As 2016 comes to a close, there’s probably one thing we can all agree on: It’s been a rough one. It has, however, been a banner year for books that delve into one of the few things that can bring people together: food and drink. Though their settings range from the American South to the bogs of Ireland and back again, all tell a story bigger than any one dish. These tales hint at the inner and sometimes invisible workings of society at large, the ones that turn tables and minds right under our noses. We all eat, they seem to say; we all have that in common, at least.
Whether you’re curious about how bourbon shaped American politics or interested in how vegetarianism became all the rage in India, here are our favorite food history and culture books of 2016.
If we are what we eat, then certainly the true nature of a city can be sussed out only in its greasy spoons, hot dog carts and dive bars. Such is the premise of Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York, an exhaustive study of Big Apple appetites by food historian Joy Santlofer. Santlofer obsessively researched the topic for six years before her unexpected death in 2013, after which finishing it became her family’s single-minded mission. Tune in for drama-filled accounts of a feuding 19th-century family behind one of the city’s seminal breweries and illuminating glimpses into the origins of modern food powerhouses Domino’s and Nabisco.
Who knew that Howard Johnson’s—yes, the steak-slinging, orange roofed fast food chain of yesteryear—had just as lasting an impact on American dining as white tablecloth shrines like Delmonico’s in New York City and Antoine’s in New Orleans? That’s the theory put forth by Yale history professor Paul Freedman in his latest culinary exploration, Ten Restaurants That Changed America. "This is a completely new kind of American history," writes restaurateur Danny Meyer in the intro. Restaurants, he continues, "channel the broad currents of political and social trends,” including the roles played by immigration, women, African-American migration, and America’s undying love affair with convenience.
Susan Benjamin has devoted her life to documenting America’s sweet tooth, and it’s all on display in her latest tome, Sweet as Sin. Benjamin has plenty experience: Her other gig is running True Treat Historic Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the nation’s only research-based historic candy shop. In Sweet as Sin, Benjamin delves into little known stories, like the tale of a deposed Mexican president who became the father of the modern chewing gum industry. Just make sure to have a candy bar at the ready while you read.
For all the wondrous variety in American cuisine—itself a mishmosh of European traditions and varied immigrant fare—author and self-described “historic gastronomist” Sarah Lohman believes it can be boiled down to eight essential flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha.
Lohman came to this belief by poring over cookbooks new and old, but also living out the culinary histories of American archetypes. For research, Lohman spent days eating like a 19th-century domestic servant, a colonial-era man, and an Italian immigrant family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1919, to name a few experiences documented on her blog Four Pounds Flour. Now that’s committing.
The modern craft cocktail revival goes under the microscope in A Proper Drink, author Robert Simonson’s liquor-soaked examination of the trend’s arc over the last 25 years. In addition to interviews with more than 200 major booze figures, the book goes into detail with 40 classic and modern cocktails, which include a few long-forgotten tipples set for a comeback. Be prepared for behind-the-drink stories at some of the New York City’s—craft cocktail ground zero—most influential watering holes, from Angel’s Share to PDT to Employee’s Only.
We’re in danger of losing the foods we’re most obsessed with, posits journalist Simran Sethi in her latest, Bread, Wine, Chocolate. Genetic erosion, or the creeping disappearance of diversity in crops, is allegedly to blame: To date, 95 percent of the world’s calories come from a mere 30 species, which is why, Sethi believes, foods taste blander and more generic than ever before. Take bananas, for instance: Of hundreds of banana species with varied tastes and texture, only one is found on grocery store shelves. Or wine: More than 1,000 varieties of wine grapes grow on Earth, but a mere half-dozen dominate the industry. In Bread, Wine, Chocolate, dozens of scientists, farmers, chefs, vintners, beer brewers, coffee roasters implore us to open our eyes and demand change—namely, that we labor to preserve the many varied flavors and ingredients across the globe, rather than settling for just a few.
“Butter proves that close study can reveal rich history, lore, and practical information,” gushes legendary food critic Mimi Sheraton on the back cover of former pastry chef Elaine Khosrova’s ode to butter. The book covers three continents in pursuit of the rich stuff’s backstory, which ranges from the butter-filled bogs of ancient Ireland to the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet. You get plenty of butter-swathed recipes to boot. Fair warning: Don’t read this book while on a diet. (Read more…)
Julia Child's great-nephew Alex Prud'homme takes on the famed chef’s TV and cookbook years in his latest work, a near-sequel to Child’s autobiographical My Life in France, which Prud'homme co-authored. The French Chef in America shows us a newly famous Child, who at times struggles with her celebrity but manages nonetheless to define a new kind of food television and secure her own enduring legacy. Through it all, though, Child remains somewhat nonchalant, once telling Prud'homme, “Well, if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.” “But it was her,” Prud'homme counters in his book. “And it is unlikely that anyone else could have done what she did, when she did, and how she did it. Julia Child changed the nation, even if she didn't like to admit it.”
Bourbon, arguably the most American of spirits, may also be among the least understood. In Bourbon, whiskey writer Fred Minnick peels back the layers on the drink’s fascinating history, from its role in U.S. politics to how, amazingly, a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can bring close to $6,000 at auction. As chef Sean Brock poses in the intro, “Fred may have written this book so people like me would stop texting him random bourbon history questions at odd hours of the night."
Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several books on Southern food traditions, again dips beneath the Mason-Dixon Line in her most recent gastronomic journey, The Edible South. In this go-around, Ferris finds food at the crossroads of several cultural and political flashpoints, whether they be Civil Rights-era lunch counters or counterculture communes.
India is home to some of the most colorful, varied and flavorful cuisines on the planet, so it’s a particular shame that Americans are familiar with a pitiful fraction of it. In Feasts and Fasts, food historian Colleen Taylor Sen seeks to broaden our culinary horizons with an in-depth look at the subcontinent’s edible history through its complex web of religious, moral, social and philosophical inner workings. There’s plenty about the origins of India’s widespread vegetarian practices, as well as the evolution of spice use across both culinary and medicinal spheres. And yes, you’re going to want to eat samosas afterward.
A bagel is never just a bagel. So goes the premise of Rhapsody in Schmaltz, author Michael Wex’s rumination on Jewish food and its schmaltz-splashed impact on broader culture. Wex isn’t merely satisfied to begin his gastronomic journey in New York City delis or diners. Nope, his begins all the way back in ancient times, chasing tales of manna and matzoh from Biblical and Talmudic clues. From there, Wex winds his way to Diane Keaton’s pastrami sandwich in Annie Hall, Andy Kaufman's stint as Latka Gravas on “Taxi” and even Larry David's sardonic Passover seder on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” There are plenty of Yiddish jokes along the way, as if you’d have expected otherwise.