Make Way for Public Markets?

Make Way for Public Markets?

While farmers’ markets are become more common attractions, public markets like Pike Place or the Pittsburgh Public Market are still fairly hard to come by in urban areas.

At a gathering I attended a few years ago in downtown Austin, the breakfast fare said it all. Organic yogurt, locally produced honey, and fresh breakfast tacos broke from the usual offerings of croissants and Danish pastries. This crowd was invested in their food — emotionally and economically — as farmers, chefs, city planners, food activists, non-profits and individuals gathered to learn about the possibility of bringing a public food market to Austin. Like many urban areas across the country, Austin has farmers markets but no public market — yet. Why is that?

The answer requires a brief tour of public market history and our relationship with food. The relationship has always been contentious, as cities all over the world have historically been defined by their food markets and yet have moved their markets farther and farther away. Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back. 

“Struggles over land values, sanitation and urban design have left most public food markets out in the hinterlands. And now city dwellers want them back.”

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Why? You’ve probably noticed a farmers market or two in your city, selling food from local producers and feeding a growing desire to meet those who produce our food, shake their rough hands and hear their stories.

Since the 1970s, environmentalists and the organic movement have been advocating for food to rejoin our urban landscapes, both to keep local businesses in business and to build stronger connections between producers and consumers. Some argue that the presence of farmers markets in a city adds to the social fabric, sense of community and aesthetics of the urban experience.

Great, you say. In a digital, industrialized world, we all need more humanity.  

But today’s desire to bring food back to our urban landscape runs counter to the ejection of large public food markets that began in earnest during the mid-19th century when cities began to modernize. City dwellers wanted to leave behind their rough, tough rural lives. What’s more, food production was viewed as a threat to sanitation, a serious problem in the 19th century, when diseases like cholera rolled through urban landscapes. By the 20th century many cities saw their public markets as occupiers of space that could be developed to create more revenue, provide more sanitation and improve vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

A few of these public markets refused to budge, but now they seem to be on their way out, too. Smithfield meat market in London and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo are both big historic markets that are in the crosshairs of developers and urban improvement programs. Both define their neighborhoods, have historic roots and contribute to the social and economic fabric of their host cities.

London’s Smithfield meat market opened in 1868, and Tsukiji, began its evolution as the world’s largest fish market in 1935. In Smithfield’s case, the City of London owns the land occupied by the market, and the market has come under attack several times during the past few decades because of increasing congestion around the market and the anomaly of the occupation of prime, centrally located space as a place for a wholesale meat market. The history of London’s meat market has been contentious for most of its 800-year history, so this battle for its place in London’s landscape is familiar.

Smithfield Market

Smithfield Market, in London…for now.

Some of Smithfield’s buildings have been deteriorating while the neighborhood has been modernizing and becoming a trendy area for new restaurants and businesses. Plans for a real estate company to redevelop the market were accepted and then scrapped, and now it looks as though the western buildings are to be renovated and become home to the Museum of London.

In Tokyo, the fish market, Tsukiji, has become a tourist attraction, a trend fed by the announcement of its removal nearly two decades ago. The announcement met opposition at first but then gradually gained support, even of the union associated with the market in spite of those who objected the loss of the neighborhood’s culture and history. Costs for the removal have risen but the decision to build a new market outside of the center of Tokyo will most likely stick. The arrival of the Olympic games and the need for the world’s largest fish market to conform to global sanitation requirements are important to Japan’s overall economic and diplomatic status.

In Austin, though, it looks like we’re ready to bring our food back to the city. The St. Elmo Public Market is slated to open in South Austin within a matter of months. This new experiment sits within changing tides of urban development as food markets come and go and attitudes change about how we view food, the countryside, and our public spaces. Are the battles over Smithfield and Tsukiji relevant to cities such as Austin? Or is Austin exceptional in some way that could allow it to break new ground for those who want a closer relationship with their food?

Ernesto’s Choripán Stand

Ernesto’s Choripán Stand

Pedro and his son, Ernesto, have sold choripán sandwiches in Buenos Aires every day for seven years.

Pedro Molina’s white teeth reflect the Argentinian sun, making a steady gaze into his eyes almost unbearable. For some reason, his smile reveals only his lower teeth, gleaming and even. Sitting in Buenos Aires under one of the umbrellas that shade the tables surrounding his stand, Pedro speaks with a low, soft voice as he describes his life as a vendor of choripán, a combination of chorizo and pan (bread), the two main ingredients of the classic Argentinian sandwich. Pedro flashes his smile throughout our conversation, revealing that row of bright white teeth every time.

