Sophia Waugh

From Luxor to Heston services

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A History of Food in 100 Recipes

William Sitwell

Collins, pp. 351, £

This wonderful book is not a history of food in 100 recipes at all; it is a history of the world in 100 recipes, as seen through the medium of what we ate and how we cooked it. William Sitwell’s erudite work never drags and should not be seen as a collection of recipes (although these are clearly chosen with modern-day cooking in mind) but as a window into the appetites and ways of life of our ancestors.

We begin in Ancient Egypt, with a way of making bread extrapolated from pictures on the walls of a woman’s tomb in Luxor. This is one of the joys of the book; the recipes are not just retrieved from cookery books (the domstic kind, as we know them, did not really take off until the 18th century) but from many other sources, among them literature, the Bible and paintings.

The last recipe in the book is from Heston Blumenthal. This is certainly not one to try at home. ‘Meat Fruit’— or foie gras and chicken liver parfait — draws on the Tudor fancy of cooking one thing so it looks like another: in this case, liver to look like mandarin oranges. Blumenthal is of course a funny one, and his weird inventions deserve a mention, but in this context he is no more than a footnote.

Not all the recipes are especially interesting in themselves — e.g. ‘Rice Krispies Treats’, taken from the back of a cereal packet — but the history of our eating that surrounds them never fails to fascinate. By the 1940s we had all been persuaded to have cereal for breakfast, so how, the businessmen wondered, could they sell yet more packets? Simple: aim advertising at children, and offer things to do with cornflakes other than pouring on milk.

Sitwell does not restrict his recipes geographically. From the nasty-sounding Chinese Congee (balls of overcooked rice from 636 AD) and Viking dried fish to the first known instruction for making sandwiches (from Charlotte Mason’s The Ladies’ Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table), Sitwell puts the dishes into social and historical context. There are several familiar names here — Carême, Francatelli, Marguerite Patten and Elizabeth David — but also many that are new. Along with the first sandwich and welsh rarebit we encounter an Englishman’s amazement at the Italians using forks (Thomas Coryat, 1611): ‘The reason of their curiosity is because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike cleane.’

At every turn there is a new snippet of social, political and culinary history, and apart from an occasional archness of style, this book is a total joy.