History buffs and foodies unite! This could have been the battle cry of Ian Crofton when writing his book A Curious History of Food and Drink (Quercus, 2013, $19.99). From prehistory to the 21st century, Crofton has chronologically arranged an assortment of anecdotal tidbits about the culinary world. With such a span of history, he intentionally does not delve into extensive details, but does provide an informative sequence of epicurean events, such as: the Aztec consumption of cacao drinks since 1400 BC, how French toast came to be in 1346, how omelettes were born in 1835 during a Spanish uprising, and how the flavours from descendants of those same prehistoric cacao beans were solidified into chocolate bars in 1847.
This is a reference book, not meant to have a unifying premise aside from putting a parade of food into historical perspective, with a few recurring themes peppered throughout. Facts about coffee are a common thread through time, from its mythical invention in Arabia in 850, to the most expensive coffee beans, which started becoming popular in 1850, that reportedly pass through the digestive tract of the civet, a cat-like mammal from tropical climates. In general, the book is a compendium of trivia, old wives’ tales, riddles, poems, and ancient recipes from a plethora of sources. The most interesting facts deal with how culinary traditions became popular, like in 1284 when tapas were introduced as small snacks between meals to absorb vast quantities of wine in Spanish stomachs, or how nutritional studies of spinach in 1870 became associated with Popeye comics in 1929.
Aside from the purely historical, Crofton does not shy away from revealing the most unusual food items imaginable. At some point in history and in some part of the world, all manner of creatures were considered for food: hippopotamus soup in 6000 BC; peacocks by Italian chefs in 1465; seagulls fattened with salted beef before slaughter circa 1550 in England; elephant feet in 1790 in Africa. Some of these foods were prepared not just for taste, however, but also prescribed for medicinal purposes, like roast bear to stall baldness, licorice to treat sore feet, and potatoes to cure warts.
The materials Crofton references are vast and diverse: the Bible, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Rolling Stone magazine, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the first English printed cookbook circa 1500 called A Noble Boke of Cokery. He has also dug up unusual research in books like The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations of 1885, and a book from 1611 called Coryate’s Crudities Hastily Gobbled up in Five Months’ Travels in France, Italy, etc. by Thomas Coryate, who is credited with introducing the fork to England after seeing it used in Italy. Crofton does acknowledge when he suspects that the origin story of a certain food might be a tall tale, like the potentially-fictitious invention of potato chips in a New York restaurant in 1853 after a guest complained about too-thick fries. But he also values a good story and does not exclude foodstuffs from his “research” even if they are historically unsound. He even pulls out nursery rhyme quotes, such as how “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” might have been true in the Middle Ages with live birds hidden under pie crusts (as a joke to surprise the guests, not for them to eat).
This is a fun and entertaining read to boost your foodie knowledge, especially if you are the type who feels the need to know things like when the tomato officially transformed from its classification as a vegetable to a fruit in 1893, or when umami was introduced as the fifth taste (in 1901). There are also truly historical tidbits about why Richard Nixon had a lifelong revulsion of string beans and how Thomas Jefferson came to own the first pasta-making machine in the United States in 1789 (several centuries after pasta first appeared in Italy in 1154). For history buffs, trivia enthusiasts, and curious foodies, this is a good way to fill the mental coffers with useful and useless knowledge. There is no need to read the book cover to cover, unless you are voracious about accumulating food wisdom; a quick scan of a few pages from time to time will surely provide enough random facts to satisfy the trivia itch (such as why holes were added to doughnuts in 1847 or what John Glenn ate for his first space meal in 1962).
Darin Cook is a freelance writer who lives and works in Chatham-Kent, but keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants in London.