Five obvious food facts

There's a kind of book that many antiquarian book dealers put in the category Social History simply for want of a better term. I'm thinking here of lineal descendants of such classic works as Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History (1935) or Self-Love, David Cole Gordon's study of masturbation (1968): ones that bring a whole book's worth of research and thought to bear on a subject that might at first seem so small, trivial or self-evident as to be unworthy of such overkill -- at least until one actually reads them. I don't know quite why, but in recent times most of these seem to have been published by university presses. Random examples include Hotel: An American History by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz (Yale University Press, US$27.50) and Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland (University of California Press, US$24.95). Then come the similar books that, while undertaken on much the same terms, are likely to be more substantive only because the topics, though just as narrowly focused perhaps, are plainly a great deal meatier as well. Stephen Miller's The Peculiar Life of Sunday (Yale, US$27.95), a thoughtful survey of changing fashions in how the Christian Sabbath is observed, may be a perfect instance. I anticipate the same sort of breadth of reference from Civility: A Cultural History by Benet Davetian (University of Toronto Press, $39.95).

What seems to me a new twist on the above type of publishing is the number of books about food and drink that operate on the same premise. Bacon, A Love Story: A Salty Survey of Everybody's Favorite Meat by Heather Lauer, "a lifelong bacon enthusiast and the creator of the popular Web site BaconUnwrapped.com," is more serious than the title page suggests. Being published by a commercial press (HarperCollins Canada, $22.99) rather than a scholarly one, it is also the exception that proves the rule, for the trend is very much towards, for example, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent by John Reader (Yale, US$28) and Squeezed: What You Don't Know about Orange Juice (Yale, US$30).

The most outstanding new book that falls within the boundaries of the trend I'm describing is Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones by Gary Y. Okihiro (University of California Press, US$24.95). Outstanding but odd. It is actually the second part of a proposed trilogy whose first volume was entitled Island World: A History of Hawai'i and the United States, and it is a straightforward high-octane condemnation of European colonialism, global capitalism and other political pandemics of western origin. What makes it odd is Okihiro's prose. The effects of his tin ear are all the more jarring in a book from the University of California Press whose editorial aims are generally of the highest design even in the extensive list of strictly academic titles they publish alongside their general-interest ones.

His style isn't particularly dense but only awkward, as when he writes: "The romance of pineapples blossomed from a passion for a fruit with character, with attributes that distinguished it from other exotic, tropical fruits and objects of desire. That hankering, of course, was a human creation, which imputed natures to the plant and fruit, at first for Europeans as a rare and tasty reward of status and empire and, more recently, as a convenient and healthy product of industry and modernity." That makes 11 prepositional phrases in a row. He summarises: "Human hands even shaped the fruit's so-called innate, native qualities." To this diction he often adds some slightly anachronistic turns of phrase. When he writes of "Leading African Americans, including the oft-contending W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington..." he means that Du Bois and Washington were rivals. But none of this detracts from the work's interest (a secondary interest, admittedly) as a food book.

Those of us who remember the Cold War recall the accusations of evil levelled against the United Fruit Company, based in New Orleans, which spared few extremes in protecting its virtual monopoly on bananas from Central America. The corporation was often implicated in the American government's more cockamamie Latin America policies, including, of course, those related to Cuba. Some researchers have suspected its presence in the plot to kill John F. Kennedy. To soften its image, United Fruit changed its name to United Brands in 1970 and then -- in a PR master stroke -- to Chiquita Brands in 1984, complete with the cute logo of Chiquita herself, a sort of Latina version of Aunt Jemima.

Okihiro deals with the company because it was also deeply involved in the pineapple trade in South America, where the fruit is thought to have originated (but had already spread quite far north when Christopher Columbus was introduced to it). As Okihiro puts it: "Europeans took the pineapple -- like their trans-Atlantic traffic of America's peoples -- on board their ships as plunder and a prize of empire. Only royalty managed to taste the rare tropical fruit, other than sailors who probably depended upon it (it lasted several weeks before rotting) to ward off scurvy..." But he is more concerned with the Dole fruit interests, as they centre on Hawaii.

Beneath all its rhetoric, Pineapple Culture is a beautifully researched and painstakingly illustrated culinary, social and economic history of the fruit that was long used to symbolise welcome (as with the pineapple motifs commonly found on old cast-iron fences, front doors and newel posts) but is now, in the author's view, an emblem of neo-colonialism instead. At the heart of his book is the idea that the pineapple lobby in the U.S. played a key role in the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani and the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 and in creation of the U.S. Territory of Hawaii five years later and, moreover, that these events were merely symbols of a larger evil. To quote Okihiro once again: "Tropical products, including sugar and fruits, were systematically planted in the tropics and harvested and conveyed to the temperate zone, along with Indian and later African and Asian specimens and workers, in the course of empire. Unintended but nonetheless isolated and conquered, like their native carriers, were the diseases and infirmities of the tropics that invaded ill-suited white bodies in the field and in the homeland."

As for other observations one might make about recent and forthcoming books on food and drink, well, they come from trends within the subjects themselves. Here are some examples.

Obvious fact #1: People still buy the type of old-fashioned cookbook that is valued as a repository of recipes and general instruction. Anytime such a book is, by some process of silent consensus, accepted as a standard, as seems to happen once or twice every generation, it can go on selling almost forever and thus make a fortune. The Joy of Cooking, which first appeared in 1931, has been in print uninterruptedly since 1936 and is still financially vigorous. So too Prosper Montagné's Larousse Gastronomique (1938) and its illegitimate daughter, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1963). Publishers live in hope of stumbling on another such one. Hence the cover of the brand-new paperback of The Vegetable Bible by Sophie Grigson (HarperCollins Canada, $35.95) touts it as "the classic cookbook every kitchen must have." The fact that such a claim is made for a book that doesn't concern itself with animal products hints at obvious fact #2.

