The famed early-19th-century French food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once claimed, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” Matt Siegel takes these words to heart in his delightful and unusual debut, The Secret History of Food, claiming that “what we eat defines us not just physically but psychologically, socially, symbolically, and spiritually.” He traces how apple pie became “the ultimate symbol” of American independence, innovation, and excess, and shares zany facts on everything from vanilla (which was a term of endearment until the 1800s) to honey and chili peppers (both of which have been used in “ritual torture”). An invigorating culinary romp through time, this is a cheeky treat for history buffs and foodies alike.
As a species, we’re hardwired to obsess over food: a core survival mechanism that evolved to reward our ancestors for discovering new (and safe) food sources, stockpiling energy, and avoiding starvation. Yet despite our biological imperative and the resulting trove of modern food media, there remains a hidden side to practically everything we put into our mouths. Here’s a small taste of them, adapted from my new book The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat.
1. Originally, pie crusts weren’t meant to be eaten. Called “coffyns,” they were much thicker and harder than today’s crusts and were thrown away after baking, similar to today’s aluminum foil. It was only due to a scarcity of wheat that American colonists began to literally stretch their crust to become flaky and thin.
2. Vanilla is hardly “vanilla.” Despite its reputation for being plain and ordinary, actual vanilla is anything but. For starters, it’s the world’s second most expensive spice (after saffron) because it grows on orchids that can take years to bloom, only bloom for a few hours, only grow in select areas 25 degrees north or south of the equator (e.g., Mexico and Madagascar), and have to be hand pollinated using a technique developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius. It also gets its name from Spanish conquistadors, who named it after a female sex organ. None of that is ordinary. In fact, most of the people who call vanilla “ordinary” may never have actually tasted it—as up to 99% of the vanilla flavoring in foods is artificial.
3. Our food preferences begin in the womb. Research suggests many of our adult food preferences can be traced back to our mother’s breast milk and amniotic fluid, which absorb flavors from her diet. (Researchers have detected flavors in amniotic fluid ranging from garlic to cumin and curry, while breast milk has been shown to absorb an even broader scope of flavors including carrot, vanilla, mint, alcohol, blue cheese, and cigarettes.) Similarly, studies indicate that our adult preferences for salt are predicted by our mother’s fluid loss during pregnancy, i.e., that heightened morning sickness and maternal vomiting (and thus lowered electrolyte levels) trigger an increased yearning for salt in utero that can last into adulthood, prompting a lifetime of overcompensated salt consumption.
4. During WWII, the United States created a “Fat Salvage Committee” to convert surplus bacon grease into bombs. To spread the word and solicit donations, they enlisted the help of Walt Disney Productions to release a cartoon petitioning “housewives of America” to save their meat drippings and used frying fats for collection by their neighborhood meat dealer: “We and our allies need millions of pounds of fats to help win the war, for fats make glycerin, and glycerin makes explosives!… Your pound of waste fat will give some boy at the front an extra clip of cartridges.”
5. The CIA once tried to assassinate Fidel Castro by spiking his daily milkshake with botulinum toxin. However, the plot failed when the toxic capsule froze and stuck to the inside wall of a freezer where it was hidden in the kitchen of the hotel Havana Libre.
6. Speaking of Castro, he was obsessed with American dairy. He smuggled American ice cream into Cuba; constructed the world’s largest ice cream parlor in Havana; and spent decades funding the genetic manipulation of a dairy “supercow” named Ubre Blanca (“white udder”) that produced four times the milk of American cows, was assigned a security detail in an air-conditioned stable, and was eulogized with military honors and a life-sized marble statue after her death.
7. Food has been weaponized since antiquity. Long before the Fat Salvage Committee and Castro-Milkshake incident, the English were dropping beehives and hot cooking oil from castle walls to defend against sieges; the Aztecs were using chili peppers in manners similar to modern pepper spray; and the Persians were using psychedelic honey to make their enemies hallucinate before attacking them.
8. Many early American breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling, pivoted from beer to ice cream and soda during Prohibition. This was due both to shared manufacturing processes, like bottling and refrigeration, and the fact that fat and sugar made a decent substitute for alcohol for the drowning of one’s emotions. (Other early breweries, such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, switched instead to making cheese.)
9. Hot peppers evolved to repel us. The burn we feel from eating hot peppers is a chemical defense mechanism meant to deter seed-destroying predators, e.g., humans. Meanwhile birds, who swallow seeds whole and beneficially disperse them without damaging them, are immune to these chemicals and don’t feel this burn.
10. Before they were rebranded as Chilean sea bass in 1994, Patagonian toothfish were considered a “trash fish” and thrown away by commercial fisheries. Now, of course, they sell for $29.99 a pound at Whole Foods.