- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Free Press; 1st edition (June 4, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0743226445
- ISBN-13: 978-0743226448
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 25 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,375,627 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food 1st Edition
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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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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“Food is more than a substance; food is supernatural”, (Fernández-Armesto, F., p. 117). This is shown by the eight evolutions that Fernández-Armesto discusses in his book which include, the invention of cooking, magic and rituals of food, domestication of animals, plant based agriculture, social differentiations, transformation of exchanges, ecological revolution, and food industries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The domestication of animals and the selective breeding of edible animal species is something Fernández-Armesto puts before his plant-based agriculture theory. He says, “At least one kind of animal husbandry was an earlier innovation than is generally admitted” (Fernández-Armesto, F., p. 119). This leads to his point of social differentiation of the competition of food from origins to modern times. The long-time period of trade and exchanges gave us today a transformation that revolutionized where our food came from and how we developed some of our eating habits. We then end up with the development of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how these effects have drawn us to our actions today. Today, it is very rare that we eat raw foods, meaning that no flavor, modification, and no fire is applied to the food we eat.
Furthermore, Fernández-Armesto believes that the first natural food that humans found was the oyster because it is completely raw and can be found all over the world. This is important because this is where the evolution of food began; how we began to eat. Fernández-Armestto says that cooking started with an oyster. He comes to this conclusion because the oyster is a product of minimal modified natural selection from sea to lips. “It is the nearest thing we have to “natural” food- the only dish that deserves to be called “au naturel” without irony” (Fernández-Armesto, F., p. 154). The oyster is considered natural when eaten right from the shell, as soon as lemon juice or any type of flavor is added, that is when cooking became invented. Even when we begin to rinse our foods with water we begin to modify them; this even includes the berries and fruit we eat. This is important because, perhaps, this is how flavors began to develop and how we came about seasoning our meats and other foods.
The next way Fernández-Armesto finds how we revolutionized our food today, is fire. A campfire even became a place of gathering and communion that people, even today, eat around. To put it another way, I agree with the evolution that Fernández-Armesto explains with the oyster and evolution of fire. These were the stepping stones that started our eating and cooking patterns. Cooking is a way for people and communities to come together. Cooking is a fascination for humans. Cooking and eating is a way of human life. This leads to when Fernández-Armesto gives his insight on cannibalism. Cannibalism is known to be the most environmentally friendly food ritual. There are few examples of cannibalism and the reason that humans came to this point in their lives. It is known that some cannibals ate the flesh out of dead bodies out of a sign of respect in order to not allow the body to rot. Cannibalism may be hard to understand, but Fernández-Armesto explains that this is just another part of the history of food.
In addition, I agree on most of Fernández-Armesto’s work and his eight evolutions of food. One thing that I agree with the most is that culture brings is that when the raw gets cooked, and that cooking is a late innovation. A huge part of culture is food and we all have our own specialties that we love to eat and cook because of our culture. The first raw food being an oyster is hard to predict, but the first raw eaten food was probably from the ocean because that resource has always been there. I could argue and think that the first raw food eaten could have been some kind of insect of some sort, but an oyster would be much more appealing and filling. I enjoy his thoughts on how as soon as we begin to clean food we begin to transform them and they are not raw anymore. Fernández-Armesto’s theory on the evolution of fire, I agree with. The theory that in almost all theories of fire, the fire was started when flint was struck stands true to me. This book did not hit me in an emotional way, but more of an informative way. With that being said, I really enjoyed what Fernández-Armesto has to say about the history of food and I found it very interesting.
This book has taught me a lot and has given me an even greater value of food. If you are interested in how food and cooking was revolutionized, then this is the book for you. Time, culture, and innovations have brought us to where we are today with food preparations and eating habits. The thoughts and knowledge that Fernández-Armesto has about this topic is incredible. His information he gives in the book will inspire your brain to think forward about this evolution. You will never think of eating the same again after reading this book! “It is possible to imagine an economy without money and reproduction without love, but not without food. Food, moreover, has a good claim to be considered the world’s most important subject. It is what matters the most to most people for most of time” (Fernández-Armesto, F., p. 54).
