A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell
This is a history book, not a recipe book. Sitwell takes us chronologically through a brief history of the world, revolving around food and storytelling.
The book starts out circa 1958-1913 BC with a recipe for Ancient Egyptian Bread, which was found on the wall of Senet’s Tomb in Luxor, Egypt. This is common through most of early history since published cookbooks didn’t appear for quite some time. Recipes are found drawn on walls, written on clay tablets, incorporated into stories, mentioned in the Bible, sung in songs, etc. People have been talking about food for centuries.
The book is laid out so each recipe gets it’s own chapter and discusses how food was used during that time. These are not recipes for you to cook by. But they do provide an amazing insight into the time and culture.
Here is a recipe for “Fish Baked in Fig Leaves” by Archestratus circa 350BC:
You could not possibly spoil it even if you wanted to… Wrap it [the fish] in fig leaves with a little marjoram. No cheese, no nonsense! Just place it gently in fig leaves and tie them up with a string, then put it under hot ashes.
Ratios weren’t standardized. Time wasn’t standardized. Many of these recipes are little more than ingredient lists.
The first cookbook published by a woman was in 1664, The Cooks Guide by Hannah Woolley. This was just one of several books and articles Woolley wrote on Household Management. Also, like many other cookbook publishers around this time, she was frequently plagiarized. It was discovered that some of the more popular cookbooks in their time had been copied directly from other cookbooks that few people saw. Historically, it’s all about who you know and what resources you have.
As for actually reading this, I loved the first three-quarters of the book. My knowledge of food within the context of history was definitely broadened. Although, I found the early chapters much more interesting than the later ones. The last bit of the book provides current recipes and details on modern food culture that I did not find as intriguing as cultural history.
Even with my interest waning towards the end of the book, this was one of the best food and history books I’ve read. The writing is very readable with a good balance of wit and knowledge. Sometimes the author pats himself on the back needlessly. Or ties in his family, the members of which have a place in food history. I could have done without that since it’s a history book not an autobiography. But I understand the author was excited to be part of this history.
It’s written in a way that you can skip around by recipe rather than chronologically if you’d prefer. There isn’t an overarching story that ties everything together. Although previous authors do get referenced later.
For anyone interested in history. Or anyone interested in culinary. I definitely recommend this book.