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Book Review: Eating History
“Eating History” by Andrew F. Smith(c.2009, Columbia University Press - $29.95 / $30.95 Canada – 376 pages, includes notes)

Book Review: Eating History

30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

November 3, 2009 —  The turkey’s sitting in the freezer, waiting for you to thaw it out.

You’re using Grandma’s recipe for the dressing, and she’s bringing a pair of her famous pies. Your uncle is furnishing his homemade wine and you know your sister will make that corn thing everybody likes. The Thanksgiving meal is shaping up to be a genuine family event, right down to the table.

But did you ever wonder how the foods in your pantry or freezer got there? Read the new book “Eating History” by Andrew F. Smith(c.2009, Columbia University Press $29.95 / $30.95 Canada – 376 pages, includes notes) and you’ll see what a school principal, a “hack writer”, a savvy ad man, a housewife from Queens, and others had to do with what and how we eat.

Everybody knows that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving after arriving on Plymouth Island. The Indians were there, and they had turkey, roasts, grapes, stew, and root beer they made themselves, right?

Wrong, says Smith. Our traditional beliefs about the first Thanksgiving are largely mythological, created by writers and storytellers. Explorers and natives, for instance, definitely gave thanks for blessings long before the Pilgrims even thought about coming to the new continent, and it was common for several thanksgiving celebrations to be held throughout the year. Furthermore, on the short list above, turkey was the only thing likely to have been at the Pilgrim’s feast.

But let’s say your family tradition is to eat at a restaurant on Turkey Day. You can thank a couple of Italian immigrants for that, Smith says. Before the Delmonico brothers came to America and opened the restaurant that became a 19th-century hotspot, dining out wasn’t socially acceptable at all. “Good” people ate meals at home.

Oh, and by the way… snacking was totally forbidden then, too.

Now, however, you can eat wherever and whatever you want: Chinese, Mexican, fast-food burgers, fried everything, even oatmeal for dinner if that’s what you’re hungry for. Smith says that even those foods changed our cuisine, just as our palates changed other menus. Chop suey is not a “traditional” Chinese dish, for example. Nachos were created in Dallas in the early 1960s. McDonald’s was strictly a drive-up eatery prior to 1968. Dozens of foodstuffs were introduced at world and county fairs. And your love of oatmeal began with a unique and sensational national stunt.

Reading “Eating History” is a little like having a slice of pie in a flavor you’ve never had before. The crust-cover is pretty generic but that never matters. What’s inside looks appetizing, though, and when you bite into it, you’re rewarded with several layers of flavor and tastiness.

By taking a look at how small actions throughout history have influenced our dining habits and celebratory feasts, author Andrew F. Smith appeals to foodies, cooks, and historians with this book. I particularly loved how Smith meanders through his stories, wrapping each up with modern facts and updates.

If you’re looking for a deliciously different book to read between courses this Thanksgiving, here’s one you’ll like. “Eating History” is a toothsome delight.



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