The Secret History of Food


Matt Siegel




Date Reviewed:

December 11, 2021

he Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat is an excellent non-fiction book. It explains its topic, which in this case is food, with tons of interesting details, offering explanations and insight that are certain to surprise you. I found myself sharing some info in this book with family and friends (of course, in these pandemic times, the sharing was done via email). The book is only 193 pages long, but so stuffed with information that it must have taken a boatload of research to come up with all the obscure details in each chapter. There are at least 30 pages of notes at the end of the book. I looked to see if Matt Siegel had written anything else, but it appears that he hasn't yet. Hopefully, Siegel is working on his next book.

Here is an example of what I found interesting: In the 1980s, the A&W chain decided to one-up McDonald's by offering a burger that was 1/3 lb, less expensive than McDonald's quarter pounder, and their burger rated higher in taste tests. But A&W's experiment failed because Americans are bad at fractions and thought that 1/3 of a pound was less than a 1/4 of a pound.

There are ten chapters in the book. The first chapter talks about eating in general. Cooking allows humans to digest food easier, meaning we don't have to spend so much time chewing. The invention of cooking meant humans could evolve with small jaws and bigger brains (bigger brains require more calories, which cooking makes available). Children who are breast fed have wider ranging food interests than babies who are fed formula through a bottle. If the mother eats vegetables and chilis and acidic or spicy foods while breast feeding, then the baby is likely to grow up more open to different food experiences.

Chapter 2 is about pie. The British cooked meat pies with incredibly thick inedible crusts - in a world without refrigeration or plastic containers, a tough pie crust was a convenient way to transport food. The crust was meant to be discarded after the meaty filling was consumed. But in the American colonies, the pie was filled with fruit, especially apples. Due to a shortage of wheat in the new world, the American crusts were thinner and flakier - and thus were edible. And so American's ate the pie crust as well. It's as American as apple pie.

Chapter 3 is all about breakfast cereals. This convenient breakfast staple was invented by the Kellog's brothers, who had a major dispute between them about the ownership of cornflakes. Supermarkets place cheaper generic cereals on the bottom shelf because many people are too lazy to bend down to pick them out from there. Children's cereals are placed on the shelf that is at a child's eye level. In the 19th century, there was a popular health food advocate named Sylvester Graham (1794-1851) who preached against the dangers of sugar, refined flour, cinnamon and commercial bakeries, among other things. A couple of decades after Graham's death, the National Biscuit Company (now called Nabisco) created a "healthy" snack food and called them Graham Crackers to fool people into thinking Graham had invented them.

Chapter 4 is about corn, and just how much humanity depends upon it. Corn began as a wild grass called teosinte, which was just a few tiny kernels in a hard pod. Hundreds of generations of cross breeding and seed selection resulted in the huge ears of corn we enjoy today. Corn is now dependent on humanity for propagation - without a human to pluck the kernels from the cob and sow them, corn would not grow. Even if you don't eat corn directly, it still has a myriad of uses, such as ethanol in cars, corn sweeteners, corn starch or feed for the livestock that becomes our meat.

Chapter 5 is honey, a remarkable food that amazed the ancients. It needs no refrigeration, and yet never spoils. In eras with lousy food sources, honey was seen as a miracle food. There are numerous examples of the bizarre properties that the Egyptians and Romans believed honey possessed. Despite the fact that honey is made from insects, it is nevertheless considered a kosher food.

Chapter 6 - is about vanilla, the second most expensive spice on the planet (the most expensive is saffron). Almost all vanilla that is purchased in the store is an artificial substitute. There is a lot of talk about ice cream in this chapter. In WWII, bomber crews would strap a barrel of cream and sugar to the side of their plane. The turbulence and vibrations of the plane would churn the mixture, while the cold at high altitude froze the concoction, so that if the bomber survived the mission, they would have a barrel full of ice cream when the plane landed back at base.

Chapter 7 is all about feasting, which Siegel calls the Cockaigne. Catholics are not supposed to eat eggs during Lent, so Easter eggs are a symbol that Easter has arrived.

Chapter 8 is about the abundance of food in our culture. One thing that is interesting is just the incredible amount of food items available to us. The average grocery store sells 9000 items. Today's Americans eat better than 99% of humanity has through the ages - the wines you buy at the gas station mini-mart are better than the wines once served to kings. There are over 50 (!) varieties of Oreo cookies! (Including the Halloween special orange "creme" cookies. They cannot call the center filling of the Oreos "cream" because there is no dairy product in the middle of an Oreo.) Think of all the different flavors of Pringles, ice cream or beer. There are walls of tomato sauce flavors. But oddly, these incredible number of choices doesn't make us happier because too much choice means that we can't try all the varieties and so feel we are missing out. They did an experiment for free taste testing of 30 flavors of jam - and big crowds lined up to try all the different flavors. But only 3% of people who sampled the many jam flavors actually bought a jar to take home. Then they limited the free taste testing to just 6 flavors of the jam. Not nearly as many people lined up to try the jams - but 30% of the people who did sample the six flavors ended buying a jar to take home. The point is that with just six flavors, a consumer can make an accurate decision about which flavor they like best, and so they can buy that jam and take it home. With thirty flavors of jam to choose from, the decision is overwhelming, and people end up frustrated and make no decision at all.

Chapter 9 talks about hot chilis, and why humans eat them. Chilis contain a hot substance called capsaicin which is supposed to make their food unpalatable to humans. Birds are insensitive to capsaicin, chilis want to be eaten by birds, because chili seeds pass through a bird's system and then are spread far and wide, and are started with a dose of natural fertilizer. Chili seeds that are eaten by birds are 4x more likely to sprout than uneaten seeds. But despite their hotness, (or, because of the hotness) humans persist in eating chilis, and now, ironically, we have spread chili plants on vaster scale than could ever be achieved by dispersal by birds.

Chapter 10 is about how much fraud there is in food. The FDA cannot possibly keep and track the tens of thousands of different food items we import and consume. Numerous studies of fish find that the majority of them are mislabeled - the "tuna" is not tuna, the "lobster" is not lobster. It isn't just sea food that is mislabeled. Vitamins, honey, olive oil - it is an extensive list of food items that are deceptively labeled. Basically, if it isn't fresh food that you cook yourself, you cannot trust what is in it.

Overall, there is much to like in The Secret History of Food! There is an over-abundance of good books out there to read these days, but this is one choice that I don't regret making.