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Menus That Made History

‘Menus that Made History’ should come with a warning on the cover; because once picked up and opened it is near impossible to put the book down. Start reading and each menu enticingly leads you to the next rather like the courses of a delicious and skilfully planned and executed meal.

We cannot begin to imagine the amount of research that Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson must have carried out to produce this book, but we are so glad they did –it is a joy.

Menus, stories and anecdotes

Between the book’s covers are some 100 menus drawn, as the authors say, from ‘over 2000 years of menus from Ancient Egyptian food for the afterlife to Elvis Presley’s wedding breakfast’.

Along with the menus are the stories behind them: stories of the personalities involved, place in history, anecdotes and every now and again recipes, all supported by charming illustrations.

Menus for nobility and convicts

Did you know for instance that Henry VIII liked marmalade? Evidently it was introduced to him by his first wife Katherine of Aragon. He obviously loved food; the menu for what the king ate on ‘flesh days’ made us almost reach for indigestion tablets – no wonder he grew to be the size he did. And the quantities and ingredients needed for the Duke of Wellington’s Waterloo Banquet must surely have reduced the chefs to nervous wrecks.

However, the prisoners’ diet on Robben Island was so pitifully meagre it makes you want to weep; but the Christmas Day menu for prisoners at Alcatraz in 1929 actually sounds rather good.

Travel and Adventure menus…

We loved the section on Travel and Adventure with its menus and stories which include a dinner on the Orient Express 1884 – the recipe for Fillet of beef with balsamic roasted potatoes, shallots and garlic sauce, looks delicious. We are less sure that we would have like to have joined Captain Scott at his Christmas Dinner in 1911 – pemmican might have been considered high-energy food, it also sounds disgusting.

…and also for Art and Literature

If possible we enjoyed the art and literature section even more. It features Ratty’s Picnics from the enchanting The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – a neat introduction to Edwardian picnics; Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast tells us about the way of life for the Native Americans; and the influence Mrs Beeton had on entertaining in 19th century middle class homes is fascinating.

In the Introduction the authors point out that the book is ‘not really about food – it’s about understanding what [the] culinary snapshots can tell us about certain times and places in our global history’.

A riveting book – we loved it

And that is what makes Menus that Made History such an absolutely riveting book – a cookery book on some pages, a lesson in gastronomy on others, a history or geography lesson’, information on art and literature; there’s even a page or two on space exploration and a suggestion for an IKEA menu of the future.

Congratulations Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson. When is the sequel coming out?

Menus that Made History. Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson. ISBN: 978-0-85783-528-4. UK: £14.99, US: $19.99, Can: $21.99. Kyle Books. kylebooks.co.uk; octopusbooksusa.com

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