CONSUMING PASSIONS: The Anthropology of Eating by Peter & George Armelagos Farb

CONSUMING PASSIONS: The Anthropology of Eating

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Lovely title. Not so lovely book. The late Peter Farb, with a roster of popularizations on evolution and culture (e.g. Humankind), here collaborated with an anthropologist (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) to tell all about eating in relation to biology and culture. The result is a potpourri of comparative ethnology, nutritional data, and associations of food with totem and taboo, rite and ritual, sexual metaphor or status symbol. While the chapters and major sections are logically organized on the surface, the text frequently jumps from a paragraph on a balanced diet, say, to one about sex or death. What's the point? A reader wonders. And finds, instead of an answer, a gratuitous statement (""Now many people eat without being hungry and copulate without producing offspring""); or an outrageous putdown (""The elderly whose taste buds have withered and whose palates are jaded. . .""); or an arbitrary attack (Levi-Stauss' ""sloppy use of facts""); or a lurid example (cannibalism runs rampant, often combined with necrophilia). Clearly Farb and Armelagos have their biases; and they strongly favor the cultural materialism of Hamer and Harris, for example, in citing Aztec human sacrifice as a means of satisfying protein needs. To be fair, the wealth of material yields interesting tidbits of social history and curious customs. (Prunes were an Elizabethan aphrodisiac, we are told.) But, again, the reader must be wary because anecdotes pile up and facts are often distorted or sensationalized. The authors' repeated emphasis on the generally deleterious effects of agriculture and subsequent population growth on diet, their relish of the salacious and unpleasant, undesirable or tragic aspects of human behavior--closing with a chapter on human starvation--are enough to make the reader feel that the road to a technologically advanced society has been downhill all the way. And enough to make Consuming Passions indigestible.

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin