The Taste of Empire


For the last decade or two, books claiming that a certain improbable foodstuff, idea, or country "made the modern world" have been much in vogue. I'm a sucker for the genre, and judging by the steady drip of such books from both mainstream and academic publishing houses, I must not be alone.

Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (Basic Books) is an above-average entrant in this crowded field. The book leans into its own whimsy, with such chapter titles as "In which diamond miners cook up an iguana curry at a rum shop in Guyana during the rainy season."

The book begins with salt cod on a doomed ship in 1545 and ends with the awkward turkey curry buffet from Bridget Jones's Diary. Nearly all the historical vignettes and recipes in between are equal parts fascinating and horrifying, in the way only pre-germ theory food handling can be.