Friday, December 31, 2010

Food Book Presents

This Christmas, I received two interesting, quasi-historical books about food.

Solley, Patricia.  An Exaltation of Soups:  the Soul-Satisfying Story of Soup, As Told in More Than 100 Recipes.  Three Rivers Press, 2004.

Smith, Andrew F.  Popped Culture:  A Social History of Popcorn in America.  University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

By now, I have dipped into both books enough to be able to provide mini-reviews of them (despite the bout of flu, or food poisoning, that I contracted over Christmas weekend).

Patricia Solley is the woman responsible for, a site about soups of all kinds from all lands.  The book is a lot like the site.  It is full of good recipes and amusing cultural and historic trivia.  Although many of the recipes strike me as too difficult to make or too strange to eat, I've made a list of six or eight foreign soups I must try, including spiced plum soup (a Polish dish), salted lamb and pea soup (Icelandic) and iced cucumber soup (Bulgarian).  Some of the soups I'm interested in making will finally, after years of avoidance, require me to obtain either a blender or a food processor.  Naturally, I will write about any of my soupy experiments here.

Mr. Smith's book is more perplexing.  He announces that it was his intent to write a serious history of popcorn, and he bemoans at some length the dearth of serious, well-researched books about culinary history.  Despite that fact, Popped Culture consists largely, though not solely, of a collection of trivia and anecdotes about how popcorn was popularized, made, and eaten in America.  This may be because of the difficulty of collecting information about popcorn in "food histories" and Mr. Smith's concomitant need to search for evidence in indirect and unusual places (old cookbooks and newspaper articles, for example).  But part of the problem is that Mr. Smith chose to organize his book by topic instead of chronologically--though a chronological organization might have suited his stated purpose--a history of popcorn and its impact on American culture--better.

On the other hand, some of Mr. Smith's trivia are very interesting indeed.  His description of the archaeological investigations that led to evidence that certain Mesoamerican Indians did, in fact, make popcorn is fascinating, as is his description of the many ways in which popcorn was popped in nineteenth century America and the devices invented to make the process simpler and culinarily more appealing (by limiting the smoky flavor).  And Mr. Smith's book, like Ms. Solley's book, contains a number of recipes that use popcorn (including, to my surprise, pudding recipes and stuffing recipes).

So although these books do not provide the kind of historical information that interests me most, they promise plenty of fun, as well as good eating.

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