In a lot of circumstances, eight isn’t a particularly high number. But according to a new book, the foundation of American cuisine through the centuries can be explored via just eight flavors.
That’s the premise of the aptly-named “Eight Flavors” (Simon & Schuster, $26) by historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman. Subtitled “The Untold Story of American Cuisine,” the book purports to take the reader on a culinary journey across this nation’s food history, from its beginnings all the way to the present day.
Through chapters exploring each of the eight flavors – black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and Sriracha – Lohman takes note of the impact each had on the development of American food. She worked her way through cookbooks and recipes – some from as far back as the 1700s – in an effort to determine when these assorted culinary mainstays first made the scene in American cookery.
And then she asks why.
We learn how black pepper was once the purview of the wealthy and an incredible valuable commodity that made the fortunes of those who procured and sold it. One of the most fascinating stories in the book is in the vanilla chapter; it’s the tale of a young slave living in Madagascar who stumbled upon a technique for vanilla orchid pollination that is still used today.
Curry powder leads us to Ranji Smile, a self-styled prince whose work with Indian cuisine made him one of America’s very first celebrity chefs. The story of chili powder introduces us to the Chili Queens of San Antonio, whose food introduced the wider world to the now-ubiquitous chili con carne. The soy sauce chapter has a fascinating story too – one that includes the Asian immigration of the 19th century and the development of soy sauce manufacturing here in the United States.
Lohman also attends garlic festivals and tours a California Sriracha factory and goes to great lengths to shoot down the now-dubious claim that many people suffer a poor reaction to MSG – all in an effort to get to the bottom of why these particular flavors have become such key components to the way people eat today.
(It should be noted that Lohman acknowledges that there are actually 10 flavors, but she has removed chocolate and coffee from her list. She asserts – correctly – that plenty of ink has already been spilled exploring the nuances of those two flavors.)
Along the way, Lohman makes a point of experimenting with some of the recipes that she has uncovered. It’s an opportunity to add a level to the reader’s flavor journey – each chapter offers a handful of interesting recipes that showcase its subject flavor. And while Lohman occasionally throws in a tweak or two of her own, she always stays true to the spirit of the recipe, offering glimpses at some of the stages in America’s culinary evolution.
As someone without a deep interest in gastronomic history, I’m not necessarily the target audience for this book. Yet I found myself engaged, caught up in this effort to understand some of the reasons why our food today tastes the way it does. Even people who aren’t interested in making food tend to be interested in eating it – and this book offers a thoughtful window onto the American flavor profile, one that features some tastes so ubiquitous that we may never have even considered their origins.
“Eight Flavors” is the sort of food book that even non-foodies will find fascinating. A lot of that springs from Lohman’s style; while her stories are obviously driven by her quest, her easy prose and obvious passion result in a book that is compelling no matter what your spice rack and pantry might look like.