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4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars

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on 15 June 2008
Whatever its mercurial promise of bright lights, shared experiences and multicultural exoticism, the city can be an isolating place. However: everyone's got to eat - and therein lies the opportunity both for life-enhancing human engagement and for equally life-sapping process-led commercialism. Carolyn Steel's book, which interprets the city through food, highlights both the despair and the hope implicit in the idea of the city. By her clever tracing of food's journey from land to urban table and thence to sewer, Steel makes us reflect on past and present social satisfactions and injustices which our most basic human need can inspire.

Contrast the image of joyless contemporary supermarket shoppers - strip-lit lone prowlers debating forlornly with themselves about which highly packaged factory offering to microwave tonight - with the heady possibility of outdoor urban market-goers discussing food, tasting and learning. It's clear which one we'd all rather participate in, and yet Steel urges us not to be misty-eyed about the turn of the 21st century emerging market culture either. London's Borough Market is described as `food tourism' - laudable, but not affordable - a middle class aberration rather than a sustainable way of life for most of us. This typifies Steel's approach to her two-pronged subject: she is not afraid to slaughter sacred cows in her search for authenticity and meaning. This search takes her from London to the Middle East, from high flown ritual to domestic minutiae and from the mediaeval dining table to McDonalds without exhausting or overwhelming the reader.

As I read through Steel's journey, many similar food-inspired conflicts on the despair/hope axis spring to mind and make me feel at once revolutionary and impotent. Growing food locally could be such a positive collective activity, but the space to do it is scarce and prohibitively expensive. Selling and shopping for that food could rekindle the relationship between city dwellers and those who work the land, but the supermarket has become an unthinking way of life. Cooking and eating food are two of the few remaining ways in which urbanites can be hospitable, trusting and generous. But Steel's vivid descriptions of ancient cookshops and taverns offer a far richer vision of city-dwellers bawdily conversing over shared fare than Wagamama's ubiquitous but uneasy shared benches can ever do. Minimising waste is surely essential (and creative!) if we are to optimise increasingly meagre global resources. But as Steel points out, we currently throw away a shocking 30% of the food we buy. The massive reversals required in existing supply chains, educational priorities and even basic social interactions in the city are horribly daunting. One cannot but feel that a pan-national crisis will be the only possible trigger for a new, sustainable food market.

Steel's concluding chapter tenders myriad ideas, both utopian and pragmatic, about bottom up behavioural change and top down political leadership on food that might seek to avert such a crisis. Whilst her book is certainly a campaigning one, it is also realistic and discursive and not given to promulgating slick solutions to complex agricultural and societal problems. Potential readers will know that there are already a host of excellent polemics about contemporary food culture (Shopped, Fast Food Nation et al) and an equal canon about cities. What Carolyn Steel's book achieves is to bring these two axiomatic subjects together for the first time with a hugely enjoyable melee of academic care, passion and a jocular, accessible style. You feel like you would like to have her round for dinner to discuss further. And she would probably accept...
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on 1 June 2010
"Once you start to see the world through food, everything changes. Seemingly unconnected things turn out to be closely linked; apparently confusing relationships spring into relief. Food is one of the greatest forces shaping the world." (Hungry City; p308)

From the final pages of this book the above is a quote that really resounded with me. From a different line of reasoning upon different aspects of the human relationship to food I had come to think upon very similar lines to this summation of Ms Steels view but could never had articulated matters so succinctly.
Hungry City is a thoroughly researched and insightfully compiled commentary upon the relationship of food, food provisioning, and urban development. It is thought provoking and well grounded in analysis of historical associations and quotations that add gravitas to the arguments that are presented, and in so doing expands the potential range of viewpoint and interest that a reader might adopt.

I'd agree with the four foregoing complimentary reviews. People could take an interest in 'Hungry City' for quite different reasons and could derive great satisfaction from it for equally diverse reasons. It is a book that deserves much positive comment and, though undoubtedly a minority interest, it is a book that would benefit humankind for reaching a wider readership. But the book did not entirely fulfill my own expectations. Something in some promotional material that drew my attention to it had raised them. Perhaps I anticipated a somewhat more robust thesis and analysis of contemporary challenges along with clearer suggestions about how to address them. These are features that are present but I felt presentation and structure did fully develop coherency in some of the themes.

Cities do make undue and unbalanced demands upon resources, and they do deplete important capitals such as fertility and energy, and while humanity permits that status-quo to persist Cities compare well in a functional sense to cancers, growing and consuming resources at the expense of the host. I had long contemplated why the most fertile by-product of human occupation is permitted to go to waste and wondered why its' potential to replenish soil fertility is neglected. Ms Steel addresses this indelicate topic with suitable pragmatism and delicacy which is reason enough to award five stars.

As for the assertion that "food is one of the greatest forces shaping the world", I both agree and disagree. There is increasing concentration of dominion over capitals, not limited to but certainly with emphasis upon financial capitals; there is increasing concentration of dominion over an increasingly industrialised food provision chain which increasingly denatures aspects of the food most prominently advertised and promoted by manufacturers and supermarkets, (with reference to increasing prevalence of denatured oils, denatured carbohydrates, denatured sweeteners, and even denatured proteins [mycoproteins for eg.]) thus introducing novel and questionable features, with questionable consequence for health, in the most recent evolution of the human diet; and there is a rise an concentration of dominion within the large and corporate which in addition to being a partner to the two foregoing propositions has undue control and influence over the knowledge economy.
In complex developed nations, economic alliances, and the urban environment, these are the primary forces shaping our world, one increasingly at odds with ecological actuality. But food does constitute a most useful filter with which to examine the increasingly denatured habitat in which many of us humans live. The evolving human relationship with food is essential to the evolving human condition.
The knowledge economy began with hunter-gatherer societies who could provision essential caloric and nutritional requirements with time over for bone carving or cave painting. Monetary economies are afforded by the possibilities afforded by the capacity for agricultural surplus - a point underscored by Ms Steel in discussing the 'fertile crescent' and origins of early urbanising human societies.

