An Edible History of Humanity
Walker and Company, New York, 2009, 270 pp.
Paperback: ISBN 978-0-8027-1991-1, $18.95
Reviewer: Karl Storchmann
I stumbled over this book in New York’s Strand Book Store, read the first pages while still standing at the bookshelf, bought it, and devoured it in a few days. The author of An Edible History of Humanity is Tom Standage, the business editor of the Economist and author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses. And clear-cut, this is a book written by an economist from the first page to the last.
An Edible History of Humanity covers 150,000 years of cultural history and its relation to food. This is not a “happy foodie book.” Standage does not write about the cultural history of food, cuisines or table manners. Rather, this book is about the role food has played in social and economic development and as the foundation of entire civilizations. In twelve chapters, Standage describes how food and the search for it has shaped our economy and our lives. The book is structured by topics and cruises chronologically through human history. It begins with the invention of farming and the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer communities (Chapters 1 to 3) and closes with the Green Revolution of the 20th century (Chapters 11 and 12). But not all chapters are on farming. In between we read about the global spice trade (Chapters 5 and 6), food, energy and industrialization (Chapters 7 and 8) and food as a weapon (Chapters 9 and 10).
Here are some of the book’s ideas from the first chapters that, so my hope, should entice the reader.
Why did people switch from hunting and gathering to farming? The common answer is farming is more efficient and exhibits less volatile outcomes than hunting-gathering, and thus gave people more time to devote to artistic and technological pursuits. However, as convincingly laid out by Standage, the opposite is true. In addition to the fact that “being a hunter-gatherer was much more fun” than being a farmer, farming was less productive than hunting (measured in time spent per food produced) and yielded a less varied and less balanced diet. As a result, farmers were shorter in height than hunter-gatherers and enjoyed a lower life expectancy. So why did people switch? Drawing on a rich body of mostly anthropological literature Standage provides several possible explanations for the adoption of farming such as climate change, sedentism and population growth.
In some regions of the world, climate change appears to have played an important role; a warmer and less volatile climate was the necessary condition for farming. In other parts of the world people became more sedentary and spent most of their time at a single camp or even took permanent residency near a source of abundant wild food supplies. Nomadic hunter-gatherers have to carry everything – including children – from camp to camp increasing the cost of having many small children. Mothers in permanent settlements, on the other hand, are freed from this burden. Sedentism allows people to have more children and therefore may spur population growth, which, in turn, encourages supplemental plantings and agriculture.
In any event, the transition from hunting-gathering to farming was gradual. At no point did one person make a conscious decision to make a radical switch. The proto-farmer was rather guided by questions such as “Why be a nomad when you can settle down near a good supply of fish? If wild food sources cannot be relied upon why not plant a few seeds to increase the supply?” (p. 22).
Not only has farming led to greater changes in our natural environment than any other human activity, it has also changed our social lives. Food does not always bring people together, it can also divide them. While people settled down with farming, agricultural food surpluses allowed the social stratification of society and divided people into rich and poor. The concept of personal wealth is foreign to nomadic hunter-gatherers. The need to carry everything around limits the accumulation of personal property. Personal possessions are limited to a few clothes, tools and weapons. In addition, most items are shared among all group members. Bands in which items are shared are more flexible and have an edge over those who amass private wealth and jealously guard their status goods. Food is shared too; since not every hunter can be sure to kill an animal every day, sharing serves as an insurance against food shortages.
The egalitarian structure of hunter-gatherer bands has changed with the advent of sedentary farming. Since people don’t move around anymore the concept of private property and stratified social structures become accepted.
Standage then tackles the international spice trade from the 14th to the 17th century. Spices as “splinters of paradise” were sought after as status symbols. Cinnamon, ginger, white pepper, cardamom all were luxury items affordable to very few people only. “The conspicuous consumption of spices was a way to demonstrate one’s wealth, power and generosity. Spices were presented as gifts, bequeathed in wills along with other valuable item . . .” (p. 66). In this chapter, we learn about the European thirst for spices, the Arab trade cartel, and the need to look for new ways to India, which accidentally lead to the “discovery” of the Americas.
And, as Standage tells us in Chapters 7 and 8, there was new foodstuff coming from the Americas, mainly the potato and maize. Both substantially increased agricultural productivity or, as Adam Smith wrote about the potato, “. . . the same quantity of cultivated land would maintain a much greater number of people and … population would increase.” (p. 123). But the potato was not welcome from the first day on; farmers were reluctant to plant the new tuber. In Prussia, King Frederick II ordered the cultivation of potatoes by royal decree in 1756, when in most countries the potato was only kept as a potted flower. The popularity of the potato increased sluggishly but once accepted, the dependency on it, with all its positive and negative effects, grew rapidly. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s is a dramatic extension of what Vincent van Gogh depicts in his airless, poverty-stricken painting The Potato Eaters. But in the end, Adam Smith was right. The dramatic increase in agricultural productivity was the base for the rising industrialization in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.
