Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine By Sarah Lohman

The United States boasts a culturally and ethnically diverse population which makes for a continually changing culinary landscape. But a young historical gastronomist named Sarah Lohman discovered that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. Lohman sets out to explore how these influential ingredients made their way to the American table. Eight Flavors introduces the explorers, merchants, botanists, farmers, writers, and chefs whose choices came to define the American palate. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Sarah Lohman ↠ 7 SUMMARY

A nonfiction book about the history of American cooking. Lohman organizes the book around eight popular flavors, arranged chronologically as to their appearance in mainstream American food: black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and sriracha. Each has a chapter dedicated to it, which Lohman fills with stories of the people involved in the invention or popularizing of a flavor, such as Edmond Albius, a young slave on Madagascar who discovered how to artificially pollinate vanilla, allowing it to be farmed; Ranji Smile, a celebrity chef in the late 1800s/early 1900s who promoted Indian food; William Gebhardt, a German immigrant to Texas who was the first to sell commercial chili powder; and others. Some of the stories here are probably ones you've heard before if you read a lot of food writing (the Chili Queens of San Antonio, Chinese restaurant syndrome being not a real thing), but others were completely new, at least to me: I knew very little about soy sauce, and had absolutely no idea that sriracha was invented in California (did other people know that? I totally thought it was made by a Thai company!).

I was surprised at first by her inclusion of MSG, which feels to me to be much less common in the US than in other countries; when I was in India, for example, I saw a lot of kitchens with a bottle of MSG like a shaker of salt, and I have never seen that in an American kitchen. But Lohman's historical research showed that once happened in the US too, which was cool to learn. My favorite part might have been the final chapter, The Ninth Flavor, where Lohman attempted to guess the next big trend in American food. Her suggestions all seemed reasonable to me, and predicting the future is always a fun game.

Lohman also includes recipes, some by current chefs and some adapted from historical cookbooks. I haven't had a chance to test any of them, but I was particularly attracted by Black Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies (based on a recipe from Martha Washington), Country Captain Chicken (an American curry popular in the 1800s), and Garlic Soup (a French recipe that became popular with the Lost Generation expats). The writing was unobtrusive and included lots of personal anecdotes in between the research and recipes. Overall a fun book with lots of interesting information.

I read this as an ARC via NetGalley. 304 I actually really enjoyed this book, despite my husband's teasing about its riveting subject matter. In this book the author walks us through the introduction of certain flavors in US cuisine. Beginning with pepper and ending with Sriracha sauce, Lohman tells the story of how eight different flavors became part of the American palate. She included recipes from the earliest times of the their introductions and more modern uses. Pepper cookies, Thomas Jefferson's vanilla ice-cream recipe, how to make homemade MSG (boy, was I really wrong in my assumptions of what MSG was), garlic everything, interesting curries, and most recently sriracha sauce. I think this would make a really fun book club pick with each of the participants bringing samples. While I am really curious about pepper cookies, I don't know what I would do with an entire batch of them, so book club samples would be perfect (Assuming, as my husband doubts, that I had nerdy enough friends who would want to participate.) Still, I saved a bunch of them and hope to give them a go at some point. Since reading this book, I've found myself really stopping and appreciating the abundance of flavor in my life - each turn of the pepper mill or squeeze of the garlic press comes with an incredible story - and that it just the tip of the iceberg! 304 Very interesting in some parts, especially the chapters on chili powder, MSG, and sriracha sauce.


The author maintains that she chose her eight flavors from reviewing the most influential cookbooks from four different periods in American history: the 1800s, the 1850s, 1900s, and 1950s, and then running her chosen flavors through Google Ngram to examine the frequency those words appear across all books Google has digitized.

That method is problematic to me.

We don't know which cookbooks Lohman chose; she doesn't include the list in the book.

And influential for different periods of American history is by definition going to exclude a whole lot of people who cooked but didn't have a way to publish their recipes, because of racism, literacy, racism, intersectional oppression and more racism. (To be fair, the book does address many issues of governmental racism in several chapters, and I did learn new things).

That means there's a whole branch of recipes handed down through oral tradition or on scraps of paper stuffed in Bibles and diaries, or via 1930s domestic radio programs, that may not be considered influential and very likely haven't been digitized by Google.

(While I was thinking this review through, Bonnie Morse helpfully pointed out that a seminally popular women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, contained recipes while not itself being a cookbook. It appears to be digitized behind a paywall, so possibly included in the analysis? So much grey area here.)

We just don't know and have no way to tell, as the list of cookbooks Lohman chose remains obscured. (There's a bibliography in the book, along with a notes section, but it's not clear which, if any of the items are influential cookbooks.)

