Despite the title, you should not eat this book: Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity

Everybody’s gotta eat.

By examining what and how they do so, you can learn a lot about a particular culture. On top of that, I occasionally dabble in fiction writing, so I try for some degree of verisimilitude when I do. I mean, if I were writing Ye Olde Tolkien Knockoff Fantasy Novel, it’d just be silly to have the characters scarfing down cheeseburgers on their way to fight Ye Olde Dark Lord Guy.

I’ve been interested in food history for awhile, even if I haven’t mentioned it on this blog before. This is partly my fault, as I hadn’t really tracked down any good books on the subject until recently. I’d mostly gotten by with watching The Supersizers (warning: that show will make you alternately hungry and queasy) and doing a bit of wikipedia-ish research. Until now!

Tom Standage first came to my attention a couple of years ago, when a friend of mine lent me a copy of A History of the World in Six Glasses. It’s a fascinating read, one that really got me thinking about stuff people eat and drink. And so, I was pretty excited to get my hands on An Edible History of Humanity.

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An Edible History of Humanity is enormous in scope. Standage starts with the prehistoric development of agriculture, and goes all the way up to the modern day. Given that he’s covering thousands of years of human history with in just a few hundred pages, Standage necessarily paints things with a pretty broad brush.

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The first part of the book actually has a lot of crossover with A History of the World in Six Glasses. The development of agriculture is tied into the development of beer (and wine too, I guess? People like booze). The next segment centers on the spice trade, and how it shaped things like the spread of Islam, and colonialism after that. A History of the World in Six Glasses covers similar territory when it talks about rum and tea.

I can’t really blame Standage for the overlap between books, as it’s not like History has changed from one book to the other; he’s just looking at it from a different perspective. An Edible History of Humanity comes into its own in later chapters. After talking about the spice trade, Standage talks about the Industrial Revolution, where tea, sugar, and potatoes served to fuel the factories just as much as steam and coal. Standage then goes on to cover the role of food in war (both the lack therof, and as an ideological weapon), and then wraps up with the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960’s that has led to how we eat in the modern day.

Due to the broader focus, Standage focuses mostly on how people get their food, instead of what kind of food it is. You won’t find any 16th century recipes or anything like that within the pages. Furthermore, I think Standage could have gone on about the specifics of the modern diet a little more. For example, he mentions the fact that people are eating far more meat than they used to, but only in passing. Given how the modern western meat-based diet has had ton of effects (people are fatter, more grain being used to produce animal feed instead of people food, etc), I think Standage could’ve elaborated on that a bit further.

I learned a great deal from An Edible History of Humanity, but on a more general scale than the specifics. The book is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in history. This said, I’d say that A History of the World in Six Glasses is a little bit snappier as a piece of pop-academia, so you might want to read that one first.

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