Behind every great meal is an epic history of conquest, revolution and scandal. It’s easy to forget in the age of refrigerators, supermarkets and GrubHub that the spice trade once rivaled the modern drug cartels or that hot dogs got their name to avoid the looming specter of the first World War. In the handsome hardcover volumes of the Edible Series from Reaktion Books, the secret history of the dinner table and the long ancestry of the liquor cabinet come to life. Behind each book’s butter-hued dust jacket is a concise introduction to the rich surprises of food and drink we often take for granted. How did lobster, a bottom-feeding invertebrate eaten by the poor, become a celebrated dish of the upper class? What exactly is the difference between herbs and spices? Why was soda pop instrumental in popularizing vodka in cold war America? The books are full of enough arcane yet accessible trivia to warrant throwing a dinner party just to show off.
The most recent offerings in the series look at the worldwide histories of rum, vodka, gin and herbs. “Rum” and “Gin” together form an interesting pair of narratives, both of them originating from British colonialism. The history of vodka sheds a great deal of light on the evolution of the vodka cocktail; it was drank straight until its importation to America during the post-war years of Soviet paranoia necessitated a new approach to popularize the beverage. Of uniform length, each volume breaks down the story behind the consumable into five to ten chapters punctuated with assorted color and black-and-white images. Though brief, each contains a list of bibliographic and web sources for further reading, a selection of recipes, and an index. They’re excellent starting points for further culinary exploration and classy enough to make an ideal gift for a connoisseur of intimidating taste.
The authors of the series range from culinary journalists to history professors; but first and foremost they are people who love food and drink, writing for those whose love of a great meal doesn’t end when the plates are cleared and their glass runs dry. (Greg Baldino)
“Rum: A Global History” by Richard Foss
“Vodka: A Global History” by Patricia Herlihy
“Gin: A Global History” by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
“Herbs: A Global History” by Gary Allen
Reaktion Books, about 150 pages, $16