Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.
Rachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.
There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.
I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.
Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.
This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.
I don’t remember how I came across this book – could have been through Gastropod? – but I thought it sounded like just my thing. Time as an ingredient makes a lot of sense, when you consider it! And overall, Linford does look at some interesting points in connecting food with time; I learned a few things and was encouraged in my love of cooking and food.
However, this book turned out to be not quite what I expected. On reflection, I think I was expecting something more like Michael Pollan’s Cooked, where he meditates on particular ways in which fire or air or whatever have an impact on cooking and food at length. This is not that. Instead, this is a long series of vignettes. Some of them do go over pages – there’s a good few pages on pickles, and on smoking, and the wonders of freezing., among others. But in general each topic within each timeframe (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years) is relatively short, addressing the connection between the topic and time – the seconds between different stages of caramel, the time it takes to make true traditional Modena balsamic vinegar – and usually not going into the depth that my heart really wanted. (And sometimes the topics chosen in each chapter seem to be tangential to the concept of time as an ingredient, but maybe I missed the point.)
If what you’re interested in is a series of short stories about time and cooking, that you can easily dip into and out of, that are sometimes amusing and sometimes poignant and that remind you that cooking and good food are good things, then you will probably enjoy this book.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost. It’s out on 1 November; RRP $35.
I was intrigued by the idea of looking at culinary traditions and histories through seven key ingredients, and those chosen here seem quite appropriate. Not comprehensive, since you could argue for others (like corn, or potato, were my first thoughts) but nonetheless widely used in a variety of cultures over the world and with interesting histories attached. Linford’s chosen seven ‘wonders’ are: rice; salt; honey; pork; tomato; chilli; and cacao.
In each chapter, Linford talks a little about the chemistry or something scientific of each ingredient, but that’s not the focus. There’s more about the history, although it’s still very much an introduction – how something like the tomato moved from the Americas to the rest of the world (I love that tomatoes are, relatively speaking, new to Italy), as well as the development and cultivation over time of different types (the ambition to create inedibly hot chilli is completely foreign to me). There’s a fairly wide-ranging look at how different cultures use different ingredients; because this is a relatively short book (about 230 ish pages), this is by no means exhaustive, which may annoy some people if she hasn’t chosen a particular culture. Still, she does talk about the use of chilli, for instance, in Mexican and Indian and Thai and Malaysian and Korean and Chinese and Portuguese and Italian and American (esp Texan) and Hungarian and Spanish cookery. And finally, there are recipes. Again, these are not comprehensive, but there’s no way it could have been. For pork, she has everything from Chinese pork potstickers (dumplings) and char siu to sautéed chorizo with red wine to glazed ham; for honey, it’s baclava to honey-glazed shallots and grilled goat’s cheese with honey. The recipes are set out nicely on the page, and each one only takes up a page (possibly a requirement in choosing?)
My one reservation with this book is that sometimes the language got repetitive. It’s as though Linford, or her editor, assumed that people would mostly not be reading this straight through (I did), and so they thought that repeating certain key phrases would be both a good and not noticed. I noticed. And while it wasn’t enormous clumps of text that were repeated, it was obvious enough that I got a bit impatient.
Overall this is a nicely-presented book: I love a good hardcover, although I love a cookbook with a ribbon even more! Each chapter has its own colour for the page numbers and the recipe text and the illustrations (there are some nice illustrations throughout – not photos), which is a nice touch. This is a nice book for someone like me who likes the background to ingredients as well as a variety of recipes.
A while back I started a food blog, Acts of Kitchen. It then turned into a podcast of the same name, where I interview people and talk to them about food and cooking and such things.
Now, I have put it on Patreon. There’s rewards like challenging me to make things, the occasional food or postcard delivery, and recipes being emailed to you. Check it out!
This book was recommended to me by the sourdough baker whose course I took. It turned out that I had already one of Pollan’s books – The Botany of Desire, which was awesome and looked at various plants in light of the general idea of desire. (My biggest take away message: the Agricultural Revolution was the grasses using humanity to destroy the trees. Also that all edible apples are clones.)
This book is Pollan’s attempt to learn more about cooking, having looked at the gardening and the eating side for a long time. He divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Or, basically: barbecue, braise, bread, and fermenting. Continue reading →
I have a new blog! and a new podcast! Acts of Kitchen is kinda just that. The blog is about whatever I’m cooking or reading about food or watching about food. The podcast (same name) is mostly about me interviewing people to get their food and cooking stories. It’s fortnightly, and I aim for it to be about 15-20 minutes in length – pretty easy-listening length, right? You can subscribe at iTunes or listen to it at the blog!
