Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage - 288 pgs

Book CoverIn this highly informative and interesting book, Tom Standage chronicles the evolution of food, explaining how humanity's first meals were hunted and gathered by people who literally lived off the land and how a shift towards farming and a development of agriculture prompted the first civilizations to be built. As people and cultures evolved, so did food's place in society, and as Standgae relates, food became, by turns, a power to exploit, a wealth to hoard, and a very special focus of politics. From the spice trade to the special cultivation of seeds that will miraculously survive disease and drought, Standage gives us the history of food as it relates to the history of people, societies, and governments in an engaging and interesting buffet that will delight and titillate even the most quaint appetite.

The sheer amount of information in this book was very impressive. Standgae has a way of making all of these minute bits of information not only interesting, but important. Far from being a weighty and dry tome, this book had me involved and curious from the very first pages. The information provided is obscure yet relevant in today's society, where it seems that everything of consequence is minutely examined; after reading this book, I came to see that food is of much greater consequence then I had previously thought.

I really enjoyed the sections that dealt with the propagation of special seeds that were basically engineered to maximize the growth and nutritional output of the various crops. Standage explains how just a small strip of a plant called teosinte was eventually bred into the corn that we now find in the supermarket, and how wheat was altered to be shorter, stronger and more easily harvested. Other chapters dealt with how transporting food across the ocean actually made great strides in spreading Islam beyond it's traditional boundaries, and how the rise of industrialization both in food production and in other sectors changed our history, particularly in Europe.

I was constantly amazed by this book because the information was so varied and there was so much more than just food encapsulated within these pages. From the topic of food logistics during war to a special section called "Food As a Weapon," Standage imparts his wisdom like a particularly friendly and engaging professor. I found the book to be very conversational, and though the information presented was academic most of the time, I didn't feel that the author was making his explanations impenetrable with concepts or topics that the average reader could not understand. I don't even think that one needs to have a background in history to appreciate or understand this book because Standage does a great job of filling in the gaps about what was going on in the various sectors of the world during the time frames he is examining.

This book doesn't really talk about food a a gustatory experience: you won't find recipes or tales of exotic meals. What you will find is the progression of food from an object of sustenance to an object of power, and onwards towards its scientific manipulation and use as a precursor of both population explosion and decline. You will find out why the Aztecs began to sacrifice food to their gods in favor of people, and why a small chemical reaction dramatically changed the way food was grown. You will find out how food was preserved throughout history (one of my favorite sections, I have to say), and how food had direct responsibility for the slave trade. This book provides the answers and explanations for many of the food questions that you may have never even thought about, and gives an accurate and flavorful account of just how and why things end up on our plate.

I am not normally a reader of non-fiction, and although this book wasn't exactly what I expected, I found it totally absorbing. Once again, I followed my husband about the house reading quotes and passages to him, which is something I only do when a book has me completely hooked. I liked the fact that the author was very direct and didn't meander, and that all his facts were so relevant towards today's food-conscious mindset. I think that this would be a great read for anyone who has even a modicum of curiosity about food, or if you are fond of non-fiction that is extremely well written. An excellent book that I am sure will enable some excellent conversations. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Sounds fascinating.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Oh wow! This sounds like exactly the kind of thing I could read to my husband in bed at night :)

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds fascinating. Have you read FAST FOOD NATION? Kind of similar. Sounds very, very interesting!

Ana S. said...

I'm on the fence about this one because I've seen some mixed reviews, but as usual, I loved reading your thoughts. I probably sound like a creepy fangirl every time I comment here, but what can I do :P

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

following your husband around ... lol! I usually interrupt my husband's reading to share some of my favorite passages (not sure he pays full attention, I must say!)

Steven Till said...

Interesting topic. Not something I would have thought to pick up in stores if I had just passed by it, but your review does make it sound appealing (or appetizing, whichever pun works better here). I was going to ask if the author deals with the discovery of the New World and how trade and food consumption changed as a result in the Old World, but it sounds like, according to your review, he deals with that topic.

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