And maybe I'm making too much of this methodology. Except that the chapter on sriracha is really good, yet as I read it, I kept wondering why sriracha in particular as a hot sauce to choose? Lohman painstakingly dates the invention of sriracha back to 1975, but we know that hot pepper vinegar was brought by enslaved Americans from West Africa a good two centuries before that (1, 2). So choosing sriracha to represent all hot sauces feels a little off somehow, and may be due to the skewing presented by what's available to be digitized for the author's Ngram.

Overall, the book is decently written (with the exception of the chapter on garlic, which was dreary).

At the same time, I could have done with more and wider history, and fewer tales of the author's own. (Plus the chapters each take the form of presenting an exhaustive biography of one particular individual chosen as the influencer for that flavor, which... no.)

And a link to that Ngram.

1. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time
2. The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South 304 This was an interesting book about eight flavors (black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry, soy sauce, garlic, MSG and sriracha) that the author argues have made the full journey from foreign/exotic to mainstays in American kitchens. It is an easy read and, if you are interested in food/cooking, it's enjoyable and informational. I learned a decent amount about the history of each of the highlighted flavors and how they are used in cooking and it was fun to read about each one.

However, there were a few things that, in my opinion, took away from the book.

First of all, it's not very convincing as a work of history/scholarship. The author gives away her millennial standard of research at the very beginning when she reveals, without apology, that she determined the eight flavors by plotting commonly used flavors she found from flipping through cookbooks from different eras and using Google's Ngram Viewer to show the most frequently used flavors in the books that Google has thus far digitized. She writes, I didn't so much choose the flavors that appear in this book, as discover them. Going to a library might have helped.

I was also surprised at how often the author speculates on the reasons for why certain events or trends came into being and the significance of them. I cringe at speculative language like I suppose or it could have or whatever as, to me, it often implies a lack of research or intellectual honesty/awareness. The research many times seemed weak and superficial and I wasn't impressed with the brief bibliography in the back for each section (five or six major sources were listed for each flavor). I don't know what citation format this follows, but there are notes in the back for each chapter but absolutely no markers for them in the actual chapters. Each notes starts with a few words from the sentence to which the note is referring but you'd have to scan the entire chapter to find these words in order to see how the notes apply. I found this format basically worthless because, as you're reading, you have no idea which thoughts/claims have notes. Then when you get to the end of the book, all you have to go on is the first few words of the thought/claim which, by then, you have no context for.

At one point, in the chapter about MSG, she kind of bemoans the lack of scientific understanding about this ingredient that the general public has and then she writes, It's his [J. Kenji López-Alt] job—and mine—to educate. I, for one, would not base any of my opinions/beliefs about anything on what I read in this book. I'm not saying MSG is bad for you (I never believed that), but nothing that she presents, including her own laughably unscientific experiment of one, added to that conviction. Her view of herself as an educator seemed a little self-important (especially when she makes multiple mentions of partying and getting drunk as she explores food with her friends). I'm not going to take you seriously if you're trying to simultaneously be the cool party girl and the wise educator.

I also found the multiple claims that we have biological preferences for these flavors to be extremely under-supported. The author writes that many of the common flavors in this book have antimicrobial properties, fine. But so do lots of other spices that didn't make her list. In the chapter about black pepper she claims, Natural selection favored those who ate spicy food, because they survived [and had more children], and the preference for spicy food became a dominate trait in humanity. Yeah. Ok. Later on she writes that all it takes [for a flavor to earn a permanent place in Americans' hearts and stomachs] is a special event that creates an interest in a flavor, followed by increased availability paired with a biological preference.

The author refers to herself as a historic gastronomist but I was pretty unimpressed with her grasp of history (and science). She's basically just someone that has a successful blog and likes making recipes from the past. She presents a pretty basic historical overview for each of the eight flavors, but even for that, she credits twelve people (plus an intern) as fact-checkers in her acknowledgements. Thirteen people to fact check a 230 page book that is half about the author's own experience? I'm sorry. I just think that is kind of ridiculous. It sounds like she did little more than string together other peoples' research with her own wording in the context of her own experience with food.

Speaking of her own wording, she writes with a very young, self-involved tone. For each flavor she took a trip to where she could learn more (this part is good), but the way she tells the stories is just kind of annoying. It's all about her friends, the parties she has, the road trips she takes, the pseudo experiments she does to test theories about the flavors and the classes she teaches as one hipster to another. This could almost be described as a memoir about food with some background history thrown in.

