FOOD-NEMAN-COLUMN-MCT

“The Secret History of Food,” by Matt Siegel. (HarperCollins Publishers/TNS)

In 1942, the USS Lexington, the second-largest aircraft carrier in the Navy at the time, was sunk by Japanese torpedoes and bombs during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Before abandoning ship, sailors grabbed all the ice cream they could. Some scooped it into their helmets before lowering themselves into the water.

This weird food fact, and plenty more like it, can be found in “The Secret History of Food,” by Matt Siegel (HarperCollins, $27.99), which came out Aug. 31.

Keeping to the theme of ice cream during World War II, we learn that some U.S. bomber crews strapped buckets of ice cream mix to the outside of their planes. The vibration of the engines — and the machine-gun fire — churned the mix while the cold temperatures at high altitude froze it into ice cream.

Ice cream helped the fighters’ morale, and so did comfort food. A mess sergeant who was in a prisoner-of-war camp for 43 months whiled away his time in confinement by creating menus for a big, if nonexistent, Christmas dinner. Other prisoners started asking for specific dishes to be put on the fictional menu.

What struck a woman who later catalogued these menus is how few of the requested dishes were sophisticated foods the POWs may have had at elegant restaurants: scallops or oysters or Chateaubriand. Most of the food they wanted to think about was “home food of childhood which represented unconditional love, without cares or responsibilities.”

You may know that pie crusts, as they were originally baked in England, were thick and hard and intentionally inedible; they were meant only to hold the filling as it cooked, and then be discarded.

But pie became an American institution — people were known to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the 19th century — because early colonists faced a shortage of wheat in these lands. Less wheat meant the crusts had to be thinner, and by extension, flakier.

That made them not only edible but also delicious.

When the very first colonists came to these shores, they found an extraordinary availability of food. The woods were full of game, the fields were bursting with berries, the air was crowded with birds and the ocean, especially, was teeming with fish.

And yet, three-quarters of the English colonists in Jamestown, Va., died during the winter of 1609-1610, a period known as the Starving Time. While food was potentially plentiful, the colonists had neglected to bring with them the means to collect it. Without fishing nets, one colonist attempted to catch fish with a frying pan.

He was not successful.

The book also covers the low regard with which potatoes were held for at least a couple of centuries. Part of the nightshade family — along with tomatoes and eggplant — they were naturally associated with witchcraft and devil-worship. Russians of the 18th century called them “the Devil’s apples” and burned them at the stake. They were also believed to cause syphilis and leprosy.

These days, Americans consume an average of 47 pounds of potatoes every year, far more by weight than any other vegetable.

And this tidbit: Napoleon said that he could conquer all of Europe if he had fresh bread. In 1795, the emperor — who often spoke of the importance of a full belly to an army — offered a reward of 12,000 francs to anyone who could improve his military’s method of transporting and preserving food.

The prize was claimed 14 years later by a candy maker named Nicolas Appert, who essentially invented the method of using boiling water to can foods in a sealed glass jar. He later switched to tin cans. For his efforts, he is remembered as the father of canned food.

And finally, the book presents one tidbit that is too good not to share. In 2016, West Virginia lawmakers struck down a ban on raw milk and celebrated their victory by drinking raw milk.

Several became ill, and three had to go to the hospital or an urgent-care facility. Some of the legislators noted that a stomach bug was going around at the same time, and that, as the delegate who distributed the milk said, “It didn’t have nothing to do with that milk” and “It ain’t because of the raw milk.”

No tests could be made on the remaining milk, because he flushed it down the toilet. As the book sarcastically puts it, “apparently, (that is) something he normally does with perfectly good milk.”