Historian Fernández-Armesto sinks his teeth into the role of food in human history.
Countless books have been written on this subject, and it must be noted that the author doesn’t have much new to say about it. Still, Fernández-Armesto (History/Oxford Univ.; Civilizations, 2000, etc.) brings storytelling flair and encyclopedic learning to the task and turns in a highly readable if fact-dense survey. In his pages, for instance, the reader will learn that Captain James Cook, among his many other accomplishments, stole a page from the Dutch and introduced sauerkraut (“the only vegetable food which retains reasonable quantities of ascorbic acid in a pickled state”) into the British naval diet, thereby nearly eliminating the risk of death by scurvy; that the general awfulness of Dutch cooking made Netherlanders “exceptionally responsive to the food of other cultures” (whence the good rijstafel and vindaloos of Amsterdam today); that Neolithic settlements in Greece made a robust business of snail farming, providing some of the first archaeological evidence of humans’ herding and breeding animals for food rather than chasing them down in the wild; and that oysters, once considered food fit only for the lower classes, became prized only after they were scarce, while chickens, once eaten only by the well-to-do, lost their cachet when factory farming made chicken meat cheap and accessible. Dotted with anecdotes and trivia, the text also resounds with big themes that lend it substance. Cooking food, Fernández-Armesto observes, is one of the few things people do that other animals do not, making it “at least as good as all the other candidates in an index of the humanity of humankind.” And the quest for new foods is a powerful motor of history, leading to such signal episodes as the Colombian Exchange (by which coffee was introduced to the Americas, tomatoes to Italy, and peppers to India) and the current hubbub over genetic modification.
All in all, a pleasure for foodies, and a satisfying read for students of world history as well.