Friday, May 15, 2009

Review: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage

book 1 of 5 for the Non-Fiction Five challenge
genre: non-fiction/food
rating: 4/5

This book isn't really about eating food. It's not about tasting food or cooking food. An Edible History of Humanity is about food's place in world history - the roles it has filled, the drama that has sometimes surrounded it and the absolute necessity for our world to deal with it on a daily basis.

We start at the beginning, learning about hunter-gatherers and the transition to more farming-based agriculture. Food is discussed as a major reason why the world started being explored by countries that could afford it - and how food has been used throughout the centuries as a way to separate the wealthy from the masses. I was amazed by how many different conflicts and events were somehow or another related to special foods or a lack of food or an abundance of food - and how often food was used as a weapon. Some of the information is anecdotal, some is downright scientific or straight from a history textbook. It all merges together in body of knowledge that was, for me, completely fascinating and utterly readable. But then again, this stuff really interests me. I always wanted to read around someone so I could talk about the things I was learning.

I appreciate that this was truly a world history - I learned about Africa, the spice islands, Europe and America, India and China. Often it was the interaction between countries and their foodstuffs that was discussed in the context of each nation's desire to have enough food to feed its population and at the same time to hopefully have enough left over to export. What a delicate balance, this feeding of a people. How intricate and essential food is to our daily living. It's interesting to look over history as a whole - to see how far we've come technologically and where we are headed. And yet, when you think about it - the vast majority what we eat, right now, was originally a seed in the ground, a seed that is the descendant of thousands of other seeds. How close we really are to where we started from.

8 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Food and out attitudes toward it fascinate me too. I think we were all healthier when most of our diet was grown locally. This book sounds great!

Anna said...

This sounds like a unique take on food, at least compared to the other food books I've read. Thanks for the review.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

The Hunters said...

This reminds me of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" which probably should have had a different title, having to do with food history. At least the food part was what stuck in my memory the most.

I enjoyed that book immensely, so I'll have to give this one a read!

~Lia

Fyrefly said...

I'm in the middle of this book at the moment, and while I'll save my ranting for my own review, I am enjoying the trivia... particularly the fact that originally, tigers counted as "spices". :)

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Food as a weapon. It's sad, but true. Essential to life, so it can be withheld as a punishment, or given as a reward. Interesting that in the earliest days it had value not only in sustaining us but also as an economic tool.

Great review - I'd like to read more about food's role throughout the world over time.

Trish said...

"How close we really are to where we started from"--that really makes me want to read this book! I love to eat and eat a lot and my husband is constantly telling me that I need to stop thinking about food as a pleasure and start thinking about it as a necessity. Does this one discuss the pleasure aspect of food--when it stopped being just a necessity for survival?

Corinne said...

Trish - SO. It talks about it in a "trends" sort of sense. Like, how pineapples became all the rage and only the wealthy could afford this amazing fruit. And sugar and how dependent people became on having something sweet but it doesn't really focus on the pleasures of food - more its dynamic relationship with us and with the environment and our communities :)

Nymeth said...

Wow, this sounds absolutely fascinating. I'm adding it to my wishlist - thank you!

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