Food history

You are what you don’t eat

If asked to think about food preservation for a moment you might picture an aproned woman boiling oranges for marmalade in a large copper maslin pan; or vegetable scraps being turned into stock; or those recipes from wartime rationing using root veg in place of sugar; or even, with an eye to the modern, you might imagine a trendy chef preparing offal in a gleaming chrome kitchen to ensure the nose-to-tail credentials of his restaurant. Some of the attempts in the past to spin out the life of fresh produce sound positively disgusting But there is more to the history of preservation than preserves, and the obvious enemy, when we

The humble biscuit has a noble history

Sin-eating is an old European practice. After a person’s death, during the period of lying-in, a biscuit would be placed on the corpse in its coffin. Before the burial, one of the mourners would eat it in order to take on the sins of the departed and allow them to move on into the next life free of the burdens of their transgressions. Such fascinating info is the stuff of Lizzie Collingham’s book The Biscuit. This review, sadly, won’t touch on a tenth of it. Collingham has bagged a senior place among writers telling history through a single item of food. The book ranks up there with Salt and Cod

William Sitwell’s history of eating out reminds us painfully of what we’re missing

In the concluding chapter of this book the Daily Telegraph’s restaurant critic and recovering vegan-baiter William Sitwell muses on the collapse of Jamie Oliver’s empire last year: ‘His endeavour, passion and hard work wasn’t enough… it was part of a bursting bubble.’ Since then more mid-range chains have announced their imminent demise. Teetering before lockdown, it’s not just the prospect of months of closure and general uncertainty that’s pushing them over the brink but decades of oversupply and a reliance on a cynical model of successful restaurants selling on and out. This book feels timely: a reminder of what we currently can’t have, and how the sector came to be.

Kashrut dietary laws are ill-suited to lactose-intolerant Jews

Until fairly recently, all over the western world there were specialised eating places catering largely for Jews who respected the kashrut dietary laws. From family caffs to white tablecloth establishment, these called themselves ‘dairy restaurants’. They were nearly, but not quite, vegetarian, since they allowed (the kosher-defined) fish with fins and scales. This wondrously weird, heavily illustrated book is a threnody to the now almost vanished dairy restaurant, seeing it as a kind of paradise — though as its author, the artist Ben Katchor, writes: ‘This pleasure garden, Eden, was open to the public and naturally attracted a crowd.’ The first 60 pages depict visually (and explicitly in prose) the