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Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity [Paperback]

by Gary Paul Nabhan
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 7, 2006 1597260916 978-1597260916 1
In Why Some Like It Hot, an award-winning natural historian takes us on a culinary odyssey to solve the puzzles posed by "the ghosts of evolution" hidden within every culture and its traditional cuisine. As we travel with Nabhan from Java and Bali to Crete and Sardinia, to Hawaii and Mexico, we learn how various ethnic cuisines formerly protected their traditional consumers from both infectious and nutrition-related diseases. We also bear witness to the tragic consequences of the loss of traditional foods, from adult-onset diabetes running rampant among 100 million indigenous peoples to the historic rise in heart disease among individuals of northern European descent.

In this, the most insightful and far-reaching book of his career, Nabhan offers us a view of genes, diets, ethnicity, and place that will forever change the way we understand human health and cultural diversity. This book marks the dawning of evolutionary gastronomy in a way that may save and enrich millions of lives

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With 21st-century science promising better living through genetic engineering, and myriad diet fads claiming to be the answer to obesity and disease, this exploration of the coevolution of communities and their native foods couldn't be more timely. Ethnobiologist Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat) investigates the intricate web of culture, food and environment to show that even though 99.9% of the genetic makeup of all humans is identical, "each traditional cuisine has evolved to fit the inhabitants of a particular landscape or seascape over the last several millennia." Sardinians are genetically sensitive to fava beans, which can give them anemia but can also protect them from the malaria once epidemic in the region. Navajos are similarly sensitive to sage. In both cases, traditional knowledge allows safe interactions with these powerful medicine/poisons through cooking methods or food combinations. Nabhan questions the wisdom of genetic therapy, which "normalizes" the "bad" genes that can cause sickness but also enhance immunity. Most inspiring in this bioethnic detective story are Cretans, maintaining their health for centuries through traditional living, and Native Americans and Hawaiians, whose communities, devastated by diabetes, find an antidote by returning to their traditional foods, customs and agriculture. Mixing hard science with personal anecdotes, Nabhan convincingly argues that health comes from a genetically appropriate diet inextricably entwined with a healthy land and culture.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Ethnobotanist and nutritional ecologist Nabhan continues the paradigm-altering investigation into the matrix of food, place, ethnicity, and well-being that he's been conducting in such influential books as Coming Home to Eat (2002). A leading voice in the slow-food movement and a thoroughly engaging guide, Nabhan now delineates the evolutionary dimension of newly recognized interactions among cuisine, culture, and genetics that inspired him to modify an old adage: "We are what our ancestors ate and drank." He teases out the evolutionary secrets of chili peppers and explains why some folks like them hot and others can't take the heat. Since it's easiest to see the hidden benefits of ethnic cuisines in isolated island societies, he travels to Sardinia, where, for centuries, fava beans have protected the populace from malaria, and to Hawaii, where natives have discovered that traditional yet neglected taro dishes control diabetes. With millions of people suffering from little-understood food-related maladies, Nabhan's revelations of the complexities of our inherited interactions with food, the true significance of the healthful "synergies" of traditional ethnic cuisines, and the essentiality of both biodiversity and cultural diversity are as critical as they are fascinating. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 1 edition (June 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597260916
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597260916
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #247,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Or not hot... June 25, 2007
This book lies at the intersection of several fields, including but not limited to nutrition, history, evolutionary biology, agriculture, biochemistry and genetics. The author's premise can be stated as follow: the members of any ethnic group have evolved to adapt to the edible materials present in their environment to maximize their survival chances. At first, this premise does not seem like much, as the author admits early in the book. But he proceeds to examine several vary different ethnic cuisines, and the environment and culture they arose in, and then shows us how different ethnic groups can require vastly different diets in order to lead healthy and long lives. The ramifications then become huge. For instance, the Atkins diet and Mediterranean-based diets are really not that appropriate for all types of people; but only for those of specific ethnic backgrounds.

Some of science cited in this book is quite important. First, the author explains how the use of spices is related to food preservation. Specifically, food like meat spoils quicker in tropical areas than temperate areas. Many spices kill microbes that spoil meats, hence early humans in tropical areas learned by trial and error to add spices to their foods to preserve them longer. Second, the author demonstrates the links between diet and environment. For example, diet of fava beans is useless vis-a-vis other types of beans in arid environments. But in a climate full of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, ingesting fava beans changes the blood chemistry to reduce the likelihood of a malarial infection.