Chapters 9 and 10 deal with food and its role in war. Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812, might not have happened had he had more canned food in his supplies. Preserved food, first produced in glass bottles by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1795, went on sale as a luxury item in Paris. In 1809, Appert demonstrated his new food to the French army and started the production of tin cans for military supply in subsequent years. Some soldiers on the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815 carried rations of canned food. However, not all of these soldiers were French; the smart businessman Appert also sold his invention to the archenemy England.
In 1948/1949, during the Berlin Blockade, food was used as a weapon against communism. At the height of the airlift, the U.S. Airforce and the British Royal Airforce (supported by aircrews from Australia, Canadian, New Zealand and South Africa) flew more than 10,000 tons of food per day into the isolated city. The Douglas company, whose C-54 airplanes were the backbone of the campaign, accompanied this with a poster headlined “Milk . . . new weapon of democracy.”
The last chapters of the book are devoted to the Green Revolution. When German chemist Fritz Haber demonstrated how to synthesize liquid ammonia from its constituent elements, hydrogen (from coal) and nitrogen (from the air), in 1909, the world of food changed for good. Haber joined forces with BASF chemist Carl Bosch and developed a large-scale ammonia production method that is now known as Haber-Bosch process. Synthetic fertilizer was born and the stage was set for stunning agricultural production increases in the decades to follow.
Each chapter of this book is a fascinating read by itself. Standage puts events into a larger economic context and augments the factual report line with intriguing background information (and a comprehensive reference section).
However, the strength of this book, i.e., the fact that each chapter stands on its own, is also its weakness. The chapters do not directly relate to each other and have little in common except for the word “food.” And in the end, isn’t everything about food? Or maybe food, power and sex?
The choice of a topic-oriented structure that at the same time also follows a chronological order is fairly restrictive. I miss a discussion of contemporary topics such as food safety
and food politics, the advent of processed food or the emergence of restaurants in the early 19th century. I would have liked to learn how past issues link to the present. For instance, “food as status symbol” did not end with the spice trade of the 17th century. Now we are enjoying specialty foods, gourmet temples and 100-Parker point wines.
Although the link to the status function of spices 400 years ago is evident, there is nothing on food and wine critics in this book. Due to the fact that food and wine are “experience goods,” i.e., their quality cannot be evaluated before consumption, people have relied on experts and guides. However, historically, the existence of professional food and wine “experts” is a rather recent phenomenon. The first restaurant guides were sold in the 1920s; professional wine critics entered the scene in the 1970s. Recent research suggests that consumers’ quality perception for food and wine is driven by expert rating and prices (e.g., Plasmann et al., 2008), just like the demand for spices 500 years ago. In fact, as reported by Bohannon et al. (2009), some people are not even able to distinguish between pâté and dog food.
One might think, “one more reason to rely on expert guidance.” Unfortunately, the expertise of experts is often founded on shaky grounds as well. Hodgson (2008) reports that judges at a California Wine Fair assign medals to wine virtually randomly. At blind tastings of identical wines, one pouring received a gold medal while another pouring was rejected as flawed by the same expert. But worse. Sometimes, expert knowledge is not only flawed but utterly made up. For instance, in 2008, after paying the entry fee of $250, a fictitious restaurant won the prestigious “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence” for its outstanding wine list (Goldstein, 2008).
In a similar fashion, traders justified the high prices for exotic spices. Standage cites Herodotus, the Greek writer of the 5th century B.C., who describes the process of collecting cinnamon. “The Arabians say that the dry sticks, which we call kinamomon, are brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb. The method invented to get the sticks is this. People cut up the bodies of dead oxen into very large joints, and leave them on the ground near the nests. They then scatter and the birds fly down and carry off the meat to their nests, which are too weak to bear the weight and fall to the ground. The men come and pick up the cinnamon. Acquired in this way, it is exported to other countries.” (p. 64).
Notwithstanding my wish of having a separate book on each topic, An Edible History of Humanity is an outstanding read. Wanting more after an engaging read is always a great compliment to the author. Standage keeps the reader captivated from the first to the last page. And one learns a lot.
New York University
Bohannon, J., Goldstein, R. and Herschkowitsch, A. (2009). Can people distinguish pâté from dog food? American Association of Wine Economists, Working Paper No. 39.
Goldstein, R. (2008). What does it take to get a Wine Spectator Award? http://blindtaste.com/ 2008/08/15/what-does-it-take-to-get-a-wine-spectator-award-of-excellence/
Hodgson, R.T. (2008). An examination of judge reliability at a major U.S. wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(2), 105–113.
Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B. and Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 1050–1054.