Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine is the tastiest version of American history you can experience. Author, Sarah Lohman, explores U.S. multiculturalism through the origins of the favorite tastes that makes our food quintessentially “American.”
It seems food history kind of fell into Sarah Lohman’s lap. For four summers in her teenage years, she worked at a large outdoor museum as an 1848 teenage reenactor. Everything about the museum was authentic; right down to the ingredients that were used to make the food that she ate with her 19th century family at the dining table. Years later, Lohman’s experiences and consequential curiosity led her to write a blog, “Four Pounds Flour” and eventually cater century-old meals for niche groups. The culmination of her research led to Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine; a journey about how the most popular ingredients that have been used throughout the history of American cooking came to be.
In chronological order of introduction to our palettes, the ingredients are: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate and Sriracha. (Could you imagine making a dish with all eight of those?)
As Lohman points out, our relationship with food isn’t static; our opinions of food items and ingredients shift fairly often. In another two hundred years of this nation’s history, the eight flavors may be completely different.
Of course, our favorite flavor: MSG, comes later in American history. I won’t give it all away, but Lohman tells the story of Dr. Kikunae Ikeda and how his wife’s soup sparked an idea to make vegetables more desirable in a country that was primarily vegetarian. Lohman does not shy away from the misconceptions about MSG, writing, “… as a migraine sufferer, I thought MSG was bad for me. But after learning the story behind MSG, I changed my mind,” almost boldly proclaiming the elasticity of our imagination when we believe things even if they may not be true. She goes on to talk about MSG’s comeback after years of being shelf-shunned; the research showing its safety, the chefs who are latching onto the umami trend and the genuine consumer curiosity about one of America’s favorite flavors.
Eight Flavors is an adventure; each flavor receives a thorough chapter that tracks its discovery, how it’s grown or made, how it became so beloved and how it is used today. As a reader, anytime a question popped into my head, Lohman later answered it. Throughout the chapters, she includes quick and accessible recipes so that any reader can have a well-rounded understanding of how that specific ingredient impacts a dish.
Lohman’s tone is conversational, often using first person as she talks about her own relationships with the ingredients, her research, and other anecdotes. Despite its easygoing tone, she does not skimp on some of the harsh realities of the food we eat: that a lot of it comes from different cultures despite our nation’s persistent on-again, off-again relationship with xenophobia.
Whether you’re a history buff, complete foodie, or just inquisitive, Eight Flavors is the kind of book that will capture your attention and answer many of your questions about us and our food. You’ll find yourself looking down at your next spoonful of soup, forkful of pasta or bite of food wondering, “What’s the history of this delightful food I’m eating?”
Listen to Lohman discuss her book with NPR.
Sneak Peak: Bean Curd and Mushroom Soup Recipe from Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine:
Bean Curd and Mushroom Soup
- ½ cup canned straw mushrooms
- 1 chicken liver sliced thinly
- ¼ pound lean pork sliced thinly
- 1 cup baby bok choy
- ¼ cup canned bamboo shoots
- ¼ cup canned water chestnuts sliced
- 4 cups chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon MSG
- Dash of pepper
- 2 eggs or more, if desired
- 1 pound silken tofu cut into eight pieces
- In a large pot, add all ingredients except for eggs and tofu. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Break eggs into soup and simmer for three minutes.
- Turn off heat and add in tofu. Cover pot and allow tofu to heat through, about 5 minutes, and then serve.
Recipe courtesy of Henry Low’s "Cook at Home in Chinese".
Photo credit: Flickr user, frunkie