An encyclopedic ingredient-by-ingredient guide to what we eat, and why.
When asked about his most memorable meal, McNamee recalls a feast he enjoyed on a trip to Italy. While satisfying to most of the senses, what truly distinguished the food for him was the freshness of the ingredients, which led him to think more critically about everything that goes into what humans eats. Of all the cultivatable ingredients, why have we chosen certain of them and rejected others? McNamee evaluates 30 of the most important ingredients, organized alphabetically, from almonds to wheat. He looks at their scientific makeup and nutritional value, as well as their social and culinary history and cultural relevance. Carrots, for example, are important in part because of their high levels of beta-carotene, a fact established by first-century doctor Pedanius Dioscorides. Watermelons, first reported on in the West by explorer David Livingston, were appealing in their native desert climates because of their high water content and vitamins K and C. And garlic, considered a repellent for vampires and many humans alike, according to the Roman poet Horace, has been used as an antiseptic, antifungal and antibiotic agent. Each entry includes several recipes, culled from a variety of contemporary and historical sources. The author’s research is exhaustive, his pages packed with fascinating detail, and he does an excellent job of marrying the historical and scientific sides of each ingredient. With only 30 entries, though, it isn’t comprehensive enough to compete with other food encyclopedias, which truly curious foodies might turn to first.
Well-executed, if small in scope.