Food is textured and colorful window through which to view history. It can also be fun. Food history writing has recently become something of a trend, with books about anything from the cultural history of coffee and tea to alcohol, spices, chocolate and salt popping up on bookshelves. While this kind of writing may be a fad, there are some gems. There are also place-based food history books out there, including several about New York City.
Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster, is fantastic. Kurlansky has written several other books based on single food commodities, but in The Big Oyster he examines the history of New York City through a most important bivalve. Once upon a time the waters around Manhattan were filled with oysters and New York’s earliest settlers quickly created a culinary city based around the food. Kurlansky explains how the plentiful oyster and other foods gave rise to restaurants and commerce and helped New York find its culinary voice. The reader will never underestimate the oyster again.
Appetite City, by former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes is another good one. It is an overall food history of New York City. It traces the city’s food landscape from the early 19th century when New York’s food was characterized by its population of Europeans, some of the first native New Yorkers and slaves up to the beginning of the 21st century when more than a century of immigration helped create a food world of infinite possibilities.
One of the latest New York City food history books to hit stores is called 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman. The book uses the tenement building at 97 Orchard Street to explore the food of Eastern European Jews, German Jews, Italians, Irish and Germans. She does this by exploring the lives of five families who lived in the building over the course of about 70 years.
While food history may not be as complete or extensive as some other types of historical narratives, it is something the reader can most likely relate to and thus more easily understand.