British food writer/editor Sitwell explores shifting tastes and styles in cooking through individual dishes.
The author begins in the second millennia B.C. with a bread recipe, including an ancient Egyptian wall painting to illustrate the methods involved. The early recipes are quite vague; Sitwell notes that well into the 19th century, with fine cuisine limited to aristocratic mansions, published cookbooks were generally expositions of food philosophy by male chefs who “wouldn’t want [their] rivals to get hold of [their] kitchen secrets.” Cooking times began to appear during the Renaissance, and it was the influential Victorian manual for anxious wives Beeton’s Book of Household Management that popularized the practice of listing the ingredients separately from instructions. Mrs. Beeton’s roly-poly jam pudding (1861) joins a cavalcade of quintessentially British items, including “peas soope” (1669), but Sitwell gives ample space to such revered Frenchmen as Brillat-Savarin (stuffed roast pheasant, 1825) and Escoffier (peach Melba, 1903). No-nonsense Americans like Fannie Farmer (strawberry shortcake, 1896) and The Joy of Cooking’s Irma Rombauer (quick oatmeal cookies, 1931) also get their due, though Sitwell is dubious about modern shortcuts like microwaves and bagged salads. Virtually all the big names of the late-20th-century food revolution are here, from Alice Waters (plum tart, 1971) to Ferran Adrià (an extremely elaborate brioche with rose-scented mozzarella, 2008), as well as such mass-market stalwarts of the Food Network as Emeril Lagasse (pecan waffles, 1998) and Nigella Lawson (fairy cakes, 2000). Sitwell deftly inserts interesting tidbits ranging from the changes wrought by such appliances as refrigerators and gas stoves to the impact of online technology. Indeed, the recipes are basically an excuse for the history, which is fine when the history is this engaging.
Good fun, though best taken in small bites; the chatty tone can be cloying in large amounts.