An Edible History of Humanity – Tom Standage

I found this a fascinating bit of history. Well, not a bit. It’s the history of the world really, but it’s a new perspective; world history as influenced and shaped by food, which makes total sense. We not only eat to survive but we like to eat. Food is a strong motivator. It should be a major factor in human history. Tom Standage recalibrates our view of food, taking it from taking if for granted to the future of our race. So folks, let’s learn from the past.

That’s not an unusual perspective for a history teacher to take. I want to learn about and from the past; I enjoy history. But I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I usually enjoy it when I do, but it takes a non-fiction book a lot of work to get me to read it. (Which is sort of odd because it’s not like I’ve had bad experiences reading non-fiction because I am rather fussy about it… ah, maybe that’s the answer.) It has to catch my attention, resonate with something in my life, grip my interest, nag away at me, and finally not take no for an answer; then I read it. Well, it’s maybe not quite that bad but it needs to take some of the responsibility for getting me through.

I’m very glad An Edible History of Humanity caught my attention. It might be the pictures standing in for letters on the cover, or the covers’ oldish appearance, or the chapter titles (“Follow the Food,” “Seeds of Empire,” “The Steam Engine and the Potato”) or the fact that the author also apparently wrote A History of the World in 6 Glasses, which is much lauded on the back cover (which six? I’m sure coffee and tea are on the list). It promised to resonate with things I was thinking about at the time. I was teaching ancient history and the first chapter is the “Invention of Farming.” But, I think it was the introduction that got me in the end. It was so clear! I could see exactly what kind of journey I was about to go on as it outlined why the history of food was important (quote: “The fate of nations hangs upon their choice of food.” Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) and whetted my appetite with brief overviews of examples examined in the book. Ultimately, it convinced me this was a book I needed to read. It also convinces me now that introductions in non-fiction are essential. I don’t know if everyone reads them but I do.

I enjoy non-fiction, especially with my interest in history, and while it isn’t my main genre of reading, the rewards for reading non-fiction are great: a feeling of accomplishment; maps, diagrams, and images to look at (hopefully!); new perspectives and ideas, as well as new vocabulary; new topics of conversation; and, a deeper understanding of the world. I will never look at pineapples in the same way again.


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