Bestselling food historian Kurlansky (Salt, 2002, etc.) collects writing from two millennia that describes with wit and zest cooks, cooking, and cuisines.
Dividing the book into such sections as “Memorable Meals,” and “Their Just Desserts,” Kurlansky relies on a range of authors from Martial to Orwell. In his introduction, he suggests that writing about food has always been as much about culture, philosophy, and natural history, a way for writers to approach “the fundamental subjects of the human condition.” Many of the selections in this comprehensive collection support his point. Celebrating the delights of mint sauce, new potatoes, brown bread, and marmalade, George Orwell characteristically adds that they are all splendid, if you can pay for them. Plutarch, profiling the great gourmand Lucullus, details how this once famous statesman and general in his declining years spent his days (and money) on ostentatiously extravagant feasts. Selections from familiar food writers like M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and James Beard cover topics as varied as bachelor cooking, hot chocolate, and the garlic press, which David asserts is both ridiculous and pathetic. More unexpected are the extracts from Thoreau on cranberries and watermelon, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on okra and Hush Puppies, and Hemingway on fishing in the Seine. Early cookbook authors like Hannah Glass, Fanny Farmer, and Mrs. Beeton are frequently cited on apple pies, endives, and potatoes; commentators from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries add their observations on salt-making (Aobo Tu), olive oil (Platina), and spinach (Giacomo Castelvetro). There are essays on truffles, the preparing of a royal feast (at least 6,000 eggs for each day of the feast), and the best chocolate (found in France according to Brillat-Savarin). Extracts describing the ordinary (bread and scrambled eggs) as well as the exotic (bird nest soup and stuffed dormice) complement more generalized writing on national tastes or the politics and meaning of food.
An exhaustive and lively assemblage, best for snacking rather than gorging.