The book is written as a combination of personal narrative and scientific text.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting material but poorly written and edited August 21, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book presents an interesting hypothesis, i.e. that our genetics have been affected by the food we and our ancestors ate, and vice-versa. What could have been a fascinating read turned into a boring series of anecdotes and random statistics. Seemingly random ethnic groups (apparently the ones the author is familiar with or chose for whatever reason to investigate) are discussed and shown to have unusual consequences from food consumption. This book needed to be edited and material reorganized.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting topic, confusing book June 15, 2007
I really feel torn about this book. I was drawn to it because I do NOT "like it hot" and wanted to see if I could find an explanation for it. I did - I'm a supertaster & I am forever grateful to this book for bringing this concept to my attention. Nabhan has also gotten me even more excited about ethnobotany, and it's always fun to get excited about something.
However, I had a hard time getting through this book. I found myself thinking, "it'll get better" and "he'll get to the point" more than I like to. I think Nabhan was really trying to be accessible but I generally found it annoying; I wish he'd given more general ideas of conversations instead of dialogs.
I agree this book could use some reorganization and a better editor. The middle was the worst - with repeated words, misspellings and parts just didn't make sense. I read the part about fava beans at least 3 times and I'm still not sure I fully understand everything that he was obviously very excited about.
I was also confused about the point of this book - at some points it seems he wrote it as a response to fad diets such as the "caveman diet." I agree with his stance on these diets, but I was never interested in them and don't care to read about them. Other times the book seems to be more about what he's seen and done and what he thought about it. Other parts are about what I was interested in - how your genetics, life experience, food availability and family/community traditions shape what and how you eat. I was expecting a book solely about this and felt these parts were much too short.
I would love to see a revised edition (I know it only came out a few years ago). I think Nabhan has a lot of interesting things to write about. I am very glad I read this book & will recommend it to others, but I would tell them to skim large parts of it. I think it could be broken into at least 3 focused books that would be much more interesting.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, And Cultural Diversity by ethnobiologist and nutritional ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan is a personal and scientific survey focused upon the connections between human health, what is eaten and drunk, and how health and diet are impacted by cultural and genetic heritages. Why Some Like It Hot is replete with stories of how native foods and cultures have co-evolved in some fairly fascinated ways. Nabhan takes the reader to the cliffs of Sardinia, where fava beans help ward off malaria due to a genetic trait in the ethnic population; the highlights of Crete where the native's olive-oil-soaked diets are healthy for their bodies, but not for western visitors; as well as the American Southwest and neotropical Mexico where fiery chile peppers help kill meat-spoiling microbes so prevalent in desert and tropical climates. Why Some Like It Hot also reveals the dire consequences to human health represented by homogenous diets and the lost of traditional foods with such effects as the rampant onset of adult diabetes among 100 million indigenous peoples and the historic rise in heart disease in peoples of European decent. Indeed, Nabhan's attention to this phenomena was initiated by the lost of a Native American friend to a combination of diabetes and alcoholism. Strongly recommended for both academic library reference shelves as well as community library collections, Why Some Like It Hot is that rare combination of academic excellence and non-specialist general reader accessibility.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't Buy this book - even used.
I felt ripped off even though i got this book at the local library. I was excited to read it because of the interesting title, but I was severely disappointed. Read more
Published on May 7, 2010 by Shawn Riley
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Gary Nabhan explains why no one diet is going to work for everyone. This Norwegian-Cuban reviewer now understands her near addiction to milk, butter and cheese, as well as her love... Read more
Published on April 26, 2010 by Idigbones
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! But yes, we need more
I thought this book was great! It really fills in some gaps and makes a lot of sense in understanding the picture of how food, genetics, history, etc. Read more
Published on January 11, 2010 by Lisa
1.0 out of 5 stars Behavior changes genes? I don't think so.
Darwin said that if cells could be shown to be irreducibly complex--which the electron microscope proved--then his theory of evolution could not possibly be correct. Read more
Published on July 3, 2009 by Alesia
2.0 out of 5 stars Not recommended as a source for factual information
As a biological anthropologist, I found this book readable, but far too full of straw-man type arguments. Read more
Published on October 30, 2008 by A. Alvrus
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not well-presented material
I found myself reading and then skimming this book, as my interest in what could have been a fascinating theory waned in the face of the author's inability to do more than cob... Read more
Published on December 28, 2005 by Peggy Stone
4.0 out of 5 stars Why Some Like it Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultrual Diversity
Excellent reading! I found the information intreguing and exciting but too short. Need more of this type of information. Read more
Published on September 26, 2005 by T. B. Gratton
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a book to remember
Parts of this book are worth reading. For example, the author claims the influence of genetics/food is bi-directional. I found this claim provocative. Read more
Published on June 7, 2005 by R. Orchanian
3.0 out of 5 stars Why some like it light
The book is worth getting and reading, but it's hardly a book. It's really a bloated long article in the New Yorker of old, filled out to a small book with large margins. Read more
Published on May 31, 2005 by Calochortus
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