The title perfectly explains its content, if you want to discover the history of humanity under a pervespective rarely told, this is the book for you. Tom Standage also wrote "A History of the World in Six Glasses", worth reading too.
2 factoids per para, one fact. Just like the Economist magazine. I love factoids. This book has a lot of them, some of them new to me but all about what we eat, not about how we eat.
Standage, a distinguished journalist for the Economist magazine (which even has an "Intelligence" Unit), describes a history of food from a global perspective. He covers the main themes, agriculture, the Columbian exchange, miracle rice and GM crops. He ignores cooking.
Cookery may not be be an invention of man. Cookery may have made man. Cooked food delivers up to 50 times the the useful calories of raw food, and our preference for wasp waists may be a consequence of this.
The author spends some pages on spices, agreed to be nutritionally trivial but historically important, since we went to war over them. He does not mention our preference for rot, such as gamey meat, fish sauces etc which may be an even more ancient preference than cookery.
About technology he has surprisingly little to say. The refrigerator made Argentina rich, the grain elevator made the Mid West viable. About the environment he is conventional but says nothing about the microwave oven which is allegedly destroying family life(but uses little energy), about the practice of cooking food for the husband's midday meal which causes huge traffic jams in India or the deforestation of some poor countries that simply need the means to cook.
This book isn't bad, exactly. It just reads as if it was written by an intern. There are better ones about, some of which I've bothered to review.
Why were Indian eunuchs classed as spices in fifth century Alexandria when black pepper wasn’t? Why were seventeenth century Japanese samurai beheading tribal leaders in the Banda Islands for the Dutch? Why did bird droppings turn nineteenth century Bolivia into a landlocked country?
These are just some of the quirkier issues addressed in the impressive book, the side dishes if you like at a substantial and nourishing meal. Standage’s book is neither a history of cuisine nor a scholarly work but rather a history of food supply from the roots of agriculture to the present day aimed at the general reader.
The book is divided into 6 sections. 1. The Edible Foundations of Civilization. This covers the origins of agriculture. 2. Food and Social Structure. This covers the social structures that arise as social units become bigger, more complex and more unequal. 3. Global Highways of Food. This covers the importance of the spice trade in encouraging exploration and thereafter imperial expansion. 4. Food, Energy and Industrialization. This covers the Columbian Exchange and how it helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. 5. Food as a Weapon. This covers not only feeding armies and the invention of canned food but the Berlin Airlift and the famines produced by the policies of Stalin and Mao. (While Mao’s famine was the worst in history it was the product of his barmy belief in what communism could achieve; Stalin’s famine was deliberate). Standage makes the point that others have made before that where you have both a democracy and a free press famines don’t tend to happen. The importance of the weaknesses in Soviet food production in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union I had underestimated until I read this book. 6. Food, Population and Development. I wonder in how many histories of the world and/or of the 20th century do Fritz Haber and/or Norman Borlaug get a mention? Yet were it not for the work of these men the world would be a very, very, very different place. Here they get their due. The book ends with a review of the present and with a look to the future without wandering into the author’s politics or fanciful speculations.
While I liked this book there are some thoughtful negative reviews on Amazon.com giving alternative opinions.
An Edible History of Humanity is a jog through the ways in which the technologies of food production have influenced history. Examples from many periods are covered: the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture; the spice trade; the influence of food on military history (from Napoleon to the Cold War); the green revolution of the sixties and seventies; the great famines of Stalin and Mao.
It was something of a disappointment after Standage's outstanding earlier books The Neptune File (on planetary discovery) and The Victorian Internet (the history of the telegraph). Part of the problem is that, unlike these earlier works, there is no real narrative - just a sequence of examples. So the book lacks a sense of overall organisation or structure.
Also the material just seems on average duller than the earlier books. There are some interesting details (for example the discovery of synthetic nitrogen by Haber) but also a good deal of fairly pedestrian stuff about the various episodes in the spice trade.
There is a tendency towards the statement of the obvious. As the Times review pointed out, the book's conclusion that "food is certain to be a vital ingredient of humanity's future" is banal. Also, when Standage points out that tin cans are "still in use today" I wondered to whom exactly this might come as news.
