With much of the world on lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, dining out has become a cherished memory of the “before” period. Though diners can still support local restaurants by ordering food for curbside pickup or delivery, actually sitting down at any eatery, be it a tavern, café, noodle joint or fine dining establishment, appears to be off-limits for the foreseeable future.
In these trying times, William Sitwell’s The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining Out—one of five new nonfiction titles featured in this week’s books roundup—may offer some culinary comfort, enabling readers to dine vicariously via its author’s colorful prose. And, if it helps at all, know that Sitwell is similarly missing the experience of dining out. As the British restaurant critic wrote for the Telegraph earlier this month, “I’m at home, staring out of the window and dreaming of what I might eat after the crisis, quietly chastising myself that, just a few weeks ago, I felt I was tiring of all my endless eating out.”
The latest installment in our “Books of the Week” series, which launched in late March to support authors whose works have been overshadowed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, details the evolution of restaurants, the women pilots of World War II, the history of sugarcane and rum production on the Yucatán Peninsula, a New York Times journalist’s struggle to come to terms with his immigrant identity, and a Wild West shootout.
Representing the fields of history, science, arts and culture, innovation, and travel, selections represent texts that piqued our curiosity with their new approaches to oft-discussed topics, elevation of overlooked stories and artful prose. We’ve linked to Amazon for your convenience, but be sure to check with your local bookstore to see if it supports social distancing-appropriate delivery or pickup measures, too.
The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining Out by William Sitwell
Sitwell’s comprehensive history begins with the taverns and restaurants of Pompeii and concludes with a chapter on the future of dining out. (The author’s prediction: “There will be new food concepts, new cutlery, space-age environments, new-fangled digital booking systems based on your history of preferences and your current bank balance.”)
Detailing the 2,000 or so years between these developments, the Telegraph food critic makes leaps through time with pit stops in the Ottoman Empire, England, New York City, India, France and other locales. Along the way, he highlights such famous foodies as Marie-Antoine Carême, a 19th-century Frenchman considered to be the first celebrity chef, and Albert and Michel Roux, the French brothers behind postwar London’s Le Gavroche restaurant, in addition to lesser-known individuals like Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican-born immigrant whose 1951 taco machine patent powered the rise of Taco Bell, and Yoshiaki Shiraishi, a Japanese innovator whose 1958 sushi conveyor belt “revolutionized the eating of fish.”
Sitwell describes restaurants as sources of cultural innovation, reasons to travel, symbols of identity, sites of entertainment and more. People seek them out for reasons beyond simple sustenance: among others, he observes, “to meet, socialize, do business, romance a loved one”—and, on the zanier end of the spectrum, even “plot a coup.”
The Women With Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by Katherine Sharp Landdeck
During World War II, some 1,100 Americans joined an elite class of aviators known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Formed by merging two existing units—the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD)—in the summer of 1943, the program enabled female pilots to participate in non-combat missions essential to the war effort, including flying planes from factories to military bases, testing overhauled aircraft and towing targets used to train male air gunners practicing with live ammunition.
As historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck writes in The Women With Silver Wings’ prologue, the WASPs transported 12,000 planes over 60 million miles, freeing up more than 1,100 male pilots to fly overseas for combat and, in doing so, proving “beyond a doubt that women pilots were just as skilled and tenacious as men.”
Though they made significant contributions to the Allies’ eventual victory, the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, when a bill calling for the program to gain military status was narrowly defeated following backlash from civilian male pilots. Landdeck’s book details WASP members’ late-in-life efforts to ensure the women pilots’ role in the war was remembered. Central figures include Cornelia Fort, one of the 38 WASPs who died in service; WAFS leader and later ferrying operations commander Nancy Love; and wartime WASP head Jacqueline Cochran.
New York Times bestselling author Tom Clavin concludes his self-described “Frontier Lawmen” trilogy with a rousing exploration of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the 1881 battle that he says signaled the “last gasp of violent lawlessness … as ‘civilization’ took hold in the West.”
Set against the backdrop of a “tense, hot summer” in Tombstone, Arizona, the book covers the events that led to the 30-second shootout, from the Mexican government’s crackdown on American cattle thieves to these outlaws’ increasingly brazen defiance of the law to brothers Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp’s emergence as enforcers of order. At the heart of the conflict were two competing ideologies, Clavin tells Smashing Interviews magazine: the cowboys-turned-outlaws’ view of the West as a lawless haven for criminals and locals’ desire to see Tombstone become a “prosperous, civilized town.”
The Wild Bill and Dodge City author’s underlying argument is that the divisions between the ostensibly “good” guys (the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) and the “bad” (Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury) were more fluid than one might think.
“[T]he Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line,” notes Kirkus in its review of Tombstone, “and … the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues [who] valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief.”
When journalist and stand-up comedian Sopan Deb started writing his memoir in early 2018, he knew little about his parents beyond their names and the fact that they entered into an arranged marriage after immigrating to the United States from India. He couldn’t say how old they were, how many siblings they had, where exactly in India they were from, or even what their lives had been like prior to his birth.
Still, Deb notes in the book’s first chapter, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Oliver Twist. … But there was a deep void in the relationship with my parents, a pervasive sense of unhappiness that reigned over the home.”
Much of this disconnect stemmed from young Deb’s desire to blend in with his white, suburban New Jersey classmates—a refutation of Bengali identity that contrasted starkly with his parents’ pride in their heritage. By age 30, he writes, he considered the pair “distant footnotes from my past.”
This mindset changed after Deb, then working as a reporter for CBS News, covered Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“I spent my whole life running from who I am,” says Deb to NBC News’ Lakshmi Gandhi. “After covering the Trump campaign, I knew I didn’t want to run anymore.”
Deb then embarked on a journey that took him to India, where his father had unexpectedly moved in 2006, and his estranged mother’s home in New Jersey. Rebuilding these relationships proved predictably challenging, and as Deb tells NBC News, the process continues to this day.
“[My] book is for anyone that has a relationship with someone that should be better,” he says. “I hope that they come away from it thinking that it is never too late to bridge the gap. That doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to succeed, but it is never too late to try.”
Sugarcane and Rum: The Bittersweet History of Labor and Life on the Yucatán Peninsula by John Robert Gust and Jennifer P. Matthews
Much like Augustus Sedgewick’s Coffeeland—a pick from the third installment in Smithsonian’s “Books of the Week” series that reveals the history of exploitation and violence behind the beloved caffeinated beverage—Gust and Matthews’ Sugarcane and Rum looks beyond the Yucatán Peninsula’s reputation as an idyllic getaway spot to expose the harsh conditions faced by its 19th-century Maya laborers.
Hacienda owners implemented punitive economic systems where workers became deeply indebted to their bosses, only to then see their freedoms curtailed as a result. At the same time, the authors note, these men and women enjoyed a certain level of autonomy as an indispensable source of labor come harvest time.
“What this history shows,” according to the book’s introduction, “is that sugarcane and rum are produced on a massive scale to satisfy the consumptive needs of the colonizers, which only compounds its exploitative nature as the products become available to the middle and working class.”