Where can I learn about man's interaction with new ingredients?
March 6, 2013 6:02 PM   Subscribe

What was Italian food like before the tomato? When coffee houses started popping up in Europe what establishments lost business as a result? Did Marco Polo really bring noodles to Europe from China? Where can I find the answer to all these questions and more?

I'm looking for layman-friendly resources, like a popular non-fiction book, blog or PBS special on how cultures reacted to new ingredients. So like the tomato example, what were Italians putting on their pasta before the tomato? And if Marco Polo brought the noodle to Italy from China*, what were they eating before that? How long did it take for the tomato to become an accepted ingredient in Italian cooking?

Or the chili pepper was apparently brought to India by the Portuguese. So what were Indians using to spice their food before that? Black pepper? Something else? Did they even eat spicy food?

More modernly, were there any food fads that took over the Soviet Bloc once their markets opened up to the rest of the world? Given the frosty relations between Russia and Japan is sushi even popular in Russia?

While not exactly questions that keep me up at night, I would definitely get a kick out of learning more about these kinds of things in an easily digestible format that is more organized than me randomly searching through Wikipedia.

*Apparently an untruth I learned at some point in my childhood, but it serves well as an example.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
While it's not all about food, I found Bill Bryson's At Home to have lots of interesting information about foodstuffs in it. For example, he discusses salt and pepper extensively. - why did those two particular flavors become so standard on tables worldwide? It's also got lots of other tidbits in it that are fun to know.
posted by itsamermaid at 6:22 PM on March 6, 2013

When coffee houses started popping up in Europe what establishments lost business as a result?

Pubs, alehouses, booze purveyors of various forms. There are fair few books about coffee in the modern "history of a thing" vein (example) because the coffee house was associated with specific social and cultural developments, and it allows for a certain amount of speculation on the relationship of these developments to caffeine.

Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire is also worth a read.
posted by holgate at 6:24 PM on March 6, 2013

Oh, and I also wanted to mention Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. It talks a lot about culinary history, in general, and pays special attention to saucy spicy condimenty things. Kurlansky has written a lot of books about food history, all of which are worth tracking down.
posted by Sara C. at 6:54 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

What was Italian food like before the tomato?

I recommend The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. It collects 14th and 15th century recipes, so basically right before New World plants were introduced.
posted by jedicus at 6:55 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

[Folks please just answer the question without turning this into a food lecture about the OPs misapprehensions? Answers should have suggestions of books to read.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 PM on March 6, 2013

Two books I've enjoyed are:

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.
Much Depends on Dinner
posted by gingerbeer at 7:17 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading good cookbooks about the cuisines you're curious about might be helpful to you.

On the South Asia/chili question, I find almost anything by Madhur Jaffrey to be brilliant. I have her book on curries and kebabs, which includes about 20 pages on the history, evolution, and migration of South Asian cuisine.

I'm not sure there's a direct analogue for Italian cuisine. Marcella Hazan is often recommended, but I don't know that she gives her recipes a historical/cultural underpinning in the same way that Jaffrey does for South Asian foods.
posted by Sara C. at 7:20 PM on March 6, 2013

A History of Food
posted by michellenoel at 7:43 PM on March 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding Mark Kurlansky's "Salt" and "Cod". Utterly fascinating.
posted by Specklet at 8:00 PM on March 6, 2013

It may be a little hard to track down without ILL but try Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti.
posted by PussKillian at 8:02 PM on March 6, 2013

Food history can be a pretty dense subject depending on the author. For example, Sweetness and Power is full of interesting information about the history of sugar, hidden amongst pages of lose-the-will-to-live heavy academic writing. Informative, but definitely not for the casually-curious reader, you know?

In contrast, let me second Sara C.'s and Specklet's recommendations of Mark Kurlansky's books. His overviews of food history are easy to read and accessible to all kinds of people. His book Cod is my favorite of the books we've read so far in my food history class. I also have his book Salt, which I'm looking forward to reading after I finish Cod.

The PBS History Kitchen says it is unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce noodles to Italy. The site has excellent historical overviews of other ingredients and recipes too.

Also, The True History of Chocolate is a relatively easy-to-read overview of how chocolate spread across the world.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 8:12 PM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Of the books linked by Ouisch, I've read Food in History by Tannahill, and would recommend it. It's a good read and covers a lot of ground.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:27 PM on March 6, 2013

On Food and Cooking by McGee is great, but is much more about the chemistry of cooking rather than the history.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 PM on March 6, 2013

The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice

Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination

Food: The History of Taste

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors

Not exactly food, but Patrick McGovern's books on the history of alcohol are all fascinating and a pleasure to read; he's an extremely serious archaeology/scientist with a very cool job who also consults with Dogfish Head.

Okay, it's more of an academic book, but I really like Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain!

