From “Six Glasses” to “Edible History”: my new book

edible-lMy new book, which will come out in May, is called “An Edible History of Humanity”. It’s about the impact of food on the course of history. When I tell people that, they often ask if it’s a sequel to “A History of the World in Six Glasses”. The answer: yes and no. This book is similar in some respects, but it’s also quite different. The cover (left) signals this, I hope: it’s similar to the “Six Glasses” cover, but not too similar.

For a start, “Edible History” does not involve a cast of six key foods. Instead, it examines six mechanisms by which food has changed history, such as agriculture, trade, food’s use as a weapon of war, and so on. As in “Six Glasses”, these six stories stack up in chronological order, so the result is a history of the world, this time seen from the perspective of food. But in each section there are several foods: the trade section is mostly about spices, as you’d expect, while the section on food and industrialisation has starring roles for sugar and potatoes, with supporting parts played by maize, turnips and pineapples, among others. Some of the foods appear many times, in different sections. So, this is not “A History of the World in Six Foods”. The menu is much broader.

Another difference is that the drinks book was based on the idea that the drinks reflected the needs of the period in which they came to prominence; each era had its signature drink. In some cases they then went on to affect the course of history, helping along trends that were already happening. “Edible History” posits more of a causal link between foods and historical forces: food directly caused some big historical changes. Perhaps the best known example is that in the 15th century, the search for spices encouraged Columbus to head west to the Americas and Vasco da Gama to go east to India. But there are many other examples. The book looks at food’s role in Britain’s industrialisation, for example, and its influence on the outcome of numerous wars. Food really did drive history; it didn’t simply reflect what was already going on.

True, the structure of the book, with twelve chapters in six sections, is unchanged from “Six Glasses”. But all my books have twelve chapters; it just seems like the right number. Like my other books, “Edible History” also draws parallels between history and the present day. At the end of each section I use the historical evidence from a particular period to cast new light on a modern food debate: it turns out that the Romans worried about “food miles”, for example, and that the Industrial Revolution in Britain involved food and fuel competing for agricultural land, which is what is happening today with biofuels. But this is not another book about what is wrong with the modern food system, or how to eat ethically. There are plenty of books on those topics already, and Michael Pollan, among others, has covered such things very well.

When I’m asked to explain the book in a paragraph, oddly enough I find it easiest to give another example of what the book is not about. It is not about how history changed food. There are lots of books about that sort of thing already: explaining how Columbus found the Americas, and Italians then got to eat tomatoes and polenta, for example, or the role of British colonialism in the emergence of the modern curry. But my book is different. Instead of being about how the forces of history influenced which foods people eat, it’s about how the foods people eat have changed history. Having written “Six Glasses”, looking at the influence of drinks on history, I found myself asking the same question about food. But when I looked into it, I found that nearly all food-history books were biographies of single ingredients (cod, the potato), or tales of history’s influence on food (dining in Ancient Greece, the origin of the hamburger). So I set out to fill that gap by looking at things the other way around. I hope you will enjoy the result.

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4 comments
  1. scotte said:

    I just finished “Six Glasses” last night for a book club discussion I’m moderating. I really enjoyed it. The new books sounds very interesting and I’m certainly going to keep my eyes open for it!

  2. Merryn said:

    Just found out about this on Archaeologica – must get a copy. You must be the same Tom Standage that contacted me about my research into ancient brewing techniques about ten years ago?!

  3. tomstandage said:

    Indeed I am!

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