All of the modern diversity of economic function, activity, and complexity is made possible by the increasing 'efficiency' by which developed economies can provision food. Humans have created a world of enigma and contradiction too easily taken for granted, and 'Hungry City' demonstrates that point excellently; "850 million people are still hungry"; "One quarter of the British population is obese".

Once you start to view the world through food, everything changes. A point very well made in 'Hungry City'.
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Carolyn Steel has developed a well-exposed analysis of the inherent tension in the relationship between cities and their sources of, consumption of, and ultimately disposal of food products. The book draws towards a final conclusion that we are getting closer and closer to the breaking point in that tension as more people round the world continue their exodus to cities.

Throughout the book, she uses fascinating examples from our distant and not so distant history to illustrate the effects that she describes. The book is made rich by her examination of so many different aspects of the relationship between cities and food, from the role of government, to the architecture and structure of cities, to the role of cooking and the way that waste is treated.

Steel's analysis is an eye-opener, and has put into context for me the role of urban planning with regard to globalisation and sustainability.
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on 25 November 2013
Most people in richer countries these days live in cities, and over half of all people worldwide live in an urban area. This represents a fundamental shift in the way that people relate to the land, and to the food that they eat. In the past most people were responsible for growing their own food, now most people, living in cities, are dependent on other people for this.

Hungry City isn't very much about hunger, which as one of my main interests was why I had picked it up. So it was full of surprises, but I wasn't disappointed because most surprisingly, it was a lot of fun. The author, Carolyn Steel, is an architect as well as a writer, but she seems mostly to be interested in a broad and hard to define area called urbanism, which is like a mash-up of all of the subjects ever but with a focus on cities. I'm into urbanism as well, it's one of my main interests. You can see why I was drawn to this book.

Carolyn takes us on a wide-ranging journey through the homes and markets of the city and the surrounding areas that support it (warning: terrible pun ahead). Food for thought: have you considered that until we were able to transport food long distances without it spoiling, with planes or trains or refrigerated trucks, cities were basically forced to only grow as far as the land around could support them, or had to be by the sea and get their food from ships. Ships at the time were like spaceships to us, probably some of the most advanced technology in the world, going to places people could barely dream of visiting, and the most expensive things many people would come into contact with. I digress. So does Carolyn in this book. It's immensely enjoyable.

Hungry City touches on environmental matters quite openly and consistently. I found it really interesting to read about sustainability from the point of view of somebody who does not primarily put themselves forward as an environmentalist. Carolyn seems to like urban society and want it to be able to continue into the future. So sustainability in that sense is about wanting the city to be able to survive. Unfortunately for said city, reliance on oil-based food transport and heavily meat-based diets make its long term prospects fairly bleak if things carry on as they are.

There is more to this book than just that. At its heart Hungry City represents a rallying cry, challenging us to dream of a better kind of city, one that feeds itself responsibly. But on top of that, Carolyn wants us to think of a city with a better and much closer relationship with food, with urban farming and local markets, and a food culture that treasures craft and adventure.
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on 20 March 2010
This book is simply fascinating and incredibly enjoyable. It will open your eyes to the history of who we were and why we are here today. I also shows why we have lost touch with where our produce comes from. A must for anyone who wants to understand food and how it shapes us
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on 6 December 2010
Carolyn Steel sets out a very basic but important argument - that by putting food (in all its aspects) at the centre of a perspective about the future, then we are better able to consider the importance of respect for food and food production. From 'respect' comes an understanding of the need to stop relying on supermarkets and cheap oil for what is essentially cheap food. The word 'cheap' may surprise some people but a growing number of those who understand food and sustainability issues know that food - even in affluent countries - will become scarce and the subject of conflict on a large scale. Carolyn Steel dissects the many aspects of food production and distribution, highlights the weak points and identifies ways forward. The sad thing is that it is a work largely read by those who have an initial understanding of these issues - but is to be hoped that the quality of the scholarship in this book will convert others
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on 2 October 2010
This book was clearly a labour of love for Carolyn Steel. This is one of the most fascinating books that I have read recently and her passion for the subject shines through. I have learnt a lot from this and will try and apply some of this to the way that my family and I treat food.
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on 8 November 2011
A cornucopia of delicious facts and a shopping list of hope. Steel's book bulges with great insight and opens up that foggy map of the food world that cannot be found on the plate. I read it as an architecture student and found it utterly inspiring, recommended to everyone.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 June 2008
As I type there are reports of food shortages around the country. There are also reports of cannabilism occurring in Essex.

OK I made that last bit up but this book serves as a reminder to those of us who live in cities as to where our food comes from and where it all goes. It also serves as a very interesting book on how cities of the past were fed and reminds us that in fact cities are a relatively recent development in human history and that they could only exist with the explicit development of agricultural methods and markets. I am off to read "The end of food" now which may have more to say about food shortages elsewhere in the world, but to be fair the author here makes it clear that her intention is to describe how cities have been and continue to be fed.

To sum up a very interesting and surprisingly readable book given the subject matter.
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on 6 September 2013
Superb expose of the truth behind Britain's food industry. Recommended reading for anyone interested in how our food reaches our tables.
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