A beautifully presented guide to the foods that have had the greatest impact on human civilization.
Though many of the foods in this book are taken for granted and one (the mammoth) is no longer consumed, these foods have kept humans alive for millennia and theirs is a fascinating story.
Like the other titles in this highly-regarded series, this book organizes the fifty foods into short illustrated chapters of fascinating narratives: the "who, where, when, why and how" of each food's introduction and its impact on civilization in one or more cultural, social, commercial, political or military spheres.
These stories span human history, from our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the transatlantic slave trade, from the introduction of frozen foods, prohibition and the rise of the Mafia, to the powdered milk scandal in China. Another example is golden rice, the first genetically modified food developed for the good of humanity rather than solely for profit.
Most of the foods are familiar and their importance obvious, such as bread, sugar, wine, potato, beef and rice. Others are far less obvious. The fifty foods include:
Fifty Foods That Changed the Course of History is an informative and entertaining look at how what we eat has made us who we are.
Bill Price is a regular contributor to many international publications and popular reference books. His published works include Tutankhamun: Egypt's Most Famous Pharaoh and History's Greatest Decisions.
The shelves of supermarkets are today stacked high with foods from all over the world, an astonishing variety that many of us may take for granted because the sight has become so familiar. If we were to stop for a moment to consider where all of these foods have come from and how they have arrived on the shelves in conveniently packaged forms, then the connection between the food we eat and the way we live our lives would become apparent. Delve a little deeper still and what begins to emerge is the history of the interaction between people and their food, which shows how close these connections have always been and gives us an indication of the influence food has had on the nature of society.
The Stuff of Life Food plays a central role in our lives: it is a necessity for all of us, a pleasure for many and an obsession for a few. It can bring us together and on occasion drive us apart, but there can be no getting away from the simple fact that we have to eat to live. The way in which people have provided for themselves through time and across cultures may be very different, but nevertheless the essential nature of sustenance remains much the same. From our hunting and gathering ancestors to the industrial agriculture and food manufacturing processes of today, food has been a common factor throughout our existence and wherever we live in the world.
To begin at the beginning, this survey of the role of food in history starts with the foods of early hunters and gatherers before moving on to look at the adoption of agriculture and those foodstuffs eaten by the first farmers. From there we move on to the rise of cities and civilizations, while also taking in food cultures from around the world, and then carry on into the medieval period. Food provided the impetus for the Age of Exploration, when the Portuguese and Spanish began to open up trade routes around the world and were then joined by the Dutch and British. It would lead to the development of commercial networks and global financial systems as well as establishing the European empires which would come to dominate world history. European colonization of the New World would have a devastating impact on the indigenous cultures of the region and the foods they relied on, while, in the twentieth century, it would be behind the rise of America to global pre-eminence. In this way, we arrive at the industrial and postindustrial world of today, with its convenience foods and the brand names we find on those supermarket shelves.
The Course of History Some foods have had an enormous impact on history, such as bread or the potato, while the influence of others has been rather more subtle. Anzac biscuits, for instance, continue to connect the people of Australia and New Zealand with the experiences of their soldiers in the First World War and, in South Korea, kimchi bridges the gap between the traditional and modern in a rapidly changing society. A few drinks have also been included which, strictly speaking, might be stretching the definition of food a little, but, at the same time, the histories of some foods and drinks are so intertwined that it can become difficult to discuss one without the other. To give just one example, the connections between the trade networks supplying tea and sugar to Europe which developed during the eighteenth century mean that it would be difficult to grasp one without understanding the other. It is also true to say that the enormous impact tea has had on history, however it is classified, makes it impossible to ignore in a book such as this one.
The book is arranged by date to bring a little order to what might otherwise tend toward chaos, but this is only a rough guide and, as some of the discussions span thousands of years, it is probably best to take the chronology with a pinch of salt. But what we can say with confidence is that food has not only sustained us throughout our history, it has also played a crucial role in the way we live our lives, as it will no doubt continue to do in the future. If it is true to say that we are what we eat, then the examples described here show us that it is equally the case that what we eat makes us who we are.
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