Book Review: Food history of America

O’Connell, Libby The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (2014) Kindle Edition

I wanted to like this book. And it started out entertaining and somewhat educational. It is a collection of short essays on food-based themes, from Native American crops to the rise of fast food to the trials and tribulations of alcohol consumption in the United States. Mrs. O’Connell writes well, in a modern, breezy tone well suited to American Studies or to short pieces of text for a museum display or TV program.

As I read, especially once the book got into the mid to late 19th century, I had more and more difficulties, and I was not certain why. Something about the tone kept throwing me out of the book, which is a major problem for an essay collection. It was not until I got near the end that I realized what had happened. I read the book expecting it to be recipes and foodways with some history. That is how it begins. But the second half of the work is a popular US history told with food, using eating and manufacturing trends as a lens to view culture and politics. The other difficulty lay in the author’s injection of her understanding of history into the topic. Again, since I was reading this as a cookbook and food history that happened to take place in North America, the author’s commentary threw me out of what I was expecting and took away from the book.

It is a fun read, at least the first half, and has some interesting tidbits and trivia. The recipes look workable, although I have not tried to make any of them yet. If you are looking for a light read that puts food into historical context, than this may be exactly what you are interested in. Since I was reading it backwards, as food-in-history rather than history-with-food, the author’s commentary might prove useful.  Mrs. O’Connell’s interpretation grates a little in the final chapters, because she repeats what I have read in more detailed monographs and other histories. We all know that processed foods are the tools of the devil, that fake cheese is fake, and that Europeans were the worst thing that could have happened to North America since the last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted (OK, I exaggerate a little on that last bit). The author errs on the side of the currently accepted historical narrative at the expense of some fairly important historical information. Does it affect her argument? Not really, but again, what I read the book for and what she served did not mesh.

The American Plate is an easy introduction to the food history of the US, especially the chapters covering the time before 1900. I’d recommend the Smithsonian’s American Foodways series, heritage cookbooks, and regional food histories and ethnographies for people truly interested in the history of how Americans ate and how our diets changed for the better (or worse) over time.

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