Thursday, November 4, 2010

Emerging Foodie Bookshelf: At Home by Bill Bryson

The latest offering from one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, isn't obviously a foodie book, but you don't have to think to hard about the central conceit of At Home: A Short History of Private Life to realize it has plenty of food-related potential. I'm less than halfway through with it, and already I'm ready to recommend it to anyone who's fascinated by food (well, to anyone, actually; I did say Bryson was one of my favorites, didn't I?).

Bryson's plan is to present the history of "private life" — the roots of how and why people came to live as they do &mdash using the rooms of the 19th-century former rectory he lives in with his family in England as a frame. It may not be immediately obvious that this simple plan would yield such a rich and deep collection of historical narrative and anecdote... not, that is, unless you're familiar with Bryson's earlier works, including A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, which reveal the author's peculiar genius for chasing illuminating tangents from his ostensible subject.

And so it is that throughout Bryson's wanderings — but especially in the chapters on the kitchen and the dining room — we learn again and again how deeply embedded food and food culture is at the heart of how humans live. Though the focus is on Victorian history, as befits the Victorian home that gives the book its structure, Bryson reaches back to neolithic and Roman times, tracing the development of food production, the history of cooking, and the rise of cold food storage, first using natural ice harvested from lakes and then with artificial refrigeration. We learn of the meagerness of early diets and the contrasting staggering excess of the Victorian table, and that some of the seemingly exotic dishes of times past — swan, for instance — were eaten not because they were especially tasty, but simply because they were plentiful when meats more familiar to modern tastes were not. And Bryson traces the development of the familiar cookbook form, with recipes including precisely measured ingredients and detailed procedures, from the much vaguer cooking instructions in the manuals of domestic management that preceded them.

And while the book's focus is on domestic life, it encompasses the more global implications of food, including the extent to which lust for spices drove the Age of Exploration, and then the extent to which exploration spread food, especially in the form of the Columbian Exchange of crops and domesticated animals between the New and Old Worlds. And, of course, it was the extended voyages of the Age of Exploration that began to reveal the connection between disease and shortages of dietary vitamins and minerals.

There's much more to At Home than food-related history (and much more that I haven't yet gotten to), but there's enough that is foodie-ish to recommend it wholeheartedly.

PS: I especially recommend the audiobook edition; Bryson is a Midwest-born American who's lived much of his adult life in England, and his resulting accent is a perfect match to the tone of his prose.

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