An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage

Nine stars

As an avid book reader, I always hunger for the next great story, be it based on real events or fantastical fiction. Tom Standage presents this book to explain how food has helped shape and influence major events in history, using a number of great examples while keeping the reader entertained. He begins by taking things as far back as possible, with a focus on man’s creation myths tied to corn or maize, which were essential parts of the early diet of those who roamed the earth. As Standage did in one of his other great books (A History of the World in 6 Glasses), he argues that the emergence of cereal grains helped to create a sedentary population and thereby developed a farming mentality. This permitted the emergence of cities and larger communities, which served to socialise people. Food has also helped create a sense of hierarchy in societies, which emerged early on in the hunter/gatherer collectives. Those in charge of finding food took on positions of power and control, which they exerted effectively. Leaders soon rose from the group, usually through natural character traits or physical stature. However, Standage argues that not all societies permitted this standout role, choosing modesty and a communal way of life. Food could also be seen as a currency, which exacerbated the view of power, as people traded and bartered with food, while taxes could also be placed on items that came from outside the local community.

This leads to Standage’s third area in which food helped shape world history, trade and travel. As exotic items came from the Far East, the Greeks and Romans marvelled at the different spices that came to be used in various forms. With the need to seek elsewhere, spice routes emerged and Europeans traveled far to seek them out. This permitted the discovery of new lands and peoples, which influenced how the world would progress. Standage explains how new ideas about food production also arose, as the Chinese, Indian, and Native American communities were studied, which influenced European ideas for how they might improve their own crops and cooking techniques. Much as the British Empire was solidified with the sale and exporting of tea, the Dutch took a position of power when it came to spices, using their colonial interests to procure and distribute various spices. With the arrival of some products from the New World, came new and interesting foods to the Old World, many of which were exotic and never dreamed up by Europeans. The emergence of pineapple in England not only denoted a posh new fruit for the locals to try, but also showed how Charles II held sway over his colonial lands. Standage explores the importance of these new foodstuffs and how they became central to the advancement of world history. Much time is spent discussing the great potato, which was seen as both something for the upper classes (as the French used them in glorious ways) and of the abject poor, who would live on them when nothing else could be grown. However, with all these new items came new issues, including rot and famine, which cost many people their lives and livelihood.

Standage continues his detailed analysis by showing how food could also be used as a weapon, killing more than any traditional military tool. Napoleon’s miscalculations when invading Russia in 1812 cost him greatly because French troops ran out of food and could not continue, forcing the ‘little general’ to retreat after trying to take Moscow for his own. Power also came in the form of communist collectives, where Stalin and Mao tried to use agricultural plans to support their respective countries, but things became dire and massive famines ensued. Standage explores this at length and leaves the reader in little doubt that suffering through lack of food proved to be more punishing than any musket or bullet. The last portion of the book looks to the green movement of food, its growth with the assistance of some outside forces. Nitrogen has been proven to be a much needed substance to spur along the growth and healthy development of crops. The controversies around fertilizer and modification outside of the ‘normal’ means is surely one that continued into the 21st century, but there is no easy answer. Many have tried to create bumper crops, but at what cost? Food may be the sustaining force that keeps humans alive, but does there come a time when too much tinkering makes our food worse for us, rather than better? This is highly thought provoking piece that kept me completely hooked until the very last page. I love learning so much and Tom Standage delivers in this literary ten course feast. Recommended to those who enjoy learning about the nonfood uses of food, as well as the reader with a passion for history of a different variety.

I mentioned in a previous review of a Tom Standage piece how much looking at history and world events through unorthodox means makes me appreciate it even more. The author does a masterful job throughout, filling this book with information open to multiple interpretations on a subject few would likely have expected to be its foundation. While only offering a brief outline of his arguments above, I have tried to show how Standage uses an array of concrete examples to substantiate his hypotheses in each chapter. These twelve strong chapters explore the history of a food based theme and then discuss social, political, and economic impacts on world history. The writing is not overly academic, but there is also more than a superficial analysis of the topics at hand, requiring more than a passing interest in the topic to really extract all that Standage has to offer. I was pleased to have been so enthralled and to be able to push through as my mind tries to understand the topics Standage puts on offer. I will need a while to truly comprehend all that I read and how food has made such a difference.

Kudos, Mr. Standage, for an amazing reading experience. I hope others will find your books and discover the magic you weave into every page!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: