The best food history books

The Books I Picked & Why

The Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

The Oxford Companion to Food

Why this book?

With entries on foods from Aardvark to Zucchini, this wonderful, wide-ranging reference book has a place of honour by my desk. The idea of a global guide to foodstuffs was conceived of by Alan Davidson in 1976 – before the digital age – and first published in 1999. Davidson, who edited it, brought his intellectual curiosity, knowledge, and humour to the project. The result is a seminal reference book which instead of being dull or stodgy is lively, engaging, and interesting. A book that I never tire of using, as always come across something that catches my attention in the most beguiling way.


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On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

By Harold McGee

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

Why this book?

Truly a remarkable book, this seminal work has been – and continues to be - profoundly influential in shaping our understanding of food. The book’s subtitle – An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture – expresses its huge breadth Writing with great clarity and concision, McGee shares the history of foods – such as cheese, chocolate, grains, sugar – and explains the science of how humans use, cook and preserve them. If you’re at all interested in understanding food better, then this is the book for you.


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Much Depends on Dinner

By Margaret Visser

Much Depends on Dinner

Why this book?

This wonderful, engaging book will change the way you think about food. Margaret Visser unpicks an “ordinary meal” in North America, digging beneath the surface of everyday ingredients such as butter, lettuce and chicken to reveal fascinating stories. Visser – who writes with a shrewd and perceptive intelligence - weaves together history, science and social observation to great effect. The ‘ordinary’ meal proves to be no such thing.


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Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives

By Carolyn Steel

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives

Why this book?

Such an important, relevant, and well-written book. Carolyn Steel traces the journey food takes to feed our cities – from the land where it is grown to the waste dumps, where its decay causes environmental degradation. It is a book that looks forward as well as to the past. Hungry City ends with a rallying cry to create a better food system – better for us, for society, for the planet. ‘How food shapes our lives in our future is up to us,’ writes Steel.


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The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

By Hannah Glasse

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

Why this book?

First published in 1747, this cookbook was a bestseller of its day. One of the things I love about it is the way that Hannah Glasse’s forthright voice leaps off the page across the centuries. Aimed at servants, she begins by explaining that she has not written ‘in the high, polite stile’, but instead written it clearly in terms that can be easily understood by her audience. She is scathing about the extravagant tricks that fashionable French cooks resort to: ‘I have heard of a cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs, when everybody knows, that understands cooking, that half a pound is full enough, or more than need be used. But then it would not be French.’ In its approach to ingredients, its language, its recipes, this is a wonderful glimpse into the past.


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