“This is a man who shows up for work for reasons other than grilling sausages.”

His bright red and yellow choripán stand, a parilla or grill, bears his son’s name, Ernesto. They have worked side by side, day after day, for at least seven years. Families, hungover teens and grandmothers who are walking along the broad sidewalk that borders the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve along the Rio de la Plata buy their Argentinian chorizo sandwiches here.

Pedro describes his family in San Juan province, a rocky section of Argentina located along the western border with Chile. They raised pigs that sometimes wandered through the house. Since he was six years old, Pedro worked alongside his father, fattening their pigs so they could make sausage, and he grew up grilling chorizo. His father was an artisan of sorts, fabricating leather harnesses for horses. He was also an owner of a fruit business and came from a family that produced a long line of cooks. Before setting up his choripán stand, Pedro did just about everything “except being a thief.” He sold cars, fruit, and vegetables, and he worked in a family-run leather store. Seven years ago, those memories sparked his interest in starting a sandwich stand selling choripán.

Now, in his mid-60s, Pedro reflects upon the many jobs that came before his beloved choripán stand. He speaks earnestly about the importance of work to a sense of wellbeing. And he has strong opinions about work, an activity that he says “dignifies the human soul,” expressing what he describes as man’s innate character of active love. This is a man who shows up for work for reasons other than grilling sausages.

Pedro glances back and forth between my notebook, where I’m furiously writing, and his son, who is frantically setting up the stall for the day’s business. Pedro compliments Ernesto’s mastery of the grill, but he is ambivalent about any plan to have his son take over the business. Raising both hands to the sky, he reveals those white teeth, smiles and sighs as he says that fate will determine what his son does in the future. Perhaps Pedro holds the hope of a family succession plan, but all indications that day were that he is content to leave the decision up to Ernesto, who at this moment is grilling up a mountain of fresh chorizo for the day’s lunch rush.

But Pedro has no desire to hand over his business just yet. He wants to continue to work, and judging from his late arrival to our interview, he’s in the thick of day-to-day operations of his choripán stand. He was an hour late for our meeting, a large man arriving in a small car, hurriedly unloading a plastic bag of pork chorizo that had been stored in his home refrigerator after that week’s heat wave caused a power outage in the city.

Pedro is getting impatient with all the questions about how his business worked and wanted to know why we hadn’t talked more about the choripán sandwiches he sells to his customers. Most of his customers are tourists who don’t buy the choripán but instead consume dozens of hamburgers and other pork and beef sandwiches such as bandiolas, spicy meat sandwiches made of pork or chicken. He sells about forty choripáns a day, and more on weekends. But Pedro is genuinely disappointed that we hadn’t spent most of our interview talking about his choripán sandwiches.

Unable to deflect his invitation, I ask how he makes choripán. With those blazing white teeth on display, he invites me to sidle up alongside Ernesto as his son cooks a chorizo sausage, slicing it open so that it cooks evenly and flat against the hot grill. The smell of sausage and spices fills the small space inside the stand, making it nearly impossible to suppress the desire for a bite of the grilled chorizo. When the sausage is glazed with its own grease, Ernesto gingerly lays it inside a sandwich roll that is similar in taste and texture to a French baguette.

“The smell of sausage and spices fills the small space inside the stand, making it nearly impossible to suppress the desire for a bite of the grilled chorizo.”

Ernesto insists that the classic choripán, his preference, is just chorizo, chimichurri sauce and a combination of oil, vinegar, oregano, cumin, parsley, garlic, red pepper and fennel. He’s wild about oregano, but he provides a table for his customers that satisfies their desire for mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato and other spicy sauces —all dismissed by Pedro with a brief wave of his hand as unnecessary embellishments for the humble, grilled chorizo nestled in the slightly warmed, soft white bun.

His life and the lives of those he works with mingle in the public park where his stand sits at the end of the paved, tree-lined walkway. The choripán stalls along the walkway are open twenty-four hours a day, every day. When we arrived at 10:00 a.m., all the stall owners were cleaning the grills, stocking new charcoal and taking deliveries of soft drinks, paper napkins, onions and meat. The choripán stalls are kept open with continual deliveries of supplies, people and customers.

