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Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food Paperback – September 2, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (September 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743227409
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743227407
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #705,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on September 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
"It is no way to eat oysters," proclaims Fernandez-Armesto in his opening sentence, referring to the fiddly habits of restaurant diners. "This is deliberate provocation, designed to refresh the bivalves before death, a little mild torture under which you can sometimes feel that you see the victims wriggle or flinch." He goes on to describe the proper method: "Unless you discard the utensils, raise the half-shell to your mouth, throw back your head, scrape the creature from its lair with your teeth, taste its briny juice and squelch it slightly against the palate before swallowing it alive, you deprive yourself of a historic experience." Unlike almost every other food in Western cuisine, the oyster has remained virtually the same "since the first emergence of our species."
Food writers need to be passionate and opinionated about their subject; dollops of wit and poetry are also esteemed. Though a scholar and historian rather than food writer, Fernandez-Armesto brings all of these qualities to the table as well as an almost staggering breadth of information. His aim, as stated in the preface: "to take a genuinely global perspective; to treat food history as a theme of world history, inseparable from all the other interactions of human beings with one another and with the rest of nature; to treat evenhandedly the ecological, cultural and culinary concepts of the subject; to combine a broad conspectus with selectively detailed excursions into particular cases; to trace connections at every stage, between the food of the past and the way we eat today; and to do all this briefly." Whew. And does he succeed? Yes, although at times the flow of knowledge overwhelms the ability to process.
But that's fine.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Karen Sampson Hudson on October 16, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has written a comprehensive, unusual book about food and eating in human history. Beginning with his chapter, "The Invention of Cooking", and ending with a discussion of the fast food industry, his scholarly yet opinionated approach is thought-provoking. He debunks several widely held beliefs, such as the importance of the spice trade and its role in the voyages of European explorers.
Also interesting is his attitude that sugar, salt, and fat are not villains in destroying health: He cites small percentages of people who are vulnerable to high cholesterol and heart disease, but says that for most people, consumption of these three food items should not be an issue.
He writes of the "Columbian exchange" of animals and crops between the New World and the Old; of how the six major grain crops came to be grown, and where; of how colonization produced mixed cuisines.
"Near a Thousand Tables", a blend of fact and opinions, is sure to provide excellent dinner table discussions with your friends.
Gathering round the cooking fire is an ancient human pleasure, one that endures despite the rise of microwave single-serving meals and hectic family schedules. Recommended.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Biskup on July 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book seems to me a nice example of the new trend of "accessible history", along the lines of Mark Kurlansky's works. There are lots of endnotes to reference if you wish, but the author also makes the material accessible and allows some of his own opinions. Some chapters were a little dry for me, but in others you can feel the author's passion for food, especially in the chapter on "The Meaning of Eating", where he analyzes cannibals vs. vegetarians, and "Feeding the Giants" where he discusses the industrialization of food with current and future trends.

The author's organization of the history of food into revolutions worked very nice to me. Obviously there are a lot of different ways to look at a subject this broad, but this book provides a nice prospective when combined with other sources and more information. I am not an expert, but I felt that there really wasn't much new scholarship or amazing revelations, just a well-organized and well-researched story.

As a side-note, I enjoyed his system of endnotes. There are no subscripted numbers in the text to distract you. Instead, if there is a passage that you are interested in following the references, you go to the back of the book where the endnotes are listed by page number and the last two words of the passage being credited. It takes a minute to find the closest endnote, but I think it is worth it because I am not interested in following most endnotes.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Katelyn C. Hopkins on July 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Instead of providing a linear timeline of food history, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto does soemthing a little different: He writes about the several food "revolutions". From the use of heat, to the idea of haute cuisine, Fernandez-Armesto explores how these revolutions affected teh various cultures throughout the world.
I highly enjoyed this book and it's take on food history. It clarified some points that I had been mulling over in my head, and found it a wonderful companion to Reay Tannehill's book "History of food"
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Elliot Essman on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The key to enjoying this book is, perhaps, to have dipped widely into culinary lore before picking it up. The author presupposes not only a passion for food, but also a good breadth of knowledge and context among his readers. Yes, he has his opinions and tastes, but for every statement he makes he opens a question to remain answered. I particularly enjoyed his excoriation of food faddists like Horace Fletcher and James H. Salisbury, his keen analysis of cultural food proclivities, and the good taste he exercised by including a lengthy quote from Duke Ellington on the "cult of abundance." Near A Thousand Tables is a book for those who view cuisine as a multifaceted phenomenon, quintessentially human, and about as easy to understand as humankind itself. It may not be for every reader, but it offers a great deal to any food buff who likes to read and think.
Food writer Elliot Essman's other reviews and food articles are available at [...]
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