Obvious fact #2: People in the west are trying to embrace a healthier diet. If the change saves money or does less damage to the environment, so much the better. This explains such books as, for example, Eat Cheap But Eat Well (Wiley, $22.95) by an African American television chef, Charles Mattocks, in collaboration with Mary Hunt. It also accounts for such works as Jackie Newgent's Big Green Cookbook (Wiley, $29.95 -- "hundreds of planet-pleasing recipes & tips"). These same impulses can be expressed at many different levels. There is advocacy journalism such as Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee (Princeton University Press, US$26.95) by Bee Wilson, a British food writer whose forename is memorable as her previous book was The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us. Higher up the publishing food-chain (forgive me please) can come a work such as Fresh: A Perishable History by Susanne Friedberg (Harvard University Press, US$27.95), a study of how marketing as well as refrigeration have changed our assumptions about what we eat. Such lines of enquiry can also lead to a philosophical work as important as Sins of the Flesh: A History of Ethical Vegetarian Thought by Rod Preece (UBC Press, $29.95). Even a straightforward ready reference such as The Atlas of Food: Who Eats What, Where, and Why (Erik Millstone and Tim Lang -- University of California Press, US$19.95) shows how, now more so than ever, all food is politics taken internally.

Obvious fact #3 is tension between two abstractions -- the Neighbourhood and the Outside World -- as seen from the vantage point of the dining room table. Locavores are the new pioneers, going backward in time rather than forward in order to counteract the present. An excellent book arising from this phenomenon -- excellent in every way -- is Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California (University of California Press, US$24.95). The author, Jonah Raskin, is a first-rate social historian whose work has centred on how various figures of the American left, from Jack London to Abbie Hoffman, have been shaped by the political cultures they grew up opposing. The new book is part memoir and part reportage dealing with organic farming (and consumption) in northern California. The words are thoughtful and the prose spot on.

If there were any justice in publishing, which there isn't, this story of a year in Sonoma would become as popular as "a year in Provence" was several seasons back. Yet such localism comes at a time of ever-increasing interest in other cuisines, which is to say other cultures as well (for how many of us had a hankering to know more about Thailand, for instance, until Thai food became a western staple in the 1980s?). Books such as The Brazilian Table by Yara Castro Roberts and Richard Roberts (Raincoast, $40) -- a typical expression of the desire to reach out to other cultures by means of the fork -- come in many more varieties than was the case even a few years ago. I've not yet seen a copy of it but am intrigued by what we might hope and expect to be only the fleeting novelty of The Settler's Cookbook: An Immigrant's Memoir of Food and Fusion (Anansi, $29.95). The author is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a British writer on human rights and multiculturalism issues, whose family came to the U.K. from Central Africa amid the terrible violence directed at people of Indian ancestry.

Obvious fact #4: The culinary war between the French and everyone else drags on. According to Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the Death of France by Michael Steinberger (Doubleday Canada, $32.95), the French are losing, big time. Yet they will gain a bit from Nora Ephron's film Julie & Julia, which appears more or less simultaneously with a new paperback of Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child (Wiley, $17.99) by Nancy Verde Barr, Child's long-time assistant and comprador. Barr recalls how, from Child's very first television show in 1963, "even viewers who would never make friends with their stoves tuned in religiously to catch the antics of this Lucille Ball-like character with her rolling pin." For Child was indeed a caution. "I laughed out loud," Barr writes, "when the long, slim baguette of French bread she planned to slice for onion soup slumped lazily in the middle when she held it up, so she declared it pathetically lacking in character and flung it over her shoulder." It's well to remember how widespread the fascination with French cuisine was a generation ago, playing a large role in the imaginations of even those cooks and food writers not primarily associated with it. This was the case for example with M.F.K. Fisher (whose most recent posthumous book is M.F.K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens, edited by her biographer Joan Reardon-University of California Press, US$24.95).

In somewhat the same way that philatelists, long after the British Empire had passed, continued to classify stamps as "British" and "Foreign" because it was too complicated to start over with a new system, so is much western gastronomy, especially of the more scholarly sort, still struggling on with the French. Cooking, The Quintessential Art by Hervé This, a chemist, and Pierre Gagnaire, a restaurateur, began life as a French-language work but reappears now in an English translation by M.B. DeBevoise (University of California Press, US$27.50). Similarly, Anthea Bell's English translation of Histoire naturelle et morale de la nourriture by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat has been updated and expanded as A History of Food (Wiley, $37.95). The adversarial nature of many people's relationship to French cuisine will probably be underscored (I haven't seen the book yet) in Knives at Dawn: American's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or by Andrew Friedman (Simon & Schuster Canada, $34).

The fifth and final obvious fact is that both the snobbery and the understanding that attach to French wine are probably greater than that which attach to French food or, if not greater, certainly different in fundamental ways. There is evidently a perennial market for books such as WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine by Steven Koplan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss (Wiley, $32.95). Wine also evokes a kind of scholarship that is calmer, more congenial and less contentious than much of that which is associated with food. A finely edited example is Pioneering American Wine: Writings of Nicholas Herbemont, Master Viticulturist (University of Georgia Press, US$29.95). Herbemont (1771-1839) was one of the American pioneers in the field. Soon I hope to see the forthcoming paperback reprints of two books by the wine writer George M. Taber: In Search of Bacchus and To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle, both from Simon & Schuster Canada at $16 each.--George Fetherling

George Fetherling's novel Walt Whitman's Secret will be published early next year (Random House Canada).

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