Much of this history involves a sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle agenda about immigration and most of these stories are told in the context of people who immigrated to North America thus exposing us to new flavors. Obviously immigration contributed (and continues to contribute) to our culinary scene, but in several cases the author got more into a certain immigrant's story than the flavor she was covering. In one chapter she talks with a pepper farmer who blames his difficulty finding good employees on restrictive immigration policies designed by anti-immigrant politicians. This book is almost as much about immigration as it is about food.

Despite all the negatives, I still did enjoy reading about these different flavors and some of the background information about flavor in general which the author defines as a concentrated mixture of aromatic compounds that provide all or part of the sensory experience of a food or beverage. She goes on to say that flavor is primarily a combination of taste and aroma and that all flavors are chemicals (like the eight-twelve chemicals that make up the flavor of garlic and the 200+ chemicals that combine to create the flavor of a vanilla bean).

I did feel like I learned a decent amount, even though I came away from the book mistrustful of the author due to the overall tone and, in my view, weak research. I would still recommend the book to people who are curious about flavor and how it develops in a region/culture and there are some interesting recipes sprinkled throughout that would be fun to try (like Thomas Jefferson's vanilla ice cream). It's a light, fairly entertaining read. 304 Very informative book not only for foodies but those who love to learn know the origin of things. The author explores how eight ingredients (black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sriracha) became staples in America cuisine. After having read this book, I finished with a deeper understanding of the history of food as well as a deeper appreciation for the melting pot that is America and the immigrant influence in American cuisine.

I enjoyed that the author uses a combination of storytelling followed by recipes using the highlighted ingredient. The recipes provide the reader with a point of reference so they can replicate the recipes themselves or inspires them to use the recipe as a foundation on which they can tweak it as they choose.

Some of the more impressive things I learned from this book was as follows: black pepper originally came from Sumatra, the cultivating of vanilla was facilitated by a black man, soy sauce is the 3rd most popular condiments (after ketchup and mustard), garlic was originally used for medicinal purposes and sriracha popularly has been created with no money spent of advertisements. Again this was an educational read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys food, history or the process on how ingredients become fully formed products.


I started to read this book yesterday. Right at the beginning I realised that the title was inaccurate. It should have read, Eight random flavors: how I see them in American cuisine. Asians are not the biggest or oldest immigrants into the US, yet four out of the eight flavours are Asian - curry powder, soy sauce, MSG, and Sriracha and all relatively recent, I don't see that these flavours would be in most people's houses or unless they were ordering Chinese or Indian, they would encounter them much.

Black pepper is also Asian but was probably brought by the first colonisers from the UK. Vanilla, also Asian, came in the 18th C. Garlic is Mediterranean in origin, but widely used in Asia (China is the major consumer of it in the world). Chili powder was, arguably, invented in Texas in the late 19th century. Chili peppers themselves are as big in Asia as they are in South America.

The author's 'research' as to how she found that these were the defining features of American cuisine is non-existent. She says she flipped through cookbooks and used Google to determine the most frequently used flavours which 'unite America'. She was very selective as to what she took from Google - the most popular food in the US is pizza (but you knew that), followed by burgers and fried chicken. The most popular cuisines are very close in popularity, Chinese, Italian and Mexican. But where are the spices and herbs that make Italian and Mexican so popular?

So the book isn't a history book, it isn't about the flavours that most American households use or eat more than others (with the exception of black pepper). What it is, is an attempt to elevate a popular blog into a book and the blogger into a serious author. It might succeed in the first, but the second, doubtful.

Not sure if I am going to finish this book. 304 Enjoyed this unique take on history, food and the immigrant story. Not sure the author's thesis that these flavors were any more important than others really holds up, but the stories of each of the flavors were strong enough independently for me not to care that much. Also I rounded up this 3.5 star review because of her extensive citations. Respect from one historian to another. 304 Every time the author mentioned some of her friends, I grew more envious that I am not one of them. I think she has to be one of the most interesting writers I've run across. In addition to writing, she gives food-related courses (lectures) regarding herbs and spices, which probably fill up within minutes of registration.

What to expect? Each of the eight chapters serves as a jumping off point for a segment on American history along with a botanical examination of the spice itself. Thinking about it, her style reminds a bit of Sarah Vowell in terms of the former. Without (too much) rehashing, which my loyal fans know I despise, here are my brief impressions of the contents, bearing in mind I read them over a couple of weeks, and have returned the book, so cannot refer to it for details:

1) black pepper - strong start, focusing on an early spice's roots from the time of the U. S. as an early nation. No travel to Indonesia involved here.

2) vanilla - travel to a farm in Mexico, with extensive historical botanical detail as well. This one was, perhaps, my least preferred chapter.

