I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. So, when I started writing about food, I naturally found myself reading books about food history. There seems to be an increasing number of writers looking back at how our eating habits have shaped our communities and lives going back to the beginning of time. Some of these books such as Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham take cover vast areas of history and geography. Others, such as Pepper, by Marjory Schaffer cover a long time period but are more focused in the foods they write about. An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage falls into the former category.
Standage’s introductory paragraph states well what he is attempting to do:
There are many ways to look at the past: As a list of important dates, a conveyor belt of kings and queens, a series of rising and falling empires, or a narrative of political, philosophical, or technological progress. This book looks at history in another way entirely: as a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food. Throughout history, food has done more than simply provide sustenance. It has acted as a catalyst of social transformation, societal organization, geopolitical competition. industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion. From prehistory to the present, the stories of these transformations form a narrative that encompasses the whole of human history.
On the whole I’d say Standage does quite well in describing these narratives. One of the strengths of the book is the author’s understanding of various issues and viewpoints. Another strength is that despite writing from a Western European, Standage does take his readers into the agricultural history and development of many parts of the world. He also has a notably positive take on the way Islam was a unifying force in many countries engaged in the growing of spices.
West vs East
When he starts writing on the history of war and food, Standage clearly takes a Western bent on the topic. Western democracies: Good. Eastern Collectivists: Bad. I’ve recently also been working my way through Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War. While the tendencies Standage outlines may be true, the way in which both East and West have used food in war ranges from benign neglect, to outright murderous. Standage’s approach to this topic somewhat mars what is otherwise a fairly open-minded reading of food movements and ideologies.
When it comes to the future of food and our ability to feed ourselves, Standage takes a largely positive view of what lies ahead. He clearly believes that more scientific discovery is the road to follow in our attempts to achieve these goals. Nevertheless he is willing to listen to the voices of and see the potential benefits in those who see our success lying in our ability to take back the land and do more things on a small scale.
Standage works as an editor, and that seems to reflect in his writing. While well researched there seems to be a sparseness of detail, and a lack of storytelling in the book. While I found the book reasonably enjoyable, I don’t see it as one that I will go back to on a regular basis.