“You can imagine a subculture of choripán stall workers whose families have grown up living in these buses, eating grilled meat, raising families, playing music, and cobbling together a work/life existence that keeps choripán coming night and day.”

Lined up along the curb near the stalls are several repainted, beat-up, old buses in all sizes and stages of dilapidation. Stall workers, still seemingly sleepwalking, wander in and out of the buses where they sleep, from time to time. You can imagine a subculture of choripán stall workers whose families have grown up living in these buses, eating grilled meat, raising families, playing music, somehow cobbling together a work/life existence that keeps choripán coming night and day.

Pedro wraps the freshly made choripán and hands it to me with this beefy but manicured hands. With his reading glasses swinging back and forth around his neck, he turns back to the grill, ready to greet the lunch crowd as they emerge from the neighboring high rises. Another day selling sandwiches, day after day, twenty-four-hours a day, all year, as in the past seven years, Pedro and his son, Ernesto, greet customers in the bright, hot, Argentinean sunshine.

Can Food Be Too Local?

Can Food Be Too Local?

While shooting your own dinner is the sine qua non of localness, you should be allowed to draw the line.

At Kelmscott Farm, I raised farm animals that met their death for the sake of high-end restaurants. On a recent weekend, I was shooting birds for sport, and yes, for food. But pulling the trigger put my meal just too close for comfort.

I joined a group of women who, judging from their gun bags and hunting attire, were experienced hunters. I, on the other hand, arrived on the first morning wearing blue jeans, a running jacket, and a fuzzy winter hat. My motivation for joining these women was to know more about the clamor to eat local food, to be close to food and to know its origins — and even the sometimes the unglamorous path that food takes to our plates.

Why does anyone hunt? Some hunt to eat. When we lived in Maine, our neighbors were grateful when deer season came, that dusky month or two that enabled them to kill enough deer to fill their freezers until the spring when their gardens took over as a source of food. Others hunt for sport. Some say they hunt to gain a sense of control over their circumstances, a connection with their food, an almost primal feeling of making and creating their own sustenance. George Orwell explains why he shot an animal in his 1936 essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” But he was commenting on British imperialism, and I am only musing about a weekend with women who shoot pheasants.

It’s not quite like making your own cheese, drying your own jerky or fermenting your own beer. Killing your own meat requires an ability to suffer the suffering of a living animal—in this case, a beautiful bird with sapphire- and amethyst-colored feathers, whose wings flapped, their soft sound veering overhead as it was flushed out of the dry grasses.

“It’s not quite like making your own cheese, drying your own jerky or fermenting your own beer.”

I was brilliant on the skeet range, carefully aiming the gun, peering down the muzzle and waiting intently for the speck of orange to fly up in the air or skitter across the ground. But in the field, I held back, fumbling, hesitating and hoping others would cover for me.

It appeared that I couldn’t bag a bird. But my eagle eyes enabled me to return to the lodge with one. I spied it in the grass and pointed it out to the pointer dogs, who then scooped it up and mangled it to death for my benefit, enabling a triumphant return to Austin with a cooler and a pheasant, which most thought I shot. Actually, I just pointed, and the pointers got the point.

While hunting for my next meal probably won’t be in my future, getting to know these women and learning how to load a shotgun was time well spent. And all those missed shots and spent bullets raised for me the possibility that you can be too close to your food, at least as defined by the length of your rifle.

Baker’s Holiday

Baker’s Holiday

January is just about the worst time to meet the owner of a bakery in Buenos Aires, or any business owner, for that matter.

Marcelo, the owner of La Sud América, a bakery in the Almagro neighborhood in Buenos Aires, was texting me with the news that he would be available for a brief meeting before he taking off for a holiday with his family. Like our summer months, Argentinian winters are prime vacation months for families with children out of school, which means that many businesses hang cerrado (closed) signs on their doors to indicate they are off for the holidays. So I was lucky to find to find a few minutes when Marcelo could show me around his small shop.

During the 19th century, Almagro was home to Italians and Basque families.  As a haven for immigrants, the area also became home to the tango culture, built on the amalgamation of social customs and cultures.

