The Edible Series Offers Up Delectable Food for Thought

by Hans Rollman

3 December 2015

What do doughnuts, lamb, sausage and water all share? A fraught and fascinating cultural history.
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Doughnut: A Global History

Heather Delancey Hunwick

(Reaktion)
US: Sep 2015

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Lamb: A Global History

Brian Yarvin

(Reaktion)
US: Sep 2015

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Sausage: A Global History

Gary Allen

(Reaktion)
US: Sep 2015

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Water: A Global History

Ian Miller

(Reaktion)
US: Sep 2015

What do doughnuts, lamb, sausage, and water have in common?

Besides comprising a deliciously unbalanced meal, they’re the latest topics of Reaktion Books’ delectable ‘Edible Series’. Comprised of short, smart volumes detailing the history, politics, and cultural complexity of some of our everyday edibles, the books offer recipes, literary tidbits, and a whole lot more packed into these deceptively small editions. Behind the simple yellow covers lies an erudite exploration of each food item.

What defines a doughnut? It’s not such an easy question to answer. Must a doughnut be deep-fried or baked to truly be a doughnut? (answer: “Deep-frying is as essential to the doughnut as it is to the French fry.”) What sort of dough or batter must be used to make it a doughnut? Must a doughnut have a particular shape to qualify as a doughnut? And what’s with the hole?

These questions may appear tangential to the hungry sweet tooth, but they’re critical in distinguishing doughnuts from fritters, clafoutis, funnel cakes, waffles, and the many other taxonomic off-shoots of the doughnut. Exploring these variations offers a useful point of entry to the colourful history of the doughnut, in all its diverse cultural manifestations (deep-fried balls of dough are, as author Heather Delancey Hunwick observes, universal to almost all cultures).

For the impatient, here’s how Hunwick defines the doughnut: “A doughnut is a deep-fried soft to sticky dough, which may be enriched with eggs, usually but not always shaped or formed as a ring or flattened sphere, and leavened with yeast or other agents to produce a pastry that has a slight crust and a moist, spongy, cake-like interior. It is usually sweetened, either before or after frying, or both, and may be enhanced with inclusions such as jam or dried fruit.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Hunwick explores the history and evolution of doughnuts, their role in pivotal historical events from European colonization of the Americas to the trenches of World War I. They continue to play a role today: a fascinating chapter explores “The Imperial Doughnut”, and the corporate machinations which have given rise to today’s doughnut empires.

The doughnut franchise wars are fascinating in themselves. Dunkin’ Donuts’ biggest competitor, Mister Donut, was actually formed by a Dunkin’ Donuts executive following an internal dispute in the ‘50s. It pursued Dunkin’ Donuts into Japan, and while Dunkin’ Donuts beat a hasty retreat from that market, Mister Donut thrived and is now one of the most powerful doughnut chains in Asia.

Canada’s imperial imprint lies deeper in doughnuts than overseas colonies; the Canadian Doughnut Corporation of the ‘30s (originally an offshoot of the Doughnut Corporation of America) marched with WWII soldiers across Europe, but fizzled after the war. Then in 1964 iconic Canadian hockey player Tim Horton opened his first eponymous doughnut shop, which now controls 80 percent of the Canadian market.

This also demonstrates the complexity of globalized capitalism: for much of its history Tim Hortons hasn’t even been owned by Canadians (from 1995-2006 it was owned by American chain Wendy’s, and in 2014 it was taken over by Brazilian-owned Burger King). Meanwhile, Krispy Kreme has withstood the vicissitudes of the 20th century and several near wipeouts of its own; its vintage-themed franchises are now expanding throughout the Middle East and have their sights set on South America.

Imperialism? Hunwick suggests it’s something more, particularly given the local adaptations franchise doughnuts undergo when they move into a new market. “To their customers around the world they have become essential cultural fixtures, additions to, not substitutes for, their own cultural heritage.”

It’s the unrelenting spread of doughnut franchises, she suggests, that has revitalized the demand for local and independent doughnut shops.

Finally, Hunwick considers the cultural politics of the doughnut: from the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the work of Marcel Proust, to the iconic Homer Simpson. Homer has become a symbol for over-indulgence, but Hunwick offers an alternate viewpoint: in a culture over-saturated with fat-shaming, the commercialization of fitness and the denial of indulgence, Homer’s disregard for such puritanical messaging hearkens to back to an earlier understanding of the virtuous life, where virtue is the product not of abstention, but of moderating indulgence. What better way to indulge than the doughnut?

