Nutrition and historical food books

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These books about all things gastronomical offer plenty of food for thought

An Edible History of Humanity

Tom Standage, Atlantic Books, £19.99

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Tom Standage is business editor of The Economist. As you’d expect, his writing style is therefore crisp, clear, and… economical. Which is no bad thing when you’re trying to view recorded history through the huge prism of world food history.

This has been done before by others, from early luminaries such as Margaret Visser to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who have all had their particular approaches, yet it seems there is room for yet another.

This book is necessarily derivative, but to his credit Standage details his sources carefully. The result is a summary, covering diverse subjects from the well known, such as the shift to agriculture from hunter-gathering, to the topics less documented by food writers. For example, Napoleon’s reliance on fast and light food logistics being responsible for both his military successes and failures was news to me.

Along the way Standage covers the disaster ensuing from farm collectivisation under Mao, gives a very succinct and clear explanation of the so-called ‘triangular trade’ and slavery in the Americas, and how the spice trade was responsible for the wealth and decline of the major trading ports of the early modern period.

The style might be Economist-dry, but the stories told are not. Christopher Columbus is exposed as a fraud who was insistent he had found Asia when he had in fact found the Americas; and starvation-induced cannibalism, including the Ukraine as recently as the 1930s. Malthusian arguments are described then discredited, modern processes of fertiliser production explained and applauded.

The author has done a first-class job of collating available sources and describing complex information in a coherent and easily comprehensible way. My only criticism is that for such a well-researched and written book, better illustrations than the grey, sparse and rather superfluous images used would have made the £20 cover price seem like much better value.

Guy Dimond, Time Out London Issue 2025: June 11-17 2009

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