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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
This book is an informal exploration of food taboos, from apples to potatoes, pig flesh to human flesh. The book is organized into chapters featuring the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, greed, blasphemy, and anger. Each chapter is comprised of short informative articles related to the relevant sinful theme that describe the social history of a food taboo. For example, in the chapter called "Lust," we learn how the apple came to be associated with Eve's forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Allen points out that apples were hardly common Middle Eastern fruit during Biblical times. They were, however, sacred to the Celts, and when Christians came into Celtic territory, they demonized the sacred fruit of the Celts by translating the Biblical word for the forbidden fruit, one whose botanical identify is not known for sure, as "apple." Allen states: "The Celts had associated apples with the glorious wisdom from the sun. By the time the Christians were done, scholars had assigned it to `the jurisdiction of Venus' and lust." Each chapter also includes several recipes featuring the foods under description. Some of the recipes are historical rather than in contemporary usage, but virtual all have been updated for modern kitchens and cooks. Sources are cited in extensive textual endnotes. There is also a bibliography and index.

Taboos of all kinds are often closely related with religious beliefs. Allen describes some common religious taboos relating to food, such as Jewish and Muslim avoidance of pork, and Hindu extreme reverence for cattle. One interesting point that Allen makes is that Christ was blatant in his practice of disregarding Jewish food laws, establishing a religion that is remarkably free of food taboos. Allen pokes fun at our modern diet practices, but he also makes some serious points, noting that "convenience foods are so unpleasant they make even work look good. They're also immensely profitable for the corporations who produce them...American workers now pay more money for worse food so they can hurry back to jobs they hate." In his conclusion, Allen observes "The point is that these archaic food taboos and rules, however preposterous and evil they may have at times been, also deepened our lives by imbuing our most common social gathering with meaning."

Occasionally, Allen plays fast and loose with details. For example, he has European peasants munching Macintoshes, but the Macintosh variety of apples was developed only in 1870 in New England. He also misses some major taboos- -of course in a book of this nature, we can't expect him to cover everything related to the topic. But when he describes garlic and religious injunctions against it, he never mentions avoidance by some Hindus of garlic and onions on the grounds that they are "intoxicating" or "over-stimulating". Such an omission is surprising, given the other information he provides both about Indian traditions and garlic. Allen's style of writing is informal--he writes to entertain as well as inform, making the book appeal to general readers rather than academic food historians. Since this is a book about breaking taboos, readers shouldn't be too taken aback at the kinds of topics Allen choose to delve into, but they might not want to consider this a read-aloud book for the whole family if small children are to participate.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2003
This book is an absolute must for the food enthusiast or the information junkie. More than just a food book, /In the Devil's Garden/ deals with how food /is/ culture- it argues that much of who we are and how we interact with one another has to do with what we do, and do not, eat. Allen is an excellent information gatherer, having delved into several hundred sources for his material; but more importantly, he is adept at the witty repackaging of that information, deftly filing everything under the aegises of the seven deadly sins. Allen's style is just conversational enough, neither dry nor condescending and very humorous-- perfect for the small-article format that comprises most of the sections of the book.
The content is almost overwhelmingly eclectic, drawing on scores (perhaps hundreds) of cultures. Allen reconciles many seemingly disparate facts and draws parallels between such subjects as the crunch volume of potato chips and the animal need to kill (!), all with consummate skill and grace. Be forewarned, the book is not necessarily a good lunchtime read; many of the sections deal with food-related illness or delicacies the Western palate finds unacceptable, and one or two of the little tidbits are downright nasty (vide the eating habits of St. Veronica). Buy this as a gift and you won't be able to part with it; get two.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2002
What I have found so interesting about this book is the way people's feeling about eating have been used in political and religous ways. I had no idea of the role eating has played in so many conflicts - even the division of Europe between East and West was caused by an argument over how to bake the communion wafer. AIDS came from violating a food taboo, and even Jesus Last supper was all about the rules of eating. It's an amazing book and very, very well written - you would think with all this information it would be dry but Alan is a very funny man. While I thought the idea of organizing it around the Seven Sins was a good one, its not always completely clear why a particualr food is in a particular sin.
Not that it matters that much - by the way, my favorite was the sin of sloth "a victimless crime if ever there was one" as Allen says -a man after my own heart!
I thought the "menus" were cute and the recipes (there are about 12) looked interesting but I haven't tried any.
THis is the best book on food in history I have ever read
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2004
Lately, I haven't had a lot of spare time, so books tend to take a while for me to get through unless I'm on a plane. In the Devil's Garden, however, wouldn't let me put it down and I "devoured" it in one delicious sitting. The book great fun to read -- the author obviously is well traveled and definitely did his homework. There's not too much science, history, religion or sociology to be overpowering -- just the right amount of each. HIGHLY recommended!
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2005
It's an entertaining book, it's a pity that the author has appearently done his research at 'Something Somebody Said Once University'.

