The Edible Series: A Literary Tasting Menu [book review]

The recently launched The Edible Series by Reaktion Books has two major things against it from the outset: first, that each book is part of a series, and second, that the series is comprised of slim, single subject volumes with one word titles such as Hot Dog, Spices, or Pie. Series tend to favor the big picture over individual texts, and often contain a volume or two that is just there to bulk up the list of titles without any real thought put into it. Single subject food books, especially those of the 'History with a few recipes' variety can be dry and overly serious—these volumes tend to be authored by people passionate about their subject, but that passion can be tricky to nail down on paper.

This is not to say that The Edible Series is beset by all of these issues, but merely that such factors may lead one to assume that some volumes will be too brief, overly-simplified, and perhaps even boring as compared to the others, given the variety of titles and simplistic nature of the theme. Can there be as much to say about pies, delicious and storied though they be, as there is about spices?

In a word, kind of. I read three books in the series, and they all had one thing in common: an author who was itching to inform the reader of about twice as much as he or she could fit into 125ish pages. Betraying their nearly identical covers, Hot Dog: A Global History by Bruce Kraig (buy at Amazon), Spices: A Global History by Fred Czarra (buy at Amazon), and
Pie: A Global History by Janet Clarkson (buy at Amazon) are each very different books. Hot Dog has a friendly tone and an insider's take on hot dog culture (read: baseball, Chicago). Spice, while a bit dry, definitely offers up the most information of the group, and covers the broadest range of topics. Pie is the most irreverent of the group, a welcome tone in a genre that can become a little weighed down by its own self-seriousness.

On their own these books are interesting enough, but I suspect each would be better if the author had another hundred pages and the chance to explore his or her topic on its own terms as opposed to those of a centralized theme. The reason one might be interested in The Edible Series is in its entirety, as an eclectic food encyclopedia of sorts. The specificity of each volume combined with its brevity and lack of true depth leads me to believe these are books meant for skimming, not reading cover-to-cover. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact, in this case it's kind of charming.

—Paula Forbes

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