Other books in the series follow much the same format. Sausage may seem a far cry from doughnuts, but it shares with doughnuts the fact of having been invented, in some form, independently by almost every culture. From their utilitarian origins – a convenient way to transport and store manageable servings of meat from dead animals – to their gourmet, gentrified present, sausages also share with doughnuts the difficulty of definition. All sausages are charcuterie, but not all charcuterie is sausage. Some distinctions are clear – in all sausages, the protein is cut up and then bound back together (so ham is not sausage, although bologna is) – but others are more debatable. Must they be encased? Are patties and meatballs also sausages? What meats are permitted for a sausage to be a sausage? (answer: everything, from goose to mule to shellfish. Oh, and it doesn’t even require meat: there’s vegan ones too!) What seasonings can be added, and how are they preserved and stored? The simple answer is that variations are nearly infinite.

So author Gary Allen explores, region by region, and sometimes country by country, some of the broad categories and local specialties. These are slim volumes, and so far from exhaustive, but there’s an impressive overview here. From the German sulzwurst (a gelatine-bound sausage containing vinegar and/or pickles) to the Lebanese makanek (glazed with pomegranate molasses), from the beef sujuk (prevalent in Islamic countries) to Kazakhstan’s kazy (dried, smoked sausages made with salted horseflesh and garlic) to the Thai sai krok lueat (curry-flavoured blood sausages), the reader can’t help but be struck by the range of ingenuity – and perhaps sometimes desperation – that’s been applied to humanity’s most mobile meat.

Allen also explores the role of sausages in literature (from contemporary puns to Greco-Roman political theatre) and considers the impact of recent technological innovations on sausage-making. His conclusion: despite efforts to gentrify this much-maligned meat, “no one forgets this basic truth: sausages are the food of the people, inexpensive, delicious and just plain fun to eat.”

Lamb, the subject of Brian Yarvin’s volume, have a somewhat more specialized history. Lamb, of course, refers to the meat of sheep less than one year old (meat from sheep that are older than one is what we call mutton). This means lamb was a product of domestication, and this most likely first occurred in the mountains of Iran.

Today sheep-farming and the consumption of lamb can be found all over the world, from Mexican tacos to China’s jellied mutton. Yarvin explores the historical development of different lamb dishes around the world, and engages in some first-hand reportage himself. While lamb might not be as common a dish for many North Americans as some other meats, it’s likely to play a heightened role in the future. As food security becomes a growing concern, farmers are catching on to what probably first attracted their ancestors to sheep-farming thousands of years ago: “Sheep can be raised on land that is not suitable for crops, and their milk, meat and fibre can contribute to local economies. You cannot shear a cow, or milk a chicken.” What’s more, sheep don’t require a lot of space to roam, are fairly docile, and they eat grass, of which they don’t require a lot. “Lamb is the perfect meat for the modern small farmer.”

Ian Miller’s volume on Water offers a different sort of history. He explores the role of an easily defined substance – “a tasteless mixture of oxygen and hydrogen atoms that are chemically bonded together” – across the millennia, from the Incas and ancient Egyptians to the present day. The Roman Empire was in many ways defined by its impressive infrastructure for clean drinking water – technology that was lost for centuries after the collapse of the Empire – but already in 1266 the British were laying out elm and lead pipes to transport water to wealthy homes in the city of London.

He also explores shifting understandings of our bodies’ relationships with water. In many times and places throughout history alcoholic beverages were more common than non-alcoholic drinking water, and indeed for a long time there was a hefty debate as to which was better for our health. Alcohol once had the upper hand, and was considered superior to plain old drinking water. Enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke argued for children to be fed beer instead of water to ensure better health and development. Even Benjamin Franklin argued that humanity had lived in sin and wickedness when it subsisted on water alone, and God justly destroyed them in a flood of this noxious substance. God then revealed to Noah the secret of wine, which helped humanity discover truth and build modern civilization.

Well, eventually the water-drinkers got the upper hand, and the Temperance movement played a pivotal role in the redemption of this erstwhile boring liquid. Appropriately, Miller devotes a chapter to water-lovers’ efforts to make an otherwise bland drink more interesting, from 18th-century German ‘butter water’, to the invention of carbonated water, to the mass marketization of lemonade. He also explores the commercialization of bottled water, and current concerns around the global struggle for access to clean, safe drinking water. Water may be humanity’s simplest edible product, but it’s also one fraught with some of the most complex politics in the present day.

The Edible Series offers more than just quirky histories and quaint recipes. For those who want to understand more about the foods upon which we rely – about how they came to play a role in our diets, and assumed the form they do today – they offer rich and well-researched histories that reveal as much about the humans who consume them as they do the foodstuffs themselves. For the conscious consumer and the discerning diner, these volumes are a delight.

Doughnut: A Global History

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