While going into depth about how we often disrespect historic foods such as the oyster by adding many extra variables in cooking or processing with things like lemon juice or hot sauce, Fernandez-Armesto infers that we are drowning out what the oyster is meant to be enjoyed as. This may seem specific that he might be talking about just oysters, however, he begins to break down what the oyster means for us. It can connect us to history as it might have been one of the earliest foods human kind relied on. It would be reasonable to assume so as he brings up points that it is discovered in some of the earliest archeological findings. It is also an easy food to find, not much effort goes into hunting for these oysters and they are found all over the world. Finally the shell of the oyster provides portability so one would not have to consume the food on the spot. It connects us with ancient humans because it is one of the closest foods we have to what he refers to as “natural food” which stems from it being uncooked and unkilled.
He then brings up that cooking is one of the few things that separate us from other animals. No other animal changes their diet or food intake based on flavor or presentation of food. Cooking is a semi-new human innovation as it could not exist without fire. One thing we did have before the invention of fire was processing food. Now this might not mean what we think it means today as a canned food or some sort of packaging. In fact Fernandez-Armesto refers to processing as any preparation or change done to food. The earliest example we have of this that he mentions in the book is in many early civilizations and cultures it was tradition for the hunter to remove partially digested food from the kills stomach and eat it to replenish the energy he spent for the hunt. He refers to this as a “natural protocookery.” So not exactly the most appetizing beginning to processing foods that some might come to expect.
Another substantial example of early processing was and continues being done by both humans and many animals. Making food edible for infants happens to be something that we have always done, and animals are in the same boat. Through processes like beating meat against rocks or breaking it into smaller pieces or in the animals sake, regurgitation. Processing has been around for quite sometime and we have done it regularly. From salting meats to sun drying, rotting for flavor, to even spicing.
An ongoing theme and eventual question he asks the reader “why cook when we have other easier alternatives to nourishment?” He proposes the answer for this is what it has always been, the social effects. His main point is that cooking changed society and how we go about meals. When gathered around a fire for a meal it is bound to happen that improved communication will occur. He states that all of a sudden meals are about so much more than eating. It is now about being in a fixed place at a fixed time to communicate, socialize and feast. To help get this point across he lists an example of an anthropologist of the Pacific Islands, Bronislaw Malinowski, who was one of the first outsiders to witness a Trobriand yam festival. In which he stated the “festive element lies in preparation.”
An interesting point Fernandez-Armesto brings to the readers attention is that the cooking revolution was the first scientific revolution, noting the discovery by experiment and observations of changes in flavor and digestion from this stems the term which he mentions as “kitchen chemistry.” Through this scientific revolution cooking can turn ugly into beautiful, poisonous into delicious. He states an example that a root in the Amazon that the Amazonians were well aware was poisonous, manioc, is actually the primary source for tapioca pudding. He also refers to examples such as pigs having a parasite that can get us sick when eaten raw, however, through cooking it purifies the pig from this parasite.
Cooking really perfected what the fire was already doing. The fire would be the place where the community would come together for warmth, light and communication. Cooking just enforced that they must be at the fire at a certain time to receive the meal which took bringing people together to the next step. He suggests that eating was most likely not a social gathering place before cooking with fire was introduced, given how easy it was for them to grab the raw meat or whatever food it was and go their own separate ways.
The first invention of cooking was actually the cooking pit. In the cooking pit one could cook food in a variety of ways, lining the bottom with hot rocks and setting food on top or even more notably, boiling food. Earthenware played on the idea of the cooking pit, however, took it one step further being portable with use of clay. Fernandez-Armesto refers to earthenware as the most important idea “until the microwave.”
As of late, he states, that an anti-cooking movement among feminists and socialists aiming to free women from the kitchen duties and stereotype has gained popularity. This can be dangerous because it could mean the end of cooking. They propose instead of cooked foods, we must eat raw foods and fresh foods. This leads to the next point, the desocialisation of food. With things like fast food, gathering together for a meal becomes nearly impossible when individuals get there food separately. However, he states that the microwave is the most detrimental to cooking socialization. He lists two factors at play convenience and liberation. It is so easy to simply grab a microwavable meal, much easier than cooking a meal. It is liberating because there are so many options to choose from.
With desocialization of food at hand I believe what Fernandez-Armesto is stating is true. That we are becoming less social from the convenience and liberation of fast food and microwaveable foods. I agree that we must keep our cooking socialization traditions so that we do not devolve to what we were most likely like before cooking existed.