• Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

Review: Matt Siegel's The Secret History of Food

Updated: Mar 2



Are you a foodie? Think you know a lot about the foods you consume? Looking for an entertaining and humorous book filled with historical facts about food that may or may not make your mouth water? Then this is the book for you!


In The Secret History of Food: Strange But True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat (HarperCollins), Matt Siegel writes about the history of vanilla, corn, apple pie, cereal, honey, chilies, tomatoes, potatoes, and much more.


Did you know that the vanilla bean is not a bean but an edible fruit that grows on orchids and that the name vanilla comes from the Spanish vainilla which comes from the Latin vagina? The chapter on the history of vanilla and vanilla ice cream, the world's number one ice cream flavor, is fascinating.


The chapter on corn is an eye-opener. Corn, which involves niacin deficiency, vampires, and cannibalism in hamsters, and is found in everything we eat in all forms, including high-fructose corn syrup, has absolutely no nutritional value. Siegel adds, "...the average American consumes about three pounds of food containing corn or corn products everyday...." That shiny apple you are enjoying is made possible by a food-grade wax made of corn.


The chapter on the history of cold cereals is jaw-dropping. Mr. Graham, Mr. Kellogg, and Mr. Post created breakfast cereals for the self-denial of sexuality and masturbation, and to cure appendicitis, malaria, and heart disease. And adding honey (Siegle also devotes a chapter to the history of honey) to cereal was asking for trouble on the road to "chronic masturbation, and by proxy, baldness, habitual depression, morbid predispositions, fetid breath, and permanent darkness over one's wretched soul."


And who doesn't love potatoes and tomatoes, the most consumed vegetables in the US. But apparently, once upon a time, people refused to eat potatoes because they associated them with witchcraft, Devil worship, and causing syphilis. As for tomatoes, they were viewed as poisonous and used to call werewolves. Siegel points to several years of court battles in the US before the the tomato was finally deemed a vegetable and not a fruit because it is served with other vegetables and not with fruit like berries for dessert.


Is anything we eat today healthy? "Even the vitamins in our food aren't to be trusted," writes Siegel. And don't be surprised to discover that the snapper, salmon, or white tuna you ordered at the restaurant is a completely different fish.


Every chapter of Siegel's 10 chapter book is a page-turner chock-full of good stuff and supported by scholarly research from scientists, food historians, paleoanthropologists, psychologists, and nutritionists. The Secret History of Food also contains extensive notes and an index. Add this book to your collection of food/cookbooks.


The Secret History of Food will either make you salivate for more or simply turn your stomach, and make you mad as hell. But in the process, Siegel's conversational and witty writing style and humor will keep you entertained as you digest the good, the bad, and the ugly of the history of food.


©2021


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