The number of history blunders, plain falsehoods, and misinterpetations is staggering. It's a shame, because Mr. Allen has a great style. Not reccomended at all, I'm afraid.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2005
Be ready to take a lot of salt with this book! There is a lot of hooey involved, as well as factual history. Jusy don't be so politically correct-Berkeley-influenced as to believe that deviled eggs were named because they became unhealthy. It's the spices and flavors, you know.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2011
I am not surprised that some reviewers give this book five stars.Allen has a breezy journalistic style and strings together anecdotes at a rapid pace. As long as you don't think very much about the content, and don't know anything about the subject, he carries you along, ending each little story with a throw-away tag line. The genre is really very close to Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods" show, where we are supposed to be shocked by all the weird things that strange people do. Actually understanding why people do those things, or why a middle-class white American man might find them strange, would just get in the way of the shocking "fun." I can just hear Allen saying that those "those scholars who hate my book are just spoil-sports with no sense of humor." Fortunately, in food books, you do not have to choose between books with accurate content and those which are fun to read! We have wonderfully thoughtful writers on the journalistic side like Pollan, and great scholars who are also elegant writers, like Sidney Mintz. A book like "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" is both good history and a fun read. So there is absolutely no reason to tolerate an abysmal tag-along book like this one. Many of the stories are third and fourth-hand, and some of them appear to be just made up. Allen is also a crappy writer, who does not seem to be able to stick to an idea for more than a few sentences in a row, and his prose is full of cliches and mixed metaphors. Do not waste your money! There are hundreds of better options.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2002
This is a unique look at the history of food: both funny and shocking, it shows the unbleievable ways what we eat has influenced history. It also gives a number of recipes that are quite unique. Its the kind of book you can stop and start on, a group of pieces, maybe 50, divided into "chapters" based on the seven Deadly Sins of Lust, Greed, Envy, Sloth. Mr. Allen is a very, very good writer and has found some amazing stories here and has a knack for boiling down extremely complicated historical events into enjoyable stories. He also appears to have done ann enormous amount of research into the subject.
Not your usual food book, I'd highly recommend it. For me, it really made me think twice about the meaning of what I eat. If you know a foodie friend that needs a gift, this is it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2012
I'll read almost anything and I love food and history so I thought this would be a perfect fit. Mostly I was just disgusted. I felt like the author was purposely trying to be as gross as possible. He also had all these random facts or stories spread throughout that didn't seem to go with anything. This is the very first time that I have been unable to finish a book.
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on June 10, 2012
I can't say I'm a fan of the opening bit about the kid peeing on his dad. Seemed a bit crude to me, but the point is valid. Allen's claim that we've got some serious food hangups is keen (whereas we're okay with being urinated on). His idea that we "criminalize hundreds of common dishes and ban them based on their association with a particular sin" is rather interesting. I'm compelled to read on.

Despite the serious-type tone in the introduction, though, there were times I questioned his credibility.

For example, on page 85, he quotes John Dollard, but upon visiting the extensive Endnotes and Bibliography at the end of the book, I found no John Dollard cited. Whether this was a simple oversight, careless editing mistake, or Allen's arrogance, I have no clue. I admit, I'm only about a hundred pages in...this might be the only mistake of this nature.

That faux-pas aside, Allen cites many, many sources and draws insights from many different cultures, and that in and of itself makes for a fascinating read. Personally, I'm not scholarly enough to know if Allen is giving me the right interpretation or not...and it really doesn't matter to me. I'm not reading this book because I want some academic, sophisticated treatise on foodstuffs around the world.

While Allen writes in a clever and witty way (the menus! hilarious!), it's difficult to take the book seriously with that kind of style. So, keep that in mind as you read this. You will find a few discussion-worthy gems there in among the shocking, the frivolous, and the downright unbelievable.
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