Flavors of America

With all of the craziness of the colonosopy, followed by a couple of crazy days at work, I haven’t had a chance to blog about a book I read over the weekend (and finished up on Monday night).

“Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine,” by Sarah Lohman, is currently $1.99 on Kindle, and if you’re at all interested in food and/or history it’s a steal at that price. What a fascinating and fun-to-read book.

Lohman walks through eight flavors that have played a part in American cooking and cuisine: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and sriracha. She explores the history behind each flavor, often traveling to where the item is grown or manufactured, and the impact it has had on the way we cook and eat. She also includes recipes in each chapter.

The stories are great. Vanilla became a marketable commodity when a slave discovered a method for pollinating the plant by hand. Before vanilla, many American recipes used rose water as a flavoring. She references Kenji Lopez-Alt’s experiments comparing pure vanilla extract to imitation vanilla flavor. In some dishes, like eggnog, the difference is crucial; in others, especially cooked recipes with lots of flavors, you can’t tell between them and would be better off with the cheaper substitute.

David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee, created Huy Fong sriracha sauce for his fellow ex-pats but saw it become a popular commodity and even a snack food flavor.

Black pepper became widely available in America after U.S. traders treated Sumatran growers much more fairly and respectfully than their British colonial overlords.

Lohman’s chapter on MSG is especially interesting. Monosodium glutamate, or closely-related compounds, occur naturally in many foods, yet MSG has gotten a reputation as a dangerous chemical. Numerous studies have shown that MSG, in normal quantities and when combined with food, is not to blame for the vast majority of symptoms attributed to it. And many people who scrupulously avoid MSG at Chinese restaurants consume it in processed foods without realizing. The same Japanese scientist who first isolated MSG coined the term “umami” for the fifth taste (joining sweet, salty, bitter and sour). Nearly a century later, scientific research proved that the taste buds that react to the savory umami flavor are, in fact, reacting to glutamates — whether naturally occurring in beef, mushrooms or tomatoes, or added by way of MSG.

Garlic has an interesting cultural history in the U.S. In the days when anti-immigrant prejudice was directed towards Italians, garlic was associated with Italian food and scorned. I can’t believe Lohman didn’t mention “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in which Mr. Potter disparages George Bailey’s work in providing homes for “a bunch of garlic-eaters.” But when garlic was perceived as an element of fancy French cuisine, it became acceptable, and eventually the anti-Italian sentiment waned as well.

Lohman is a wonderful storyteller, whether she’s talking about San Antonio’s chili queens or visiting a Mexican vanilla farm. The book is both informative and enjoyable, a great combination. (It was tough to read on Monday, when I was on a liquid diet in preparation for Tuesday.) I strongly recommend it.