In the mid 20th century, Time Life Books gathered together some of the West’s best-known food writers to collaborate on an unprecedented library of books that would be published in 1969 under the title Foods of the World. With large, full-color hardbound volumes on everything from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the American South, this remarkable series is credited to this day with being central to America’s awakening to the adventurous appeal of global cuisines. In notable opposition to the packaged and processed zero-value foods that were being marketed so vigorously to Americans, Foods of the World offered a call to action to investigate the folk foods of nations and regions where from-scratch cooking had persisted with pride for centuries or millennia.
I know of no project before or since that has approached such an enormous subject with such skill, sensitivity and success, and I eagerly recommend Foods of the World to all home cooks who are working to reskill themselves in the art of feeding people in an honest, time-honored manner.
Why Is A Vegan Publication Touting These Non-Vegan Cookbooks?
Yes, Foods of the World is full of recipes no vegan would eat, but to me the core of the vegan life has always been compassion and there can be no compassion without understanding. While it may disgust some readers to learn about how Germans make sausage, how desert tribes in Saudi Arabia prepare lamb or how the Cajuns of Loiusiana eat nearly anything that swims past their homes on the bayou, I find this type of information to be critical to understanding all the people with whom I share this planet.
On a very spiritual level, Foods of the World will teach any reader valuable lessons about the folk dishes that are central to the lives of humble folk all over the earth, many of them living in non-industrialized regions where certain food preparation methods and meals are as old or older than recorded history.
I feel there is especially good information for Americans in the several volumes on the regional cuisines of the United States, showing us the non-packaged version of American foods as prepared from scratch by home cooks from East to West. I find myself to be utterly riveted reading about the fishing culture of New England, the Basque sheepherders in the Rocky Mountains, the origins of Soul Food in the South, the Indigenous-inspired cuisine of the Southwest. In our modern society, where the microwave has been promoted as the way to ‘cook’, I feel any reader will benefit from seeing how the interesting and diverse sub-cultures of the American culture prepare their favorite dishes with great skill and pride.
I want to include here that of all the volumes of the series, I found the book on the Middle East to be an incredibly emotional read. We have had the misfortune to live at a time and in a place that has distorted our understanding of this ancient region of the world because of a voracious corporate and governmental quest for oil. I could not read about the Middle East and North-East Africa in the 1960s without some tears of frustration, and I challenge any reader to peruse the story about Arabian standards of hospitality towards guests, spotlessly clean little restaurants by the sea where patrons are treated with such lovely consideration and families sitting down together to humble but beautifully prepared meals, without realizing just how precious the humble folk of this part of the planet truly are. Like us, they live in fear of extremists, dictators, military heavy-handedness and injustice. They simply want to live, to eat, to care for their families. Again and again, you will find this message glowing from the pages of Foods of the World and through this understanding, genuine brotherly love can grow.
On a practical level, smart vegans who know how to adapt recipes to vegan ingredients are opening a treasure chest when they open an edition of Foods of the World. Not only are there hundreds of easily-adaptable recipes, but readers will come to appreciate the tremendous creativity with which the world’s poorer people have long prepared fabulous vegetable-based dishes. The volumes on the Middle East, Italy and South America will likely prove most ready-to-use to vegan home cooks, as they contain so many delicious foods that are vegan by nature, but don’t be surprised if you find a favorite new meal that hails from Scandinavia, Africa or Hungary. A vegan cook can happily browse these books with an eye for beautiful preparations of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts and come away with wonderful new ideas for dinner.
About The Foods Of The World Series
This series comprised 27 cookbooks, each hardbound volume accompanied by a spiral-bound notebook that contained additional recipes. Over the years, my family has collected nearly all of the titles that interested us for a few bucks-a-head at used bookstores and on eBay. Such care was taken with the photography of the many countries covered in the series, and the text of so many of the books is written with such exceptional skill that these publications read more like novels or travelogues that typical cookbooks. They hold pride of place in our farm’s kitchen and time and again we have turned to them for the simple pleasure of reading, as well as for cooking inspiration. If you’ve yet to encounter Foods of the World, I’d like to say a few words about some of the titles I have most enjoyed in this unique, multi-volume compendium of world cuisines.
