A Matter of Taste

Food books can enlighten, but don’t overeat


Maybe it all started with E.J. Kahn’s famous, or infamous, “Staffs of Life” series about grains that ran in the New Yorker in the early 1980s and subsequently came out as a book under that title. These longish stories about corn, potatoes, wheat, rice, and soybeans seemed like an exercise to prove that elegant writing can make even the dullest topic fascinating.

This was, in fact, the conceit of the magazine in the later years of William Shawn’s long tenure as editor. The anonymous Wikipedia author of the entry on Kahn commented that the multi-grain series “was criticized by some as an example of the self-indulgent journalism that marked The New Yorker during the 1970s and ‘80s.” The best that Kirkus Reviews, back in the day when it was a legitimate book-review publication, could come up with was, “Worthwhile…but not as worthwhile as it could have been.”

But that series may be what generated a veritable cornucopia of books about individual foods — many of them interesting. Mark Kurlansky became a leading light in this genre starting with his 1997 book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, which won a James Beard award for food writing. Subsequently, Kurlansky — who also writes about other subjects — churned out Salt: A World History; The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell; and The Food of a Younger Land.

Salt eventually spawned Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, a 2014 book by Marjorie Shaffer. Along the way we got Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner; Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel; Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergast; Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History — you get the drift. These mundane little products in our kitchens are rooted in a history of world-transforming revolution, each and every one of them.

Kurlansky was a freelancer for the International Herald Tribune back in the 1980s when I worked there. Another early entrant in the genre was Mort Rosenblum, briefly editor of the Trib in that period, with his 1996 book, Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, and later Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light. (Like Kurlansky, Rosenblum has also written a number of books on what you might call more serious topics.)

So some of this food writing may be a legacy of Waverley Root, a longtime Paris correspondent who embarked on a food-writing career after his retirement and regularly contributed articles to the Trib. His 1958 book, The Food of France, is still in print, as is the sequel, The Food of Italy. The more comprehensive Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World is also available online.

Many of these food books have a good following, but I have to confess that although I consider myself a foodie — I took courses at Cordon Bleu in Paris, maintained a food blog for several years, and still do a lot of cooking — most of them are more than I want to know about any individual food.

Dipping occasionally into the genre, however, is a good way to remind ourselves what a wonderfully fortunate time we live in, and how much history went into providing the smorgasbord of marvelous foods spread out in front of us for the taking.

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