It’s unusual to find a book that is such an interesting combination of personal story, history, and cookbook, so that makes this a unique read. My husband is reading it now, and we talk about it often as we experiment with our own cooking and baking.
The chapters trace the history of how eight primary flavors — decided by Lohman’s research into historical texts and cookbooks illustrating which ingredients were used most often and were most familiar in American foods — arrived in the United States to begin with. It’s the story of the immigration of food, as well as immigration itself. Lohman’s own personal journey is part of that as well, from her family and her work in a Colonial village to her explorations of food in NYC and elsewhere (her travels to explore Vanilla are epic).
It’s a big project for a 300 page book, but it works — like a really good meal, it leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.
For me, in our current political climate, it was also a somewhat sad reminder that the conflicts over immigration that we have now have existed for a long time. The cries of “they are taking our jobs” or “they are changing our culture” ring strong in a contemporary reading of this book because they were aimed at the very immigrants who brought us many of the spices and flavors we love and consume every day.
While the history of immigration is intricately bound with the development of American cooking, you’ll learn a lot in reading this book, and you’ll be entertained while doing so. It’s a fairly quick read, but you’ll want to slow down so you don’t miss the details.
For me, the gems were found in small moments, such as the definition of flavor itself:
“Flavor is a concentrated mixture of aromatic compounds that provide all of part of the sensory experience of a food or beverage….All flavors are chemicals. Eight to twelve chemicals make up the flavor of a garlic clove, while over two hundred chemicals work together to make up the flavor of a vanilla bean. Flavor is primarily a combination of taste and aroma.”
How amazing that a vanilla bean has more than 200 elements working to create it’s aroma and taste! I was hooked from this point on. I wanted to know more.
The beginning, as it should, also sets the stage for how each flavor in the book — Pepper, Chili Powder, Soy Sauce, to name only three — will be discussed: part chemistry, part history, part the author’s personal experience and story.
The entire read made me reflect on my own ideas of the flavors we take for granted and consider the things we eat everyday in a new light. They haven’t just always been there — they are as much a part of our history as war, immigration, and our basic sense of what it even means to be “American.”
There are several recipes in the book, though I have tried only one so far: the Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies. I had my doubts about pepper in a cookie, but they were amazing. Addictive even (though if you eat too many — ahem – you might end up with a little heartburn). But the way the Pepper enhances the cookie made them one of my favorites.
In the Notes and Bibliography of the book, you’ll find a lot of potential new reading if you should care to dig more deeply. One thing I wish had been added is a Recipe Index. Other than that, this is an informative, fun, and very usable book that stands up to re-reading and further investigation. You’ll want to have it on your shelf.