I like both food and history, so I’ve read quite a few books about food history. Since food is part of our lives in many ways, there are many approaches to the history of food. How we eat, what we eat, and our philosophy of eating have all changed over time. The books in this post explore those changes. I’ve picked books that I think are accessible to a non-academic audience, which look at the history of food from several angles.
What is it about? This book discusses how people have viewed the future of food, and how those visions have shaped arguments about population and feeding the hungry. Belasco starts with Malthus and includes futures from speculative fiction, amusement parks, and world’s fairs.
Read If: All of the above sounds fascinating, and you want a better understanding of the arguments people are making about how to feed the world.
Don’t read if: You really want a book about strange sci-fi food, not about more general ideas about the future of food.
What is it about? This book is a history of cooking in the 1950’s in the US. It’s not all strange casseroles made from canned soup. Shapiro looks at changes in cooking in the US within the context of women’s social history. She explains how “modern cooking” using convenience products was prestigious, but also explores the movement away from cooking starting with packages and cans. One thing I found especially interesting is the story of Poppy Cannon, a cookbook writer who took part in both extremes of 50’s cooking.
Read if: You want a nuanced understanding of American cooking in the 1950’s.
Don’t Read if: You just aren’t interested.
What is it about? This history focus on the implements we use to cook and eat: pots for cooking, knifes for cutting, forks and chopsticks for eating, and more. The book is organized by technology, not chronologically.
Read if: You take a wide view of what technology is. You’d like general survey of the history of cooking and eating written in a chatty style.
Don’t read if: You want something very in depth. The book tends to skim along history, often lumping decades and even centuries together. Also, the author is from the UK and writes from that perspective. If you are not one of “we fork users,” the book might feel as though it is excluding you.
What is it about? Like it says on the tin, this book is a history of white bread in the US. Bobrow-Strain uses bread to talk about ideas of purity and what “good food” has meant over time. I really love how this book uses the past to better understand the present and critique current food movements.
Read if: You are interested in the history of food-based reform movements and what current reformers should be learning form the past.
Don’t read if: I can’t think of any reason why not. (Yes, ok, you might think the whole idea of food history isn’t for you, but if you think it is maybe even a little bit for you, this is a great book!)
Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planning. She also spends too much time reading and loves science fiction and fantasy.
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