Book Review — Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture

Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture
Megan J. Elias
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

The history of the cookbook is long and varied, but can often be used to trace the overall history and social norms of a specific culture. In Food on the Page Megan J. Elias, a historian and gastronomist from Boston University’s Metropolitan College traces American culture through the first domestically-published cookbooks to present day.

Cookbooks became prevalent in the 1800s, when community-based compendiums were a way for the contributor to show social status by offering recipes for unique dishes. Elias points out that for a long time, the most-contributed pie recipe was lemon, questioning the idea of apple pie as the epitome of American desserts.

Cultural changes eventually reflect in how we cook, and Elias demonstrates the great “whitewashing” of southern cookery books that never mention the slaves who would have actually been cooking the dishes included, or which refer to a romanticized Mammy-figure with love and cake for all.

She addresses the trend for slimming in the early 20th century and the misogyny of food writing after the wars when publications such as Gourmet forced a divide between masculine and feminine cooking and dishes that still exists to some extent today.

French food and its many fans also feature in chapters about how chefs and writers such as Julia Child and MFK Fisher turned Americans against their own local and regional cuisine in favour of complicated French dishes under the guise of sophistication.

I’ll admit that I found the chapter on the counter-culture cookbooks of the 60s and 70s a bit of a bore, not due to Elias’ writing but what with all the references to earnest hearty breads and cakes laced with pot, hippies were and continue to remain tiresome.

Moving on to present day, Elias takes on Michael Pollan and the sustainable food movement, which has inspired a whole new trend in chefs and cookbooks, meant to inspire the home cook to think about where their food comes from.

Finally Elias addresses the popularity of blogs and sites such as Instagram as a more current way of sharing recipes and food stories. Of course, the ultimate goal for a food blogger is still a book deal. Even if more people might visit your blog than buy your book, there is still a seriousness to the physical cookbook that cannot be replicated online.

Food on the Page is extensively researched and is informative and intriguing as both a history of food trends, but also as a series of snapshots of the United States and wider western culture.

Lucky Dip – Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

In Toronto:

Chef Rob Rossi announced yesterday that his new restaurant BestEllen (972 College Street) will open on Friday, March 2nd.

The Federal (1438 Dundas Street West) opens tomorrow is  in the former Zoots Cafe location, with a brunchy-type menu full of eggs, sandwiches, soups, waffles and a Ploughman’s lunch.

Japanese noodle chain Santouka Ramen is reportedly looking for a location in downtown Toronto.

And while it’s out in Brampton, Maroli, everyone’s favourite Keralan restaurant, opens a second location at 31 George Street North tomorrow.

The Granite Brewery (245 Eglinton Avenue East) has announced plans to expand brewing operations into the basement of their existing location. Full details at Canadian Beer News.

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The Real Food Revival

Three years is such a short time in the grand scheme of things, but in the publishing world, it can be an eternity. Books come and books go, and a lot of great books don’t get the publicity they deserve. Which is likely why I was able to find Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas at one of those deep-discount remaindered stores back before Christmas.

With a sub-title of “aisle by aisle, morsel by morsel”, Vinton’s search for real food in the supermarket aisles predates not just Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, but also Marion Nestle’s What to Eat. Taking on everything from baked goods to bottled water, Vinton gives a common-sense approach to finding, and demanding real food.

Neither Vinton or Espuelas are experts; they don’t have the nutritional background of Nestle or the science background of Pollan, yet they do their research and present a well-documented case for each of their claims. This makes the book refreshingly free of jargon and chemistry, something that can make for a dry read at best in similar works, and can be downright off-putting in some cases.

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The Real Food Dilemma

I haven’t had time in the past week to talk about the Michael Pollan lecture. Mostly, I think, because it’s wasn’t actually that inspiring. It wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, he just didn’t say much of anything new. The brief hour started with Pollan reading an excerpt from In Defense of Food, then being interviewed by CBC’s Matt Galloway. His answers were informative, articulate and witty, but it felt very much as if he’d done it all a hundred times before. And of course, he had. Disappointingly, there was no audience Q&A, so anyone who had questions for the author had to stand in line for an autograph, and I’m told, was rushed through pretty quickly.

The following day, there was an interview with Pollan in the Toronto Star in which he pretty much skewered the vegetarian community based on his three vegetarian sisters who apparently eat a lot of mock meat. I’m torn on this point between being chagrined and flipping the bird in his general direction, and nodding in agreement. During my time as a vegetarian, and even today when cooking at home, I used a lot of soy-based products to recreate comfort food dishes like cabbage rolls and sheperd’s pie. I know how processed these products are, but I’m drawn into the trap of it being easier than coming up with a straight-up vegetarian dish, especially when trying to include protein. On the other hand, I really like my rule of no meat at home, because my job has me out a couple of times a week stuffing my face with everything from chicken wings to foie gras. I don’t need more meat in my diet, and relying on the protein in eggs and peanut butter gets tired really fast.

The desire to eat “real food” has left me with a bit of a conundrum.

The other issue with Pollan is this so-called manifesto. I hate lists of rules and regulations like this, because there’s always so many exceptions, and people either try to live by them devotedly and feel guilty (or make excuses) when they can’t; i.e. The Hundred Mile Diet. So while I agree that we should be paying more for better quality food, the rule about not eating alone is just asinine.

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Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

I was ready to dislike Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto before I even picked it up.

While I mostly enjoyed his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, I felt that he did an awfully complicated song and dance in the steakhouse chapter to try and justify eating meat. Then I read a quote from In Defense of Food by another blogger which said “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”, which riled me up excessively.

My own grandmother was all about baking fresh bread, canning tomatoes and picking blueberries, but she was also of a generation that fully embraced the new convenience foods. Not to mention that until 1973, she had never lived in a house with indoor plumbing – with four sons to feed, and then a handful of grandkids, can you blame her for throwing store-bought cupcakes and frozen pizza at us? The woman had to boil her dishwater on a kerosene stove!

Turns out Pollan’s quote is actually about GREAT-Grandmothers, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Well, unless you factor in the lack of indoor plumbing (those great grannies would likely have been all over the Twinkies too!).

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Life’s a Bowl of Cherries


Although I try to eat a mostly seasonal diet, I’ve got to admit that in the dark months of January and February, I start craving fruit. Not just apples and pears, but bright juicy summer fruits like berries. At least once every winter I break down and come home from the grocery store with a bag of cherries, just because I really, really need them, even if they’re nowhere as good as the local cherries we get in the summertime.


Given that this week is the first National Eat Red Week (February 4th – February 10th), I don’t feel so bad about indulging in some cherries. Particularly since local tart cherries are available both dried and in juice concentrate form year round – Ontario is the sole producing province of commercially-grown tart cherries, most of which are the Montmorency variety, and over the past five years, the average annual crop has been an average of 10 million pounds.

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