As the soil is turned, the compost added and the seeds planted for yet another year, food, and our relationship to it, is foremost on our minds: particularly those of us who garden. Food, what it is, and why and how we eat what we eat are intricate subjects. For those who found Michael Pollan’s books fascinating, here are some others.
Former business editor at the Economist, Tom Standage has written a few titles on food and drink. History of the World in 6 Glasses focused on the beverages that changed the world, but Standage’s 2009 book An Edible History of Humanity examines the relationship between food and our political and economic systems from the beginnings of civilization to the twenty-first century. Along the way, he shows how the introduction of foods or new methods of food production determined the fates of empires and fuelled developments in new technologies.
Food in History, first published in 1973, is a non-fiction classic by Scottish historian Reay Tannahill. Tannahill covers almost the same historical scope in her book that Standage does in his, but starting earlier in prehistory among hunter-gatherer societies. Food in History is so comprehensive that one can easily imagine it being a desert island non-fiction book. By contrast, French historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s Histoire naturelle et morale de la nourriture, translated by Anthea Bell as History of Food, breaks down the food’s history by food type rather than historical period. Toussaint-Samat shows the crucial role that staples such as honey, cereals, oil and salt have played. Also central were the development of foods such as bread, wine and various dairy products such as butter, cheese and yogurt. The development of fishing and livestock breeding techniques ushered in feudal and modern nations while spices were a sign of luxury. Tossaint-Samat ends History of Food with a few chapters on modern food preservation and the development of food supplements and vitamins.
Ann Vileisis’s Kitchen Literacy, subtitled How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back, is a great antidote for those who think food comes from the supermarket or big-box store. Designed to reawaken people’s awareness of where our food actually comes from, Vileisis looks at food, past and present, through cookbooks, ads and the changing organization of supermarket stock.
Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty, by food consultant Mark Winne, looks at the disparity of food available to each the developing and developed worlds and, even, within the developed world with the disparity between the growing interest in local, organic produce on the one hand and obesity and diabetes on the other. Similar to this is independent journalist Rajeev Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System which also examines the growing power of agri-business and corporate food monopolies.
Feed your head this spring!