We think we live in an time of great cooking and we do but in 18th-century England, the worldwide boom in travel and trade was mirrored by housewives' discovery of an equally wide world of foods: exotic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and cloves; nuts and fruits; new vegetables (including American corn, tomatoes, chilies and beans); chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee. It was also a time when prominent writers began extolling the virtues of fresh vegetables, scientific farming, botanical research and so on. Once cooking became not a chore but a profession, simple recipes became ambitious cookbooks.

Sandra Sherman's fascinating Fresh from the Past: Recipes and Revelations from Moll Flanders' Kitchen is a culinary and cultural history with 120 revamped and modernized recipes developed by Maryland caterers Henry and Karen Chotkowski. A professor of English lit and history at the University of Arkansas, Sherman puts not just food but politics, trade policy, etiquette, social climbers (witness her titular heroine), rakes and rouŽs (the Earl of Sandwich and his famous gambling snack) and even the fragile male ego on the table. (British men swore by those notoriously huge slabs of roast beef of Old England because they believed meat increased virility.) The Chotkowskis have come up with everything from sweet pumpkin soup to black pudding and gooseberry trifle, from roast turkey with crayfish to Polish chicken, from pickled lemon to Parmesan ice cream. And the many woodcut reproductions and folk songs make this book a prize.

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