On the Menu: a delicious three-course meal through the history of foods we eat, drink and read about.
1 Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoréde Balzac , by Anka Muhlstein, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (Other Press, $19.95). Like any good Frenchman, Honoréde Balzac loved his food. But it was a yoyo-like relationship. While writing a novel, he adhered to an ascetic diet permitting little: some fruit, maybe an egg, an occasional chicken leg. But after correcting the proofs of a book, he would wolf down meals so Herculean they will roil your stomach. Food also appeared in abundance in his books. Muhlstein uses Balzac as a guide to the French culinary scene of the 19th century in a literary analysis that is original, delectable and entirely readable.
2 How Carrots Won The Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables , by Rebecca Rupp (Storey; paperback, $14.95). Catherine of Aragon is best known as the divorced first wife of Henry VIII, but the old queen’s other claim to fame is that she popularized the cucumber in England by having it put in her salads. By the reign of Elizabeth I, gardens on the island sprouted five varieties. Among many other vegetables, Rebecca Rupp also considers celery. Romans loved it, but the stalks declined with the empire, and celery was largely uneaten again until the 1600s. Though one British botanist called its taste “evil,” Casanova thought it improved his mojo. Vegetables as a history lesson? Why, pass the plate around for seconds.
3 Milk: A Local and Global History, by Deborah Valenze (Yale Univ., $28). Short of water and scotch, is there a drink more important to civilization than milk? But of all the animal milks available, why did humans settle on the docile bovine’s? Centuries ago, quantity mattered more than savory excellence, and cows could produce gallons of the stuff. Its inoffensively bland taste helped as well. Valenze takes us through a fascinating story of milk’s impact on culture, maternity and agriculture and how humans harnessed it to meet their dietary needs.
—Timothy R. Smith