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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Hungry? Barbara Haber serves up nine tasty slices of American history in this intriguing look at American cooks and meals. Whether writing about the Civil War nurses who not only served the sick but had to lock up the liquor or the famous Harvey Girls who answered the call to go west and waitress, Haber explores just what these resourceful women did and how they changed the nation in the process.
As curator of books at one of the nation's most famous collections of women's history, Haber has always regarded cookbooks as primary historical references, often more reliable than academic material. The vast cookbook collections at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University only encouraged this inclination.
"Food was my way of discovering unforeseen but revealing aspects of otherwise well-documented events," writes Haber. "So, for example, the importance of food in defining life came home to me in diaries written by Americans who were herded into Japanese prison camps in the Philippines after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and had to reconstruct their lives around whatever food they could find to eat."
Haber's choice of stories is fresh, and she tells them with great enthusiasm, salted with details from contemporary diaries, memoirs, and cookbooks. She writes of reformers and pioneers, kooks and collectors, do-gooders and researchers. Her cast of characters include Sylvester Graham (17941851), who tried to convert an indifferent public from corn, pork, and molasses to a vegetarian diet, and Fred Harvey, who introduced fastidious lunchrooms to train passengers going west in the late 19th century.
Haber loves a good story. She thoroughly enjoys the "fat narratives" in bestselling diet books (Elizabeth Takes Off! is a favorite); she is intrigued by the Window Shop, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant started by Harvard faculty wives to help Jewish refugees from World War II.
Then there's the kitchen in the FDR White House, ruled by the indomitable Mrs. Nesbitt, who routinely turned out mediocre food. Guests going to a state dinner were warned by others to eat before leaving home. Even the president himself finally complained to his wife, Eleanor: "I am getting to the point where my stomach positively rebels and this does not help my relations with foreign powers. I bit two of them today."
Contemporary recipes are included in each chapter, so that readers may taste the actual French Apple Pie with Nutmeg Sauce served by the Harvey Company, the Mock Apple Pie occasioned by food shortages in the Civil War, or, if they dare, the Ashville Salad (one can tomato soup, two cakes Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and gelatin) served at the FDR White House. (Ginger Curwen)