The Taste Makers:
How New World Foods Came to Old World Kitchens

by Vicki Oppenheimer

Milpah Press and FLF Press, 2003. ISBN 097227071X.
Reviewed by Lee Ambrose
Posted on 11/04/2004

Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Vicki Oppenheimer's opening words about her cherished, eighty-year-old recipe cards immediately identify her as one who understands those aged recipe boxes and the memories that can be found in each of them. This spry 90-something author is a resident in the city I call home—Naples, Florida. When I reviewed her book On the Nature of Food, a little more than a year ago, I was fascinated by her determination to write and publish a book at her age. I was also drawn to her love affair with food and recipes because of my own personal project involving recipes from several generations of my family.

The Taste Makers is a fascinating look at food from "the New World. Foods that, when introduced to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, saved millions of people from starvation and enormously increased the entire world's food resources and tremendous population growth."

This book is filled with all sorts of interesting trivia and history for various foods we consider commonplace. For instance, did you know that nearly 60% of the world's diet has its origin in New World plants? How about the fact that the cultivation of spice plants precedes the beginning of history? Or that Europeans in the early history of the potato did not embrace the potato as a form of sustenance. Potatoes were thought to be for "naked savages only," and there were rumors that the potato could cause leprosy. The tomato was originally a weed with little red fruits that grew between the maize and beans.

Also, Mayan farmers planted corn, squash, and beans on mounds called milpahs. They worshipped these three foods as the"three sisters of life." The Spaniards initially rejected chocolate. Once they embraced it, chocolate became a well guarded secret enjoy only by the aristocracy and clergy long before it became popular with the general population.

Each chapter is dedicated to an essential New World food that gained prominence in the Old World kitchens. Following much of the interesting data listed above, the reader learns of the many cultures and countries that were key in the food's place in history. Recipes of all sorts adorn the ending pages of each chapter. Sometimes, helpful hints—how to peel peppers, when to use chili oil, the proper way to blanch edible pods, etc.—also are provided.

This book is a wealth of history, recipes, helpful information, nutritional benefits, and fun food trivia. Oppenheimer rounds out her book with a chapter on "Food Fashions" through the ages. She writes, "If you look at the table of contents you will see that the recipes here are largely made up of grains, fruits and vegetables, with modest quantities of meat, fish, and dairy products. They require little time for preparation, they are made up of easily accessible ingredients and they constitute the healthiest diet in the world. Because so many of them stem from the peasant diets of other centuries, they are in general inexpensive and hearty. They delight my taste buds and I hope they will delight yours."

Yes, Vicki, many of the recipes DO delight my taste buds! I have tried at least one or two recipes from each chapter, and not once was I disappointed!

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