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.

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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