10 Amazing Books on Food History from Jeffrey Pilcher


As you know, we love talking about the intersection of food and culture, in all its wonderful (and sometimes bizarre) forms. Last week we looked at some of the greatest food still lifes in art history, and earlier this month, we were aglow in anticipation of Lawrence Norfolk’s first novel in 12 years, John Saturnall’s Feast , a 17th century upstairs-downstairs love story inspired by food’s more seductive powers. Now we’re taking a turn into the academic, yet equally enthralling (not to mention mouth-watering) genre of food history with the help of Jeffrey Pilcher, author of next month’s Planet Taco .

As you probably guessed, Pilcher’s latest book focuses on the history of the taco, but being the equal food opportunist that he is, Pilcher kindly shared a list of personal reading recommendations sure to interest anyone who enjoys history and/or eating in general. The following books, he told us, “will reveal the amazing history of food over five thousand years.” Click through for Pilcher’s list, which take us all the way from ancient Mesopotamia to the so-called “Golden Age of Food Processing,” and then, onward, to the future (yes, that would be the Jetson’s meal-in-a-pill, future). And if south-of-the-border is your fancy, we recommend his book, which will forever change the way you look at Mexico’s national cuisine, not to mention give you some great anecdotes next time you make a Chipotle run with your pals.

The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia , Jean Bottéro

Jean Bottéro’s social history of food in ancient Mesopotamia reveals that master chefs and snooty diners have been with us since the beginning of written history. For adventurous cooks, the book also includes recipes, translated from cuneiform tablets, for such delicacies as gazelle broth and pigeon baked in pastry.

Medieval Arab Cookery , Maxime Rodinson, J. A. Arberry, and Charles Perry

This collection of historical essays and translations of recipes and culinary poetry by Maxime Rodinson, J. A. Arberry, and Charles Perry illustrates the vast diversity of food cultures within the lands of early Islam, from the simple desert fare of the Prophet Muhammad to the elaborate feasts of Baghdad and Persia. Through careful attention to the meanings of words (kebabs, for example, were meatballs, not roasted skewers), the authors chart the evolution of Middle Eastern cuisines.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors , Lizzie Collingham

Lizzie Collingham’s delightful tale puts India at the center of world historical movements in trade, migration, and colonialism. She shows how Indian cooks absorbed the foods of successive invaders — Mughals, Portuguese, British — and went on to conquer their former rulers, making curry a global icon.

Food and Fantasy: In Early Modern Japan , Eric C. Rath

This book is amazing for showing what the Japanese did not eat in the centuries before Emperor Meiji started Japan on the path to modernity. Not only were many national dishes, like sushi and tempura, absent from the table, but chefs spent much of their time carving inedible food sculptures of fish and fowl for diners to contemplate artistically.

Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine , James C. McCann

James McCann uses jazz as a motif to understand historical African cooking as an improvisational art form built around deep structures of technique and taste. Moving fluidly between the cuisines of Ethiopia, West Africa, Southern Africa, and the Diaspora, he draws connections and highlights regional distinctiveness.

Encarnación’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-Century California , Encarnación Pinedo

Encarnación Pinedo’s splendid cookbook offers a unique first hand account of nineteenth-century California Mexican cookery. It is also an eloquent contribution to Latina literature by a woman dedicated to preserving her culture after ’49ers lynched eight of her relatives — one of them twice.

In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezín , Cara de Silva

This poignant collection of recipes was assembled from fragments of memory by Jewish women passing through Terezín on their way to the death camps of Auschwitz. It is a tribute to the importance of food in preserving our humanity.

At Home on the Range , Margaret Yardley Potter

Before Julia Child there was Margaret Yardley Potter, who loved American food, farmer’s markets, and ethnic groceries. If you think you know what women were cooking during what has been called the “Golden Age of Food Processing,” think again. This book could have been written yesterday, by a woman with a sly sense of humor and a generous spirit of entertaining.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China , Fuchsia Dunlop

Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir delves into the history of Chinese cuisine, but it is even more revealing as a first-hand account of the historic changes taking place in China today. She provides the Western reader with an amazing translation of Chinese gastronomic sensibilities.

Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food , Warren Belasco

Warren Belasco explores the ways people have thought about the future of food, from the Jetson’s meal-in-a-pill to Malthusian fears of mass starvation. By analyzing the long history of debates between industrial food optimists and pessimists, he provides needed perspective on the contemporary “good food revolution.”