the world on a plate

i’m not going to lie. the reason why it took so long for me to write a second book pairing after partially reviewing the man who ate everything was this book.

i love my library, and i’m even more grateful we’re now allowed three renewals per item instead of just two. especially since it appears i may have to start taking better advantage of that deal. i’m not a slow reader and the world on a plate isn’t a large book, but something about it kept me dragging for over a month. this book practically lived in my purse. it followed me to and from work, went to the farmer’s market with me, and even accompanied me out to restaurants to meet friends a couple times.

to be even more honest, i read this book before that travesty gourmet rhapsody. but where gourmet rhapsody was fickle and flighty, the world on a plate was dense and fraught with fact. and while it took me a couple days to choke down gourmet rhapsody, it took me a month and a half to read the world on a plate. it’s been a couple weeks since i finished the latter, and i still haven’t fully digested what i read. simply put, where gourmet rhapsody was an easy-bake, no-knead read, the world on a plate was sourdough from scratch.

in classic academic style, joel denker’s book is really a collection of essays. each has a slightly different focus, but all revolve around the food trends and ethnic cuisines that make up our american diet today. it traces food trends like family, because, in many cases, food is lineage. it’s the story of families starting restaurants or selling goods and, as business expand and people age, the food and the labels and the restaurants are gradually passed down to the next generation. in some cases, products and parlors branch off into alternative immigrant hands and family trees.

denker does an exceptional job connecting the vastness of history and the overwhelming immigrant numbers to individuals. and yet, even as he traverses across ethnicity lines,taking us from italian produce merchants and bringing us into greek kaffenias, we are always introduced to individuals. there is never a moment where the impressive industrialism of immigrants and restaurateurs and businesspeople is left faceless. in every chapter – or to be more precise, in every essay – we are introduced to members of the community. food and people are described with equal fondness and care, and his gentleness and generosity make each essay something to be respected and to appreciated – either on its own, or in the context of the whole text.

i think my one regret with denker’s essay style – and this feeling may come primarily from my anthropology background – is that there is no summation. we begin and end with an ethnic group. there is never a final chapter that looks back on all of the essays and all of the peoples to reflect. such a final chapter, even if it was only made up of conjectures of relevance based off of what denker had observed and learned during each ethnic research, would have made a cohesive piece and united the essays. after all, isn’t the melding of nationalities what this book and our country is all about?

part of the reason why i’ve been so hesitant to write this pairing is the sheer enormity of information denker took on in putting this book together. i could hunt down quotes from each chapter for you – each one demonstrating how ridiculously vast all this change was and how quickly trends began and took off. but none of those quotes (all riddled together with numbers in the thousands – numbers of how many immigrants moved to america, how many stores were opened over a short period of time, numbers of sales, all of that) could give any hint to the most amazing idea of all: all of this was and still is happening.

once you wrap your head around that bit – that life hasn’t stopped since denker published, that restaurants are still opening every day, new food products are announced on a regular basis, and that we’re only just now starting to get the new national census under way – that month and a half of reading makes a bit more sense. the world on a plate wasn’t a difficult read. it wasn’t depressing; rather, it’s a celebration of achievement. it wasn’t dull or dry. but it was rich. and, with rich books just as it is with rich food, it’s often best to try them in small portions with small bites (no, i did not literally bite the book – i checked it out of the library, remember? it wasn’t my copy) in order to best understand what you are sampling.



food and drink:

this book made me want pizza. but then again, i read the chapter about pizza allowed to my little sister and, when i mentioned i wanted pizza, she said, “but you always want pizza!” so, perhaps the best food to look for is your favorite ethnic food (preferably not your own ethnicity). i could definitely see eating singapore noodles or cold sesame noodles while reading the chapter about chinese food. if you’re going to match ethnic cuisines to chapters, read slowly, like i did. don’t sit down with twenty different take-out boxes and try to tackle them all, and the book, in one go.

to drink, i’d pair this book with an espresso – but not just any espresso. something dark, with a nutty or spicy scent that feels reminiscent of corner cafés.

or you could get a yogurt smoothie. your choice.

(extra points for an espresso-flavored yogurt smoothie.)



i haven’t really run across too many books like this one – books that have such a broad focus but tight research. so, instead of suggesting an actual book this time, i’m going to suggest a blog. check out four pounds flour. it is a lovely historical food side and has a great sense of whimsy.



two movies spring to mind when i think about the world on a plate: big night and combination platter. both peek into the lives of immigrant restaurateurs, the first from the perspective of two italian brothers trying to make a go of their own restaurant, the latter from the view of an immigrant waiter struggling to find a green card while working in chinese restaurant. both feel a little dated in this digital day, but don’t let that keep you away.