Books: history at the table

Tom Jaine considers the latest batch of food volumes, which address both feast and famine. Some are mind-nourishing, he found, while others left him craving more substance.

An Edible History of Humanity
Tom Standage
Atlantic Books, 2009

Famine: A Short History
Cormac Ó Gráda
Princeton University Press, 2009

Food can grind the lens through which we view the big facts. Wars were often food-related, no matter the specious reasons advanced by belligerents, and often won by superior logistics, not strategy or tactics. Human performance, capacity and stamina were dependent on diet, irrespective of the innate brilliance of the protagonists, just as the emotional temperature of an age or an emperor might well have been more to do with meals than culture or civility.

Prehistoric man took giant leaps in brainpower in step with improvements in his diet; the 12th-century renaissance that gave us Heloise and Abelard was due mainly to better agriculture and more protein-rich legumes rather than heightened sensibility or appreciation of the classics — for Abelard, not so much cherchez la femme [look for the woman] as cherchez le pain [look for the bread].

These are some of the thoughts provoked, though not always advanced, by Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity, which is a readable guide to some aspects of this field. Of course, it can’t live up to its title in 270 pages, but it can give useful pointers. A journalist by profession, he writes with an eye to comprehension and a sure touch with anecdote and illustration. Each chapter can be digested with the ease of a Sunday newspaper supplement, be it discussing the birth of agriculture, the Columbian Exchange, the adoption of the potato, the Berlin airlift, Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” famine, or the spice trade through 15 centuries.

For my part, I found him more interesting on the far-flung history than the more up-to-date stuff and consider his account of the shift from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture a masterpiece of summary and explanation. It is always a mystery why we gave up the sunny pleasure of picking our favourite foods Adam-and-Eve-style from the forests around us for the daily slog of weeding, feeding and mucking out the cowshed. It’s even more mysterious when we read that early farmers were smaller and sicker than their hunter-gathering friends. Why on earth, when and how did it happen? He makes a brilliant stab at bringing sense to the table.

The history of food should include its absence — a lack pretty germane to those who suffer from it. Standage considers famine, and so — to the exclusion of everything else — does Cormac Ó Gráda in his Famine: A Short History. It’s not quite a history, more an analytical look; if you want a blow-by-blow chronicle, go elsewhere. But it’s gripping stuff. There is so much about famine that is counter-intuitive. Most are caused not by lack of food but by market failures, administrative incompetence, political intransigence, mere brutality and loathsomeness.

Most people in famines don’t die from hunger but from infectious diseases. Those who were conceived during famines are more likely to suffer from obesity. Men are more likely to die during famines than women. The list could continue, and Professor Ó Gráda will doubtless have an apposite table or graph. The reader will be struck by the incredible staying power of the Malthusian fear of population growth and by the remarkable modern achievement in nearly getting rid of famine altogether.

If there is one chapter that needs repeated broadcast, it is that which deals with Cassandras of yesteryear. There’s Malthus, of course, but, closer in date, there are people such as Paul Ehrlich, William Dando and Wallace Aykroyd, who were all loudly convinced (from the 1960s to the 1980s) of the coming “Great Die Off” from endemic famine and overpopulation. It’s a small consolation to those who worry about global warming.

Books about food and the history of food usually think of dinner as a commodity, rarely tackling the question of cookery. It is easier to get your head round the concept that growing more wheat is good, or that less is bad, than to work out whether a culture that cooks its wheat as a gruel has something over another which converts it into bread. So we have a surfeit, I would say, of discussions of foodstuffs and not nearly enough about dishes.

Yet the whirlwind success of such books as Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner points to the perennial allure of the topic, if only one can draw meaningful conclusions. Which is why the new “Edible” series from Reaktion Books is to be welcomed. More titles have appeared, including Pie by Janet Clarkson and Spices by Fred Czarra. Short and sweet, they should address the question of cookery. Alas, they don’t.

The spice book wanders almost incomprehensibly through the dense and complex history of the spice trade, ignoring how people used spices and which were the preferences of this culture or that period. The pie book fails to include most pies from beyond Britain, and relies on anecdote rather than structure for its British account. Writing and conceiving short books is a great art, and these are apprentice pieces.

Tom Jaine runs Prospect Books, a specialist food imprint in the United Kingdom.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009