When I was studying world history in high school, I learned very little about the foods of the different cultures we examined. Beyond molasses and rum in the Triangle Trade, few food commodities made it onto the blackboard. So when I came across Their Last Suppers: Legends of History and Their Final Meals by chef and history buff Andrew Caldwell, I was hoping for some real insight into the gastronomical side of history's great figures.
Caldwell brands himself as "The History Chef" (a title claimed by a few other blogs and authors). A longtime chef and hotel manager, he aspires to provide information about food and historical events "in a package that people...[with] active lifestyles can appreciate." Well, I have an active lifestyle. I figured it was worth a shot.
The book is formatted into short chapters, each of which focuses on one historical figure and his or her final meal. The chapters are followed by a few recipes inspired by the time period. The featured figures range in scope and influence—from Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic (whose final luxurious meal was a twelve-course feast in the elite banquet hall), to Elvis Presley (whose absurdly unhealthy diet was legendary in its own right).
Many of the stories are morbid or mysterious; and I must say that pairing tragedy and unsolved murders with festive recipes is a tad off-putting. The book leans too heavily on the history aspect of "History Chef," with very little information as to how food played a role in the lives and identities of these figures. I was hoping for a different approach to familiar stories, a new lens through which to view accounts of historical events. Instead I was left with just a few worthwhile recipes and a hefty dose of doubt in Caldwell's authority as a historian or storyteller.
According to Caldwell's website, Their Last Suppers is the first of a three-volume trilogy. The next two books will be in the same format, but cover a different set of world leaders. I must say that after my underwhelming experience with this quick read, I won't be picking up the next two.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.
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