Edible History of Humanity

January 2017

I recently read a volume called “An Edible History of Humanity,” by Tom Standage. This fascinating volume tracks the essential role of food in shaping the culture, migration, and conflicts that have changed the course of human history. From our earliest days as foragers, to the major shifts in agriculture and industrialization, we have surprised ourselves with our abilities to overcome limitations and grow to an unprecedented population.
I appreciate the viewpoint this volume takes. It takes a different angle on the tales we already knew: the overwhelming power of mystery that drove the spice trade in the early part of last millennium, the unexpected and often backward consequences of settled life, and the degree to which domestication shaped the fate of many species. I was surprised to learn that chiles found their way from their South American homeland to the China within a few decades – in the 1500s! Who knew global travel was this prolific centuries ago? I also absolutely enjoyed the scientific story of corn – tracing its physical evolution from a nearly inedible grain to the giant sized and utterly dependable cereal grain that reshaped whole continental populations. I was enlightened to learn the near idyllic three-day work week of early foragers, compared to the harsh physical every day toiling of farmers.
In the later part of the volume, as the industrialization of Britain leaps past Malthus’ predictions of land limiting food production and therefore growth, we get detailed accounts of the civil war and Napolean’s nearly undefeatable sweep of Europe, and of the catastrophic failure of Stalin and Mao’s agricultural policies. What I miss is a contemporary view of how ecology has shaped South American culture, what the current state of African production is (though there is a single sentence alluding to guilt-ridden Westerners preventing the green revolution from reaching the continent for political reasons), or how sustainability practices in Australia are commonplace, in part thanks to their utterly limited water situation.
In conclusion, a worthwhile read for contextual history in the arena that unites us all as humans: our love of, and need for food.

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