3) curry powder - I had thought that in the States this spice was fairly unknown until after World War II, but not so! We get a curry crawl in NYC as the travel aspect, along with historical background of Indians in America. As it's a spice blend, not as much on the botanical front.

4) chili powder - focus on the Southwest as the spice was considered regional until the later 20th century. Trip to Texas, featuring San Antonio chili queens as independent Latino businesswomen in days of racism and sexism; her food truck friend in drag serves as a modern Chili Queen example.

5) Soy Sauce - historical overview of the Chinese experience in America (not a pretty one either). I confess I don't recall the details of this chapter otherwise. Sorry!

6) Garlic - Italian immigrant experience, along with quite a bit of botanical background on the plant itself. The travel aspect had to do with garlic festivals.

7) MSG - detailed botanical information of the compound, as well as its history since being discovered in Japan a century ago. Focus is on Chinese Restaurant Syndrome: fact or fiction? Interviews with a major producer (distributor) and scientists.

8) Sriracha - let's call this one modern history. Seemingly an odd choice, but she does a great job explaining how it's become such a part of our culture; the botanical aspect of the peppers, along with the Vietnamese-American experience are well done. (disclaimer: I'm not keen on pho)

Then, there are the recipes! Garlic carrot cake with garlic infused frosting, anyone? Perhaps slightly less ambitious are the black pepper cookies - a GR acquaintance actually made those, reporting that they're every bit as tasty as they sound. My cousin is a fantastic cook, who's also highly adventurous, so perhaps I'll send her a copy of the book (hint! hint!). Until then, I guess I may have to wimp out, settling for a cocktail of vodka, vermouth and a couple of drops of sriracha.

Highly recommended! 304 Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine offers an eclectic and thought-provoking survey into American culinary culture and palettes. She traces our culinary roots and, through professional and personal experience, as well as meticulous research, offers up the history of eight spices that can be found in modern American kitchens today. But where did these spices come from, and how did they become so commonly used in our culture? These are the questions that Lohman probes and explores, pointing out their place in our contemporary palettes as she goes.

Lohman diversifies the research she offers up with anecdotes of her own history with food—including the summers that she worked in an outdoor historical museum, making historically accurate dishes for audiences. With that, there’s something for everyone here in this survey on the American palette. Included within this book are also a slew of recipes so that readers can step back into history themselves, making this read as interactive as it is entertaining and informative. From historical unearthments to 200-year-old recipes heaped in historic truth, Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a read for true foodies and novice culinary explorers alike. 4 stars ****

*I was given a copy of this book by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Art + Deco Agency Book Blog | Twitter | Instagram | Art + Deco Publishing Agency 304 I really liked this book, which is easy to read and full of fun food facts. It takes eight different flavors - from black pepper to Sriracha - and traces their origins in American cuisine to how they're used today. Lohman spends the first part of the book hand-waving about how these eight flavors are the ones that really define American food trends over time. She doesn't prove that point, but she does pick eight different flavors that have compelling and interesting backgrounds. The breadth of the stories in the book really speaks to the immigrant populations that came to America in different eras. By the end, I was convinced that each of these flavors does have its own American story - some of them surprising! - and I really liked seeing the transformation of tastes over time.

My favorite facts from the book:

- Black pepper was so popular in Revolutionary era America that it was used in everything, including cookies. If you went to Martha Washington's house, she would serve you black pepper cookies. And nothing would have vanilla - it would have rosewater instead.

- Imitation vanilla extract is more potent for baking at high heats (as you do with cookies), so it makes the most sense to use imitation. Probably good, because 95% of the world's vanilla is artificially produced! If you do get whole vanilla beans, grade B have the best flavor. (Grade A look the best but are more watery.)

- The first chili powder was created by a German immigrant in New Braunfels who wanted to sell chili in his saloon. Chile con carne is time intensive if you have to grind the chilies yourself. You can still buy the original chili powder today - Gebhardt's Eagle Chili Powder.

- Soy sauce was widely available before the American Revolution and difficult to acquire afterwards. American cooks started making imitation soy sauce out of mushrooms and tomatoes. The tomato-based sauce is, of course, ketchup, which is derived from the Indonesian word for soy sauce, ketjap. (!!!!!!)

- The first Japanese manufacturing plant to open in the US was a Kikkoman factory!

- I had no idea what MSG actually was before reading this book. It was discovered by a Japanese chemist who studied in Germany, and he envisioned it as a way to make healthy food taste better. American companies started adding MSG to canned or processed food instead, giving it a poor association with prepackaged food. Then it was essentially shelved in the US until the early 2000s, when celebrity chefs started cooking with it. Umami wasn't recognized as the fifth taste until 2000. 304