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.