In the secret – richmondmagazine.com
In his first book, “The Secret History of Food,” which comes out August 31, the author of Richmond Matt Siegel delves into the chewy bits of food history that time has forgotten, from the origins of breakfast cereals to the role of comfort foods in warfare. The former English teacher adopts an irreverent tone towards his subject, balancing dense research with a sarcastic wit. We sat down with Siegel to learn more about “The Secret History of Food,” with his dinner fodder and raw but interesting facts about even the most mundane meals.
Richmond Magazine: Tell us a bit about yourself and the birth of “The Secret History of Food”.
Matt Siegel: I was an English teacher with a background in creative writing. My real passion is storytelling, research and storytelling – looking too closely and critically at texts. It turns out that food is an equal passion for me. So they kind of aligned, and I started to write more and more about food, even though it was fiction.
I didn’t intend to write this book. This book is just a product of the fact that for years I have spent my weekends, nights and vacations reading about food. I would go to the library basement, look for books by the full gym bag, walk down rabbit holes – just my own food interests. Ultimately, it struck me that no one was really talking about the stories I found. I think a lot of people assume the past has already been told. They assume people have covered this already. In some cases people covered it up, but they covered it up 100 years ago, and it was forgotten again.
RM: There are a lot of different starting points for writing about food. What strikes you in the history of food?
Siegel: The story is in the title of the book, and there are a lot of dates in the book, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a history book. I talk a lot about today’s problems. I think it’s interesting to go back to see where we came from, and there are a lot of intersections between food and society. It’s not as if humans have evolved and grown and the food stays the same; we have co-evolved together. It’s interesting to see the effect we had on the food and the effect the food had on us.
RM: How long have you worked on the book? How did you do all the research?
Siegel: Really, it took me probably two years, nights and weekends, to figure out what the book was about. I’d start by reading about ice cream, and the next thing I read about war rations and the psychology of comfort foods and breast milk. So two years to map it all out.
Finally, I just took a step back and tried to figure out what the stories were and what stories I wanted to tell. I sold the proposition for it in one day. He was preempted by [publishing executive] Dan Halpern. It was a crazy dream come true. I quit my job as soon as I got the phone with him. Writing it down was a blast. I spent a little over a year writing full time and spent my days reading about food, laughing, and writing whatever I wanted to write, one chapter at a time.
RM: Who are the culinary writers who inspire you?
Siegel: [Anthony] Bourdain is a big influence to me – his disrespect for bullshit in the industry. David Foster Wallace was also a huge influence. While he wrote only one essay on food [“Consider the Lobster”], I think this is probably the best food essay ever written, and it definitely gave me confidence that there was room to delve into everyday food narratives.
RM: What stories did you find particularly surprising in the research?
Siegel: In terms of the book’s surprising conclusion, it kills me that people call ordinary “vanilla” when in reality it’s anything but. For starters, it is the only edible fruit to come from orchids, although they are the largest family of flowers; takes its name from the Spanish conquistadors, who named it after a part of the female body; must be hand pollinated using a technique developed by a 12 year old slave; and is the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron. Most people who call vanilla plain have probably never tasted it, as up to 99% of the vanilla flavor in food is artificial, derived from things like wood pulp and tree bark. .
The role of food in war also fascinates me. We don’t realize that food is a natural resource, so going back in history, it’s kinda crazy to think of how food was used in war, like projectiles and poisoned honey, making pomegranates from hot peppers.
It is equally surprising to think of the modern world of food and warfare, the whole strategy behind food logistically, not just calories for soldiers but also the role of comfort. I write a lot about this in the chapter on ice cream. I think there’s a lot of beauty in there in the American comforts of ice cream that burst into war. In this chapter, I also write a lot about civil sacrifices. I think seeing civilians willingly sacrificing food and seeing manufacturers donating food and using their advertising dollars to get consumers to eat less and buy less is certainly surprising and interesting to look at today. I don’t mean to say it’s hard to imagine people doing that. Hopefully if the pressure were to arise we could summon that spirit again, but it’s not something we see in the news now.
RM: I’m curious if there are any examples where you see things in the modern food world, and you think it echoes something you wrote in the book – a connection between something that happened in the past and something is happening now.
Siegel: There is a deep parallel in the health movement today. If you go back in time, people have been obsessed with health on and off. Unfortunately, I think the biggest parallel is misinformation. It’s really funny to go back and think about some of these practices that people believed in. It’s easy to look back and think these people were so crazy, but if you look at the state of affairs today, there’s just as much misinformation.
People believed that potatoes caused syphilis and that cinnamon came from giant bird nests. And it sounds absolutely ridiculous, but our knowledge of food today is not that much better. You need set-top glasses to understand the USDA dietary guidelines, which are fraught with conflicts of interest and political influence; food experts still wonder whether or not eggs are good for us; and we are led to believe that certain foods are healthy or natural because they are plugged in by paid influencers or have heart symbols on them.