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Book Review: Beer & Food: An American History by Bob Skilnik

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The history of beer in America has not been a particularly proud one, according to the research presented by Bob Skilnik in his new book, Beer & Food: An American History. Colonial beer, with limited access to good malt barley, was rarely drinkable, and beer from England often did not survive the journey. With good beer so hard to come by, few considered incorporating it into the cooking process, except for when the beer had gone sour and it was better to use it for something than to let it go to waste.

Even as the colonies progressed in agriculture and production, beer in America was only a ghostly shadow of what could be found on the continent. Skilnik focuses mainly on the English colonists and their failed attempts at recreating their home brew, so it is possible that German or Dutch colonists had better luck but weren't sharing their good fortunes. In any case, American beer didn't begin to mature until the late 1800s, and beer paired or incorporated into cooking was hardly appetizing to the modern palate before that time.

However, just as the beer quality, distribution, and storage techniques were beginning to bring beer into the modern kitchen, Prohibition halted beer production long enough to set the industry back for quite some time. One side effect of this was the beginning of the revival of home brewing, which has come and gone in waves since then, and is currently riding high along with an increase in craft breweries and import beer distribution. According to Skilnik, after four-hundred odd years, Americans finally have beer worth using in their kitchens.

The story of beer and food in America is a long and complex one, and it requires a skillful writer to help the reader follow all the events, places, and names. Unfortunately, Skilnik is not always able to pull through in that regard. His research is solid and well documented throughout the book, but his prose is often stilted and repetitive, even to the point of re-using entire paragraphs at times.

While I enjoyed reading through the old recipes included with most chapters, I found the recipes with explanations added by Skilnik or his sources to be more interesting than those without. I consider myself a decent cook, but at times I was unable to determine the significance of certain recipes when no explanation was provided. Where Skilnik really shines is in the penultimate chapter that covers the post-war growth and development of beer. His prose is easy to follow, and, incidentally, the chapter does not include any recipes.

Skilnik writes with authority on beer and the brewing process, and this book would be a valuable asset to anyone interested in the history of beer in America. However, it may take some patience and thoughtful reading in order to absorb the information presented.

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About Anna Creech

  • annie

    The modern pallet huh? Do our wooden shipping platforms drink beer? Maybe that’s why transporting goods is so expensive.

    Get an editor. Please.

  • Willis

    Beer in food? My nigga!

  • Annie, despite your sarcastic tone, I do appreciate the misspelling correction, which has been taken care of. It seems my editor (and I did have one) missed it, too.

    I have to wonder, though, are you somehow connected with the author? I don’t usually get cranky reader correcting my spelling unless they have a personal connection with the topic and are too passive aggressive to respond appropriately.

  • dan

    this isn’t meant to be sarcastic, but it’s still spelled wrong: it should be “palate” – “palette” means a wooden board. but anyway, sorry to detract.

  • Nice review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book but I probably have a higher tolerance for beer minutia so I don’t remember it being overly repetitious. Check out my review of it here.

  • Another alternative to this book may be _Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer_ by Ogle. She looks more at the rise of the beer dynasties tracing them to the German immigrants and takes you to modern times and the current microbreweries. It does present the tradition of American beer making as a very proud one, unlike this book (based on what I am reading on your review). Not too sure I may want to seek out this book or not, but you do provide a nice review. Best, and keep on blogging.

  • Bryce (and Anna),

    While an author has to take the good with the bad with reviews (and reviewers), three people were involved in different levels of editorial review with Beer & Food, and neither they nor myself can find entire paragraphs repeated, nor have other reviewers, including Bryce and a dozen others who favorably reviewed the book, ever brought this up in their reviews. I’ve skimmed through Beer & Food: An American History twice and still can’t find any examples of “re-using entire paragraphs at times.”

    Anna, researching and writing about the interesting trials and tribulations of the brewing industry during the Repeal and post-WW II years was (to me), the most interesting section of the book—and I’m glad you enjoyed and noted its importance. This post-Prohibition history does a lot towards explaining why there might be a beer in your fridge right now.

    BTW, I don’t know this Dan the palete/pallet man. I don’t send out surrogates to fight my “battles,” especially the nit-picking ones.

    And Angel; Ogle chose to ignore more than 250 years of early brewing during the Colonial Era and the first few decades of the young U.S. She was roundly criticized by many in the brewing industry for dismissing these years as being historically insignificant, but went on to use 100 pages to praise the 25 years or so of the craft brew industry. Let’s see…250 years versus 25. Her logic in doing so escaped me and others.

    Ogle admits that up until she began working on Ambitious Brew, she knew nothing about beer.

    It shows. I’ve written seven books on beer, beer history and drink in general, lecture on the subjects and have made numerous national TV appearances on ABC’s “The View,” Fox News, ESPN and a lot of local stuff in Chicago.

    I do know beer and its history.

  • Bob: I can’t remember the exact chapters/paragraphs, but I checked my copy several times before writing what I did about it. Perhaps I was sent a hardcover that had a printing mistake which was later corrected?

  • Re; Beer & Food: An American History by Bob Skilnik – “..his prose is often stilted and repetitive, even to the point of re-using entire paragraphs at times.” The ironic part of this charge was the fact that there were two additional editors involved in the final manuscript, plus my final read through.

    I just ran across this review again, even noting another poster’s indecision whether to buy the book or not, simply based on the review. “…Not too sure I may want to seek out this book or not…”

    How many more potential customers thought the same way, based on a charge that was never substantiated and passed on the book?

    As I said before, please point out to me where I re-used entire paragraphs at times. You can’t, because it never happened, and yet, your comment still stands here posted — you can’t cite examples — with no retraction, blaming an editorial extra printing just for reviewers that might have contained the “mistake.” Of course, as anybody in the business could tell you, that is not part of any publishers pre-release process.

    There was no separate hardcover sent out to you for review. I sent out a copy from my own inventory. If you think that publishers send out separate hardcover copies, just for reviewers, you don’t know anything about the publishing business. There are no separate runs for reviewers. Typically, 300 to more than 500 copies go out to reviewers with the authors hoping they could come up with more constructive in criticisms than that I repeated entire passages — but then can’t cite one example.

    The result of this kind of review begins a process where others read the review, think that the reviewer has the final word and then bypass the book on an absolutely bogus charge that the reviewer can’t substantiate but stands on the site for all to see.

    That’s not a review; that’s a totally unfair hack-job, even after another review countered that :…I don’t remember it being overly repetitious.”

    Very disappointed that two years later, this unsubstantiated charge still stands on Blog Critic.