The Foodlover's Atlas of the World

by Martha Rose Shulman
ISBN: 1552975711

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A Review of: The FoodloverĘs Atlas Of The World
by Jon Kalina

Ask anyone who knows me and they'll agree: I'm an incorrigible know-it-all. I love to tell the story of how I won a free taxi ride in Montreal from a Hungarian taxi driver who bet me the fare over whether I knew the capital of Mongolia. "Ulan Bator," I said promptly. He glowered. I glowed.
The thing is, it's hard work being a know-it-all which is why we need books like Martha Rose Shulman's A Food Lover's Atlas of the World. Therein lie many gems of food know-it-allism, such as the fact that Scotland's "Auld Alliance" with France resulted in the Scots using "jiggot"-from the French "gigot"-for a leg of mutton and "ashet"-from the French word "assiette"-to mean a meat dish. These are good tidbits for table conversation, crossword puzzles and they may even help you decipher a menu in Glasgow. Shulman says she wrote the atlas to place food "in its geographical context" and to answer a question most of us haven't thought to ask: "what do places taste like, and why?" This is not an easy question to answer and Shulman herself admits that she's "barely scratched the surface." What you do get is an over view of the world's major cuisines: what people eat, when they eat it and what it might look like on a menu.
The book is divided into major areas-i.e. Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Australasia and the Americas. These regions are further sub-divided, not by countries but into regions of culinary influence so that Britain and Ireland are together as are Russia and Eastern Europe. Some cuisines may get short shrift here (for example Poland goes virtually unmentioned) but the book covers an impressive amount of ground and is hefty enough at three hundred pages.
Shulman's particularly good on a favorite topic of mine which is to trace some of the great migrations that foods have taken. Just as there's no such thing as racial or linguistic purity there's no such thing as culinary purity either. The most "traditional" cuisines are really tangy mixtures of many different food cultures. The Italians didn't have tomatoes until the Spanish brought them to Europe from Mexico; nor did the Chinese or the Indians have chilies until the Portuguese brought them. Likewise there was no paprikas in Hungary, no peanuts in Africa and no potatoes in Ireland until savvy Europeans introduced them.
In a rather nice passage Shulman writes about the circuitous food routes that gave North African cuisine its distinctive range of tastes. After centuries as a Roman province the Maghreb, as the area is called, was conquered in the 8th century by Arabs who brought with them a Persian-influenced cuisine. Eight centuries later hundreds of thousands of Moors and Jews who were expelled by the Catholic "Reconquista" of Spain came to the Maghreb, bringing with them a rich Hispano-Muslim culinary tradition which included such new flavors as potatoes, tomatoes and chilies.
And what about our own country? How does Canada fit into a foodlover's atlas of the world? Unfortunately when Ms. Shulman comes to us she seems to run out of things to say. Canada only rates two pages, which in my darker moments I think might be just what we deserve, although surely we've come a long way since the National Lampoon gave this mordant recipe for Canadian food: "freeze and put in a blander."
For instance, Shulman might have found something else to say of my home province of Quebec other than we like our food spicier than New Englanders, and that the black iron kettle is the focal point of Quebecois cuisine (something that I dare say hasn't been the case for a century). This last idea is in fact so wrong that it casts doubts on the accuracy of the rest of the book.
I have a few other quibbles-sometimes her information is just too obvious: are there any English speakers unaware that the British like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or that they drink tea?
A more important criticism is that any book calling itself an atlas should have maps-something the book lacks utterly. If the publisher wouldn't spring for even a single map they should have found a different title.
That being said, the book is full of photographs, pleasantly written and informative, and if you're lucky some nugget of information might even earn you a free taxi ride.

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