Book Review: A tasty brew of history

Beer & Food: An American History. By Bob Skilnik. Jefferson Press. 246 pp. $24.95 U.S., $28.95 Canada.

When the history of American whiskey is written, again, George Washington will have to play a more important role than ever. The recent opening of his Mount Vernon, VA, distillery that was rebuilt 200 years after fire destroyed the original brought back to public awareness what a major distiller he was in the new United States.

However, the history of American beer -- and its relationship to food as well as to society -- has been written, by beer writer and historian Bob Skilnik. And in this arena, Washington also plays a major role.

To wit:

"In 1769, George Washington, who had been enjoying his regular shipments of English-brewed porter, broken bottles and all, signed a non-importation agreement with fellow Virginians Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, Robert Carter Nichols, and Richard Henry Lee that reaffirmed the boycott of English goods, including 'either for sale or for our own use ... beer, ale, porter, malt.' Not to slight the boldness of their actions, but it might have been a bit easier fending off heady temptations from England, knowing that Philadelphia beer was coming into its own as a quality product. Washington lined up new connections with Philadelphia brewer Robert Hare, reputed to have been the first to brew porter in that city ... ."

That's merely one example of how smoothly Skilnik educates his readers, putting the necessary building blocks of his history into the context of the times.

Skilnik is a graduate of the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, the oldest brewing school in the U.S. In "Beer & Food," his sixth book, he continues to show his skills as both tireless researcher and clear writer. (However, in the passage cited above, I suspect he meant to refer to Robert Carter Nicholas, rather than Nichols.)

What he didn't do, however, was what I'd consider basic work: test the more than 90 beer-related recipes interspersed throughout the book and trumpeted on the cover. As we are informed in the acknowledgements section, "The author has not tested the recipes in this book, and therefore cannot make representations as to their results. However, readers are heartily encouraged to use these recipes verbatim ... ."

Why? This is, after all, a beer and food book. Both ends of the equation should receive equal attention from the author.

Nevertheless, that decision doesn't negate the informative and entertaining aspects of "Beer & Food." Such seemingly mundane topics as the development of putting beer in glass bottles and pasteurizing the brews -- which gained widespread acceptance in the 1880s; how historic decisions such as Prohibition and our involvement in world wars affected beer manufacturing, advertising campaigns and so on, are made lively by Skilnik's solid way with anecdote and artwork.

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1 comment:

Bob Skilnik said...

Bill, I'm glad you enjoyed the book, but the real intent of Beer & Food: An American History is to demonstrate American beer's usage in American food---and somewhat beyond food---throughout the centuries. As such, I consider it much more of a history book than a beer cookbook. The food recipes that are sprinkled thoughout the book's early chapters were carefully considered and illustrative of how beer was used in foods, culled from popular food recipe books of a past era. Recipes were pulled from historically significant cookbooks that enjoyed wide popularity in their day. There's a good reason the book cover tagline "includes over 90 beer-related recipes" is in a very small font.

Why test a food recipe using spoiled beer, for instance, when the fact that spoiled beer was used at all was the real point of including it in the book? The abundance of bad beer being brewed back then was the point; the food recipe was simply the vehicle to drive home that point.

In the same sense, I certainly wasn't going to beat corn husks into a saccharine goo just to test a Revolutionary War recipe for corn husks and stalks beer. And no doubt my wife would have thrown me out the door for bringing home 100 pounds or so of corn husks and stalks for testing purposes!

The food recipes in the last chapter are contemporary, submitted by chefs and cooks from brewpubs, breweries and trade oprganizations, and I'm confident that they were submitted after testing at their end. After all, why would a brewery like Sierra Nevada put its name on a submitted recipe unless someone had actually put it to the test?

Nonetheless, if readers want to use any of the recipes to duplicate at home, they can use those in the book as a springboard for their own kitchen adventures while dwelling on the history behind them.