Eating History

If you want to live, you gotta eat. A pretty basic truth and one we tend to take for granted. While gourmands argue about what wine to pair with what fish and health gurus debate the merits of protein vs carbs, a lot of the interesting questions about food go unanswered: Why do we eat what we eat? Why do certain peoples and regions eat different things? What the heck is a ‘square meal’ and where did it come from? Luckily, if you want to find answers to these questions and more, the Everett Public Library is the place to be. There are actually a large number of works on the history of food and eating that are fascinating and help you appreciate this seemingly basic human need. Read on for a few choice examples.

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A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell
Taking a pleasingly micro approach to the history of food, Sitwell lays out a fascinating chronology, based on actual recipes, that demonstrates the evolution of food preparation and our eating habits. Everything from Ancient Egyptian bread (1958-1913 BCE), Dried Fish (800 AD), Soufflé (1816) and Rice Krispies Treats (1941) are covered. Far from just a collection of eccentric dishes, however, this work is full of interesting insights into why and what we eat.

Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Instead of focusing on the food itself, this work tracks the history of cooking through the technologies used to create the dishes we eat. While we tend to take for granted many seemingly simple kitchen implements (like the knife, the rice cooker and the egg timer) Wilson describes the surprisingly complicated and significant histories behind them.

Sweet Invention: a History of Dessert by Michael Krondl
Whether you believe dessert is the last part of a meal or a meal in itself, this book will prove entertaining and informative reading. Part history and part travelogue, Krondl travels the globe talking with confectioners and examining the dessert traditions of different cultures and countries and how they evolved over time.

British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History by Colin Spencer
One of the most vilified cuisines deserves an extraordinary and entertaining history; Spencer does not disappoint in this engaging work. The ups, yes there were ups, and downs of Britain’s food reputation are lovingly cataloged. Interestingly, the author charts the most recent downturn to the Victorian period when raw food was frowned upon and every foodstuff imaginable was boiled.

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Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by Abigail Carroll
More than a history of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in America, Carroll traces the evolution of eating habits in the United States from the colonial era to the present day. As with much U.S. history, the one constant appears to be change itself. The biggest change turns out to be the industrial revolution and its regularization of the workday, leaving dinner as the only time available for a proper sit down meal with the family.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
A fascinating memoir and history told through classic Soviet dishes. The author was raised in a communal apartment with 18 other people and one kitchen before immigrating to the United States with her mother in the 1970s. Now the author of several international cookbooks, this is the tale of her upbringing and the food so closely associated with it.

Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding
Part travel guide and part food history, this book explores the deep and complicated food culture of Japan. Goulding travels throughout the country visiting the many different restaurants (including ramen, tempura, soba and sushi shops) exploring the food and history of each. The author is also not shy about giving recommendations of which restaurants to go to and which to avoid.

Dining with the Famous and Infamous by Fiona Ross
Taking food history to a personal level, Ross sets out to discover the eating habits of many interesting contemporary and historical figures. From George Orwell to Marilyn Monroe, the individual eating habits of the great and no so great are explored. This collection of food voyeurism is a guilty pleasure but impossible to ignore.

I hope you have enjoyed this small sampling of the many great works available on food, dinning and their history here at the library. Reading might actually burn calories so no need to worry about overindulgence.

Grilled Salmon and DEET

Lisa with apple in front of mountains

Demonstrating advanced trail food preparation

When my husband and I moved here from Chicago, I thought that I was finally coming into my element. Mountains, ocean – all the things the Midwest couldn’t provide. We had mastered what the flatland could offer us in regards to camping, so we were ready to up our game. For those of you lucky enough to have been born and raised in this lovely region, you know that my attitude was like thinking I was ready to play in the MLB because I batted cleanup in t-ball. Thankfully my husband was more experienced in these matters, and managed to keep up safe, dry, happy, and entertained in the wild. He’s since joined the Mountaineers and has been scrambling on the tops of mountains, while I have contented myself with scrambling eggs at camp and taking photos of mountains from the relative safety of familiar flat land.

Needless to say, I have some learning to do. I think I’m finally over the hump of thinking I’m always on the verge of being eaten by bears. Seeing a bear retreat in horror from my loud approach last weekend helped me realize that they don’t want to deal with me either. Now I’m going through the enjoyable process of checking out the library’s resources on all things outdoors. I know this isn’t a shock, but there is a lot here to get through.

