The best food history books that help us explore the world

Who am I?

I am a food writer who has long been interested in seeing food in its cultural, historical, and social context. Food is too often put in a neat little box, whereas actually it offers a fascinating prism through which to explore the world. Researching and writing The Missing Ingredient – in which I explore the role of time as the universal, invisible ‘ingredient’ in the food we grow, make, and cook brought this home to me.

I wrote...

The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour

By Jenny Linford,

Book cover of The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour

What is my book about?

The Missing Ingredient is about what makes good food, and the first book to consider the intrinsic yet often forgotten role of time in creating the flavours and textures we love.

Written through a series of encounters with ingredients, producers, cooks, shopkeepers, and chefs, exploring everything from the brief period in which sugar caramelises, or the days required in the crucial process of fermentation, to the months of slow ripening and close attention that make a great cheddar, or the years needed for certain wines to reach their peak, Jenny Linford shows how, time and again, time itself is the invisible ingredient. From the patience and dedication of many food producers in fields and storehouses around the world to the rapid reactions required of any home cook at the hob, this book allows us to better understand our culinary lives.

The books I picked & why

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The Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Harold McGee,

Book cover of 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.

Much Depends on Dinner

By Margaret Visser,

Book cover of 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.

Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives

By Carolyn Steel,

Book cover of 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.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

By Hannah Glasse,

Book cover of 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in food, agriculture, and cooking?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about food, agriculture, and cooking.

Food Explore 45 books about food
Agriculture Explore 31 books about agriculture
Cooking Explore 68 books about cooking

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Cuisine and Empire, The Culture of Food, and Food in the Civil War Era if you like this list.