Reading about food: a few of my favourite books

When the weather’s too depressing to go out and forage or search for good eating places, I stay in to cook and read. Recently, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite books about food.

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook

Heston Blumenthal, art by Dave McKean, 2008
Bloomsbury, USA
ISBN-10: 1596915501

C asked for this for his birthday a couple of years ago. Remember, C is a vegetarian, and a strict one. He doesn’t even eat chicken. (Or gelatin.) But the food wasn’t why he wanted The Big Fat Duck Cookbook: the art was. A long-time fan of Dave McKean, he was won over by the look of the book alone. It is gorgeous! I read it for rather more than just the pictures.

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is really big and totally luscious.

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is really big and totally luscious. And it has four satin ribbon bookmarks.

I don’t plan to cook anything from The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. I’m not obsessive enough to spend for says  making something that will be snaffled in two minutes. I love the fact that I could, though, and knowing a little about the cooking process makes me even more impressed with Heston’s approach. Edinburgh Foody went to Dinner and loved it. Having read the cookbook, I understand the lengths to which they go to make a dish special.

The part I like the best, though, is the essays on the science of cooking at the end. I really enjoy the science of cooking as well as the art. There are so many things that we do when cooking which are closer to superstition than science. A “this is how it works” top-up is always welcome.

Salt – a world history

Mark Kurlansky, 2003.
Vintage, US.
ISBN-10: 0099281996

A well-written account of world history from a salty perspective.

A well-written account of world history from a salty perspective.

Salt is everywhere. When I think about it, I think about it in terms of there being too much: too much in the dishes my local Chinese restaurant make, too much on chips and crisps, too much in most food except for the stuff I make. I don’t cook with salt (take that with a pinch of same: I do cook with soy sauce). Salt is an important ingredient in many dishes and has allowed humans to store food for future use. The ability to keep food is one of the things that make us able to travel and explore. It’s a big-ish book, so good for a week of bad weather. The copy I have has a quote from Anthony Bourdain on the front: “Salt is the fascinating, indispensable history of an indispensable ingredient. It’s a must-have book for any serious cook or foodie.” Clearly, I’m a serious foodie…

The history of salt truly is a world history. Every civilisation – and every less civilised group too – is dependent on salt for food preservation and a range of other activities. Mark Writes about it in an engaging and entertaining manner. Suddenly, I see salt everywhere and I want to celebrate it.

Food in History

Reay Tannahill, Third revised edition, 2002
Headline Book Publishing
ISBN-10: 0747267960

As you might have guessed, I like my history from a non-war perspective. Reading about how humans have interacted with an idea or substance is, to me, much more interesting. Resources – salt, sugar, fish, meat – are at the heart of most conflicts.

Like salt, food is everywhere. Reay Tannahill’s book tracks the rise and fall of foodstuffs, and how food is integral to changes in society. Food is fundamental to society and our access and attitudes towards it are ever-changing. It’s divided into sections based on time and Tannahill explains what is happening – foodwise – in different parts of the world at that time. It gives a wide perspective and connects a whole lot of historical dots.

What else should I read? Is there a must-read history of sugar, coffee or tea? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.


  1. Pingback: L'escargot blanc - the perfect place to catch up | Edinburgh Foody

  2. There’s an old book by Claudia Roden on coffee, (1994) which should be around – great research with her usual style – might be interesting?

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