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Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food Paperback – September 2, 2003
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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 --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.
Top customer reviews
It is not merely about the historical facts surrounding food and cooking in different cultures. It is also a manifesto about the ways cooking has changed and how that effects society from the authors personal opinion. This aspect of the book seems more based on the authors personal biases than on imperical, psychological observation or study of modern societies and historical societies.
As for the perspective the book is written from, it would be obvious to anyone who is reading it that its written from a "traditional," "patriarchal society" view point.
I would have preferred a book about the history of food with less concern for the gender rolls perceived to be carried out in the societies. It seems the author added unneccesary examples, unrelated to the history of food. When discussing different historical methods of cooking he speaks of "Californian tribes, for instance, used to put women who had just given birth and pubescent girls into ovens dug into the ground..." While interesting, I don't find this information pertinent to food history, unless the girls were to be eaten, which they were not, only slowly roasted to death.
He speaks of Ethiopian practice in which "Occasionally a slice of meat would be passed over a man's shoulder to the women and children who stood in silence behind the diners."
Later in the same chapter he states that "the anti-cooking movement is now more than a hundred years old; it started among feminists and socialists... In effect this meant eliminating it (cooking) from people's lives..." even to the extent of having kitchenless homes.
This statement may contain truth but sounds like a laughable exaggeration to say that "feminists" are "anti-cooking" and want to eliminate kitchens from modern architecture.
The book is written from a perspective that deems certain examples, excerpts, and social practices as acceptable, interesting and noteworthy that other perspectives might find subtract from the educational value of the book. Any one person can find any such number examples from different societies that coincide with their own way of thinking.
The author definitely approaches certain subjects in the book in the manner of a persuasive essay.
I will give it four stars because a lot of work has obviously gone into the writing of this book. The language and sentence struture is quite impressive.
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. This is a book to savor and enjoy, to dip into and re-read, to pull out at dinner parties to settle arguments. For, besides liveliness and wit, Fernandez-Armesto's writing has another invaluable quality - authority. When he makes an unequivocal statement, you, the reader, do not doubt him. For instance, sugar, he writes, "is now the world's biggest food product, beating even wheat." Startling perhaps, but not subject to debate. Unfortunately the reader's audience, those recipients of unrequested quotes, not being under the author's authoritative spell, sometimes require more convincing, which Fernandez-Armesto's notes, though copious, cannot always supply. Reference to his credentials - Oxford University professor, author of 13 serious, popular and opinionated histories ("Millenium: A History of the Last Thousand Years," "Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature,") - may do the trick.
The book is organized into eight "revolutions," beginning with the advent of cooking, which not only sets us apart from other animals, but contributes to social cohesion. Food as ritual discusses, among other things, cannibalism ("Strangely, cannibals turn out to have a lot in common with vegans") health fads, and sacred and taboo foods. Next comes herding and farming animals, then agriculture, then food as status (which includes eye-popping menus of conspicuous consumption through the ages).
Things begin to get more complicated with "The Edible Horizon" - long-range trade and food in cultural exchange - which ranges from cultural bias in food to the broadening of diet through war and imperialism, particularly Western empire building in the 17th to 19th centuries. "Challenging Evolution" explores the movement of food around the world, particularly between "Old" world and "New" world. The "Colombian Exchange" of the last 500 years has resulted in radical diet change. Imagine Italy without the tomato, Ireland without the potato, India or Thailand without chilies, our Midwest without wheat. The final chapter concerns the industrialization of the last two centuries, from the "Green Revolution" of world feeding through pesticides and mono-crops and factory farms and production to the giants of food industry (Hershey and Mars, the Quakers of England) and preserving from canning and freezing to irradiation.
No surprise, Fernandez-Armesto is not in favor of irradiation, fast food ("the closest thing to conveyor-belt eating the Industrial Revolution had yet produced."), fusion cookery ("Lego cookery") or the microwave, which "is best suited to that public enemy, the solitary eater," destroying the communal ritual of mealtime. His opinions, which crop up with refreshing acidity throughout the book, portray a man of keen and discerning appetite, whose love of food extends to this scholarly and entertaining professional treatment. Although the author himself does not take this work as seriously as his other books, calling it a "devoir de vacances," with research spun-off from a previous work, "Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature," it is enjoyably written, thought provoking, myth debunking and convincingly thorough. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in food that goes beyond shoveling it in.