Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Fresh (and Palatable) Perspective

An old Spanish proverb states, "The belly rules the mind." If this is true, much of history could be said to have been influenced by peoples' palates as well as by anything else. Examining history through the lens of food and drink is a fun and delicious way of approaching standard events and cultures through a new perspective.

One of the best examples is the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Scott Brick). While we take salt for granted, it was not always as ubiquitous as it is today. The quest for it has shaped civilization and felled empires. The almost 10,000 year-old city of Jericho was established as a salt trading center, and soldiers of the Roman Empire were paid in portions of salt for their services (hence our current word "salary"). It was a major contributing factor in the French Revolution and the focal point in a critical moment in Gandhi's protest against British rule. This all goes to show that not everyone has good taste, but everyone likes their food to taste good.

A world history not your cup of meat? You can pour yourself a refreshment of American history with Charles Cowdery's book Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Purely an American creation, bourbon whiskey's origins in 18th century Bourbon County, Kentucky to its modern-day domination of American spirits exports is truly a tale of American culture, entrepreneurship, and refreshment. Cowdery is a local author, but is a giant in this particular field. His writing style is direct yet witty, see also: "fun to read".

Not doing it for you? Something else on the tip of your tongue? Maybe it's Tabasco sauce, in which case McIlhenny's Gold: How a Louisiana Family Built the Tabasco Empire by Jeffrey Rothfeder might do the trick. It is an account arcing from Edward McIlhenny planting pepper plants on a swath of swampy ground in Louisiana in the 1860's to an examination of the slow decay that has fallen over the still family-owned company after its zenith a few decades ago. Rothfeder's stalwart objectivity allows the flavor to be brought out not only of the trademark sauce itself, but of the story behind it as well.

Moving to foreign shores, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause by Tim Gjelten is a stirring account of the rich history of Cuba seen through the eyes of the Bacardi family. Facundo Bacardi was the first Cuban to distill a refined native rum in the first half of the 19th century. His son, Emilio Bacardi, was a rugged opponent of the Spanish government that ruled Cuba at the time and used the successful spirit company as a front from which he operated his clandestine revolutionary activities. When Fidel Castro nationalized Cuban business a hundred years later, the Bacardi corporation moved to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, where it still combated Castro from afar.

Good food and drink are often closely associated with action and change. Because of this, it's easy to see that people are passionate about their nourishment and refreshment. It serves to reinforce one of my own beliefs: behind every good dish, there is a good story.


Fiona Dinwiddie said...

Dear Mr. Joel:

Why do you people always write about food? (This is the 3 1/2 blog post this year with a food theme.) What is the commonality between food and reading?

Other than that, I thought your post was brilliantly written AND you dropped the name "Facundo Bacardi". It simply does not get better than that.

Linda k. said...

Why do people write about food? Why do people read about food? Food and reading? It just all seems to go together, doesn't it? Some of the most popular mysteries in our collection have to do with food, cooks, caterers, chocolate and wineries. Harlan Coben even mentions his character's love for Yoohoo, that yucky sweet chocolate soda that I used to drink as a kid. Joanne Fluke writes a series of cookie jar mysteries with enticing titles such as Key Lime Pie Murder, Peach Cobbler Murder, Fudge Cupcake Murder and so on. And for the wine fans out there Michele Scott and Ellen Crosby both write mysteries with chardonnay, merlot, and riesling in the titles. So prop up that book, pour that glass of whatever, munch those goodies and enjoy! (Just don't smudge any chocolate on the pages.)

Karen McBride said...

Strangely enough, I enjoy reading about food far more than I do eating it...I think that says more about me and my problems than it does about food and food writing. Some of my fave food writers are Jeffrey Steingarten and Anthony Bourdain, people who bring strong personalities and heaping doses of humor to vivid tales of zig-zagging around the globe, looking for their next greatest meal. Great post, Joel, the salt book has me intrigued!

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