Scout's Backpacking Cookbook

Not surprisingly, my first foray into outdoor ed. was the cooking section. It looks like I may be able to salvage that ill-conceived food dehydrator purchase from the kitchen gadget bone-yard after all. There are a ton of books in this area, so I quickly eliminated anything to do with RV or car camping (we’ve got that down). My favorite was The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook, by Tim and Christine Conners. This book was packed with useful information about equipment, cooking techniques, meal planning, safety, ‘Leave No Trace’ cooking and camping, and recipes. There were also wonderful appendices that provided measurement advice, additional reading, and helpful websites.

Other picks:

The Trailside Cookbook by Don Philpott

Camp Cooking in the Wild by Mark Scriver

Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington CascadesWith the food taken care of, choosing a destination was my next priority. When we camp, we choose our destination based on a few different things. Weather is the most obvious determining factor; last weekend we went over the mountains to find the sun. On other trips we’ve selected sites because they were off pleasant drives, or offered a selection of excellent hikes. The Mountaineers Books has a fantastic series of Day Hiking titles that cover different regions of Washington and Oregon. My favorite book that I found about exploring Washignton was the Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Washington Cascades, by Allan May. May created a guide to geography, history (human and natural), and recreation in the Washington Cascades, all wrapped into a very enjoyable read.

Note: Sometimes published info about campgrounds, trails, and roads can be outdated. To be certain that you can actually get to where you’d like to go, call ahead to the ranger station in the area you’re planning to visit to make sure that everything is open.

The Backpacker's ManualLast, and certainly not least, I looked into info on safety and preparation. This is perhaps the largest section of outdoor materials we have because there is much to be said on the topic. For a beginner’s overview to all things backpacking, The Smart Guide to Hiking and Backpacking is a good place to start. More advanced advice on trip planning, cooking equipment, and more can be found in The Backpacker’s Field Manual, by Rick Curtis. I found some really helpful illustrations and ‘how to’s’ in Basic Illustrated Wilderness First Aid, but I strongly recommend attending some courses on the topic if you are serious about venturing into remote areas. If not, be sure to trek with someone who has.

Other titles that I found helpful tips in:

Hiking with Dogs by Linda B. Mullally

Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips by Mike Clelland

Making Camp: A Complete Guide for Hikers, Mountain Bikers, Paddlers & Skiers by Steve Howe, et al.

So there you have it – my newbie backpacker reading list. Come in and browse the shelves; there’s a lot more here for those who are more advanced than I am. As for me? I have a date with the food dehydrator – who doesn’t want to try powdered cheese?

Lisa

Let us read cake, cookies and other sweet things (with apologies to Marie Antoinette)

book coverI’m not sure what it means, but every time I‘ve opened a book during the past two months, it seems to have something to do with food. First, I read the memoir Cakewalk by Kate Moses. The photo on the cover should have been a giveaway but I couldn’t put this book down. Moses relates her childhood and young adult years. One wonders how she survived her mismatched parents. Her memories revolve around food, mostly sugar laden, although her life was certainly not sweet. Most chapters end with a recipe connected to her painful life.

book coverThen, I read Aimee Bender’s tale, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, wherein Rose, on her ninth birthday, discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in the lemon-chocolate birthday cake. Food then becomes an obstacle for Rose as she navigates through life. Thrown into this mix is her brother, Frank, who must also confront his unusual gift. This is a fascinating look into a disintegrating family. Yet it is uplifting when Rose finally finds a way to confront and put her gift to use.  (There are no recipes in this book.)

After these books, I needed some light reading for a plane ride so I picked up The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal. Tessa, an outdoor adventure leader, is recovering from an accident that took the life of a young woman for whom Tessa was responsible. Tessa’s been recuperating at her hippie father’s home, but she decides to investigate the (fictional) town of Las Ladronas, New Mexico, as a possible new site for an adventure tour. While exploring the area, she experiences déjà vu and memories are starting to surface. She also, of course, finds love – a widower with three young girls. The plot was a bit contrived, but O’Neal’s characters are appealing people with interesting lives and back stories. Yes, there are recipes in this book (most of them breakfast specialties). And there are also some delightful dogs in this story, too.

I also read Jen Lancaster’s latest laugh fest, My Fair Lazy. Although she covered her struggle with food and dieting in Such a Pretty Fat, in My Fair Lazy Lancaster attempts to bring culture into her life, which she labels “Jenaissance.” She and her very patient husband, Fletch, take several food and wine appreciation classes and visit a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy, where food is created using blowtorches and liquid nitrogen, rather than ovens and flame. Some of the dishes she describes made my mouth water. 

