Some time ago, I read a blog post, I think by the expert on Vietnamese food Andrea Nguyen, which simply listed the cookbooks her friends had published that year.
I thought it an excellent idea. The “ten best” lists that appear at this time of year leave out so very many books that have much to offer.
So I’ve collected below listed below the recent food history and politics books that I’ve been involved with this year either as a reviewer or a blurber or as friend or co-panelist of the author. That means I have actually read them through from cover to cover.
I do not claim them to be “the best” books because I have not read all the books that have appeared. And anyway, best according to what criteria?
The explosion of high quality work in history and politics of food is extraordinary. Because many are developing techniques fairly new to the field–statistical or linguistic analysis, for example–or using theoretical work also fairly new to the field–economic theory, for example–many are pretty hard reading. This can be a bit daunting. Sooner or later, though, others will find ways of making the points to non-specialists.
Jeff Koehler. Darjeeling. The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Taste, business, skill, skullduggery, and global connections—what would once have been called “a rattling fine yarn” but all true.
Krishnendu Ray. The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury, 2016).
If you have any interest in the immigrants who have brightened the American restaurant scene and who continue to provide much of the labor, this is the go-to source, a gold mine of hard data and astute observations. Not beach reading, though.
Joel A. Denker, The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
Delightful short well-researched pieces on carrots, yes, and anise, chickpeas, walnuts, cumin, onions, and a plenitude of other plant foods.
James D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Brill, 2012).
So how did eating bananas (plantains), maize, Asian rice, and cassava enter the cuisine and the diet of coastal Ghana? It’s a very complex story, requiring all kinds of skills, especially linguistic, to uncover, and it makes you re-think both African culinary history and the Columbian Exchange.
Helen Horowitz, A Taste for Provence (Chicago, 2016).
When I first went to France in the 1950s, the Parisian families I stayed with thought Provence was unappealing and its food rough, over-seasoned, and unsophisticated. An engaging account of how all that changed, including lots on names famous in the food world.
Elizabeth FitzPatrick and James Kelly, eds. Food and Drink in Ireland (Royal Irish Academy, 2016).
Bog butter, game, recipes, beer, bread, kitchen equipment, and restaurants all get their due in this excellent collection by Ireland’s leading culinary historians.
Alan Levinovitz, The Gluten Lie and Other Myths about What You Eat (Regan Arts, 2015).
Funny and incisive treatment of fad diets by a philosopher. Don’t miss “The Unpacked Diet.”
Francesca Bray, Pater Coclanis, Edda Fields-Black, and Dagmar Schäfer, eds., Rice: Global Networks and New Histories (Cambridge, 2015).
Another dense read that shakes up simple assumptions about food history, mainly about two theses about rice: first, that irrigated rice agriculture held up economic development in East Asia (largely dismissed); second, that African women’s skills were essential to the establishment of the Carolina rice industry (largely supported but again not a simple tale).
Suzanne Hoffman, Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte (Under Discovered Publishing, 2016).
Not your usual wine book. Women’s working lives with a backdrop of glorious country and architecture.
Naomi Duguid, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan (Artisan, 2016)
The people of the region star, their dishes are translated into recipes that offer an accessible taste of another culture. None of this would be possible without courage, generosity, and energy on the part of the author.
Kaori O’Connor, The Never-Ending Feast: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Feasting (Bloomsbury, 2015).
The drinking vessels, the dishes, the dining areas, and above all the politics of feasting in the ancient world from Mesopotamia to Japan.
Jayson Lusk, Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Are Serving up Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World (St. Martin’s, 2016).
An agricultural economist on the current and future benefits of modern food. Check out his blog too for data-based analyses of what’s going on in contemporary food.
Philip K. Wilson and W. Jeffrey Hurst, Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest over the Centuries (RSC Publishing, 2012).
Extracts, images, and historical analysis of the centuries of belief that chocolate is therapeutic.
C.M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500 (Yale, 2016).
Fables, proverbs, sermons, saints’ live, legal records, as well as the more usual recipe books mined to provide a richly textured picture of medieval food.
Melanie Dupuis, Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice (California, 2015).
If it’s ever struck you that dietary advice normally comes with an accompanying moral and political message, this book will turn that intuition into a historically-informed position.
Michaela DeSoucey. Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food (Princeton, 2016)
How duck liver became the focus of transatlantic debates about what we eat.
Baylen Linnekin. Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island, 2016).
Before you throw up your hands in horror, read these lawyer’s arguments and stories about the problems with current food regulations.
Anne Mendelson, Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey (Columbia, 2016).
Persecuted immigrants, strange food, and lo and behold, Chinese food becomes one of most popular “ethnic” cuisines in the United States. In this treatment, the details of the cooking and the dishes really matter.
Sarah Pennell, The Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600-1850 (Bloomsbury, 2016).
Where did people cook, what did they cook with, what did they cook in, who were the cooks and other people in the kitchens, and what did morality have to do with kitchens and cooking?
Amber O’Connor and E.N.Anderson, K’Oben: 3,000 Years of the Maya Hearth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).
Think you know about Mexican cuisine and its history? There’s more than one Mexico and this book by anthropologists teases out the history and contemporary culture of Mayan food, including recipes that if I believed in authenticity, I would call authentic.