Cooking in Context

A conduit for civilization, culture, and technology

During my forty year culinary career, there have been a select number of books that became touchstones, volumes that seemed to arrive just when inspiration was needed or direction was appropriate, books that somehow enhanced my sense of having found my calling. The newest addition to the list is a work of culinary history by Rachel Laudan.

Cooking and Empire – Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan

(University of California Press, ppg. 438; $39.95)

Mostly cookbooks, but with an occasional work of fiction or memoir, the touchstone list includes some of the following: the now-battered Seventies edition of The Joy of Cooking; the first cookbooks I owned by James Beard and Julia Child; the spiral-bound Good Housekeeping volumes I inherited from my Mother and my Grandmother Walden; cookbooks by famed Texas hostesses Helen Corbitt and Mary Faulk Koock; The Store Cookbook by Bert Greene that showed me the kind of food writer I might want to be; George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which fascinated restaurant cooks of my generation the way Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential eventually would more recent up-and-comers; and Diana Kennedy’s seminal Cuisines of Mexico, which literally changed the direction of my career.

When we put MM Pack's profile of Rachel Laudan on the editorial calendar and I sat down to read Laudan’s new book Cooking and Empire – Cooking in World History for a review, the last thing I expected was for it to earn a well-deserved spot on the touchstone bookshelf. However, I soon discovered the book would resonate deeply with me.

The primary focus of Laudan’s historical work is to follow cuisines, or styles of cooking, as they have evolved through history via conquest, migration, exploration, or scientific and technological advances. We are all aware that cooking is the most uniquely human of activities, but Laudan documents cooking – in which she also includes the cultivation and processing necessary for raw materials to become sources of human nutrition – as a crucial technological and cultural agent of civilization itself. Laudan’s writing is scholarly but accessible, overwhelmingly dense with information but eminently digestible. I now have a fuller understanding of my chosen work at a pivotal moment in the documentation of American regional cuisines in the context of an ongoing culinary continuum. I find that very appealing.

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culinary history book review, Rachel Laudan, Cooking and Empire

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