Two New Food Histories: The Secret History of Food and Taste Makers

Much as I love food writing, I’ve still not been reading as much of it recently. I did get to two good food histories recently out though.

The Secret History of Food, by Matt Siegel: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat, by Matt Siegel (August 31, Ecco) Buy it used or new at SecondSale.com

The most ubiquitous foods in our lives don’t really inspire much thought about their origins, or why they became staples of our diets. Of course we notice when new international cuisines permeate the mainstream, but do you really think about why apple pie is an American classic, or why vanilla ice cream is such a standard?

Here’s a start on that one, at least: World War II, with its corresponding worldwide shortage of sugar, milk, and eggs would trigger “an arms race for ice cream and dairy production that would ultimately bring ice cream to the masses and cement its place as a democratized comfort food for everyone.”

Food writer Matt Siegel digs into these and so many other bits of interesting and highly amusing trivia. The food items are more US-centric but not entirely, as it looks at items like the chili pepper that hail from other lands. The structure is essay-like, without much of an overarching thesis or uniting idea. It feels like a loose collection of (albeit really interesting) articles.

It’s one of those books crammed with all kinds of fascinating and often surprising details, and lots of interesting little factoids you’ll never forget even if you’d like to.

It even covers interesting territory like human development in relation to food:

“Numerous studies suggest that our adult preferences for salt are predicted by our mothers’ fluid loss during pregnancy — that heightened morning sickness and maternal vomiting (and thus lowered electrolyte levels) trigger an increased yearning for salt in utero that can last into adulthood, prompting a lifetime of overcompensated salt consumption.” I’m a salt-obsessive so I must ask my mother about this!

It tells some stories of historical figures that I think are pretty well known at this point, like of John Harvey Kellogg ad Sylvester Graham, whose obsessions with moral purity, religious fanaticism, and colon health eventually gave us the graham cracker (Graham would’ve hated it though) and Kellogg’s cereals.

It’s footnote-heavy, so if your ereader sucks with those as much as mine does, get this in a hard copy because the footnotes contain some gems. I especially loved one that explained studies exploring how cartoon characters on kids’ cereal boxes are strategically positioned and designed to seem to make eye contact with children, which is rather horrifying.

Another juicy side story was Siegel’s suggestion that someone should look into the aforementioned Mr. Kellogg as a Jack the Ripper suspect, which is less crazy than it sounds — Kellogg, a pretty disturbed person, “made several trips to London in the 1880s to study surgery.”

Siegel is a very funny and snarky writer, but the humorous tone isn’t at the expense of the science. It’s well-researched and he explains science and technical details clearly and accessibly. Some of the chapters were a bit brief for retaining everything but it’s fun and entertaining enough to return to.

Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, by Mayukh Sen (November 16, W. W. Norton) Buy it used or new at SecondSale.com

New York University professor of food journalism and James Beard Award-winning journalist Mayukh Sen writes about seven immigrant women to the US who each in her own way contributed to strengthening the presence and recognition of her country’s cuisine in her adopted home. One of his “chief missions” with the book was to “present women in their own voices,” and since most of them aren’t today household names, that’s an admirable goal. It also provides richer material in spots, since some of it can be sourced from their own memoirs, writings, or interviews.

Each chapter is a biography of a different woman, covering China’s Chao Yang Buwei, Mexico’s Elena Zelayeta, France’s Madeleine Kamman, Italy’s Marcella Hazan, India’s Julie Sahni, Iran’s Najmieh Batmanglij, and Jamaica’s Norma Shirley. They’re all somewhat juxtaposed against the story of Julia Child, a reference point brought up again and again as an American standard, and Sen gives her an “interlude” as well. She had connections to a few of the women profiled, most notoriously with Kamman, who began a feud with Child and challenged her position as a “French chef.”

Many of the women overcame significant obstacles even in addition to the already massive ones of being immigrants, and for most, not white: Zelayeta, for example, lost her sight after a cataract, but still managed to run a restaurant and write cookbooks. Some were helped by their husbands, others, like Buwei, was equally helped and hindered by her husband’s and daughter’s translations of her recipes and writing.

It sheds a light on the complexities of working outside of your native language and attempting to bridge cultural barriers, staying true to what makes a cuisine unique while still making it palatable for US consumption. This was a fine line to straddle, and Sen analyzes how each woman did it and what it meant to her, sometimes what it cost her. It underscores just how massively accomplished each woman was even if they didn’t reach Child’s stratospheric levels of recognition.

Some of the stories stood out more than others, and the writing felt encyclopedic at times — just standard biographical walkthroughs of awards and accolades and accomplishments in points. This is frustrating and didn’t make for interesting reading, but may have been due to lack of source material for some of the women.

But when they did put their feelings and experiences into their own words, it’s touching and powerful: “Cooking, she would later write, made her feel ‘as though I were telling a story I had heard as a little girl in another land.'”

What good food writing have you been reading lately?

I received advance copies of both books from their publishers for unbiased review.

7 thoughts on “Two New Food Histories: The Secret History of Food and Taste Makers

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  1. Taste Makers sounds wonderful – I’ve been thinking for a while that I would like to read a history of curry and Indian restaurants in the UK, and it sounds like this does a similar thing for different cuisines in the US. I haven’t read any food writing recently except columns, but I’m looking out for recommendations this month!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked Taste Makers, I just think I would’ve liked it more if some of them didn’t feel so much like straight-up biography, if that makes sense. There were kind of pages of just-the-facts in parts. But for the most part it’s great!

      I would also love to read a history of curry, I’ve had that in mind for a while too! I came across this one: Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum, but haven’t gotten a copy yet, and I believe it’s fairly brief. Let me know if you find any good in-depth ones, and anything about Indian restaurants in the UK would be amazing!! I read the novel Brick Lane years ago in college, at a time when I’d still never actually tried Indian food (!!) and it made quite an impression.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I just finished reviewing Tastemakers and I also thought the way the women in these stories balanced authenticity and accessibility was a particularly interesting part of their story. Given that so many of these women wrote their own memoirs, I was also a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more here about each of them. I feel like more of that material could have been used, even if other sources were scarce.

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