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

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In his smart and engaging history of beer and its relationship to food, Bob Skilnik demonstrates that today's trend isn't the first time Americans "discovered" the joys of good beer with good food.

The Early Days

Beer & Food begins in colonial America. In some detail Skilnik describes the challenges and successes, what few there were, of beer making in the New World. In those early years the harsh climates, lack of resources, and expenses of brewing seemed to have conspired against any solid beer industry. Though a few professional breweries attempted to make a go of it, most beer in colonial America was homebrewed and the line between beer and food was pretty blurred. If the colonists' ales soured, they were simply used as vinegar to tenderize a tough piece of meat. If leavening was needed for bread it could be taken from the homebrew. It was a society that couldn't afford to let anything go to waste.

Building the Industry

In the early 1700s rum entered the scene and further stymied professional brewing. Some efforts were made to establish a stronger beer industry by those that saw beer, in contrast to distilled spirits, as the drink of temperance. These efforts would continue after the Revolution when the government made some serious attempts at propping up the unstable industry through taxation that favored beer.

It is in the telling of this period in American beer history that Skilnik establishes the pattern for his book. He introduces a piece of the story of beer in America, recaps the history of that era, and then covers the relationship of beer and food for that time period. He relies on many contemporary sources including cookbooks, news items, pamphlets, brochures and other sources. For this particular period he mostly sites cookbooks and a few letters. While many of the recipes here show the same sort of "waste not, want not" frugality of the earlier times, some of the recipes sited do use beer for its flavor in dishes such as Welsh rabbit and pancakes.

Enter the Germans

German immigrants, lager beer, and some truly impressive technological advances came together in the 19th century and beer finally became a serious commercial concern. As the popularity of lager, and especially Pilsner-style lagers, grew in the U.S. so did the wealth of the German brewers. Wider distribution, brewery owned saloons, price wars, and the use of adjuncts were common by the early years of the 20th century. It seemed this trend would continue unchecked except for the rationing of WWI and a growing temperance movement that no longer promoted beer as its drink of choice.

During these years, beer was more commonly found in the saloon than the home so Americans weren't cooking with it. But the technological advances, especially in the area of yeast, proved to be a huge benefit for bakers. And beer had another relationship with food during this period. Saloons, some by choice and some by government mandate, began serving food. The owners soon learned that food could be used to sell more beer. The free lunch with the purchase of a beer was commonplace. Naturally, salty and savory foods increased sales as they increased thirst and bar food was born.

Prohibition

This was an interesting time for the relationship between beer and food. The complete restriction of alcohol sales created a resurgence in homebrewing although this, too, was banned. Nevertheless, the breweries openly sold hopped malt extract with little packets of yeast and complete homebrewing instructions. When the government began to make moves to restrict these products the breweries repackaged them so that their use for homebrewing was not explicit. They began to publish pamphlets and cookbooks with recipes using their malt extract in all sorts of dishes - bread, cake, candy, entrees and even salad dressing. This was done with an obvious wink to the consumer and the homebrewing continued.
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