How best to grasp food's place in history? Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Near a Thousand Tables
places its beginnings in cooking, a social act that forges culture (and is perhaps responsible for it), then pursues it as a series of "revolutions"--from the inception of cooking, herding, and agriculture to food industrialization and, finally, modern globalization. Informatively dense yet spry and aphoristic, the book explores food as rite and magic (it "binds those who believe, brands those who don't"); the domestication of animals (snails are the world's oldest "cattle"); farming and food's use as an index of rank ("greatness goes with greatness of girth"--or at least it did); food's role in trade and cultural exchange (Tex-Mex cooking as a form of colonial miscegenation); and as a force in and for industrialization (canning as the cooking of the Industrial Revolution). In the end, we are brought to "the loneliness of the fast food eater" and the "desocializing" effect of microwave cooking and other forms of modern food manipulation that alienate us from the communal act that "made" culture. "Food gives pleasure," Fernández-Armesto writes, and "can change the eater for better or worse." He concludes, "the role of the next revolution will be to subvert the last."
This is a fascinating book that shows us ourselves: like the cannibal, who eats his enemy to appropriate his power, we believe in food's transformative effect, which through devotion to vegetarianism and other special diets will make us "better." It paints a picture both sweeping and precise. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
For sheer volume of fascinating facts, this survey of gastronomic lore can't be beat. Fernùndez-Armesto (Millennium), a Professional Fellow at the University of London and member of the modern history faculty at Oxford, debunks popular myths, such as the idea that spices were needed in medieval times to disguise tainted meat and fish (in fact, fresh foods in the middle ages were fresher than today and healthier as well). He shows why the cultivation of rye, barley and wheat is one of the most spectacular achievements of humankind and informs readers that the whole grain cracker invented by Sylvester Graham was intended to impede sexual desire and promote abstinence. But the book is more then a litany of quirky tidbits; Fernùndez-Armesto charts how the evolution of human culture is directly connected to the way food is obtained. The logistics of agriculture and hunting have shaped notions of gender and community; food is often integral to concepts of the sacred in a society; and the loneliness of the fast food eater aided by such inventions as the microwave has become emblematic of contemporary society's fragmentation. Fernùndez-Armesto writes lucidly and conveys his enormous enthusiasm for his subject. While he draws upon the work of many historians and theorists including Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Claude LEvi-Strauss and Ferdinand Braudel his erudite analysis always engaging and accessible.
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