The best books when you’re hungering for history

Why am I passionate about this?

My wife and I were at a red sauce joint in the West Village of Manhattan drinking a bit of wine when we posed the question: who invented all this? We knew Italian American food didn’t look all that much like the food we ate in Italy. Later, at home, I started Googling for answers. None were satisfactory. I read a few books before finding myself at the New York Public library sleuthing through JSTOR. After examining my notes, I said to myself, “oh, I guess I’m writing a book.”


I wrote...

Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American

By Ian MacAllen,

Book cover of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American

What is my book about?

Red Sauce tells the story of how Italian immigrants invented a whole new cuisine in the United States, from creating veal parmigiana to penne alla vodka. Today, Italian American favorites like pizza or spaghetti and meatballs are synonymous with Americans and American food, available anywhere and everywhere. That wasn’t always the case. When Italian immigrants arrived in cities like New York, people of northern European ancestry viewed their foods as too foreign, too ethnic, garlic too strong a flavor, and lasagna unpronounceable. In Red Sauce, Ian MacAllen explains not only the origins of our favorite ethnic foods, but how they became beloved by Americans everywhere. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How Italian Food Conquered the World

Ian MacAllen Why did I love this book?

Food inspired by the traditions of Italy are well known around the world, and Mariani examines how the nation had an outsized impact on global food culture. Once considered an unsophisticated cuisine better known for macaroni or pizza, Mariani argues Italian food has since displaced French cuisine as the quintessential example of haute dining culture. His discussion of Italian food history largely centers how it disseminated globally. He discusses Italian American foods, but as part of the whole rather than as a distinct cuisine onto itself.    

By John F. Mariani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Italian Food Conquered the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Not so long ago, Italian food was regarded as a poor man's gruel - little more than pizza, macaroni with sauce, and red wines in a box. Here, John Mariani shows how the Italian immigrants to America created, through perseverance and sheer necessity, an Italian-American food culture, and how it became a global obsession. The book begins with the Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern culinary traditions before the boot-shaped peninsula was even called 'Italy,' then takes readers on a journey through Europe and across the ocean to America alongside the poor but hopeful Italian immigrants who slowly but surely won…


Book cover of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Ian MacAllen Why did I love this book?

The Jewish-style delicatessen is one of the great gifts to food enthusiasts. Merwin’s extensive history details how Jewish immigrant cuisine arrived in America and evolved from an object of ethnic foreignness into part of mainstream culture. There are a large number of parallels between Jewish immigrant and Italian immigrant experiences, especially centered on food in places like New York City’s Lower East Side, where both groups congregated. Merwin mixes in pop cultural references alongside deep research. My favorite detail Merwin revealed was that by 1926, New York City had more than 900 different sandwich combinations.

By Ted Merwin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity from the Jewish Book Council
The history of an iconic food in Jewish American culture
For much of the twentieth century, the New York Jewish deli was an iconic institution in both Jewish and American life. As a social space it rivaled-and in some ways surpassed-the synagogue as the primary gathering place for the Jewish community. In popular culture it has been the setting for classics like When Harry Met Sally. And today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, it is…


Book cover of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

Ian MacAllen Why did I love this book?

Chinese American food has a rich history, and Andrew Coe explores the arrival of the cuisine in America, how it adapts, and how it is popularized across the country. The book focuses on restaurant culture and recipes, and Coe explains the origins of many dishes like chop suey and how and when the dishes grew into mainstream success, part of a broader American cuisine. The way Coe discusses Chinese American food is similar to how I write about Italian American food in my book. 

By Andrew Coe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1784, passengers on the ship Empress of China became the first Americans to land in China, and the first to eat Chinese food. Today, the United States is home to more Chinese restaurants than any other ethnic cuisine. In this authoritative new history, author Andrew Coe traces the fascinating story of America's centuries-long encounter with Chinese food. CHOP SUEY tells how we went from believing that Chinese meals contained dogs and rats to making
regular pilgrimages to the neighborhood chop suey parlor. From China, the book follows the story to the American West, where both Chinese and their food…


Book cover of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

Ian MacAllen Why did I love this book?

Jennifer 8 Lee looks at the history of Chinese American food, but with an emphasis on restaurants and food production. For instance, I learned one of the leading fortune cookie manufacturers has a factory just a few blocks from where I live in Brooklyn, and the differences in low cost and fermented of soy sauce. Lee looks at modern Chinese American cuisine through a global lens showing the impact across continents, including exporting Chinese American favorites like fortune cookies back to China. 

By Jennifer 8. Lee,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

If you think McDonald's is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles…


Book cover of My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store

Ian MacAllen Why did I love this book?

Corner grocery stores are everywhere in New York City, but most of the time we never really think very hard about them. Ben Ryder Howe on the other hand, drew on his own experience running the family bodega. The store he ran was on the border between a rapidly gentrifying section of Brooklyn and a neighborhood with public housing. The changing customer base meant his store shelves began to gentrify like the neighborhood around him, but as he soon learned, too many changes too quickly are bad for business. Part memoir, part researched journalism, Ryder Howe provides a fascinating look into a New York City staple. 

By Ben Ryder Howe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

It starts with a gift, when Ben Ryder Howe's wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her parents' self-sacrifice by buying them a store. Howe, an editor at the rarefied Paris Review, agrees to go along. Things soon become a lot more complicated. After the business struggles, Howe finds himself living in the basement of his in-laws' Staten Island home, commuting to the Paris Review offices in George Plimpton's Upper East Side townhouse by day, and heading to Brooklyn at night to slice cold cuts and peddle lottery tickets. "My Korean Deli" follows the store's tumultuous life span,…


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Split Decision

By David Perlmutter,

Book cover of Split Decision

David Perlmutter Author Of The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a freelance writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, specializing in media history and speculative fiction. I have been enchanted by animation since childhood and followed many series avidly through adulthood. My viewing inspired my MA thesis on the history of animation, out of which grew two books on the history and theory of animation on television, America 'Toons In: A History of Television Animation (available from McFarland and Co.) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (available from Rowman and Littlefield). Hopefully, others will follow.

David's book list on understanding the history of animation

What is my book about?

Jefferson Ball, the mightiest female dog in a universe of the same, is, despite her anti-heroic behavior, intent on keeping her legacy as an athlete and adventurer intact. So, when female teenage robot Jody Ryder inadvertently angers her by smashing her high school records, Jefferson is intent on proving her superiority by outmuscling the robot in a not-so-fair fight. Not wanting to seem like a coward, and eager to end her enemy's trash talking, Jody agrees.

However, they have been lured to fight each other by circumstances beyond their control. Which are intent on destroying them if they don't destroy each other in combat first...

5 book lists we think you will like!

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