Beginning with ancient Egyptian bread and concluding with modernist foie gras, this journey through culinary history will deepen your appreciation of such ubiquitous fare as the sandwich. William Sitwell uses 4,000 years of recipes to explore the origins of today’s favorite foods as well as the evolution of food-related media, from the first cookbook to food TV. Unless you are willing to wait for airborne yeast to leaven your bread or have a taste for flamingo, not every dish here is appropriate for a weeknight dinner; while these recipes are not all practical guides, each is an illuminating example of humanity’s long and colorful relationship with our victuals (my favorite chapter title: “An Englishman discovers the fork, 1611”). With A History of Food in 100 Recipes (Little, Brown, $35), Sitwell has concocted a fascinating chronicle and a unique cookbook—one you will want to sit down and read from cover to cover.
Thanks to Extra Virginity (W.W. Norton, $16.95), by Tom Mueller, drizzling olive oil on a piece of toast will never be quite so easy again. It is one of the most valuable substances in recorded history, so there is plenty to say about olive oil. And if Mueller had just given us a nice history of the product or a detailed description of its varied uses, I would have been eager to read his book; who doesn’t enjoy a well-researched food lit piece?! But that is not exactly what Extra Virginity is. This exposé also reveals the murky underworld of today’s olive-oil trade and production; indeed, everything about olive oil is hotly debated, and much is corrupt. While piquing interest among foodies and historians alike, this book reads primarily as a social plea: for the sake of history, culture, taste—for the sake of the olive farmers themselves—we must all be more discerning in our selection of olive oil.
Published last year as a multi-volume set that sold for over six hundred dollars, Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine at Home (The Cooking Lab, $140) has been abridged to a single book (with accompanying manual), focusing on recipes and techniques suitable for home chefs. Myhrvold, former technology officer at Microsoft, concentrates on the science of food preparation, using cuttingedge techniques. One look at these oversize color plates and daring recipes may entice adventurous home chefs to take their own repertoire to the next level.