March 26, 2010
A few months ago I wrote about the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham, which claimed that eating cooked food was the central factor that allowed us to evolve into Homo sapiens. I recently finished another book, An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage, that essentially picks up where Catching Fire left off. In it, Standage explains how food has shaped civilization from the invention of farming, about 11,000 years ago in its most rudimentary form, to the present-day “paradox of plenty,” in which we have the technology to feed the world but it comes at a price to the environment.
As one of our most basic needs, it makes sense that food has had such a powerful influence on world history. Early agrarian societies formed around the production of food; they developed social structures that allowed some people to focus on farming and others to work outside of agriculture and which eventually led to stratification of classes and the concentration of power around those who controlled access to food. I’m simplifying here; these changes were obviously far more complex than I have room for here, and even Standage’s book just touches the surface. As a survey, though, it offers an insightful look at food’s impact on civilization.
Things really get interesting when food moves beyond mere sustenance. The use of spices as flavoring was the next great gastronomically motivated game-changer, according to Standage. Because spices often came from other lands than the ones in which they were enjoyed, whole mythologies formed around their source. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus (“the father of history”) wrote that cassia, a form of cinnamon, could only be obtained by wearing a full-body suit that protected the wearer from “winged creatures like bats, which screech horribly and are very fierce.” He also wrote that no one knew where the cinnamon actually grew, but that the sticks were “brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb.” The only way to collect the sticks was to cut up the bodies of dead oxen and leave them on the ground near the birds’ nests. The birds would come get the large hunks of meat and bring them to their nests, which couldn’t bear the weight and would tumble to the ground, where the harvesters could gather the fallen cinnamon sticks.
With such wild stories about the origins of spices, it was no wonder that they were so expensive and sought-after. Europeans’ taste for spices led them to begin exploring the planet in search of direct access to the sources. This, of course, led to the discovery of new lands, as well as vast international trade networks through which knowledge and cultures spread. Unfortunately, it also helped spread diseases, like the Black Death in the 14th century.
Food has also played a pivotal role in wars from ancient times to the last century. The most effective weapon in the history of warfare, Standage writes, isn’t a sword, a gun or even the atom bomb; it’s starvation. As Napoleon, famously, was reported to have said, “An army marches on its stomach.” The outcome of conflicts, including the American Revolution, often hinged on which side had the better food supply. The importance of food supply to warfare led to the invention of canned food; France offered a prize in 1795 to anyone who could develop a better method of food preservation. The prize was claimed by Nicolas Appert, who experimented with a technique of putting food in airtight bottles and boiling them in water for a period of time. It wasn’t understood how or why this worked until Louis Pasteur’s explanation of pasteurization in the 1860s.
Starvation has also been used as a weapon against whole populations, from Josef Stalin to Robert Mugabe—who, in 2008, Standage writes, was accused of offering food to people in opposition areas only if they gave up the documents they needed to vote.
Food continues to be one of the driving forces of politics around the world. The “green revolution” of the 1960s, which introduced modern farming methods to the developing world, helped lift many nations out of extreme poverty and perpetual famine. But the use of chemicals and the loss of crop diversity comes at a price to the environment. In the future, Standage writes, we will have to find a balance between “organic fundamentalism on the one hand and blind faith in biotechnology on the other. The future of food production, and of mankind, surely lies in the wide and fertile middle ground in between.”
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