This roller coaster of a ride through history features twins—trivia crazy Siya and a budding chef Samar. The story starts when their aunt, Maya, gifts them a unique gaming device, Wayback Pod, which simulates a historical event for them through virtual reality. But they are in for a surprise, as these historical places suddenly come to life. And Siya and Samar make the most of it, visiting the first world war trenches, the kitchens of Bartolomeo Scappi, the world’s first celebrity chef from the Renaissance period, and the Wright Brothers’ camp. While Siya laps up trivia, Samar looks for interesting recipes. He comes across the Neapolitan mostaccioli, or soft, chewy, cake-y pastries, the spice mixes from when Vasco de Gama landed in India, last meal from the Titanic, and more.
My favourite is the one from Wright Brothers’ First Flight. In this chapter, Samar goes through the recipe book that Orville Wright had kept in one of the kitchen drawers. It features a recipe for a breakfast biscuit. Interestingly, the book mentions how Orville Wright had created a unique American biscuit mix recipe long before any baking mix entered the market.
This deeply engaging book, published by Hachette India, has been authored by Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam—two best friends, who have been reading, writing, travelling, cooking and eating together since 2007. History Dishtory is a deep dive into history and associated culinary practices, written in a narrative fiction format. Ironically, when the authors were little, they didn’t exactly love their history textbooks. They came to appreciate history only as adults, when they started reading historical fiction.
“We’ve both been fans of the genre for as long as we can remember, and during our book club days back in Chicago in the early 2000s, we raced through everything from the Tudor court series by Philippa Gregory, to Holocaust literature,” mention Rao and Ramanujam in an email interview. “We’ve also always had a fascination for the food connections in historical chapters—from Bartolomeo Scappi’s lavish Renaissance banquets to the compelling prescriptions of the Suffrage era, like Mother’s Election Cake and Parliament Gingerbread.”
The book is a culmination of all these factors. The authors got the idea for History Dishtory right after their first book for children, Bookworms and Jellybellies, got published. They initially picked 50 historical events, but whittled the length down using some basic rules: the events needed to be significant, and lend themselves to a food connection. “For instance, the classic example of the World Wars—what did the soldiers eat on limited ration, what did people, especially Jews in hiding, eat during the Holocaust? Also, we didn’t want too many events clustered on a specific geography, so we chose ones that spanned different continents,” they say.
The book comes across as a wonderful blend of personal stories with well-researched information. It feels as if the authors’ memories and experiences have informed the story. “Research is the backbone of this book,” elaborate Rao and Ramanujam. The duo spent long hours poring over books on history, and reliable resources available online, about the food, available ingredients, and the socio-political environments during different points in history. “That said, we have drawn from several personal experiences in writing the 15 stories involving the protagonists—Siya and Samar,” they say. For instance, Rao’s daughter went to a Waldorf school, where they re-created the First Greek Olympiad, so there was some food for thought there. Ramanujam’s trip to Italy in the pre-pandemic year came in handy to fine-tune the details in the Renaissance chapter.
The challenge was to simplify complex historical nuggets into easily digestible bites, for children. “For instance, how do you explain the dire straits faced by people during the Great Depression, which made them turn to such things as roadkill and kitchen scraps, and how do you encapsulate the horrors of the Holocaust in a recipe?” they say. Also, how can the bloodshed during the Irish Easter Rising be toned down, and how do you commemorate an important milestone in the freedom struggle—the Salt March—by elevating everyday salt to star status? “It was a mean task, but we pulled it off because we had a terrific idea that inspired us to write the book in the first place—storytelling—for better understanding and better recall of world history,” states the duo.
The job of each recipe in the book is to help the readers relate in some way to a particular time in history. “In another chapter about Edmund Hillary Summits Mt. Everest, where there really wasn’t too much cooking involved, apart from heating up canned food, we went with highlighting a local ingredient, sattu. The recipe is for an energy-rich laddoo that would be great for someone who is hiking up a mountain,” mention the authors. “All in all, we think the recipes are reflective of historical events and social, political and economic factors that have shaped the world as children know it today.”