New York Times Review
IF EVERY GENERATION rewrites history, then our current food historians are only beginning to claim large tracts. These three new books about America's culinary past explore less-trodden territory with an eye to concerns that seem surprisingly contemporary: the need of workers for a higher minimum wage and better conditions; the need for women to gain equality with men; and the need for immigrants to be treated fairly and with respect. Anne Mendelson writes like the engaged scholar she is, with dry wit and easy, uncompromising erudition. Her work for Gourmet took no guff, and her "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages" was both authoritative and fascinating. Now the impatience and anger (usually at flawed thinking or sloppy execution) that runs as a mostly hidden vein in her writing comes into the open in "Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey," a history of Chinese food and the way it took hold in this country. That's not to say this is an angry book. It's full of wonder at how quickly adaptations of the food Chinese railroad workers brought became popular everywhere and cooks adapted egg rolls and plum sauce and, of course, chow mein, to the tastes of American diners. There's also wonder at the variety that unfolded as more Chinese cooks from more regions began to set up shop on both coasts. Stir-frying is a cultural contribution Mendelson finds particularly intriguing. And she's excited about the opening of a new age of food scholarship as a generation of bilingual American-raised experts grasp Chinese-language sources . The anger, though, is something Mendelson makes us feel as she describes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which began with a systematic stripping-away of rights, prompted by fear that good honest Americans would be denied good honest jobs that would keep America ... something. The act, which wasn't repealed until 1943, largely froze Chinese food in this country at the simple, accessible chop suey and egg foo young stage. For generations, Sichuan peppers and Beijing breads and a wealth of regional cuisines were largely absent from the American understanding of Chinese food. The real scope of Chinese cuisine became apparent to Americans only in the competitive-cooking era of the late 1960s and 1970 s, which coincided with liberalized immigration policy after 1965. Culinary fashion these days celebrates the perceived freshness of Vietnamese and Thai cooking (and Mendelson has sharp things to say about self-appointed white tastemakers), but our awareness of the variety of Chinese cooking, she argues - along with the experimentation that accompanied a million wok sets into American kitchens - has changed our food forever. The amount of sheer space food production once occupied in New York will seem staggering to most of the city's present-day residents. Tiffany's now stands where pigs were held in processing houses that gave a name ("pig town") and an unmistakable odor to the neighborhood. Shoppers at Chelsea Market and strollers on the High Line know how vast the Nabisco factory was, and thus can imagine why workers in what became the Sunshine Biscuits factory in Queens needed roller skates to deliver messages. That Pepsi-Cola sign that survived Long Island City's redevelopment and now faces the East River like a pop-art icon? It's one of many relics of the food industries that created great fortunes: The Roosevelts and Havemeyers made their money in sugar. Uneeda Biscuits, Oreos, Thomas's English Muffins, Streit's matzo, Dentyne and Chiclets and Trident gum, Twizzlers and Barricini and Loft candies - they were all produced in New York City. It's easy to become nostalgic about these brands, and Joy Santlofer's "Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York" has plenty of sidebars that describe products, familiar and un-. Among its lively illustrations is an old ad featuring a wooden box in the Statue of Liberty's hand, raining what look like matzos but are actually the hardtack that fed our armies in numerous wars. But it's hard to be nostalgic about the working conditions inside the factories that Santlofer, a market researcher turned food historian, makes the main theme of the book. Bread bakers worked in 100-degree heat in airless, vermin-filled cellars, breathing in poisonous gases and pulverized flour that could cause ailments like "baker's itch." Sugar refining was anything but refined: burned bones from slaughterhouses were (and in some cases remain) a crucial part of the process. Windows in the drying rooms of the Havemeyer sugar factory were kept closed, yielding such high temperatures that workers experienced hallucinations, imagining they were "burning up" and heading "in a mad rush to the nearest water," the East River, where many drowned. Unwholesome trends we think part of our own era actually began much earlier. The president of Loft Candies bought the twice-bankrupt Pepsi-Cola Company in 1931, and though he reformulated the base syrup to suit his own tastes and moved its production to Queens, the new soda didn't sell until the original six-ounce bottle was doubled in size for the same price. Today's parents, alarmed about the chemicals in artificial candy colorings, would have had more to worry about back then: outright poisons. Surrogates frequently took the place of expensive commodities, including "cayenne" pepper that mixed cornmeal and salt with toxic red lead. Santlofer (who died unexpectedly when the book was nearly finished, leaving her husband, daughter and a team of editors to finish the project) is clearly also interested in the history of organized labor. For their lost wages, strikers wound up with modestly raised wages, if any, and ceding a raft of concessions. However bloody and protracted the struggles, owners always seemed to win, and the courts backed them up. But Santlofer tells other, less grim tales, and "Food City" is filled with colorful characters. The book ends with the hopeful return of artisanal producers to (of course) Brooklyn. "EIGHT FLAVORS: The Untold Story of American Cuisine" is pretty much all colorful characters, fleshed out with appealing black-and-white drawings by the author, Sarah Lohman, who went to art school in her native Cleveland and worked as a living history guide at a nearby museum village, where she became interested in recreating old recipes. Her book's title is derived from the flavors she identified as defining American food, past and present. These are explored in slightly formulaic chapters: deft personal anecdotes followed by a cruise through the historical background, sometimes accompanied by an interview with a current artisan and including some usable recipes. Although this gives Lohman's essays a certain sameness in rhythm, her enthusiastic charm and what you sense is genuine Midwestern niceness shine through. She's also impressively plucky, traveling, for example, to a remote Mexican vanilla plantation, where she's subject to a fullbody mosquito attack (par for the course, the woman who runs it admits). Lohman's drawings are a bonus: They make you want to learn more about characters like Ranji Smile, a Muslim from Karachi who became a cook at the high-end Sherry's restaurant in New York and then, in the early 1900s, a celebrity chef. Lohman is assiduous in tracking down early recipes and describing cooking techniques. She also gets to show off her scientific fluency (she comes from a family of scientists). But, as with Mendelson and Santlofer, Lohman's interest in food often leads her back to immigrants. What makes up American cuisine - what makes up American culture - is the influx of stimulation the country has experienced over the centuries, with progress and outward reach overcoming many bumps and prolonged dry spells. We achieve the most, these writers suggest, when we're the most welcoming. CORBY KUMMER, a senior editor of The Atlantic, is the author of "The Pleasures of Slow Food" and "The Joy of Coffee."
Publishers Weekly Review
Food writer Lohman uses eight key flavors to launch an entertaining tour through the tastes that have made American food the "most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet." The story of America's embrace of black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG (monosodium glutamate) and sriracha demonstrates how travel, immigration, science, and technology continue to influence what Americans eat. From her opening story of John Crowninshield of Massachusetts, who returned to the U.S. from Sumatra with commercial quantities of black pepper in the early 19th century, to her rousing defense of MSG, Lohman's thoughtful, conversational style and infectious curiosity make the book wholly delightful. As a bonus for enthusiastic amateurs, Lohman includes well-researched historic recipes, such as Thomas Jefferson's vanilla ice cream. This Founding Father was responsible for introducing the noble dairy treat to the country, via the French chef he brought home with him in the 1780s. A more modern but equally heroic tale is that of sriracha, invented in California by an immigrant, David Tran. Tran named his company, Huy Fong Foods, after the refugee ship he and his family fled Vietnam on-a Panamanian freighter called the Huey Fong. Lohman's book gives fascinating new insight into what we eat. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.