The Cooking of Scandinavia
The writing in this volume is excellent, taking you through Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland with observant, eager eyes. If you’ve never done much study of Scandinavia, this book will not only teach you about what people eat there, but will show you some of the interesting differences between these four unique nations which are so often lumped together under a single heading. Learn about mountainous, rugged Norway, sun-loving Sweden, moderate Denmark and woodsy Finland where people eat mushrooms that are considered poisonous to people everywhere else in the world! Beautiful photographs of fjords, forests and cherished dining customs abound.
Truth be told, Scandinavians have subsisted largely on dairy and fish since long before the Viking age, and while this is unlikely to whet a vegetarian appetite, you may be surprised to learn that the recipe I prize most from my reading of all of Foods of the World comes from this cookbook. Arter – Swedish yellow split pea soup – is a Thursday night tradition across Sweden and the unique preparation and seasoning of this folk dish is unbelievably delicious. It has become a staple in our house, is extremely high in protein and is charmingly served with little pancakes with lingonberries – we serve ours with corn johnny cakes with cranberries, blueberries or some other sweet-tart fruit. Maybe I can share my adapted recipe for this in a future post. With unexpected flavors of cloves and majoram, it’s really, really good!
Latin American Cooking
This is definitely the volume closest to my heart with its exuberant odes to the corn and potatoes-based diets of Central and South America. Get ready for a watering mouth when you open the pages of this book with its gorgeous photos of tamales, beans, tropical fruits and chile peppers. The text speaks a little too kindly of the Spaniards bringing lard as a ‘gift’ to the Indigenous populations, but you can use sunflower oil where such things are called for to keep dishes strictly native. Happily, great praise is accurately given to the Native peoples who first cultivated the spectacular crops that would one day become the majority of the items in the world’s food basket.
I have written in the past about Native American Foods being the greenest possible eating choices for people in the United States, and all readers will find countless suggestions in Latin American Cooking for preparing exceptional, truly American meals that are nutritious, delicious and environmentally-sound if made from organic ingredients. I highly recommend this title for ethical vegan home cooks.
The Cooking of Italy
The Italians have a way with vegetables that make them stars in my eyes on the roster of world cuisines. Lovely, savory dishes of squashes, tomatoes, artichokes, olives…I suggest you have a snack at hand while you read this particular cookbook, or you may be inclined to bite the pretty pages! An americanized version of Italian food has become as normal to us in the United States as corn on the cob, thanks to the millions of immigrants who opened their little restaurants and invited their new neighbors to sit down at candlelit tables for a plate of spaghetti or a slice of pizza. The Cooking of Italy will show you where these now-familiar traditions all began and you will see that a dish of pasta is only one feature of Mediterranean dining. In fact, the growing number of Americans with gluten sensitivities will gladly embrace the regions of Italy where corn-based polenta, not wheat-based pasta, is the staple of daily eating.
Middle Eastern Cooking
I have already mentioned the moral tale deeply embedded in this special volume and the challenge it sets for all American readers who have had to struggle over the past 30 years not to be brainwashed into thinking of the people of the Middle East as ‘enemies’. While I would call this the most explicit value of this book, vegan home cooks will celebrate the exceptional recipes given here.
If hummus, tabbouleh, pita bread, baba ganoush, or olive oil appear regularly on your family’s table, here is a chance to read about the lands from which these superb dishes hail. Memorable photography and anecdotes give you a picture of the mid 20th century Middle East that you won’t soon forget. I found incredibly appetizing the description of the wonderful cafes where diners are treated to a selection of Lebanese hors d’oeuvres called Mazza which include all kinds of savory marinated vegetables. Again, you’d better have something on hand to eat while you read this part. Enjoyable coverage is given to 9 different regions of the Middle East, showing their unique qualities and stunning care for the preparation of foods. History credits this part of the world as being the font of the thing we call civilization. Central to three major world religions and almost incomprehensibly ancient, the Middle East has so much to teach us about life, in general, and entering into that education via the welcoming medium of food is both fun and rewarding.
The volume on Spain deserves special mention for its truly author-ly writing. The writer’s descriptions of the regions of Spain from the mysterious province of the Basques in the north to its scorchingly hot Moorish province of Andalucia in the South are masterful.
The volume on the Viennese Empire is likewise worthy of praise for beautiful writing and fascinating details about Eastern European cultures. One cannot help but share the author’s sense of mourning for the industrialization of these countries under Communist rule, when just a few generations earlier, the healthy diversity of small farms and vibrant cuisines were the way of life. This book offers a unique glimpse of regional pre-communist cooking in Eastern Europe, as remembered by the author and it should be treasured for this fact.
