It's hard to imagine a time when food was more central to our collective imagination than it is today. These days, what and where we eat says as much about us as the clothes we wear or the places we live; meanwhile, social media has allowed us to project and share our private food experiences with the world as never before.
But our fixation is not new. "As a species, we're hardwired to obsess over food," Matt Siegel explains in THE SECRET HISTORY OF FOOD: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat (Ecco; On sale August 31, 2021; $27.99). But how much do people really know about the origins-and modern implications-of their favorite (or not so favorite) foods? In this fascinating and irreverent tour through history, he sets out "to uncover the hidden side of everything we put in our mouths."
Are our taste preferences really ours, or were they influenced by the food our mothers ate during pregnancy? How did corn evolve from an inedible weed to a staple of the world economy and an ingredient in everything from gasoline to pan coatings-and did we really domesticate corn, or did corn domesticate us? Are our modern food choices emotionally satisfying us or making us miserable? And why are humans the only animals masochistic enough to enjoy the burn of chili peppers (a food that, ecologically speaking, specifically evolved to repel us)?
Siegel also probes subjects ranging from the myths-and realities-of food as aphrodisiac, to how one of the rarest and most exotic spices in all the world (vanilla) became a synonym for uninspired sexual proclivities, to the role of food in fairy- and morality-tales. He even makes a well-argued case for how ice cream helped defeat the Nazis and how the nickname honey might be better suited for toxic ex-lovers than for people we care about.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF FOOD is a rich and satisfying exploration of the historical, cultural, scientific, sexual and, yes, culinary subcultures of this most essential realm. Siegel is an armchair Anthony Bourdain, armed not with a chef's knife but with knowledge derived from medieval food-related manuscripts, ancient Chinese scrolls, and obscure culinary journals. Funny and fascinating, THE SECRET HISTORY OF FOOD is essential reading for all foodies.