Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

An Edible History of Humanity, By Tom Standage

Did you know that carrots were white or purple until the familiar variety was created by 16th century Dutch growers as a tribute to William I, Prince of Orange?

Or that the first farmers were "invariably less healthy", due to a more restricted diet and heavier work-load, than their hunter-gatherer predecessors? Dense in revelations, An Edible History of Humanity demonstrates how food has continually and often radically affected the human story. Spice comes from the Latin word species, which was also the root for the word "special". Imports such as cinnamon and ginger were special and taxed accordingly.

The long and complex route required for pepper from India or nutmeg from Indonesia opened up the world for trade. Pliny the Elder presaged the current "eat local" movement when he complained about pepper: "For this, we go to India!" In 1348, the oceanic superhighway of exotica also brought plague to Europe. An attempt to short-cut the long haul to the Far East propelled Columbus to the New World. "I believe I have found rhubarb and cinnamon," he reported from the Caribbean.

Encompassing Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, the Potato Famine and Stalin's collectivisation of farms, Standage brilliantly demonstrates how food has transformed society, sparked wars and facilitated the population explosion. Unfortunately, comprehension of his epic story is hindered by the lack of a contents page, a mystifying omission.

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