11 Books On The History Of Food That Will Make You Think More About What's On Your Plate

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We think more about our diets and the food we eat than ever before. Whether you have concerns about nutrition, animal welfare, the environment or simply staying physically healthy, what we put into our bodies has become a huge and important conversation surrounding many different ideologies and lifestyles. But chances are you probably haven't thought very much about the individual foods you've put on your plate past their nutritional value or caloric intake. It is surprising to learn the complex histories of the cuisines like Chinese, pantry staples like white bread and even spices, like, salt that we all use in our cooking on a daily basis.

Whether we're talking about ubiquitous Southern meals, the lasting effects of the 1950s dinner on today's American food culture, or just the worldly journeys of items as simple as knives and forks, all of the 11 books below delve into the interesting specifics about some of the meals we all consume on a regular basis, often without a second thought. If you've ever wanted to learn more about what you eat, you need to add some of these fascinating reads to your TBR. They might even make you change the way you put your plate together every day.

'The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals' by Michael Pollan

Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man first discovered fire. But, as Michael Pollan explains in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore' s Dilemma wants to change the way Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.

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'Salt: A World History' by Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a kitchen item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Salt by Mark Kurlansky is an entertaining, multi-layered look at the most common kitchen spice.

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'High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America' by Jessica B. Harris

In High on the Hog, acclaimed cookbook author Jessica B. Harris takes the reader on a harrowing journey from Africa across the Atlantic to America, tracking the trials that the people and the food have undergone along the way. From chitlins and ham hocks to fried chicken and vegan soul, Harris celebrates the delicious and restorative foods of the African American experience and details how each came to form such an important part of African American culture, history, and identity.

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'At Home On The Range' by Margaret Yardley Potter

While unpacking boxes of old family books, author Elizabeth Gilbert rediscovered a dusty, yellowed hardcover called At Home on the Range, originally written by her great-grandmother, Margaret Yardley Potter. Gilbert dug in with some curiosity, and soon found that she had stumbled upon a book far ahead of its time. Part scholar and part crusader for a more open food conversation, Potter espoused the importance of farmer’s markets and ethnic food (Italian, Jewish, and German), derided preservatives and culinary shortcuts, and generally celebrated a devotion to epicurean adventures. An interesting look at the burgeoning food movements in 1947.

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'Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner In 1950s America' by Laura Shapiro

In this blend of culinary history and popular culture, Laura Shapiro shows us what happened when the food industry elbowed its way into the kitchen after World War II, brandishing canned hamburgers and instant piecrusts. Big Business waged an all-out campaign to win the allegiance of American housewives, but most women were suspicious of the new foods and the make-believe cooking they entailed. Something From The Oven shows how the ensuing battle helped shape the way we eat today, and how the clash in the kitchen reverberated elsewhere in the house as women struggled with marriage, work, and domesticity.

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'Milk: The Surprising Story Of Milk Through The Ages' by Anne Mendelson

Part cookbook, part culinary history, part inquiry into the evolution of an industry, Milk is a one-of-a-kind book that will change the way we think about dairy products. Anne Mendelson then takes us on a journey through the lands that traditionally only consumed milk fresh from the cow; shows us how milk reached such prominence in our diet in the 19th century that it led to the current practice of overbreeding cows and overprocessing dairy products; and her explanation of the chemical intricacies of milk even delves into how milk should really taste.

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'The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures In The World of Chinese Food' by Jennifer 8. Lee

There are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. Here, reporter and Chinese-American Jennifer 8. Lee traces the history of the Chinese-American experience through the lens of food. In a blend of sociology and history, Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped our country.

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'White Bread: A Social History Of The Store-Bought Loaf' by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

In the early 20th century, factory-baked bread heralded a bright new future. Fortified with vitamins, this bread was considered the original “superfood”—while food reformers painted white bread as a symbol of what was wrong with America. The history of America’s 100 year long love-hate relationship with white bread reveals much about our contemporary efforts to change our eating. Today, many favor foods deemed ethical and environmentally correct... and industrial loaves are about as far as you can get. With disdain for “unhealthy” eaters continuing to grow, White Bread is a timely examination of how we talk about food.

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'Consider The Fork: A History Of How We Cook And Eat' by Bee Wilson

In Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson provides a tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects. Knives predate the discovery of fire, whereas the fork endured centuries of ridicule before gaining widespread acceptance. Pots and pans have been around for millennia, while plates are a relatively recent invention. Many once-new technologies have become essential elements of any well-stocked kitchen, while others have proved only passing fancies Blending history, science, and anthropology, Wilson reveals how our culinary tools came to be, and how their influence shaped modern food culture.

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'Candy: A Century Of Panic And Pleasure' by Samira Kawash

For most Americans, candy is an uneasy pleasure, eaten with side helpings of guilt and worry. Yet candy accounts for only six percent of the added sugar in the American diet. So why is candy considered especially harmful, when it's not so different from the other processed foods that line supermarket shelves?  And how did candy come to be the scapegoat for our fears about the dangers of food? In Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, Samira Kawash tells the fascinating story of how candy evolved from a luxury good to a cheap, everyday snack.

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'The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks' by Amy Stewart

Every great drink starts with a plant. Sake began with a grain of rice. Scotch emerged from barley. Gin was born from a conifer shrub when a Dutch physician added oil of juniper to a clear spirit, believing that juniper berries would cure kidney disorders. "The Drunken Botanist" uncovers the enlightening botanical history and the fascinating science and chemistry of over 150 plants, flowers, trees, and fruits. Some of the most extraordinary and obscure plants have been fermented and distilled, and they each represent a unique cultural contribution to our global drinking traditions and our history.

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