The region of Champagne, France, has the misfortune to lie just between Paris and the French-German border. In 1870, 1914, and 1939 the hillside vineyards, historic wineries, and underground aging and storage cellars were ravaged by wars between the two countries. The total destruction of whole towns and villages and the suffering that occurred, especially in the near-by trenches of World War I, are nearly unimaginable.Don and Petie Kladstrup did an excellent job with this painful history in their bookChampagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times,published 2005.

Champagnecontains a detailed history of both myths and facts about Champagne and its origins — especially the mythologizing that’s occurred about the early cellar-master Dom Pérignon. The authors begin with the invention and production of its famous bubbly wine, continue with details about the people who produced, promoted, and drank the wine (and made up things about the origins); and wrap up by detailing how the region suffered through the battles and occupations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course there’s a bit about the Belle Epoch and how champagne became a drink of high-living Paris. I found the book fascinating, a wonderful successor to the Kladstrup’s earlier book,Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure,published 2001.

Rather than describe more of the book, I would like to share a bit of background about the Culinary History Book Club for which I’m reading it. This group is one of four that meet monthly at Motte & Bailey Used and Rare Books in downtown Ann Arbor: Culinary History is the third Wednesday. I’ve belonged since the beginning in the summer of 2009. Motte & Bailey owner Gene Alloway and his wife Jacki, the hosts/discussion leaders for each month’s selection, are always well-prepared, and the discussions are really energetic and informative.

The participants at each month’s meeting vary somewhat, depending on who’s busy and sometimes including new people who are interested in discussing a particular selection. My travel schedule often interferes with going to meetings, but I otherwise am a pretty regular attendee!

On a totally informal basis, we discuss future books to read and select a few for the coming months when the current list runs out. We’ve read scholarly works, memoirs, biographies of some interesting characters like Smirnoff the vodka guy and Fred Harvey the tourism guy; books about nutrition politics, books about a single food like chocolate, salt, sugar, or tea; and many other types of books. Some of the most-enjoyed selections we’ve read includedCreamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Foodby Jon Krampner,Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleansby Tom Fitzmorris,Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the Worldby Tristan Donovan,White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loafby Aaron Bobrow-Strain,Down and Out in Paris and Londonby George Orwell,The Belly of Parisby Zola,Sweetness and Powerby Sidney Mintz,The Fortune Cookie Chroniclesby Jennifer 8 Lee, both books by the Kladstrups, and dozens of others. In six years we must have read 72 books, but no one has kept a definitive list. My shelves are full, though!

For more information:

  • My food blog posts about books we’ve read, including this one:here.
  • Web page for Motte & Bailey reading groups (the lists are not kept up-to-date):here.
  • Ann Arbor ObserverCalendar with listing for current month’s book selection on third Wednesday:here.