This is the time of year when food, drink, and entertainment are on people’s minds, as are books on these festive topics. Three recent versions explore the delights of the culinary world through history and serve as ideal holiday companions.
In “Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol,” Mallory O’Meara explores the role women have played as drinkers and alcoholic beverage makers from prehistoric times to the present day.
There is archaeological evidence dating back to 8000 BCE, but the process really started in Mesopotamia, where the women of Uruk brewed almost 20 different varieties of kash, an ancient version of beer. Roman women drank passum, a sweet wine made from raisins, and Cleopatra had a weakness for Syrian wine flavored with pomegranate.
As O’Meara crosses the centuries, readers uncover the stories of famous and lesser-known women drinkers and brewers. Alewife was a staple of medieval English and Irish villages, and around the same time, wine making flourished in China and brewing sake – which involved young women chewing rice and then spitting it out in a tub, where it was left to ferment – began Japan.
Vodka became Russia’s national liquor during the reign of Catherine the Great, who is also responsible for Russian Imperial Stout. Tatsu’uma Kiyo developed a sake empire in 19th-century Japan at a time when women were rarely involved in business, and South African women used brewing as a means of resisting apartheid.
In the 20th century, women became bootleggers, bartenders and creative mixologists. They were also a lucrative market for alcoholic beverages, with specific beverages created and marketed for female drinkers. O’Meara ends with profiles of some of the creative women making waves in the brewing and distilling world, including Julie Reiner, whose New York bars have brought craft cocktails back into fashion, and Apiwe Nxusani- Mawela, a South African brewer who blends cutting edge brewing science with his family’s traditional recipes, using indigenous African products. “Girly Drinks” is a fascinating historical study of alcohol through the ages, as made and consumed by women.
- “The Secret History of Food: Weird But True Stories About The Origins Of Everything We Eat” by Matt Siegel combines pop science, pop culture and food in one fascinating stew. Each chapter covers a different food or ingredient, from honey to breakfast cereals to chili peppers. The book moves from topic to topic with little connection and reads best as a collection of entertaining essays on food and the ways humans have gathered, grown, cooked, and ate throughout history.
The chapter on corn is particularly fascinating: early corn, as eaten by the North American natives, bears little resemblance to the corn we eat today. An ear of teosinte, that ancestor of corn, contained five to twelve kernels, each wrapped in an outer shell. It was difficult to harvest and the grains were probably indigestible without treatment of any kind.
Centuries later, the Iroquois began planting corn, beans and squash together for the benefit of all three crops. Corn is everywhere these days, from backyard meals and snack foods to your car’s gas tank.
Siegel’s in-depth dives into the culinary world are informative, fun and entertaining, full of surprising facts and sarcastic asides.
- “Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide”, by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras, is a gourmet’s delight who relishes the unique, the fascinating and the quirky. Full of short articles on everything from Luxury Fruit of Japan (Roman ruby grapes, which sell for 100,000 yen per bunch – or $ 880 in US dollars) to America’s oldest operating tavern (Newport, RI’s White Horse Tavern , in operation since 1673) in Akabanga, a Rwandan chili oil so powerful that the workers who bottle it must wear face protection. Each entry is a page or less, and the book is crammed with photos and facts.
Adventurous eaters will find new challenges in “Gastro Obscura”, from Icelandic hakarl (fermented shark) to Russian vyaziga (sturgeon spinal cord), and people who want to party like a founding father can whip up a bundle of punch at milk from Benjamin Franklin. It’s a lovely collection, full of information that will surprise, delight and maybe make you want something new and unique.
Nanette Donohue is the Director of Technical Services at the Champaign Public Library.