Finally, I want to give another round of applause for the 6 volumes of this series that deal with regional American cooking. Who knew that there was a society of German folk living in Texas, making imaginative Tex-German Christmas feasts? Who knew that the sign of a good restaurant in New Orleans is its plainness? Who knew about the Armenians in Central California who hold fabulous picnics resplendent in stuffed vegetables and loaves of bread so beautiful, they look like works of art? Maybe you already knew all of these details, but I didn’t before reading these books and I feel like I’ve gained such a fine and fascinating store of knowledge about how people traditionally eat in different parts of the country.
I firmly believe that regionalism in food is the lifeguard of the small family farm and the antidote to the homogenization that is a key threat of the industrialization of our food supply. By lauding the specific ways in which the differing climates of the United States have fostered the successful growth of various types of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts, we are praising what is best in our varied National cuisine and encouraging small farmers and family gardeners to save heirloom trees and crops that face the threat of extinction in favor of long-shelf-life monocrops and packaged, pretend foods. I sincerely urge American cooks to find these volumes of the Foods of the World series and take a moment to sit down at mid 20th century tables at Midwestern farmhouses, Pennsylvania Dutch suppers, Southern banquets, Southwestern barbecues and New England beach parties. This archive of pre-21st-century cooking is an exceptional reference library we can draw from as we work to preserve the small family farm and the interest of regional cuisine.
Explaining The Popularity Of Foods Of The World
This cookbook series hit the shelves within a few years of the launch of Julia Child’s revolutionary television series, The French Chef. Like Child’s cooking shows, Foods of the World struck a resounding blow against the marketed message of ‘convenience’ in eating. As I recently discussed in my review of Laura Shapiro’s book, Something From The Oven, millions of dollars were being spent in an effort to convince homemakers that they were too stressed, busy, tired and unskilled to prepare food from scratch, but, amazingly, this message fell on vast numbers of deaf ears.
Women and men who valued the art of cooking held on against this heavily-funded onslaught and when Julia Child first ambled across American televisions screens, insisting that real cooking from fresh ingredients was rewarding, cooking supply stores were met with an onslaught of shoppers demanding sharp knives and omelet pans. American cooks were waiting for someone to dignify with approbation what they were doing in their kitchens three times a day, as their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had always done. The success of this low-budget cooking show in which Julia Child dropped things, made mistakes and had a grand time amongst the pots and pans convinced a different set of marketers to start backing the alternative message that home cooking was something to be proud of and Foods of the World smartly rode high on the wave of interest in real food that was suddenly recognized as existing so strongly within the American public. Some 40 years have now passed since the publication of this Time Life series, and some of the material may be somewhat dated, but I have talked to so many cooks who wouldn’t trade their Foods of the World library for any money and it is given credit in almost any modern work that deals with the history of American eating.
Ultimately, I believe that Foods of the World continues to be viewed as a prized body of work because of the smart choice the authors and editors made to tie the food in with the people who make it. I regularly check cookbooks of all kinds out of the local library, and when they contain no stories, I lose interest. Lists of measurements and directions seem to me a colorless way of dealing with a subject as central to life as food. Most of the vegan cookbooks I’ve read are guilty of tremendous blandness of presentation, devoid of any sense of who cooks these recipes and why. In truth, I don’t have a favorite vegan cookbook, because I’ve yet to encounter one that grabs me the way something like the African Cooking volume of this collection.
I would assert that the way people cook and the reason they cook that way tells us much about who a certain people are. I see, in my mind, a man in Finland eating his hot cereal porridges for dinner, and I can envision something so specific about his history. I see the blunt simplicity of boiled German potatoes, the mint tea in a Bedouin tent, the paprika in a Hungarian stew, the preserved plum dishes of Poland, the bowls of red and green in New Mexico, the dish of sweets laid out before the Moroccan guest, and I see some essential truth about the people who have taken raw ingredients and imaginatively turned them into this rainbow of offerings for their loved ones. I believe if you start reading the Foods of the World series, you will find yourself asking, as I have: who could be at war when it would be so much more pleasant to dine together, passing the dishes of fabulous culture and long history from hand to hand?