Society is what it eats.
That’s the contention of Economist business editor Standage (A History of the World in Six Glasses, 2005, etc.). Writers have given close scrutiny to the histories of individual foods, cuisines and traditions, he notes, but have rarely looked at the history of food on a global scale. That’s why he decided to write this meaty little volume, which “concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history.” Tapping into fields as diverse as economics, anthropology, archaeology and genetics, the author asks a simple question: Which foods have had the most influence on shaping the world we live in today? Surprisingly, the list is short; corn, wheat, rice and the potato have been predominant in agriculture and commerce. But history isn’t Standage’s only concern. He takes the long view to illuminate and contextualize such contemporary issues as genetically modified foods, the complex relationship between food and poverty, the local food movement, the politicization of food and the environmental outcomes of modern methods of agriculture. It’s a tall order, impressively filled. Food was pivotal in the creation of social hierarchies in prehistoric cultures. It was central to the spread of European colonial powers. The Industrial Revolution sprang from concerns over food. The Soviet Union collapsed because food was running out. Advancements in biotechnology have proved a double-edged sword—a boon to the hungry and a bane to the environment. Written in the lucid, plain and rather stiff prose familiar to readers of the Economist, the book, like the magazine, is cogent, informative and insightful.
An intense briefing on the making of our world from the vantage point of food history.