As I’ve stated before, when it comes to reading food books, recipe books are not at the top of my list. However, I make an exception for recipe books that tell stories. William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes, tells a story. Or more correctly tells a story by telling a 100 stories. Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Kitchen magazine,* and a descendant of one of Britain’s best known literary families. has produced a very readable, often amusing account of the history of food.
*Sitwell no longer edits the magazine, he lost his job over comments made about “killing vegans.”
The indefinite article in the title must be noted. This is not an attempt to write the definitive food history. The history here is one the is skewed toward Britain, France and the U.S. Also, as the author states, these are not test kitchen approved recipes. Some you won’t even want to attempt (Martha Stewart would surely disapprove). Don’t worry though, the stories around the recipes are tasty enough.
A Recipe for a Good Read:
A History of Food, begins with a recipe for bread that was found on the walls of an Egyptian burial chamber and works it way up to very recent days in it’s closing recipe from the kitchen/laboratory of Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmer-Watts. In between the book abounds with tales of plagiarism, social history, class struggle and many other interesting, though at times seemingly disconnected subjects.
Many of the people Sitwell writes about are well known to the broader public. Names like Brillat-Savarin, Escoffier, and Childs to name just three. Others such as Eliza Leslie, Hannah Woolley will be less so. Still others, like Martino de Rossi, were almost obliterated from history by later plagiarists.
Sitwell’s writing style is informal and breezy. He also brings a cheeky sense of humour to his writing. He clearly has put much effort into his research. On top of all of this he has a clear love for his subject. From a stylistic point of view, matching recipes with technological advances gives a greater understanding of how eating habits develop. Although one might say it shows how eating habits digress.
Sitwell certainly has his opinions when it comes to what he thinks is good food. However, he doesn’t generally let them get in the way of the story he is telling. Further, when he mocks, it is mostly a gentle mockery. He reserves his true anger for such subjects as needless cruelty to animals. Something that is of far greater concern than soggy vegetables.
One challenge in reading for review, was reading it fairly much straight through. Each chapter is full of information. To read from cover to cover, requires a you to be a bit of a trencherman among readers. I think it would best be read two or three chapters at a time.
What it could do with more of:
It should be remember that the book has “A History” in it’s title. Still, a wider representation of the world cuisine would be appreciated. At times there seems to be too much information in the short chapters. Also, with all the information in each chapter, one sometimes forgets about the recipes that lead off each chapter. The constant cross-referencing of various authors is also a little off-putting.
All in all A History of Food in 100 Recipes, is an entertaining read. However, don’t try and swallow it whole. Savour it one bite size chapter after another.