For a crash course in American trade and immigration, read this book. Sarah Lohman is a gastronomist with a deep interest in the flavors and recipes that shaped American cuisine. According to her website, she “recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past.” She begins the book by showing what initially sparked her interest in old American cooking, when she was a teenager working at one of those authentic old timey villages. She was intrigued that in the time of Colonial America, now-ubiquitious vanilla was never used for baking, only rose water. From there, she began a lifelong study in bringing long-forgotten recipes from America’s past to today’s tables.
During her culinary digging in the history (recipe) books, she found that certain flavors suddenly started popping up in American recipes and shaping the dishes of the era, eventually becoming staples in most modern kitchens. Using analytics she singled out eight with distinct arcs in their time periods, tracing them from arrival in the country and appearance in American dishes to common use today. Starting with the oldest, black pepper (hard to imagine this most basic of spice staples was once so exotic and expensive!) and working up to Sriracha, the ultra-trendy hot sauce of recent years, she examines how these flavors came to the United States and how and why their popularity exploded. She has a foodie’s taste for the unusual and a historian’s sense of a good story, and the combination is perfect.
Along the way she tells about the genius child slave who figured out a new way to pollinate vanilla vines and debunks the faddish, unscientific backlash against MSG. I’m usually fairly non-scientific in what I prefer to read, but she also includes information about the chemical compositions and functions of some of the spices, and I learned a lot from this. It’s all very accessibly written, even if you’re not much of a cook or a chemist.
The history behind each of the eight flavors is completely fascinating, and almost all of it was unknown to me. I think I learned more about American history from this book than from anything else I’ve read in recent memory. So much of a culture is tied to its food, and as a big, widely varied, immigrant-heavy country, this part of American culture is completely fascinating. Even for someone like myself, living there most of my life, there was so much I took for granted in how our preferred seasonings came to be.
As a bonus, there are multiple unique recipes for different ways to use each spice (some seemed a teensy bit complicated or require not so common ingredients, so maybe geared towards more adept or dedicated cooks, that’s the only less accessible bit) and the simple illustrations accompanying the beginning of each section are adorable. Eye-opening, humorous, scientific, and the perfect counter argument every time someone outside of the U.S. tries to say that American cuisine is all hot dogs, burgers and fries (groan).
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine
by Sarah Lohman
published December 6, 2016 by Simon & Schuster
Amazon / Book Depository
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.