When we bite into an apple or enjoy a dish of decadent vanilla ice cream, we’re typically not thinking about the backstories of these foods. We choose them for sustenance or simply because they taste delicious. But there is more than just nutrition and flavor behind many of the things we eat. As a food writer, I’m always on the lookout for new books that delve into the history or science of food. Two intriguing examples I read recently are The Secret History of Food by Matt Siegel and Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino.
Chock-full of countless “did you know?” food factoids, The Secret History of Food is a treasure trove of food trivia. For example, try to imagine a life without French fries, ketchup, or tomato sauce. Yet the sources of these ubiquitous foods were formerly feared and shunned, with tomatoes thought to be poisonous and potatoes harboring an illicit association with witchcraft and devil worship. Siegel takes these and hundreds of other little-known nuggets and weaves together a tale that moves seamlessly from one topic to the next. Other fascinating details include the fact that foodstuffs have been used as weaponry, and the domestication of corn is considered an anthropological game changer on par with the discovery of fire. The result is a book that is informative, yet entertaining and accessible, sprinkled with humorous anecdotes, connections to popular culture and research across a variety of disciplines.
As its title suggests, Eating to Extinction is much more serious in tone but equally compelling, highlighting at-risk foods and food cultures, a topic he spent over ten years researching and recording. We typically link the terms endangered and extinct to animals, but the global human population explosion has also wreaked havoc on human nutrition, decreasing food diversity and threatening our food supply and environment in general. This loss of diversity seems contradictory since food is now shipped all over the world, seemingly adding more variety to many of our diets. However, in order to feed an ever-increasing society, major food crops such as rice, wheat and corn have become more and more homogenous, making them less nutritious and more susceptible to disease.
Both books are illuminating and thought-provoking, albeit in different ways. Touching on disciplines such as history, environmentalism, anthropology and geology, they both make connections that help build a better understanding of food and its place in the world.
For more food books on similar topics, see:
- Why Food Matters by Paul Freedman
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites by Libby H. O’Connell
- The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies and Our World by Bee Wilson