A history of food

Tanya Steel loves her mother but not necessarily her mother’s cooking. “My mom was and remains one of the worst cooks in the world, God love her,” Steel said with a laugh.

The need to prepare a good meal while growing up therefore led Steel to spend more time than usual in the kitchen for someone her age. She was inspired by watching Julia Child’s cooking show on PBS-TV. “I thought what she did was so cool and started cooking,” she said.

Steel, a longtime editor at food magazines and websites and an author, has just released a new book for young adults and other children focusing on the history of food.

The book, Food Fight! A Mouthwatering History of Who Ate What and Why Through the Ages, covers the discovery of controlled fire by humans for cooking food in pre-historic times to the potential of Martian agriculture in the future.

It highlights unusual meals people used to eat, interesting ways they gathered ingredients and cooked, and what children’s lives were like at important moments in history. Each chapter focuses on a major period of world history.

Steel, a former Ridgefield resident who now lives nearby in New York state, said the subject combines her passion for food and history. She spent three years researching and writing the book.

It includes 30 period-inspired recipes, photos and illustrations, and Yucky Habits of Yore that offer insight into weird foods and preparation methods from throughout human history.

She’s pleased with the job that publisher National Geographic Kids did packaging the book, especially the many graphic elements. “I wanted it to be appealing, interactive and fun so kids would really enjoy it,” she said.

Teaching children how to select and prepare food is important, according to Steel. “If you start them young it becomes a lifelong passion and skill, and helps guarantee they’ll always be able to feed themselves — and hopefully with something healthy,” she said. “That’s one of my goals in life.”

From 2012 to 2016, Steel worked with then-First Lady Michelle Obama on bettering the diets of young Americans by creating the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and Kids State Dinner. The national youth recipe competition’s winners were invited to attend an annual dinner at the White House.

“They’ve gone on to be ambassadors for good eating,” Steel said of participants. “We encouraged them to think of themselves as leaders in this movement.”

She’s optimistic more children and their families are beginning to understand the importance of eating well. “It seems the pendulum has changed and people are more aware and eating healthier,” she said. “Kids really have gotten the message.”

One chapter in her book focuses on the 1960s in America, including the impact of the space race on culture and food. The chapter’s recipe is a fruitcake for astronauts developed for NASA by the U.S. Army.

Another chapter looks at the potential of food production in space, highlighting hydroponics, protein products that mimic the taste of animal products, 3D food printing and virtual schooling.

What are some of those Yucky Habits of Yore?

Well, until a few hundred years ago, children in many parts of the world would be in charge of gathering fire-starting material for their families, and a popular option was animal dung. “Sheep poop in particular is very good at starting fires,” Steel said.

Romans would use human urine to clean items such as their togas and to help fire up pottery, and buzzards were in demand during American Revolutionary times for their willingness to devour trash. “They were the first garbagemen,” she said.

Steel, 54, grew up in Manhattan and later moved to Westchester County, N.Y. She has two college-aged children.

She’s CEO of Cooking Up Big Dreams LLC, has published two previous cookbooks, is award director for the Julia Child Award, worked on food hunger issues, and created Canada’s Kid Food Nation to improve food skills and support healthy eating habits.

She’s held top editorial positions at the food websites Clean Plates, Epicurious and Gourmet.com, and at the magazines Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. She’s made appearances on national TV shows such as Good Morning America, The Today Show and Dr. Oz.

She recently was appointed director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, a select group of cooking school owners, chefs, restaurateurs, food writers and artisan food producers.

Steel still does a lot of her own cooking, describing herself as a big soup and salad person. “Butternut squash is my favorite right now,” she said, adding she also loves her desserts.

Having healthy options that can be prepared in a few minutes is crucial in today’s fast-paced society, she said. “There are ways we can use shortcuts, and certain recipes and ingredients, and do it in 10 minutes with family and make it a nice experience,” she said.

Steel said no matter how much food preparation changes in the years to come, there “will never be a replacement for sharing a meal with people you love.”

She hopes the book will help young people “realize they’re the culmination in many ways of all the things that came before them, inspiring them to be the best people they can be.

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