Smithsonian American Table: The Foods, People, and Innovations That Feed Us
Lisa Kingsley quotes the French gastronome Jean Antheime Brillat-Savarin who famously wrote “Just tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,” in the introduction to her new book that culls the vast archives of the Smithsonian Institute where just the word “food” yields tens of thousands of results. The Smithsonian, which opened over 175 years ago, is the nation’s museum, and it’s not a stretch to say that food is the nation’s passion. What Kingsley, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, has accomplished is to provide snapshots of how our environment, availability of foods, and migration have played an important part in what our ancestors ate and what we eat now.
Trying a variety of foods is often called grazing, and Kingsley, who has been writing about food for more than three decades and is currently the editorial director of Waterbury Publications, a company in Des Moines, Iowa that produces and packages books for publishers, authors, personalities, and corporate brands, has created the literary equivalency in presenting a history of foods for our reading pleasure.
“The long history of hot sauce began about 7000 years ago in Bolivia, where chile peppers grew wild,” writes Kingsley in her chapter, “Food Fads & Trends,” which also includes the history of not only our addiction to fiery sauces but also explores snacking, fermentation, the craft beer movement, fad diets, the backyard cookout, and, among others, community cookbooks and sushi. The latter had a much shorter trajectory to fame and availability than one would ever expect of a dish consisting of raw fish and rice often accompanied by wasabi paste and fresh ginger.
“Propelled by an economic boom in Japan and bolstered by American hipster culture, what started as a street snack almost 200 years ago is now as likely to get as a hamburger or hot dog,” writes Kingsley who describes sushi spreading from California where it appeared in a restaurant right next to a Century 21st Century Fox studio to everywhere. That includes your local grocery store.
Trends are fascinating, but so are the other subjects in this book that are highlighted in such chapters as “Innovators & Creators.” That list would have to include Irving Naxon who applied for a patent on a slow cooker he invented in 1936. Now, out of almost 123 million households in the U.S., approximately 100 million have a slow cooker tucked away in a cabinet or pantry or even on the counter. On the opposite side of slow cooking was Percy Spencer whose application of microwave technology to cooking led to the Radarange, the first microwave oven, which was both the size of a conventional oven and sold at a costly $1295 in 1955.
In Chapter Five, we meet the “Tastemakers,” such as early cookbook authors Fannie Farmer, Lizzie Kander, and Irma S. Rombauer as well as chefs who would be the early innovators for the boom in the cult of television chef celebrities of today. Lena Richard, the host of the Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book show that aired in 1948, was the author of the New Orleans Cook Book said to be the first Creole cookbook by a person of color. She would be followed by now better-known names of those early cooking shows like James Beard and Julia Child.
Each of the chapters is illustrated not only with historic and current photos of people, foods, and products but also full color photos of the 40 plus iconic recipes included in the book such as Beard’s Cocktail Canapes and Child’s Smoked Salmon & Dill Souffle. Of special interest are the sidebars such as “The Black Brewmaster of Monticello,” a reference to Peter Hemings, the enslaved chef of Thomas Jefferson.
Kingsley’s preparation, research, and organization of this book is a wonderful account of the foodways of America and how they came about, and it can easily be read from front to back or delved into according to the reader’s interest. Either way, it’s our history and after reading this you can now look at a chunk of artisan cheese, a photo of the Harvey Girls, or a plate of Korean Fried Chicken and know how they—and so many others—became part of our national food conversation.