(This is part 1 of 3 posts.)
‘Near a Thousand Tables’ is a very different book within the genre of food history than I’ve ever seen or read before. There may be books equal to (or similar to) it – my reading on food history is only a small part of the other sorts of reading I do so I may have missed something like it along the way. If so, I rue it. There should be more books like this.
Let me set my placement as ‘food history reader’ so my thoughts on this book can be weighed and measured knowing that stance:
* The first food history book I ever read (aside from grammar school lessons on turkeys and pumpkins et al) was Larousse Gastronomique. The volume was the 1971 edition. Though Larousse is not defined exactly as a ‘food-history’ book there exists within it a tremendous amount of food history nonetheless. The reading of it (in my mind at the time) was as preparation to be a chef – the idea of which was a vague stirring inside me. I read each entry from A to Z and loved it. In retrospect (in view of the marketplace for these sorts of things) it’s shame I didn’t read it now instead of then and try to sell a book based upon following the entries! But I can not read that thing from A to Z again.
* Masses of Gourmet Magazines, from the years anywhere between 1960 and 1990. The writers during those years of Gourmet often wrote of food history under the guise of merely writing of gourmet food. Somewhere around 1990 this sort of writing disappeared from Gourmet – swallowed below the wide swaths of surface food: how to cook and what to cook to be a gourmet cook par excellence, where to travel, what to buy for the kitchen. I can understand how this happened – the foodie revolution had begun and as a group-in-general foodies are interested in the ‘now’ of things: what’s hot and what’s not. The urge was for a fashion statement and Gourmet shifted its tone to suit the readers. I’m glad it did, and glad it survived. In recent years, Ruth Reichl has been gently and intelligently re-shaping the magazine to be more than just an ephemeral statement about acquisition and food fashion. Today Gourmet has morphed back from being a rainbow-colored gigantic lollipop wrapped in shiny cellophane with a nice big stick to hold tightly while waving around in the grip of a well-manicured hand, into something more than that. Thank goodness.
* Waverly Root – and how he has come under attack in later years! James Beard – who is not as well known for his writings as he is for the charitable Foundation created with his name whose Board often appears to be trying to figure out how to handle or mis-handle the fairly decent lashings of money they manage to gather. MFK Fisher – who writes of food history almost by default as she writes, as she does write to entertain and story-tell, to gather her audience close with their ears eagerly perked. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. Roy Andries de Groot, Evan Jones. The Settlement Cookbook. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Marion Cunningham. Patricia Bunning Stevens. Margaret Visser, Charles Perry, John Egerton, Sherrie Inness, Rachel Laudan, Clifford Wright, Paula Wolfert, Madeleine Pelner-Cosman. And so many more I can not remember at the moment. These readings come from this part of the globe and not other parts of the globe solely due to the fact that I can only read my native language (English) (as opposed to other languages) at a level that allows the understanding of any subliminal intonations in the text (or as many as a general reader might try to find, anyway). I dearly love the writings of all the above authors. And aside from love which is a fanciful thing, I respect them all immensely.
* Cambridge ‘World History of Food’ sits on my bookshelf, as do the Oxford ‘Companion to Food’ and Oxford ‘Food and Drink in America’. All great reference books, but I’m unsure how much I really ‘learn’ from them as I dread to pull them off the shelf for fear of falling asleep due to the generally dry academic writing styles and the length of the entries. I am not a true scholar, in this sense.
That’s where I’m coming from as a reader. Add the fact that I also have a strong aversion to reading things wherein the author appears to have pulled out a bunch of facts from somewhere and plopped them down like a lesson plan on to the page with little or no value added: no creative POV to take the thing to the next level – or alternately, if the author’s voice is not the sort that would independently charm me into not really caring if there were a next level added or not.
Having said all that, I am madly in love with ‘Near a Thousand Tables’.
In the next post I’ll tell you why – and tell you of my respect for the book too. Right now I’ve ranted on for so long that it is past time to go make breakfast – or be charged with Treason by my children. Treason by Reason of Blogging.
P.S. In my urge to rush off to feed these obviously-starving-to-death children I forgot to add a very important something (or rather someone) – Reay Tannahill. Her book ‘Food in History’ is my very favorite food history book in the world till now.