History Channel and A&E Networks chief historian O’Connell uses food to chronicle the history of the United States.
Each of the 10 chapters contains a variety of bites (or sips, in the case of bourbon, the mint julep, coffee and tea) focusing on a food or food trend, such as commercial canning, freezing, the invention of condensed milk and the 1950s phenomenon of TV dinners. The author’s enthusiasm for her subject results in frequent exclamations: “Yes, takeout food is not the modern convenience you thought it was!” she writes after disclosing that pea soup was sold by street vendors in ancient Athens. “Would the Real Pepper Please Stand Up!” is the title of a sidebar about Christopher Columbus’ search for black pepper. Along with history, O’Connell offers recipes for such delights as Colonial Syllabub (major ingredient: white wine or sherry), Brunswick Stew (squirrel can be substituted by rabbit; “If you are using squirrel,” writes the author, “do not include the brains”), Old Eel Pie and Scrapple. Like many miniencyclopedias, this one is studded with often intriguing facts: Roast beaver tail (“News flash! Today, Americans no longer consider beavertail a desirable food!”) was a delicacy in Colonial America due to its high fat content; for fur trappers, it could be “the ideal supper.” In the 1500s, Londoners called a certain big bird “turkey” because they thought it first had been imported from that country. Eleanor Roosevelt, not a cook, nevertheless could make creditable scrambled eggs. When a Raytheon scientist demonstrated microwave power by popping corn, the “puffed kernels flew around his laboratory during his trial presentation.” The author also shares her own food preferences: frozen tiny baby peas; an oyster dressing of chili sauce, horseradish and fresh lemon juice; crème caramel, which she served to a handsome visitor to her family’s house—and whom she married.
O’Connell is a perky companion for this buffet of historical snacks.