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on 12 May 2016
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 giving alternative opinions.
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on 13 July 2010
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?
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on 7 February 2013
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.
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on 7 March 2013
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.
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on 11 June 2015
Ultimately, a bit dry. Each segment was enjoyable, but there was little in the way of a thread running through to get me to start the next section.
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on 8 October 2016
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