Food history has become a bit of an exotica of late. We have Nicola Fletcher’s Charlemagne’s Table, Fellipe Fernandes Armesto’s Food A World History and Liz Collingham’s Curry. Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity is an oddity in this smorgasbord.
There is hardly any mention of restaurants, chocolate, oysters or breads. Standage describes wars, industry, empire, and genetic engineering. Food for him is not a source of pleasure but a means of status and power. He likens food’s influence on history to an invisible fork that prodded humanity and altered its destiny.
Standage shows how the advent of farming changed the food-sharing and egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies into societies with inequalities. The book covers some well-trodden ground, such as the part that spices played in triggering European exploration and colonization. It also has unconventional insights on how potato fuelled the Industrial Revolution. A fascinating account relates to the discovery of ammonia synthesis, because of which ammonium sulphate fertilizer could be processed. This was to revolutionize farming and food production.
Along the way Standage takes issues with many high priests of modern environmentalism. The advocates of local food, he suggests, should read the rich history of the spice trade. The proponents of natural food, similarly, should bear in mind that humans gave up eating such food long ago. The golden maize appears a “gift from nature”, but Standage shows it is the result of human decisions: from the foragers who first gathered and stored wild maize seeds, to farmers who bred a cob that was easy to eat, to the Aztecs and Mayas who made the cob nutritionally complete by treating it with calcium hydroxide and fortifying it with proteins and vitamins.
Similarly, the red and orange carrots we eat today are different from the squishy purple predecessors because a few enterprising Dutch farmers of the 16th century wanted to gift their king a stylish vegetable.
Standage’s geopolitical perspective is a welcome change from food histories where concoctions of cookbooks are used as evidence for what the people ate. But the book’s broad sweep makes the pace rushed. And the account on politics is a tad less comprehensive for missing out on Gandhi’s protest against salt tax in colonial India.
Shireen is a journalist and a playwright in Pune
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