Knowing that Marcelo would be anxious to escape the sweltering heat in the city, I located the shop and peered underneath the partially raised and profusely graffiti-covered metal door. He greeted me with a warm, Argentinian bear hug and led me to his office in back of the retail bakery shop. Marcelo wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a black T-shirt, a silver necklace, and on one wrist, a huge sport watch with a yellow band and oversized, orange numerals. If his attire said anything, it said, “I’m not a baker today, just a guy wanting to be on a beach somewhere, looking cool.”

We moved beyond the retail shop, where wood and glass cases stood empty, worn labels revealing absent pastries and breads such as libritos and cremonas. A gleaming red paper cutter occupied an imposing position at the end of the counter to wrap purchases in white paper printed with the bakery’s decorative logo.

But the most impressive display in the small shop was the laminated article from Carghill News that had featured Marcelo and his bakery in 2007. There on the front page was Marcelo, holding a freshly baked loaf of bread in front of his old, brick oven. The antique oven is the main attraction of his small operation, built in the 1890s and one of the last remaining old brick ovens. (A famous bakery, L’Epi, located in Chacarita, has an oven built in 1919.) While boasting about its survival all these years, he complained about the annoyances that arose when bricks broke and he had to scour the city for hard-to-find replacements. Of course I wanted to see it, but for some reason Marcelo explained that it wasn’t available for viewing since the shop was closed. It didn’t make much sense to me, but who wants to push their luck when they have a shop owner who is technically on vacation offer to spend an afternoon explaining his business? Not me.

“Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread.”

Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread, and he makes much use of his brick oven. But despite the notoriety from the Carghill News, he’s not a big fan of Carghill flour. He reasoned that the company mixes grain from multiple growers and thus, in Marco’s opinion, the quality of the product varies from shipment to shipment, depending upon the mix from unknown sources. Instead, he buys from a smaller, Argentinian flour provider that purchases grains from a smaller and more familiar set of farmers.

One has to take this with a grain of salt, since the Argentinian government is in the midst of issuing tariff regulations and subsidies on a rather irregular and unpredictable basis. The country has been one of the largest exporters of wheat in Latin America, but recent bad weather has lowered production so that the grain harvest available for export after filling orders from Argentinian mills has rapidly declined. Even domestic mills are anxious about having enough grain to keep busy. All of these factors muddy Marcelo’s rationale for moving from Carghill to an Argentinian mill. He did explain that the mill gave him a “good” price because it liked the idea that Marcelo used the antique oven.

Marcelo led me from his empty shop to his back office, a rat’s nest of papers, dirty cups and empty soda bottles, shrink-wrapped boxes of paper goods, files and random items such as old, broken headphones amidst computers and closed-circuit security screens. The place was a mess, but Marcelo wanted me to believe he was in control of the apparent chaos as he half answered questions, holding the remote control for the air conditioning system in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Both were in operation at the same time.

But his attempt to appear in command failed when he was unable to locate the original copy of the Carghill article. He stepped out of his office to place a telephone call to his mother, who apparently has a mental map of all contents of Marcelo’s office. From the hallway, I could overhear his plea for help, which was proceeded by a plaintive “Mommy?” This tough baker, who owned not only this shop but also two bar/cafes, had suddenly become someone’s little boy.

He found the file, but in his enthusiasm for producing useful items from his files, he also pressed two books into my hands, explaining that they were old classics of his trade with recipes for traditional breads. These books, from the 1950s and ’60s, were at one time loved by some baker, and their pages were bent and soiled with butter and grease. Nothing like an old book to seal a friendship for life.

Marcelo never stopped walking, talking, texting, and moving the temperature up and down in the room from the remote control. He comes from a family of bakers, his father and grandfather working in bakeries in Buenos Aires, and he was quick to rattle off all the ingredients of the bread used to make chopàni sandwiches: wheat flour, margarine, salt, yeast, sugar. But he wasn’t as quick to respond to my question about the quantity of sandwich buns he makes every day. For a quick moment he put down his cell phone, picked up a calculator, and pronounced that he bakes about 900 sandwich loaves each day during the weekend and 650 to 700 on a weekday. Wouldn’t you think he knew how many loaves he bakes by now?

“His enthusiasm for the job bubbles to the top of our conversation.”

Perhaps his training as a lawyer, which he completed alongside his twin brother, prepared him more for negotiating with the bakers union than tallying production output. He showed disdain for the bakers’ union, which, he gleefully reported, he has eliminated from his business. Marcelo also revealed that the most unpleasant part of this job is working with his forty employees, whom he described as a big family who regularly bring him forty personal problems. On the bright side, Marcelo shared how much he enjoys the hands-on process of baking bread. He said he wants to be in the thick of day-to-day operations, admitting that he is a perfectionist (and maybe a micromanager). His enthusiasm for his job bubbles to the top of our conversation as he describes how important it is for him to work hard so that he can maintain to his family’s good reputation in the bakery business.

I imagined he was anxious to head to the beach with his family, so we wrapped up our conversation, walking by the towers of bright metal bread pans and pastry sheets on the way out. I really did want to see the old oven, but Marcelo was resistant to the last, saying that it was not that interesting when it wasn’t baking, which sounded like cover for other reasons. We’ll never know.

Don’t Cry for Me…

Don’t Cry for Me…

The machines, technology, and gears in our supply chain matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work.

During a recent visit with a meat processor and a pig farmer in Argentina, two men told me disarming stories. Their stories seemed more suited to pass between intimate friends than between us, having only known each other for a few hours. While the stories revealed how chorizo is made, they were far more eloquent commentaries about these men’s lives than about sausage or animal husbandry.

While we’re exploring the food supply chain, we’re often confronting machines, technology, and the gears of the equipment that moves boxes from one place to another. These gears matter, but so do the soft parts of the system’s underbelly — the human beings that make the thing work. Like the humans that work at Frigorifico San Jose on Darwin Street, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.

“In one moment, you watch a large meat grinder mince and mix meat for the sausage stuffers. In the next moment, you watch your host’s eyes brim with tears.”

Ruben works at the pork processing plant housed in two buildings located in Lomas del Mirador. A rancher named Pablo Pelluse bought the land where the meat processors would set up their businesses in 1868. During the Argentinian Civil Wars, the area was caught in the regional battle and became known for its support of the Federalists against the Unitarios in Buenos Aires, who wanted a strong, centralized government. By the end of the century, the Federalists had lost, and Buenos Aires governed the unified areas around the city.

"Meat Packers" Adolfo Bellocq

“Meat Packers” by Adolfo Bellocq, Wood Carving, 1922

Lomas del Mirador’s history runs along the same grain as the meat business in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 19th century, meat slaughtering had left its mark on the area as railways moved meat processing farther away from the city. The meat processing companies that had existed in the area replaced slaughterhouses and tallow factories and provided employment to the surge of immigrants, many from Italy, coming to live in Buenos Aires province during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A soap factory, Jabon Federal, scooped up tallow to make bars of soap, joining other meat-related businesses and helping the town take on an appearance similar to other cities now known for their close association with the meat packing industry. Chicagos of the Argentinian meat industry, Villa Madero and Lomas del Mirador are historical artifacts of the old meat supply chain. The pork processing plant that I visited is one of the vestiges of the old meat processing neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

Immigrants continue to occupy the area. Mario Klichinovich is the product manager and Ruben’s boss. Klichinovich is one family name you won’t find in Italy. Indications are that Mario’s family may have come from Austria after having fled Russia during the Jewish diaspora. Ruben is a food scientist by training and has spent 25 years working in the meatpacking business. He began working in food service through an internship while studying food “engineering,” the term used instead of food “science” in the U.S.

He led us to the chilled meat processing rooms to find a line of tables piled high with pig carcasses, mostly already cut into quarters and medium cuts. Workers hefted pig carcasses off the meat hooks inside a small truck that had been backed into the processing room. Occasional grunts revealed that this move took quite some physical effort.

Ruben’s team slices up a very small portion of Argentina’s pork production. Pig farmers have been increasing output by over 100 percent during the last decade, chasing a 60 percent increase in pork consumption. Exports of pork are also on the rise, in spite of Kirschner’s attempts to keep pork in Argentina.

His workers are bumping bags of pork, ham hocks, and trotters against each other, flashing sharp knives, and tossing offal into buckets beneath the tables. The working space is clean, constantly rinsed by water and cleaning fluids, but at some point Ruben will need more cutting tables and meat processors to deal with the increasing taste for Argentinian pork.

After watching the ad hoc choreography required to empty the small truck and prepare meat for processing, we wandered upstairs where the sausage takes shape. Workers in pristine whites, boots and hairnets, swung into action, sliding trays of cut-up pork meat into the jowls of the steel meat grinder. From out of a room containing buckets of spices come the seasonings that will be mixed into the ground pork, and steel tubs of ground pork become seasoned chorizo, some batches red, others not.

