward cookery book although it contains plenty of recipes for intriguing dishes such as ‘Okinawan Pig’s Feet Soup’ and a biscuit version of bread and butter pudding known as ‘Nihau pudding’. Nor is it a conventional history book although we learn a great deal about Hawaii’s history while Laudan tells us about ‘plate lunches’ and poke (a sort of sushimi), musubi (rice balls), and ‘shave ice’. Instead, The Food of Paradise is a delightful combination of all three genres which captures the flavour (in every sense of the word) of Hawaii.

By Rachel Laudan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Recent winner of a prestigious award from the Julia Child Cookbook Awards, presented by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Lauden was given the 1997 Jane Grigson Award, presented to the book that, more than any other entered in the competition, exemplifies distinguished scholarship.

Hawaii has one of the richest culinary heritages in the United States. Its contemporary regional cuisine, known as "local food" by residents, is a truly amazing fusion of diverse culinary influences. Rachel Laudan takes readers on a thoughtful, wide-ranging tour of Hawaii's farms and gardens, fish auctions and vegetable markets, fairs and carnivals, mom-and-pop stores and…

Book cover of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Lizzie Collingham Why did I love this book?

Attic comedy is full of shopping lists, menus, and recipes for fish dishes. But any historian looking for information about everyday eating habits in the texts of the classical world knows to tread warily. There is always the danger of ‘taking in earnest what their sources clearly meant in joke’. And the Greeks’ many weird fish stories were clearly supposed to be funny. However, it is difficult to see what was so amusing. Philemon’s comic chef shrieks with laughter at the sight of a group of soldiers chasing a bold soldier who has snatched the chef’s perfectly-cooked fish as it came out of the oven. His description raises a smile as the soldier makes off with the other soldiers hot on his heels, like a chicken running in circles trying to swallow some choice morsel before the other chickens get to it. But a smile is hardly a shriek. Perhaps it is one of those ‘you had to be there’ jokes? Davidson explains. The Greek comedies were spoofs of mythological tales and fish was a modern food, missing from the Greek myths which are full of sacrificial roasts of beef or mutton. Talking about fish in the hexameter rhythms of epic language produced an effect a little like introducing disquisitions about ‘Weetabix and Coca-cola in the language and rhythms of Shakespeare’. Fish struck an incongruous modern note. I still do not guffaw with laughter but thanks to Davidson I now understand the significance of all that fish. 

By James Davidson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A brilliantly entertaining and innovative history of the ancient Athenians' consuming passions for food, wine and sex.

Sex, shopping and fish-madness, Athenian style.

This fascinating book reveals that the ancient Athenians were supreme hedonists. Their society was driven by an insatiable lust for culinary delights - especially fish - fine wine and pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, great fortunes were squandered and politicians' careers ruined through ritual drinking at the symposium, or the wooing of highly-coveted, costly prostitutes.

James Davidson brings an incisive eye and an urbane wit to this refreshingly accessible and different history of the people who invented…

Book cover of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

Lizzie Collingham Why did I love this book?

The information we have about the five immigrant families who lived in the tenement block at 97 Orchard Street is scanty but I love this book because Jane Ziegelman brings to life the food world of this area of New York inhabited by waves of immigrant Germans, Irish, German and East European Jews, and Italians. We learn about the krauthobblers who in the autumn went from door to door carrying a special knife which they used to shred the hundreds of cabbages the German housewives needed to prepare the barrel of sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) which saw their families through the winter. She makes us shudder at the thought of the shabby tenement kitchens and the goose pens in the basements. We can picture the Fleischmann café, a favourite haunt of police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, who came for its soft, sweet Vienna bread; the cheap Irish eating houses offering ‘beef an’ (corned beef and beans) and the pushcart markets selling fish on Friday mornings to the Jewish housewives looking to make Gefilte fish for the Sabbath.

By Jane Ziegelman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked 97 Orchard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Social history is, most elementally, food history. Jane Ziegelman had the great idea to zero in on one Lower East Side tenement building, and through it she has crafted a unique and aromatic narrative of New York’s immigrant culture: with bread in the oven, steam rising from pots, and the family gathering round.” — Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

97 Orchard is a richly detailed investigation of the lives and culinary habits—shopping, cooking, and eating—of five families of various ethnicities living at the turn of the twentieth century in one tenement on the…

Book cover of Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking

Lizzie Collingham Why did I love this book?

In among the diaries and photographs, medal collections, old-fashioned games and mother of pearl counters that Hilary Spurling helped her husband clear from a great-aunt’s London house in the 1970s, she found the seventeenth-century, leather-bound manuscript cookbook of Lady Elinor Fettiplace. Lady Elinor lived with her husband in Appleton manor a few miles south-west of Oxford from 1589 until her death in 1647. The book is one of very few manuscript cookbooks to have survived from this time and from the marginal annotations noting timings and quantities, as well as extra ingredients, it is clear that Lady Elinor used it as a working cookbook. Spurling decided to do the same and followed Lady Elinor ‘round the calendar’ making her ‘Oringe Marmalad’ in January, pickling ‘cowcumbers’ in July, and preparing mutton and rosewater mince pies in December. Through Spurling’s cooking adventures we are transported into the familiar yet strange, rose-water flavoured seventeenth-century food world of hearty possets, biscuit breads, preserves, plum cakes and fooles, baked rabbets, and marrow puddings.

By Hilary Spurling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brilliantly compiled and presented by the celebrated biographer, Hilary Spurling, Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book has become a classic in the history of English cooking, and an extraordinarily intimate glimpse into the fabric of everyday Elizabethan life.

'Hilary Spurling has done brilliantly ... Being both a scholar and a cook seems to be a rare combination than one might have expected.' Jane Grigson

'Few cookery books are as important or as fascinating as this ... (Hilary Spurling's) scholarly and practical skills combined make the book much more than an antiquarian curiosity. It is a cookery book to use.' Victoria Glendinning, The…

You might also like...

The River of Eternity

By Bruce Balfour,

Book cover of The River of Eternity

Bruce Balfour

New book alert!

What is my book about?

1184 BCE. Ramesses III, who will become the last of the great pharaohs, is returning home from battle. He will one day assume the throne of the Egyptian empire, and the plots against him and his children have already started. Even a god can die.

Ray was raised with the teenage children of Ramesses as their friend, but his own mysterious past exposes him to threats inside and outside of the Egyptian court. When a prince is killed, Ray is framed for the murder and must run to protect Bull, the oldest son of Ramesses. So begins Ray’s dangerous journey from the snake pit of royal palace intrigue into a violent world of treachery and enemies that will take years to conquer if he can survive.

The River of Eternity

By Bruce Balfour,

What is this book about?

From the national bestselling author of The Forge of Mars and The Digital Dead, an Ancient Egyptian epic adventure thriller series, based on real events, for fans of Wilbur Smith, Steven Saylor, and Paul Doherty.

This is the first book of a series leading up to the event known as The Harem Conspiracy, the assassination of Pharaoh Ramesses III in New Kingdom Egypt (1184 BCE), which was led by members of his own family. Details were drawn from the first recorded judicial trial transcript ever recovered (Judicial Papyrus of Turin plus other fragments of the original papyrus).

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Athens, the Elizabethan era, and Greece?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Athens, the Elizabethan era, and Greece.

Athens Explore 48 books about Athens
The Elizabethan Era Explore 30 books about the Elizabethan era
Greece Explore 156 books about Greece