The 28-volume “Edible Series” food history books from British publisher Reaktion and the University of Chicago Press launched in 2008 with three clothbound “global histories”: “Pizza,” “Pancake,” and “Hamburger.” The publisher has produced another half dozen titles each year since. The latest in this curtly titled series were released this month: “Gin,” “Rum,” “Vodka,” and “Herbs.”
Each installment has the same structure. In each slim volume, the subject is followed through history with an eye toward cultural impact and evolution. The final chapter details current (and often odd) enjoyment around the world. The volumes are illustrated in color and black-and-white. Appendices provide recipes and brand-roundup blurbs.
If the format sounds formulaic, rest assured that the writing is often inspired. The author of “Rum,” Richard Foss, is a Los Angeles-based science fiction writer and restaurant critic who originally lobbied the series editor to accept a book on pickles. Urbane, wry, and unafraid to editorialize, Foss brings us the intrigues of the colonial Caribbean, the molasses rotguts of Massachusetts, cachaça rebellion in Brazil, and Hawaiian tiki drinks.
As Napoleonic wars cut off the world’s supply of brandy, the military fuel for colonial expansion became rum, limes, and sugar. Fortunes were won, and societies transformed. Foss manages to tell the story with restraint and relish, providing recipes to accompany the history. Ernest Hemingway, Captain Bligh, and Trader Vic’s make appearances. Through it all, Foss remains a food writer. By the middle of the book, you will be craving a shrub, punch, daiquiri, or mai tai.
Foss addresses the racial exploitation we called “triangle trade” in middle school with thoughtfulness and images of disturbing advertisements for rums of the era. “Rum” is a book that would stand on its own, even if it were not marketed as part of what a series spokesperson called “collectible books for foodies.”
Not all the books in the Edible Series are as strong. “Vodka,” written by Patricia Herlihy, a professor at Emmanuel College and specialist in Russian history, reads more like a study than a narrative. Her voice is buried under quotations and citations. Like vodka itself, the extensive research seems distilled down to the point where there is little or no flavor, only facts.
Herlihy’s interesting country-by-country survey of the world’s vodkas goes on too long. Since vodkas differ only slightly — we learn vodka is ideally pure ethanol and water — she focuses on the packaging and marketing. Here, the author’s detachment is a liability. Citing “several” unnamed sources, she writes “vodka is a preferred drink among the gay community, partly because it is perceived as less fattening than other alcoholic beverages.” Herlihy then brightly details vodka marketing tactics used to target young African-Americans and Latinos.
“Herbs” by Gary Allen is ambitious. The book defines an herb as almost any leafy plant, then tries to catalog the taste and history of all of them. Long, comma-delimited lists of herbs often accompany the description of a historic garden, or a historical book. But the savory charm of these plants comes through, as does the enormous and exotic diversity we in North America seldom get to taste.
The “Gin,” volume seems particularly well-timed; the spirit is enjoying a US renaissance. Author Lesley Jacobs Solmonson brings us through gin’s history at a blistering pace that manages to satisfy with plenty of drama and botanicals. Somerset Maugham, Dorothy Parker, The Dutch East India Company, and Robert Benchley (”I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”) all get their due.
The books may be aiming at a baseline of collectibility and “facts you can share at a party” as the company’s US marketing representative put it. If so, they often overshoot the goal as with “Rum,” and the excellent “Hamburger” (2008).
Here’s hoping for pickles in 2013.
Gin: A Global History
by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
167 pp., illustrated, $17
Herbs: A Global History
by Gary Allen
166 pp., illustrated, $17
Rum: A Global History
by Richard Foss
141 pp., illustrated, $17
Vodka: A Global History
by Patricia Herlihy
165 pp., illustrated $17