Meanwhile, on another stainless steel bench, workers slip the end of a pig intestine onto a sausage filler. A sausage stuffer opens the sausage casing, made in this case out of pig intestines, to enable the sausage meat to fill the tube created by the intestine. (I’ve tried to make sausage at home without a machine like this, and it’s a Laurel and Hardy experience however long you work at it.)

Ruben’s workers were slipping the stuffer into casing with lightening speed, inching up the casing while extruding pork mean into the tube as the next worker spun of lengths of string, tying the filled casing in increments of six to seven inches. No doubt this skill took hours of practice. Imagine the mistakes during the training period: sausages half tied-off, flinging loose sausage meat across the room.

Making sausage without a casing machine is a Laurel and Hardy experience no matter how long you work at it.

Back down in the cutting room, we saw the process begin over again. Moving into his office, Ruben explained that he needed to make a few calls to chase down payments and orders before driving us out into the countryside to visit one of his pig farmers. Along one counter, colorful plastic binders spoke of Ruben’s attempt to bring order to the chaos in the next room.

In the car during the three-hour drive to the pig producer, I got a chance to know Ruben outside of his meat processor demeanor. I asked about his family.

He replied, “It’s a sad story.” His eyes filled with tears as he drove on the highway and recounted how his wife passed away a week after giving birth to his two-year old daughter. His job, he confessed, was the only thing that held him together, providing one constant despite the tumult within his own life. Without warning, we were talking about his deep loss, about his love for his daughter, about his fears for her future, his insecurities as her only provider.

Who are these people, working the pork processing supply chain? Working the loading dock, counting cases on a pallet? People like Ruben.

Curious About the Curiosities

Curious About the Curiosities

Peter Lund Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.

In 1859, The Curiosities of Food was published in London by Peter Lund Simmonds.  At that time, Simmonds joined other Londoners such as George Dodd, author of The Food of London, in a quest to understand food at home and abroad. By then, 400 million people had been added to the British Empire, each nation bringing a food culture that seemed exotic to the ordinary Victorian. Simmonds’ book was the first truly global account of food, and it reflected a fascination with all things foreign.

Following in the tradition of Victorian publishers, the title continues: Or, The Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained From The Animal Kingdom. The book is rich with information, anecdotes, and literary allusions to all kinds of fleshy ingredients, from fish to horses.

Simmonds is conscious of the thin line between food that evokes nausea and food that indulges the most indulgent gastronome, yet some of the food he discusses is hard to stomach. Horsemeat, for example, may delight a Frenchman, but it will disgust a Briton, and his chapter about horsemeat reveals his dry British humor: “At Paris, where all eccentricities are found and even encouraged…horsemeat was all the rage.” Simmonds reflects upon his inclusion of the animal’s flesh in his book by wondering if Londoners would soon be requesting, “A piece o’ horse, my kingdom for a piece o’ horse.”

Even more amusing is his observation that horsemeat had been sold as other types of meat, such as venison, in restaurants. Unfortunately, this stomach-turning note presaged the 2013 discovery that beef sold at a Tesco’s supermarket in the UK had actually been processed with horsemeat. Simmonds laments the practice of disguising beef in any way, describing the then-popular technique of “blowing the meat,” inserting a tube into a piece of meat to blow air into the flesh. This caused the meat to appear “plump and glistening,” as Frederick Accum described in his book on the adulteration of food in the early 1800s.

The Curiosities of Food contains history, science, and literature. Simmonds includes Roman history on the same page as a description of contemporary food fads, such as the arrival of “condensed” eggs in London’s markets. Readers will not only consume history and poetry, they will learn about plant classifications and geography.

John Milton, quoted in The Curiosities of Food

…Of fish that with their fins, and shining scales,
Glide under the green wave, in sculls that oft Bank the mid sea: part single, or with mate,
Grazed the seaweed their pasture, and through groves
Of coral stray; or sporting with quick glance,
Show to the sun their waved coats dropt with gold.

He ends the book with a summation of the breadth and variety of foods eaten across the globe and invites us to join him in understanding the world better by exploring the food eaten by those who occupied foreign lands and ate unimaginable fare. “Who shall venture to determine what is good eating?” he asks, and it’s a good question during our era of food-related obsessions and value judgments.