My most literary friend, a novelist who puts his advances into tangibles, once asked me, after yet another inflated check for yet another mediocre meal in still another trendy restaurant: “Don’t you ever eat in a dive?” I recall getting rather huffy but then conceding, “No, not in the alleged First World.” Let’s be serious. I was toilet-trained in an outhouse; I was weaned on beans and cornbread off a wood-burning stove — I need a certain level of comfort with my food anymore. But clearly I’m much less choosy with books, since I thoroughly enjoyed one most creme brulee eaters would write off as so much Colombo frozen yogurt.
“World on a Plate” is a classic case of a writer’s reach exceeding his grasp, but anyone with more than a passing interest in how Progresso soup wound up next to Campbell’s and how Goya landed off in a section far from El Paso’s refries should find it gripping. Joel Denker, who teaches history and dabbles in food, promises “a tour through the history of America’s ethnic cuisines” and delivers a supermarket genealogy, and that actually goes down much easier.
It’s all history with a logo, but there’s nothing wrong with that in a book written with such personal passion (unlike so many Food Network cookbooks, say). Denker boils Italian down to Progresso, in a Coppolaesque tale that begins in New Orleans (who knew the name originated with Progress Bakery, where the muffuletta originated?) Turkish is reduced to Colombo, started by Armenian immigrants who hooked America on yogurt. Unfortunately, the book pedros out as it tries to sum up Indian and Chinese and Greek with broader strokes, with no convenient story line. But always there are surprises. The last product I would associate with Jewish cuisine is Sara Lee cheesecake.
I’m enough of a word freak to be happy to keep this book sitting alongside more serious histories, like Evan Jones’s “American Food.” Sometimes a felafel comes in handy.