marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,
marycatelli
marycatelli

An Edible History of Humanity

An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage.

A little inaccurate that title.  It's more about times where food history has been made, and times when food has had a great impact on non-food history.

Not that there's a lack of those times.  And there's wonderful little details along the way.


It starts with a discussion of how the major grains have been altered by mankind's harvesting habits -- such things as ripening together, instead of spreading out to avoid the danger of a bad spell -- and how agriculture may have been mankind's biggest mistake, producing many signs of malnourishment whenever the transition occurred.  And how it rippled back to society, allowing people to drop the often coercive egalitarianism of hunters and gatherers, and letting people gather wealth.  The ritual practices at the very top of societies to ensure the harvest.

Spices were also a vital force in history.  The term comes from the Latin species, and denotes the kind of things you had to pay tarriffs on in the Roman Empire -- though the term drifted a bit to its current meaning.  Greek authors thought that cinnamon grew in an unknown land and was carried by birds to their nests, where it could be retrieved by skill.  Roman authors, knowing better, fumed about the amount of gold involved.  Medievals continued to import it, though the tale about it being used to disguised spoiled meat is silly, owing to its cost being so much more than the meat.  Centuries later, the age of exploration was triggered in part by a search for cheaper ways to get spices -- and helped remove their special status by learning about them and even raising them, demystifying them.

The enormous impact of the discovery of the Americas.  Maize had a better yield and produced more grain than any other grain in Europe, so it spread quickly -- and may have helped with vampire legends, because only when it's been treated with ash or crushed shells does it liberate all its nutriants, and they didn't know that and got an epidemic of pellagra.  Potato was harder to spread.  There were even rumors that it caused leprosy.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette helped, wearing potato flowers and eating dishes, but what worked best on the peasants was the time a populizer had armed guards posted on a potato field, inspiring peasants to steal them when the guards were withdrawn.

And the Industrial Revolution with its crucial movement away from using crops as the major source of energy.  And the impact of that on farming and importation of food.

Several chapters on food in warfare.  Alexander the Great forbade foraging more than four days from the army, because in four days, the pack mules would be a net effect of zero -- they would have had to carry four days worth of food out to keep alive, and eaten half of the eight days' food they could carry.  Napoleon's concerns with food, and the invention of canning.  The American Civil War and railroads and war -- except for Grant's attacks on Lee, the latter part of the war

Not to mention ideological weapons.  The Berlin Blockade and the famines in the Soviet Union and China.  A sugar boycott over slavery.

And the green revolution, starting with the German invention of a formula for synthesizing ammonia.  World War I meant it was used more for explosives than fertilizer, when food was crucial to Germany's defeat.  Leading onward through the development of new seeds and the storage of the variants.

A large and complex topic.
Tags: history reviews: across eras, history reviews: communism
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  • Quiet Pine Trees

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