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History by the Slice: The Microhistory of Food

by Jennifer Brannen

*Originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of RA News.*

William Blake famously wrote about seeing a world in a grain of sand. While he didn’t necessarily have the fine art of microhistory in mind while writing poetry, some historians have embraced those proverbial grains of sand for the stories they reveal, choosing one event, object, or behavior to explore and illuminate larger historical patterns. Science, technology, design, and everyday objects frequently appear in this form of narrative nonfiction. The microhistory is currently so diverse and popular a “genre” that titles range from natural disasters (Krakatoa, Isaac’s Storm) to grammar and etymology (Stylized and Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language).

A particularly fertile subject is food and drink. Exchange that metaphorical grain of sand for an actual crystal of sodium chloride and watch the drama unfold, for a crystal of salt can act as a historical prism that reflects sweeping changes over millennia. Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History recounts the ubiquitous presence of salt in the rise and fall of empires, in the world of finance (it was a form of currency at one point), and yes, even as a key ingredient for flavor and preservation.

Food microhistories are a bit like Thanksgiving. There is a vast array of choices, some familiar, some not. And there’s never enough room on your plate (or your book pile) to try them all. So it seems only appropriate as we draw closer to the holiday season to explore some especially tasty titles on selected comestibles and libations.


Incredible Edible History

Food has been a particularly rich source of materials (ingredients even) for microhistories. Particular foods can be a locus for multiple interpretations (tea, chocolate, spices, and oddly enough, various fish). These profiles often straddle cultural history and natural history. From the exotic (Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy by Inga Saffron) to the everyday (American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads by Pascale Le Draoulec), the stories behind different foods bridge cultures, eras, and geography, showcasing human enthusiasms and bad behavior in equal measure.

Candy Freak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond: Almond explores the geography and history of candy in America. Regional specialties are profiled with affectionate humor and an adventurous palate, while he pensively contemplates the rise of Big Candy and the disappearance of small family companies. (For more ways to sate your sweet tooth, see: Sweets by Tim Richardson; Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy by Kate Hopkins; The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe; and Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum.)

Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey -- The Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World by Holley Bishop: Honey, the original sweetener, is rich with history and lore. This mash note to honey, and the bees that produce it, charms and astonishes. (For more sweet stuff, see: Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott.)



Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel: From the Garden of Eden (according to some scholars) to the eponymous banana republics, the ubiquitous banana is surprisingly complex agriculturally and politically. (For more fun with fruit, see: Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins and Oranges by John McPhee.)


The Founding Fish by John McPhee: A witty and personal recounting of the life and times of the shad, a fairly primitive fish that has swum through the annals and tall tales of American history. (For more tales from the deep, see: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky; Consider the Eel by Richard Schweid; Tuna: A Love Story by Richard Ellis; and The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson.)


Spice: The History of Temptation by Jack Turner: The desire that drove the search for the Spice Islands changed the world. Why? Spices could confer status, incite lust, prevent plague, and channel the divine. (For more spicy fare, see:Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by E.M. Collingham; Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton; and Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits by Amal Naj.)





Just as a wide variety of foods and dishes get their due, so too do the beverages of the world, from the strengthening to the intoxicating. Drink, from tea to tipples, has been on a sliding scale of vice for centuries, considered indicative of either good health or weak morals, depending on who’s doing the drinking and when. Here are some good reads for imbibers and teetotalers alike.

Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle by Jad Adams: The naughtiest drink of them all, the Green Fairy (absinthe) is synonymous with fin de siècle decadence and despair, art and addiction. (For more anecdotes of oblivion, see: Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III.)


Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately: A lengthy yet intoxicating tome on the role alcohol has played in societies, economies, and religions throughout history. (For another historical cocktail, see: Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons.)



Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West by Beatrice Hohenegger: Far from being relaxing, the history of the world’s most popular beverage is filled with clashing empires, trade wars, and a lot of skullduggery. (For more about the beverage that refreshes, see: The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant That Took Over the Worldby Alan Macfarlane; Tea: Addiction, Exploration, and Empire by Roy Moxham; and The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Heiss.)


Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mehdelsohn: Part history and part cookbook, Milkexplores the early mix of milk and cultures from mostly goat and sheep and fermented to the rise of cow’s milk as the over-processed underpinning of the American diet in the 19th and 20th centuries. (For more dairy delight, see:Nature’s Perfect Food by E. Melanie Dupuis.)


Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast: From its discovery via hyperactive goats in ancient Abyssinia to the modern day, coffee has been both vilified and praised for the powerful influence it has wielded over the countries that grow it and the people who drink it. (For more illustrations of how much people either love or hate coffee, see: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen and God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee by Michaele Weissman.)

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage: Delightfully organized by both beverage and historical period, Standage meshes key historical periods with drinks that epitomize them, e.g., coffee and the Age of Reason, Coca-Cola and recent American history. (For more history through the bottom of a glass, see: And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis.)




Comestible Microhistories: A Big Cheese

Mark Kurlansky is an epicurean microhistory innovator. Cod and Salt set the bar early on for what microhistories of food could be. Thoughtful and entertaining, Kurlansky seems to have a particular affection for the role of food in the history of America. Try:

picCod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World: This 1,000-year history is a classic example of how a small book can have a large impact as it explores the rise and fall of one fish, mirroring our concerns with collapsing fisheries and sustainable seafood. (A related non-food title also by Mark Kurlansky, The Last Fish Tale, is about commercial fishing culture.)

picThe Big Oyster: History on the Half-Shell: This once abundant bivalve resouce drives the narrative of this history of New York City.

picThe Food of a Younger LandA Portrait of American Food: Using WPA files, this is an exploration of American vernacular and regional cuisine before interstate highways ushered in the era of the chain restaurant.


picBirdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man: A biography of Clarence Birdseye, the inventor of frozen food.


Food for Thought . . .

Sometimes the richest insights into history and the human condition can be found in the smallest, most prosaic things. So when you sit down to various holiday meals this season, don’t think about calories but instead about the rich history on your plate. All of these titles are just a sampling, a mere amuse-bouche of the food and food-related microhistories that are available. Want a history of the fork? Pickling? Vanilla? All these and more can be yours. So when the dishes are cleared, the walks taken, and the guests have departed, try one of these delectable reads.

Jennifer Brannen is a Teen and Adult Services Librarian for Durham (NC) County Library. She presents and writes about readers' advisory for adults, teens, and tweens, and contributed a chapter to Integrated Advisory Service: Breaking Through the Book Boundary to Better Library Users. She is also a member of YALSA’s Editorial Advisory Board for YALS (Young Adult Library Services Journal).