Michael Stern, co-author of American Gourmet: Classic Recipes, Deluxe Delights, Flamboyant Favorites, and Swank "Company" Food from the '50s and '60s (HarperPerennial,1992).
Stern praises Harvey Levenstein's Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1992) for putting "so much of the present day into perspective" by tracing the notion that "the more we have, the thinner we want to be" through the food fads and fancies of the past half century.
"We tend to think that we, late twentieth-century Americans, discovered the idea of healthy eating,'" says Stern."But vitamin mania came in in the twenties, processed cereals even earlier. Oat bran is nothing new."
Barbara Haber, curator of books for the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.
Haber, who recently helped mount an exhibition entitled "No Food in the Library,"featuring food-related books, photographs, illustrations, and objects from the Harvard and Radcliffe library collections, says she loves books on food preparation and service "that evoke long-gone eras."
One recent example that she particularly admires is Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' "A Gift to Young Housewives"(Indiana University Press, 1992), a nineteenth-century Russian cookbook translated and annotated by Joyce Toomre. "What Fannie Farmer was to America and Mrs. Beeton was to England, Molokhovets was to Russia,"says Haber. "Everyone in the Russian middle class would have owned her book."The translation took Toomre, a Russian literature expert, ten years to complete, Haber says, "and it's full of scholarship that sheds light on life in pre-Communist Russia--for instance, the fact that Molokhovets writes about boning forty quail suggests how much household help she must have had."
Margaret Visser, cultural historian; author of The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (1992).
Visser also recommends Toomre's work: "It's an enormous book, and very lavish. The Russians themselves, in recent years, have treated Molokhovets either with disdain or envy--they can't believe how well they used to eat."
And she likes John Thorne's Outlaw Cook (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992), which she calls "an anti-cookbook cookbook"because it lists only nine recipes and is "relentlessly honest"about cooking. "For example, Thorne includes a chapter about cooking disasters. Most cookbooks are fantasyland."
Charles Camp, folklorist for the Maryland State Arts Council; author of American Foodways: What, When, Why and How We Eat in America (August House, 1989).
"Foodways are a great point of entrance into a culture,"says Camp. "Food is a subject that's open to anyone who gathers firsthand knowledge of it--even cultures unfamiliar with ethnographers tend to consider it a perfectly reasonable area for inquiry. And the intersection of food and culture includes history, geography, social status--everything important."
Camp recommends Clambake: A History and Celebration of an American Tradition, by Kathy Neustadt (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). In her description of "the evolution of the clambake as a social event in New England, from its Pilgrim referents to the popularity of summer excursions for the wealthy in the nineteenth century to its contemporary use as a fund-raising event,"he says, Neustadt offers a vivid history of an American regional culture.
Betty Fussell, food writer; author of The Story of Corn (Knopf, 1992).
"We still live in a Puritan society--we treat food the way we used to treat sex,"Fussell complains. "Ninety percent of what's published about food is about food as poison."
One recent work that breaks out of this dreary pattern and "makes us feel good,"she says, is food historian Lynne Rossetto Kasper's historically based recipe book The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Italian Food (William Morrow and Co., 1992). "The book is immensely practical in its details but also captures the heart of Bologna and of northern Italian cuisine. Kasper draws on classic seventeenth-century cookbooks--for example, she includes recipes for sweet pastas, which were very much in vogue in the Middle Ages. Pasta with sugar and oranges strikes us as fresh and makes us look at the whole world of pasta again."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.