To start with the writing: Wilson writes beautifully. Her prose is clear, occasionally whimsical, sensible, and altogether a delight to read. It’s not that often that I read 280 pages of history in just over a day, even when I’m on holidays. In fact at one point I tried to put it away because I was worried I would finish it too quickly (I was away from my bookshelf; I was feeling a bit irrational, ok?). Her love of food and history and cooking come through clearly; she mingles the occasional personal anecdote with what’s clearly broad-ranging research. But she also doesn’t get bogged down in the research – she’s not aiming to construct a thorough, blow by blow account of the development of cooking or food technology. She’s writing for an educated but non-professional audience and she does it really well.
The chapters are organised around probably the most important aspects of cooking and its technology: pots and pans; knives; fire; measuring; grinding (I admit this one surprised me a little); eating; ice; and the kitchen itself. In each chapter she gives some of the current thinking about where and if possible how the technology began (in some instances in the Palaeolithic, in others more recently), and then – depending on the objects – skims through the ancient world, the medieval, and the early modern.
My main quibble with the book is its European preponderance, but I do wonder whether I’m being overly sensitive about that. There’s a wonderful section about the Chinese knife, the tou; and a discussion about the difference in fork+knife vs chopsticks; some about the differences in wok cooking opposed to more European methods; and other mentions as well. I wonder if there’s more history done on this from a European perspective – or that’s translated into English anyway. Although if that’s the case I would have liked a mention of the dearth of literature.
Another small quibble is that sometimes her language implies that the changes in cooking technology were things that the population had just been waiting for. While that might be true for can openers (invented FIFTY YEARS after the invention of the tin, I kid you not), sometimes it grated a little: to whit: “At last, these people [the ancient Greeks] had discovered the joy of cooking with pots and pans” (12). I get what she means but it grated a little.
Anyway. A few gems include ideas for future ice cream experiments (burnt almond, orange flower water, cinnamon, apricot, quince; bitter cherry; muscat pear…), the history of the refrigerator and freezer and how they show differences between the English and Americans post-WW2, and developments from coal to gas to electricity in terms of stoves. Also the thing about the tin opener. SO WEIRD.
Overall this is a joyous book that I highly recommend if you’re into food and history, especially both at the same time. Her writing really is marvellous, you might learn something, and it re-inspired me to get into my kitchen and make something. (Which was annoying because I was on holidays, but whatevs.)
I have baked my first sponge! You can click that link to read my hubristic recount of the deed. And see a fairly average photo.
I am in the ‘want to give useful presents’ zone. So today, I went to my discovered-forgotten-rediscovered love, Basfoods. Ah, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern, I love you. Especially in bulk.
I intended to buy some puy lentils for some people outside the city, who would struggle to find those little gems, and see what other nuggets I might unearth. Consequently I am sitting here taste-testing and finding new favourites:
double roasted chickpeas: I’d heard of people eating these like popcorn… oh yes.
sugar-coated almonds: OK, so not a new discovery, but… yum!
sugar-coated pistachios: Drool.
sugar-coated chocolate sesame: !!
sugar-coated coriander: Wow.
sugar-coriander: apparently people eat these like after-dinner mints. Me, I could probably eat them by the handful.
I might be in love.
i also bought 150g of cinnamon quills for not much, which I’ll split up; and sumac; and curry powder.
I’m feeling really quite smug.
Courtesy of my sister comes this gob-smacking recipe:
5 MINUTE CHOCOLATE MUG CAKE
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional… ha! as if it would be an option to put them in!)
a small splash of vanilla extract
1 large coffee mug
Add dry ingredients to mug, and mix well. Add the egg and mix thoroughly. Pour in the milk and oil and mix well. Add the chocolate chips and vanilla extract, and mix again.
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts (high). The cake will rise over the top of the mug, but don’t be alarmed! Allow to cool a little, and tip out onto a plate if desired.
EAT! (this can serve 2 if you want to feel slightly more virtuous).
And why is this the most dangerous cake recipe in the world? Because now we are all only 5 minutes away from chocolate cake at any time of the day or night!
I made it last night, and did go the ‘virtuous’ option… it was tasty, but I think I over-mixed it; it had that texture that overmixed muffins sometimes get. Still… I’m trying to decide whether I really ought to post this, or if I should delete it and the email and try to forget that chocolate cake could be so accessible!