In The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites Libby O’Connell provides a look at America’s past as seen through its foods. Each “bite” is one short entry focusing on a particular food or kind of food, and the history moves from an unknown time at least seven thousand years ago when corn was cultivated in the Americas to the present day, with an epilogue providing a few extra bites as O’Connell speculates about the kinds of food people will remember from today and touches on modern genetic engineering. The chapters tend to cover time periods with the bites focusing on particular foods that help to provide insight into the time period.
O’Connel’s text is sometimes on the dry side, positioning this more in the academic realm than the reading to relax corner. It is an overview of history from a unique perspective. There are some sobering historical events here. Baked Alaska, for example, is a decadent treat made by and for the wealthy at a time when the income divide was growing. There are also some lighter moments, and bits of unexpected detail: Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt kept a truly awful cook at the White House? Or that Wonder Bread was considered especially healthy precisely because it was such a pure white and no human hands touched it while it was being made? Recipes are included after many of the bites. Some of these are still in their original forms with the usual vague directions quantity-wise, but many have been updated or were already written in modern terms, and while beaver tail and squirrel might be a bit hard to come by, most of the ingredients are available in the grocery store.
Each “bite” is a short entry covering a type of food and the historical events that brought it to the United States. This makes the book a good carry-along book, suitable for reading in short spaces of time. Those with a culinary bent may also enjoy carrying it into the kitchen in order to test some of the recipes.
Recommended for those who enjoy the history of food or books where history is seen through a specific lens.
<The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites comes out today, November 11, 2014.