On a recent visit with family, I had a conversation with one of my nephews. He is currently in culinary school and also working at a restaurant. The obvious joy on his face when he talked about cooking and life made this auntie feel very proud that he found, and is further pursuing, his passion. He talked about his plans, when he’s finished with school, to travel to other countries to learn about their cultures and food. And being who I am, I immediately thought of a book I could recommend to him.
A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment by Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell (NY: The New Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-62097-251-9) is a book I’ve recommended to people before. It provides a look at French history, from the 1st Century B.C. through the present, as it relates to the food for which the French are famous. The authors do a great job of making history interesting and even humorous.
Another book I read more recently is Craving London: Confessions of an Incurable Romantic with an Insatiable Appetite by Jessica Stone (Ripe Press, 2020. ISBN 978-1735110202). This book is as much a romantic memoir as it is about culture and cooking, and I found it to be absolutely charming. Stone discusses her Cuban heritage and what it was like to retrain her heart, mind and palate from an American to and English perspective. This book takes you on a great adventure in love and in food.
Food Fights & Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste is by Tom Nealon (NY: Overlook Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4683-1441-0) takes a look at how food affects society, and vice versa. Nealon covers such topics as whether lemonade helped to spare Parisiennes from the plague in the 1600s; cannibalism; and the evolution of the dinner party. My favorite chapter is Chapter 7: Cacao & Conflict. I love the illustrations in this book, most of which are images the author collected from The British Library.
Cacao and six other ingredients are featured in the book The Seven Culinary Wonders of the World: A History of Honey, Salt, Chile, Pork, Rice, Cacao, ad Tomato by Jenny Linford (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5883-4642-1). The book combines various cultural histories and legends with recipes from around the world.
Mina Holland is the author of The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 recipes, and the Stories Behind Them (NY: Penguin Books, 2014. ISBN 9780143127659). In her introduction, Holland says, “Whenever I go abroad my focus is on finding the food most typical of wherever I am, and the best examples of it. Food typifies everything that is different about another culture and gives the most authentic insight into how people live. Everyone has to eat, and food is a common language.” In addition to the information Holland gives on the areas she traveled to, she provides a pantry list of items commonly stocked by those living in that region use; recipes; and a handy further reading guide in the back of the book.
If you want to get your children interested in this topic, be sure to share with them A Taste of the World: What People Eat and How They Celebrate Around the Globe by Beth Walrond (Berlin: Little Gestalten, 2019. ISBN 9783899558180). I love Walrond’s quote, “Food is all about sharing. It brings people together.” Richly illustrated, this book discusses different cultures, foods, and festivals.
No article about food and culture would be complete without mentioning books by Anthony Bourdain. His latest, published posthumously, was co-written with Laurie Woolever, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (NY: Harper Collins, 2021. ISBN 978-0-06-280279-8). You may also find one of Bourdain’s earlier books of interest, such as No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach (NY: Bloomsbury, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59691-4476).
Further reading suggestions:
In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz (NY: Viking, 2014. ISBN 978-0-670-02561-9). Fromartz discusses his four-year journey across the United States and Europe and his meetings with bakers, farmers and miller in an attempt to combat the industrialization of bread making.
Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture by Matt Goulding (NY: Harper Collins, 2015. ISBN 978-0-06-239403-3) discusses and illustrates food and culture in seven regions in Japan.
I hope you’ve seen something here that will inspire your own adventure into food and culture!