Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste
by Tom Nealon
Overlook Press, 2017, 223 pages, Non-Fiction
In this eclectic book of food history, Tom Nealon takes on such overlooked themes as carp and the Crusades, brown sauce and Byron, and chilies and cannibalism, and suggests that hunger and taste are the twin forces that secretly defined the course of civilization. What and how people ate provoked culinary upheaval around the world as ingredients were traded and fought over, and populations desperately walked the line between satiety and starvation. Parallel to the history books, a second, more obscure history was also being recorded in the cookbooks of the time, which charted the evolution of meals and the transmission of ingredients around the world.
This book was such a fun and fascinating read! Nealon writes with a dry sense of humor, and I kept imagining this book being read aloud by Great British Bake-Off presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. The book is stuffed with interesting tidbits of information, but perhaps the best part is that it’s also stuffed with images from old cookbooks, advertisements, and even old manuscripts that depict people cooking. One of my favorites was an image titled “The brovvyllinge of their fishe ouer the flame” (The broiling of their fish over the flame).
This book doesn’t attempt to be a complete history of food, but if it has a weakness it’s that its main focus is on European (especially French) cooking. Africa is never mentioned, and Asia is mentioned only a few times in passing. A few chapters cover the Americas. Still, the stories told were very interesting. Those who enjoy non-fiction authors like Mary Roach, odd stories from history, random facts, and food should put this book on their To Be Read lists immediately.