Fantastically interesting story of how food has evolved and the politics and superstition behind our staple diet. Fascinating to read, well-written and not too complicated. Would recommend it to anyone interested in food, politics, history or just a well-told story. Who would have thought that the common potato had such folklore behind it?
This book gains my highest recommendation. You can apply its 'knowledge' to your everyday existence and it is a real eye-opener for everyone interested in nutrition, environment and agriculture (not necessarily in that order).
This is not a thematic history of humanity - it is twelve vignettes about food production spanning the period from the emergence of `settled agriculture' until today. The content is fairly standard and superficial - no more than entry level history. No surprises, original facts, or insights. The runner under this pleasantly written text is obvious: if only human societies would embrace democracy and espouse the market economy they'd live in Panglossian bliss.
This kind of approach goes under the heading of `affirmation' - plausible evidence conjured in support of a conjecture in the hope that people will believe it to be `true'. Another term for this kind of exercise could be marshalling of `common sense'. Its effect is to `feel good' about it, not to `prove' the point. As Karl Popper has told us, in an inductive world we can only disprove a conjecture. Such truth is beyond our powers.
Turning freak chance into a stately chain of progress - retrospective rationalising - is a key ingredient. What would have happened if geniuses like Haber and Borlaugh had not appeared in the nick of time, before the world declined into famines? One dare not even speak of Marxist `historical inevitabilities' for even these do not determine the timing of the historical contingencies.
Sharp-eyed selectivity helps - a lot. The author fondly quotes Amartya Sen to the effect that famines and democracy don't mix - the Irish potato famine being the regretful imbroglio that defeated Lord Peel's good (and timely) intentions. So 5% of the book's content is devoted to Communist famines. The eyes are pudibondly averted from all the Imperial famines that accompanied the forced entry of India (and China) into the international markets - individually and collectively just and bad as the Great Leap Forward. Sen is forgotten when he points out that in 1948 India and China had the same levels of life expectancy. Now China is ahead by ten years - which translates into roughly ten million unnecessary Indian deaths each year. Negligence is no crime...
Parochialism is de rigeur. Standage's history is plainly the history of the West. It starts out with ignoring great centres of food domestication (southern India - coconut and banana; Papua New Guinea; taro and other foodstuffs; Sudan, cattle) and then sails serenely across centuries of `world history' where Africa hardly warrants more than a deprecative footnote - there is no history there, said Trevor-Roper - and India and China, well they just had more people; they did not really contribute to the world's technological development, did they? The West did it all by its clever self: numbers, gunpowder, print, and compass.
Modesty behoves the historian - Tacitus opined - particularly when confronted with embarrassing questions, one is tempted to add. The author professes ignorance of the causes of `Great Divergence' that brought backwater Europe to preponderance in the world. Not for him crude issues like plundering of the Americas, industrial-scale slavery, destruction of Western India that so incensed conservative-minded Burke, or the forced descent of China into opium addiction. Like a boat, Standage's imperialism leaves no wake.
Ignorance is no bar. According to the author, the original civilisational transition is from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture. Sorry; and where does this leave nomadic civilisations, which domesticated animals (horses, cattle, sheep and goats) without settlement? Ever heard of Genghis Khan? The Eurasian continent today is still divided roughly in accordance with his geopolitical views. Admittedly, this flaw is widespread among historians and anthropologists: Eric Gellner does the same mistake.
Finally a few omissions: if one speaks of food - well salt is food, right? History, in particular Western history, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of the link between salt and power. Salary and salt after all share the same root. Power coalesced around salt in the European Middle Ages, and lack of salt helped defeat the Confederacy. Incidentally I'm missing a text on the civilisational role of hay: for Northern Europe was properly settled only after the invention of hay (the Romans did not have this technology).
The book is Whiggish history at its best. In the final chapter agricultural productivity inaugurates the demographic transition, and genetic tinkering plus wise Arctix burying of genetic plant material (no room for livestock in this glacial Arch) will get us any conceivable future difficulty. On page 229 Malthus ghost is `finally put to rest'. Tom Standage has missed Jared Diamond's `consumption factor'. True, we may produce enough calories for everyone today. But the solution of the quantity problem has been purchased at the cost of a delayed quality problem: were we to provide the whole mankind with the food lifesyle of the West, this would be roughly equivalent to increasing population to a trifling 72 billion.