After finishing these books and raiding the fridge, I set out to redeem myself by reading The Amazing Adventures of DietGirl by Shauna Reid.  This inspiring and humorous story of the author’s experience of going from a very overweight young woman to a healthy slim one seemed to happily break the food spell. 

book coverNow I’m looking for something else to read. Perhaps a mystery, but preferably one without mention of butter burgers, frozen custard or “TastyKakes.” I believe I’ve found it in the gripping Still Missing. Please excuse me but I’ve got to get back to reading this “can’t put down” book.

Suzanne

Career Day

In 8th grade, as hormones raged and the nation prepared for its bicentennial, my fellow students and I were given a standardized test to determine what kind of career we would be best-suited for. One of the more clever questions read, “Would you enjoy weighing boxes of cookies eight hours per day?” I cautiously opted for “No,” but the notion continues to intrigue me some decades later.

If pressed for an answer to that age-old conundrum “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I most likely would have replied, “A psychologist!” Ah, the smell of naugahyde, the rustic retreats with disgruntled couples, the quality time on crumbling ledges with jumpers-to-be. That was the life for me. Of course I didn’t know exactly what a psychologist did, but it had to be more fulfilling than weighing boxes of cookies (and pirate didn’t seem to be an in-vogue career choice at that time).

Pete Jordan had a different vision. It may not have been born in his early youth, but as middle age rapidly approached he began to find a passion for that lowliest of occupations (ranked #735 out of 740 jobs in desirability), dishwashing. This widely-avoided career offered the benefits of free food, an abundance of job openings and ease of termination (“I quit, goodbye!”). Thus began a 12 year odyssey filled with dishwashing, travel (Dishwasher Pete decided to wash dishes in each of the 50 states), and interesting people. Along the way Jordan wrote an entertaining and funny memoir, Dishwasher, that will make you yearn for suds and a dish towel.

While cookie weighing and dish washing might not entice most tykes, many would give their left canine tooth to work in a candy factory. In Candyfreak, Steve Almond takes the reader on a journey through the dark and sticky bits of the candy world. As he journeys to small-market companies, Almond’s readers can vicariously taste exotic candies fresh off of the manufacturing line, learn a few tidbits about the candy making process, and witness the potential death throes of small-time candy. Almond, with his fanatical passion for candy, creates a narrative that is comical as well as informative.

If you’d like to investigate other occupations through movies you might look into Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (and discover the hidden excitement of chartered accountancy), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (maniacal factory owner) and Talladega Nights (rich race car driver).

Of course, working at a library ain’t half bad.

Ron

Magical Realism

Magical realism is one of my favorite reading genres. If you’re not familiar with this style of writing, it is not fantasy, science fiction, or escapist fiction. Rather, magical realist stories typically portray the world in ways beyond the objective – life described richly with delight, passion, and wonder.

The House of the SpiritsNancy Pearl describes magical realism as “a style of writing that allows authors to look at our own world through the lens of another world, an imagined yet very familiar one in which past, present, and future are often intertwined.”

Some of the best-known writers of magical realism are Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez

A few of my all-time favorites include Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Aphrodite, and My Invented Country, as well as Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.The Lady, The Chef, and The Courtesan

The Lady, the Chef, and the Courtesan by Marisol and Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin are a few you may have missed.Volver

And, of course, Pedro Almodóvar movies are a wonderful accompaniment to these books, especially Volver.

Kara

Oh, you lovely book

Do you know the feeling of picking up a book and within just a few pages feeling like the book was written precisely for you? The way the words form, the characters who feel like best friends, the descriptions of how the dinner table was set, and the way she fell in love last year? Sometimes it’s even so precise that you feel as if you wrote the book yourself? Like your heart and soul poured onto the page with an elegance that exists deep inside you but is seldom revealed? 

Gourmet RhapsodyMuriel Barbery‘s Gourmet Rhapsody was just that book for me. It’s the story of ‘the world’s greatest food critic’ who is about to die and must decide his final meal.

What I found so wonderful about this book, however, was not so much the storyline but its poetic language and magical characters. Even with these delightful underpinnings, it is also the kind of book (my favorite kind) that is fabulously political and prophetic at hidden turns — reminiscent of such literary pleasures as Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon and the visual delight of Babette’s Feast

Barbery fills the book with exquisite sentences, such as, “That is sashimi: a fragment of the cosmos within reach of one’s heart, but, alas, light years from the fragrance or taste that is fleeing my wisdom, or is it my inhumanity…”

Exactly. If those words touch the depths of you like they did me, you will love this book.

Kara