First reviews of “An Edible History of Humanity”


The first reviews of “An Edible History of Humanity” have appeared in Kirkus Reviews and the Library Journal. There have also been some early reader reviews from Amazon and BookBrowse. The book is out on May 12th in Britain and America.

Kirkus Reviews: Society is what it eats. That’s the contention of Economist business editor Standage (A History of the World in Six Glasses, 2005, etc.). Writers have given close scrutiny to the histories of individual foods, cuisines and traditions, he notes, but have rarely looked at the history of food on a global scale. That’s why he decided to write this meaty little volume, which “concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history.” Tapping into fields as diverse as economics, anthropology, archaeology and genetics, the author asks a simple question: Which foods have had the most influence on shaping the world we live in today? Surprisingly, the list is short; corn, wheat, rice and the potato have been predominant in agriculture and commerce. But history isn’t Standage’s only concern. He takes the long view to illuminate and contextualize such contemporary issues as genetically modified foods, the complex relationship between food and poverty, the local food movement, the politicization of food and the environmental outcomes of modern methods of agriculture. It’s a tall order, impressively filled. Food was pivotal in the creation of social hierarchies in prehistoric cultures. It was central to the spread of European colonial powers. The Industrial Revolution sprang from concerns over food. The Soviet Union collapsed because food was running out. Advancements in biotechnology have proved a double-edged sword—a boon to the hungry and a bane to the environment. Written in the lucid, plain and rather stiff prose familiar to readers of the Economist, the book, like the magazine, is cogent, informative and insightful. An intense briefing on the making of our world from the vantage point of food history.

Library Journal: Standage’s previous book, A History of the World in 6 Glasses , theorized that the titular six drinks were reflections of the eras in which they were created. In this new work, he instead shows how one of humanity’s most vital needs (hunger) didn’t simply reflect but served as the driving force behind transformative and key events in history. Dividing the vast subject into six general sections (such as food’s role in the development of societies and social hierarchies, its impact on population and industrialization, and its uses as a weapon both on the battlefield and off), Standage illustrates each section with historical examples and observations. Some topics, like the spice trade’s encouragement of exploration, are fairly obvious choices, but the concise style and inclusion of little-known details keep the material both entertaining and enlightening. Perhaps the most interesting section is the final one, which looks at the ways in which modern agricultural needs have acted as a spur for technological advancement, with Standage providing a summary of the challenges still faced by the green revolution. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.

  1. Charles Turpin said:

    An excellent book. But there is something I’d like to add. I’m a retired Food Packaging Scientist. I accidentally entered this profession in 1956, designing food packaging machines. I decided the packages were more interesting than the machines and changed my activities accordingly. I’m convinced that a major part of the solution to feeding our growing population is packaging. The objective of packaging is to get food from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed, in both time and space, with as little waste as possible. My best guess is that 30 to 40 % of food produced in the world is lost in getting from production to the consumer. If we could reduce this loss to 10%, a reasonable objective, we would increase our food supply by a third without producing a single additional pound of food. Food packaging technology has changed dramatically over my career. I’m certain this could be done!

    • tomstandage said:

      Thanks. I agree too much food is wasted. Better transport links in many developing countries would help, and there may be a role for packaging, too. But the trend in the rich world is to reduce the amount of packaging. So the benefits of better packaging (less waste, fewer methane emissions, etc) would have to be weighed against the additional environmental costs. As always with such food-related trade-offs (eg, organic and local production) it would probably make more sense for some kinds of foods than others.

  2. Congratulations on the beautiful book. I am from India and I just picked it up a week back from the shelf of a local bookstore. Thank you for writing for something like this.

    However, there are some things that I wish the book would highlight.

    a) The Indian subcontinent seems to be looked at only from the perspective of the west or as a bank of spices, etc. The book does not seem to say what the Indian subcontinent was thinking. This is not the case with the Near East or the West. I wanted to ask if there was a lack of enough material evidence to include this Eastern perspective?

    b) At one place in the book Calicut is confused with old Calcutta when it is actually near Kerala on the West Coast of India.

    But overall, I really love the book and it will be one of the most loved books in my collection.

    • tomstandage said:

      Thank you for your kind words. In the section on spices I apologise for taking such a Eurocentric view, but explain that I do so because the European obsession with spices went on to have such large historical ramifications. So I don’t know what the attitude to spices was on the Indian subcontinent. As producers of pepper, cassia and several other spices, presumably people regarded them as non-mysterious, but I don’t know what they thought of cloves or nutmeg from elsewhere. It’s a very good question. On Calicut, I apologise for this elementary error, and it should have been fixed in later editions of the book, and certainly in the paperback editions coming out this year.

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