Book Review: Bonnie Benwick on the Edible Series

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Knowing the provenance of your food is all the rage these days. Locavores eat only what is grown and produced close to home. Manufacturers tout their fair-trade-certified ingredients (so eco-friendly!), and chefs generate favorable buzz by serving sustainable, trackable seafood. It seems reasonable, then, that tracing cheese to Egyptian jars circa 3100 B.C. would help sate our collective hunger for information. And while we're at it, what about understanding the spread of curry to the Caribbean or the supposed link between chocolate and romance?

The Edible Series of food histories (Reaktion, $15.95 each) has cooked up a plan to answer such questions. Nine of its elegant little volumes have been published thus far and at least 20 more are planned, with a curiously alphabetical approach: "Pancake," "Pie" and "Pizza" are out and about. "Cheese," "Chocolate" and "Curry" are on this season's menu. I was happy to dig into all three C's.

"Chocolate: A Global History," by Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch, is bittersweet reading at best. Its chronology from cocoa beans in ancient Central America to the male-oriented chocolate houses of 17th-century England is as dense and dry as a bar of 100-percent cocoa. Few readers will be able to connect the authors' dots between the chocolate drunk by powerful men in London, the racial overtones of "whitening" chocolate with milk in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the modern marketing of chocolate to women as a feminine pleasure. More illuminating than the book's 60 illustrations and images is its short collection of historic recipes.

Colleen Taylor Sen takes a strictly geographical approach to "Curry: A Global History." Her definition of the dish is broad: hot sambals of Indonesia, South African bobotie, Australian concoctions of curried mutton and rice, and Goan-Portuguese vindaloo, to name a few. Her penultimate chapter ends with entertaining descriptions of Japan's curry obsession. Schoolchildren there have voted it their favorite lunch food, and Japanese curry chains have been exported to the United States. It's fair to come away from this skimmable treatise with the notion that curry is globally beloved because it's cheap to prepare and, in the case of Indian curries, imbued with antibacterial properties. The book's relatively extensive collection of recipes includes goat, turkey, chicken, beef, fish and vegetarian curries, both old and new. (Note to the Edible Series graphics director: "Stink lines" hovering above a bowl of noodles sauced with curry, as seen on the cover and repeated inside, are not so appetizing.)

In "Cheese: A Global History," Andrew Dalby travels easily from the sheep's- and goat's-milk cheeses of "The Odyssey" to the white Wensleydale preferred by Wallace and Gromit -- and that's just along the literary and fictional trails. Dalby also identifies the rightful place of cheese in different cultures. A French idiom uses the word as a metaphor for excess: en faire tout un fromage (to make a whole cheese of it). The physical blessings of a comely Sicilian woman are described as culu-ri-tumma (with a backside as shapely as a cheese).

Perhaps cheese is an inherently interesting topic because of the myriad ways it is made and the many forms it takes. Even my food-savvy pals didn't know much about Sardinian Casu Marzu, a cheese fermented with maggots -- and eaten with them. Turns out, Daniel Defoe wrote of the "mites or maggots" taken in the Stilton he consumed in 1725. What we have come to know as vegan-friendly cheeses today have roots in kinds made with vegetable rennets at least 2,600 years ago.

Cheese has had its share of healthful and harmful attributes ascribed over centuries, but I was delighted to learn why a cheese course is taken after a meal. It is not merely a savory alternative to custard and cake; it is meant to be a digestive. Hard or aged cheeses were recommended by a physician in Bordeaux 1,600 years ago to fight his patients' colic. Dalby suggests this may be why fresh, young cheeses are usually featured in starter courses.

Even the many images used to illustrate "Cheese" are wonderfully evocative. I could almost smell the heady bouquet from a photo of the Olympic Cheese Mart in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market. The shot is spread across two facing pages, showing hundreds of varieties. And yet I know there are so many more: mere shavings from a monk's head, as Dalby describes his chronicle, yet satisfying when enjoyed at room temperature.

Benwick is deputy editor of The Post's Food section.

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