Friday, February 18, 2011

The History of Food in Two Books

Most of us tend to have a macro lens when it comes to food. People talk about the importance of knowing where our food comes from and who grows it, but we don't usually look at food through the long lens of history. That's exactly what Devra Gartenstein does in her new book, Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food (available on Kendel).

When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued. Decades ago, I got a degree in anthropology and history from Western Washington University in Bellingham. I love reading about details from the past and speculating about the future, and I hone in on food history in the early 20th century, the 19th century and way back to the beginning of time. What foodie isn't secretly fascinated by food in history and fascinated with old photographs and even cave paintings of food? Vegetable, bean, grain, meat and fish, I like reading about foods in the past, how it was obtained, cooked and who ate it.

Before I ordered Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food, I got out this compendium from the 1990s that I picked up at a book sale a few years ago. I'd read a few chapters and returned again and again to look at photos, but since I was getting Devra's book, I thought it would be fun to compare these two books that purport to be about the history of food.

The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (1987; translated by Anthea Bell in 1992) has been described as quirky, inclusive and encyclopedic on one hand and also criticized for being overly French-orientated and not covering everything. I liked the book's chapters devoted to subjects such as "gathering," "hunting," "bread and cereals," "treasures of the forest," "sugar, "chocolate." At first glance this book seemed fairly comprehensive, but really, when you think about it, even in 800 plus pages, how can you possibly write the entire world history of food?

Still this book has so much useful information, you should check it out. (Look for it at used book sales or the library because it's out of print.) It's easy to look up facts about honey, vegetables, or even kitchen gardens. And I'm a fool for old pictures; and okay maybe it's a little shallow, but I never get tired of seeing drawings of how sugar was made in the nineteenth century or checking out reproductions of famous food hunting and gathering etchings, drawings and paintings.

After reading Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food, I realized the huge gap and downfall of Toussaint-Samat's book was that lame last chapter with discussion of calories, enzymes and vitamins in food. Really? What about the industrial food system? And what about the future of food? I want speculations.

That's where Cavemen, Monks, and Slow Food satisfied my curiosity.

Gartensteins's tome brings other historical books up to speed and puts a uniquely American slant on food history with our current industrial food system as well as sustainable farm alternatives that speak to shaping the future of food supply.

Don't try to rush though this book like some cheap novel though; savor the text slowly, think about our long-time hunger for "rare and expensive foods," and our current celebration of peasant or "artisan" foods today. And compare this book to other books on food history or any books that claim to have the last word on food history and you'll see how much this book has to offer. Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food, shares stories of food history and it also deals with the reasons for the deterioration of our current diets.

From the opening chapter with Jacques Pepin talking about good bread and butter, readers are invited into this amazing world history of food from hunters and gatherers, to our world of cheap grocery store food that currently looks a lot like an economic bubble feeding our illusions that cheap imported food will continue forever like our stock market convictions in the early 21st century.

I think at the heart of it, we're all curious about where our food supply came from and where it's going. The only thing that really I wanted from this book (besides some of those photos from Toussaint-Samat's book) was to learn more about how our dwindling water resources world wide will impact the future of farms and food. Maybe that's in the next volume; if so I'll be the first on my block to get that book, too. I loved the hopeful ending of this book that seemed to be a celebration of our sustainable food system. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's worth taking the time to read it to the end. Check it out on Kindle and read this book!!!

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