The Best Books On Food And History

Lizzie Collingham Author Of The Hungry Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World
By Lizzie Collingham

The Books I Picked & Why

Feast: Why Humans Share Food

By Martin Jones

Feast: Why Humans Share Food

Why 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.


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The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage

By Rachel Laudan

The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii's Culinary Heritage

Why 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.


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Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

By James Davidson

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Why 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. 


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

By Jane Ziegelman

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

Why 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.


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Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking

By Hilary Spurling

Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking

Why 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.


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