Italian food is a bit of a challenge, because of course modern Italy only dates back to the 1860's and even now regional cuisine reigns supreme-- eggplants and spices to the south, chestnuts and wild boar, almonds from Sicily...If you want to go quite early, there's always Apicius; selected recipes here but there are a lot of translations and comments on many blogs. It's actually a very interesting way to see how spices and tastes were flowing, even during the Roman period. The Silver Spoon is sort of the modern go-to and it does address some aspects of regional cooking. Look out for butter vs. olive oil in traditional cookie recipes, for example.

I've heard good things about the BBC's The Supersizers and they also do fun historical food posts on their various blogs, like this one.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:30 PM on March 6, 2013

Sort of more of a tangent, but Science Daily often has interesting diet-related blurbs on new research, like this one on, essentially, early popcorn. They are brief write-ups of a specific research paper, so they're sometimes technical and sometimes on not-great research, but there's some really neat material to go through on the history of food!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:35 PM on March 6, 2013

How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip is another cookbook of early and medieval recipes from several different regions and cultures. It is also available as a free pdf from the author's web site.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:37 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Essential web resource: The Food Timeline.

Food history as a field is just getting going - it definitely isn't all written yet. Jump in.
posted by Miko at 9:04 PM on March 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding Reay Tannahill's Food in History. Excellent.
posted by trip and a half at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2013

My go-to for food history is the massive second edition of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food.
posted by hydatius at 4:46 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Uncommon Grounds is a book about "the history of coffee and how it transformed the world" I haven't read it yet, but it's on my reading list because other than salt, I can't think of another food that's had such an impact as coffee. Okay, maybe tea, I mean there's a reason they say not For All The Tea In China (also on my reading list). Or perhaps tobacco - technically not a food, but man, did it make history.

In the spirit of the aforementioned Salt, might I suggest Spice?
posted by patheral at 8:48 AM on March 7, 2013

Nthing suggestions for Mark Kurlansky's excellent food history books on salt, cod, and oysters.

There are several books that focus on the history of beverages (coffee, tea, beer, booze) and how they've influenced and been influenced by other parts of human history. I particularly like A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:18 PM on March 7, 2013

Indian Food: A Historical Companion for what (Sub-continental) Indian food was like pre-Columbian exchange.
posted by thaths at 2:25 PM on March 7, 2013

Pretty interesting PBS video "When Worlds Collide" about the effects -- on both sides of the pond -- of Europeans hitting the shores here, and there is of course a lot of talk of food that fell onto both sides, one from the other. Here is an interesting essay The Journey of New World Foods by Sharon M. Hannon, linked on the page of that PBS program, seems right up the alley of what you're seeking, and there is a short video excerpted from the whole show that aims right at food, too, maybe two minutes long.

I remember from a history class a hundred years ago that cheap, easy-to-grow carbs from the Americas -- potatoes, beans, corn -- facilitated a huge population boom in Europe, as poor people could much more easily grow enough to feed themselves and some kids. Anyways, potatoes, corn, beans were the goodies from this side to that, and cheap sugar, tobacco, and chocolate were the (supposed) bad guys dropped on their shores. That's US History1101 so like as not it's all bullshit except I do know that those carbs did come from here, and tobacco also, and cheap sugar, too -- no one could afford it, prior.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:31 PM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, dancestoblue, that essay is really good! A History of Food looks promising as well (but so big). It's going to take some time to go through the links but looks like it'll be a worthwhile pursuit. Do keep the answers coming though!
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:57 PM on March 7, 2013

You might check out Seeds of Change.
posted by gudrun at 7:23 PM on March 7, 2013

Lots of good suggestions in this thread, but if you just want one book, rather than a whole library, make it The Oxford Companion to Food.

To take your first three examples: the entry for 'Tomato' tells you when the tomato first arrived in Europe (and even gives you the earliest known recipe for tomato sauce, from an Italian cookbook of 1692); the entry for 'Coffee' tells you the whereabouts of the first European coffee-houses; and the entry for 'Culinary mythology' disposes of the myth about Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy. All this between one set of covers.
posted by verstegan at 2:51 PM on March 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't know how I missed this, but just heard it on the podcast. Medieval foods & foodways are my jam!

Gode Cookery
is a great medieval cooking/recipe website that has all kinds of information about Old World regional cuisines, and with lots of links to helpful pages.

Wikipedia's entry on medieval cuisine can be a good jumping off point too.

Totally second the books "Cod" and "Salt", as well as "Spice" and this fun, easy to digest (nyuk nyuk) book: "The History of the World in Six Glasses".

Heritage/Victorian/Medieval flavor profiles are trending really hot these days in cooking circles. Get ready to see more medieval inspiration on today's tables!
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 12:46 PM on April 1, 2013

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