Nutrition and historical food books

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

Empires of Food

Evan DG Fraser and Andrew Rimas, Random House, £20

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Jarring reminders of the fragility of our food ecosystems tend to drift in and out of public consciousness. Panic and fear come and go in a cyclical fashion, along with complacency and indulgence.

Most of the time we can have our cake and eat it too – but in this new book by professor Evan Fraser and American journalist Andrew Rimas, it is revealed, in a compelling narrative, just how precarious our global food systems were, are and will be.

The pair chart the growth, and eventual decline, of ‘food empires’ throughout history. The book opens by looking towards one of the world’s most rapidly growing ones (China), before rewinding to focus on the rise and fall of the Romans, the Mesopotamians, then the entrepreneurial spirit of the Benedictine monks (who sowed the seeds of modern agriculture).

No leaf is left unturned, from the importance of garum (fermented fish sauce) to the Romans to the political, economical and social consequences of the orange juice industry and the turmoils of the spice and tea trade.

It is a dense and intensive read, but the pair’s flair for scene-setting rhetoric and well-timed wit lifts it from the drier tones of academia. However, a more objective voice may be needed to convince readers of the writers’ position.

The book closes by asking some pertinent questions about how we will be able to sustain our lavish food empires. As our societies swell and fatten with the abundance we have grown used to, it has become impossible to imagine a world after that particular balloon pops.

The last chapter is a sobering one, reminding us of the reality of an exhausted earth, and the tendency for history to repeat itself. As such, we expect many more tomes to echo Fraser and Rimas’s sentiments in the coming years.

Charmaine Mok, Time Out London Issue 2093: September 30 - October 6 2010

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