How Carrots Won The Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables by Rebecca Rupp
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
It was pure serendipity that led me to be reading both of these books at the same time. What a perfect match to be reading about the history of food and vegetables (How Carrots Won The Trojan War) while also reading about the history of cooking (Consider the Fork). I found myself alternating between the books from chapter to chapter, the better to enjoy both of them and the great information they contain.
Consider the Fork
Both takes take a similar formula — taking one particular aspect and delving into its history and use. As you might imagine, the history of the fork returns again and again through Consider the Fork. First seen as an affectation, forks eventually became the primary eating utensil for the Western World. That said, the author is careful to contrast western habits with the eastern habit of eating with chopsticks as well as the many cultures that eat directly with their hands.
Wilson also tackles the issue of knives and how they changed from sharp personal eating utensils which nearly everyone carried on their belt, to the ineffectual and dull table knives used in most of the west today. According to the author, it was the dangerous nature of knives that doomed them to extinction in their older, pointer, “stabber”, forms. In the West, we simply made the knives useless as a weapon, where in the east, they dispensed with knives entirely, substituting chopsticks and cuisine specifically designed to be eaten with them.
I loved the comparison and contrast as I worked my way through the book. Just like when producing high school and college essays, compare and contrast is often the best way to present wide-ranging ideas and large swathes of history. Wilson returns to common themes again and again throughout each chapter, tying the history to cooking together but also explaining how each change effected everything around it.
How Carrots Won The Trojan War
A history of food (mainly vegetables, in this case) is a perfect companion to a history of cooking. Rupp divides her book into a series of easy-to-read and entertaining chapters with titles that echo the overall title of the book. Some of my favorites include, “Radishes Identify Witches, Cabbage Confounds Diogenes, and An Eggplant Causes a Holy Man to Faint.” As can be seen from the titles, each chapter focuses on a particular vegetable. Within each chapter Rupp focuses on the evolutionary history of each plant — how it came to grow from a simple, usually only partially edible plant — to the tasty item planted in gardens all over the world. In some cases, this history is fairly well documented. In others, we can only guess what the original plant might have been like, as humans have been cultivating it for so long, in so many places, its origins are lost in the mists of history.
Rupp then includes interesting tidbits from huma history and its interaction with the vegetable. This often includes traditional medicinal uses (often contradictory), changes in how it was prepared and served and in some cases, how it suppossedly changed the course of history — as with the carrots mentioned in the title. (The Greeks suppossedly ate carrots to “bind their bowels” while they hid within the confines of the Trojan Horse).
This was a great book for reading in combination with others as the chapters are fairly short, pack in a lot of information, both useful and entertaining and allow you to easily dip in, read a bit and then move on. The chapter divisions also allowed me to concentrate more on those vegetables that most interested me and skimming over foods that my picky eating habits cause me to avoid.
Both books are extremely entertaining and feed my typical tendency to “geek out” on nearly any topic. I love learning more about nearly anything and these books provided me plenty of dinner party conversation for months to come. I can see myself sitting around the table now and reciting from the book, “Did you know that the spork was created in 1943 by Bill McArthur in New South Wales , Australia?” or “Tomatoes (or chili peppers for that matter) weren’t used in Italian Cuisine until after the ‘discovery’ of North and South America and explorers brought them back to Europe.”
I would highly recommend these books not only for the information they contain, but also for how that information is communicated. They both provide great and expansive information in an entertaining and easy-to-read style that makes them both entertaining and useful.
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