Rewriting the History of American Food

Our national cuisine has roots much deeper than the contributions of any individual icon: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A fork with an American flag attached
Getty; The Atlantic

When considering the history of American food, a few notable figures, such as James Beard and Julia Child, invariably come to mind. But our nation’s culinary roots are so much broader and more diverse than what can be captured by considering the work of such a small number of individuals.

For one, even the famous names didn’t work on their own. The author John Birdsall may have written that James Beard embodied American food in his biography The Man Who Ate Too Much, but Birdsall also had to acknowledge that Beard relied on a network of uncredited ghostwriters and editors. Similarly, although Julia Child is often thought of as the singular face of French cooking in the U.S., she actually co-wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking alongside two French women.

And, of course, it’s not just the collaborators of well-known chefs whom history has neglected. Taste Makers by the writer Mayukh Sen aims to expand our memory by profiling some of the overlooked immigrant women who shaped American food. The historian ​​Sarah Lohman brings attention to many others in her book Eight Flavors, including the country’s first celebrity chef: an Indian immigrant named Prince Ranji Smile, who ultimately left the country after his petition for citizenship was denied.

People of color are still disproportionately excluded from mainstream food media, but vital cookbooks celebrate their culinary traditions. The chef Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene honors the food of the Black South. Sean Sherman’s The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen does the same with indigenous cuisine. As Sherman preserves knowledge that was threatened when tribes were forced to resettle, he brings modern eaters closer to America’s original food.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

What We’re Reading

James Beard

Yale Joel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

The “Great Man” theory of American food

“[James Beard] may have felt like an outsider, but Beard still helped build the establishment that now faces a reckoning. Nonetheless, his life is an example of an enduring truth: American food, that undefinable thing, is best represented by the people who cook it and love it. There are just a lot more of them than history tends to remember.”

Julia Child

Hans Namuth / Photo Researchers History / Getty

The key to Julia Child’s success hid in plain sight

“Child possessed a unique qualification that allowed her to be a great teacher of French cooking for Americans: She carried no threat of the outsider.”

collage of chefs and cooking ingredients

Wikimedia / Jiang Hongyan / Aliaksei Smalenski / Sheila Fitzgerald / Carlos Yudica / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

How American cuisine became a melting pot

“American food, which [Sarah] Lohman describes as ‘the most complex and diverse cuisine on the planet,’ offers a unique and surprising view of American history.”

illustration of a dining room table, half in darkness and half in light

Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The table stays white

“As long as mainstream food media continue decontextualizing nonwhite food practices from the communities that have birthed them, and then scrambling to fix PR disasters, the industry will be undone by its own lack of imagination.”

Sean Sherman, also known as the 'Sioux Chef'

Amy Forliti / AP

The ‘Sioux Chef’ reviving Native American cuisine

“Today, farmers, activists, and chefs are … bringing back Native foods—not just to teach all Americans about the indigenous foods of their country, but to improve the lives of Native Americans themselves, who suffer from some of the highest levels of debilitating and often deadly diet-related diseases.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Lives of the Saints, by Nancy Lemann.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.