I will never deny that I love food. As a historian, however, I knew very little about culinary history, except some of the things I’d learned in classes. Libby O’Connell’s The American Plate: Culinary History in 100 Bites educates readers on the origins of popular and not-so-well-known foods. Serving as the chief historian for the History Channel, O’Connell seems well-placed to tickle the historical palate in 100 bites. Her entries range from favorites such as maple syrup and barbecue to more unique victuals like beaver tail and scrapple.
O’Connell structures the book in chronological order. Periods covered include:
- The American Civil War and Reformation
- The Gilded Age
- The World Wars
The author sprinkles anecdotes and period recipes throughout the entries. An endearing touch, to be sure.
As O’Connell writes, “The American Plate provides a multilayered overview of the peopling of our country, our evolving foodways, and the transformation of our palates from 1400 to today.” Though promising in its premise, The American Plate sometimes falls prey to over-contextualization of its subject matter.
For instance, the bite on Cuban American food offers six paragraphs summarizing Cuban-American history and relations in the 1950s and 1960s but devotes only one paragraph and one recipe to actual Cuban food. Surely Cuban food warrants more than one paragraph for discussion, no? If I wanted to read about Cuban-American relations, I can find other sources relating to that.
One other thing irked me in this book: the mention of Eleanor Roosevelt’s apparently brusque and tyrannic but loyal cook Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt. She’s referenced a few times throughout The American Plate as if readers should know who she is. But no such information is forthcoming, leaving readers to research her on their own.
The American Plate provides readers with some insight into American culinary history. I had hoped, however, for more information on the food history itself, especially in the book’s latter half. Still, O’Connell writes a brief and decent introduction that should give readers plenty to digest.
Title: The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites
Author: Libby H. O’Connell
Publication Year: 2014
Page Count: 352pp (eBook count)
Featured image: Historical food from the Czech Republic (©radekprocykphoto/Canva)