An Edible History of Humanity
by Tom Standage
I want to say that this book is the history of civilization’s relationship with food. (Short summary: We need it, so we get it, or we die.) But what Tom Standage writes is a little more complicated than that. It is more a story about food’s influence over societies, and how the quest to control its availability led humanity to form agricultural civilizations, explore the world, and transform societies again and again.
Sometimes we transform food; sometimes it changes us. The cultivation and careful tending of maize in the Americas led to a plant that is unable to reproduce without human assistance. The Europeans’ taste for the exotic flavor of spices encouraged trade and eventually led to colonization in Asia and the Americas, which uprooted the lives of people around the world. The industrialization of food production helped fuel the massive population growth of the nineteenth and twentieth century.
It’s an interesting read for sure. Sometimes Standage would flesh out ideas I already had. For example, I knew that one of the reasons Napoleon failed to take Russia was that the Russians destroyed crops and food stores so that his armies had no supplies the deeper they got into the country. But the book provided several other examples of armies using food to win or lose battles, including Alexander the Great, the American Revolution and the World Wars.
One area the author didn’t really cover, which disappointed me, was the sustainability of industrialized food, and the effect industrialization has had on food quality. Maybe he felt he didn’t need to because that would be projecting into the future, rather than looking back into history. Maybe he felt there were already plenty of books on that topic, since it’s become quite a popular one in the last few years. He talked at length about the effect of chemical fertilizers on soil productivity, but not much about its effects the ecosystem and environment of the areas around the farm. The book seemed to end rather suddenly, and I think this was largely because he made very little speculation about the future of food’s influence. My questions about food didn’t feel fully answered.
I found An Edible History of Humanity to be entertaining and a perspective to history not often visited. Usually it takes me a while to read non-fiction books, but I got through this one in about a week. That’s fast for me, especially considering it was the week before finals and I had a lot of other school-related reading to do!