Some of the best writing that appeared during the commodity history boom of the late 90s and early 2000s was about food. The flow of books has never stopped, and it’s easy to graze your way through a whole library or bookstore of these books.
My six must-reads:
1. A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
2. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
The genius of Standage’s books is to take the foods of each era and make them into a window onto the world. Standage’s Six Glasses (beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola) aren’t the only drinks in each period, but Standage uses each of them to boil down the zeitgeist of an age in a virtuoso display of easy erudition. Learn a lot, and never get bored.
3. Four Fish: The Future of the World’s Last Food by Paul Greenberg
Greenberg’s book isn’t exactly a history, but it might as well be. Explaining how humanity got to the point of exploiting the last vestiges of a vast oceanic ecosystem requires looking at how economics, taste, and technology have shaped the history of fish-eating. If reading Four Fish leaves you insufficiently depressed, pair it with William Warner’s Distant Water, the story of the meteoric rise and terrifying effectiveness of the factory stern trawler.
4. Planet Taco by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
Everybody likes a good taco, even the Norwegians (who apparently love their Fredagstacoen, or Friday tacos), but what about an authentic taco? To prove no such thing exists, Pilcher lays out the taco’s history atop a bed of food history that reaches back a thousand years. According to Pilcher, Mexican food has been evolving since long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, with each generation fighting it out for power and profit over what constitutes “authentic” taste.
5. Moveable Feasts by Sarah Murray
What you eat has always depended on where you eat it, and Murray’s book tracks down just how people have been moving their food for thousands of years. A great book for understanding just how our food travels, and what the consequences are.
6. Olive Trees and Honey by Gil Marks
A compendium of vegetarian Jewish dishes from around the world, the food in Olive Trees and Honey reflects two thousand years of migrations. Marks isn’t satisfied just talking about Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and takes the opportunity to range all over Eurasia in search of dishes. The recipes are good, but my favourite part of the book are the maps, marking the travel of pastries, pastas, and cheeses across regional boundaries and into new culinary worlds.