A Lot of History, But Not Enough Food for My Tastes – A Review of An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage


Food is, hands-down, one of my favorite topics. I love eating food, and I also love cooking it – as long as I don’t have to stand over spattering oil, of course. As a child I was a very picky eater, but over the years I’ve gotten rid of that habit, and when I go out with my friends and family nowadays I’m more open to trying things out than I was before. I’m also a firm believer in the idea that one of the fastest ways to understand a culture is to understand – and eat – their food.

Filipino food is a great example of this idea. Not a lot of people (besides Filipinos themselves) know just how regional the food in this country is: certain dishes, like adobo and sinigang are national, present in every part of country, but fewer people understand that even these “national” dishes are altered by the region in which they are eaten. Take sinigang, for example: at its most basic, it’s meat and vegetables cooked in a sour soup. But the choice of souring agent may vary from region to region: tamarinds are more commonly used as a souring agent in the Tagalog region, for instance, whereas in Cebu they’re more likely to use a fruit called iba (kamias in Tagalog). Also, the degree of sourness varies: in the Tagalog region (as in my own family), sinigang is generally prepared very sour, whereas in Cebu sinigang it isn’t as sour.

The above does not, of course, even really get into the regional dishes, which are the ones that really speak in the voice of the area from which they came. The Ilocos region to the north of the country is very mountainous, so the cuisine is a mix of fresh vegetables (which grow better in the cooler climate of the north than in the warmer climate of the plains) and preserved, salted foods (which keep longer than untreated fresh food). Bicol cuisine is notable for its tendency to cook everything, but especially seafood, in coconut milk and chili peppers – mostly because all three are particularly abundant and accessible in the region. And in Mindanao, the food is much more similar to the cuisines of neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia, again due to the proximity and long history of contact between those areas.

It’s also safe to say that this regional variation has a lot to do with not just location, but history, too. Much of the food in Manila and its surrounding regions, for example, is heavily influenced by Spanish, or rather Mexican, cuisine – a legacy of a time when Manila was at one end of the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade route. Other influences come from Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Indian food traditions – cultures which have had contact with the Philippines via trade and diplomacy. By studying these kinds of connections, it becomes possible to understand the national and international history of a country simply by looking at what kinds of foods are eaten, which dishes are most popular where, and how similar those dishes are to the dishes eaten by other cultures, both nearby and somewhat distant.

This was the kind of thing I was expecting when I picked up Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity. I was eager to look at the history of Mesopotamia as seen through bread, for instance, or the history of Greece through wine and olive oil, or maybe Tudor England in light of peasant food versus the lavish banquets consumed by Henry VIII. Would there be an analysis of Japanese history through sushi? Or Chinese history via pork? I certainly hoped so – and crossed my fingers I’d wind up with cravings in the process.

That’s not quite what I ended up with, though. An Edible History of Humanity turned out to be more “history” than “edible,” Instead of going into specifics, Standage instead takes a broad look at history, taking into account how food – or rather, agriculture and food production – have impacted various crucial moments in history, and speculates how they will continue to influence the future.

The book begins logically, with the origins of agriculture and how it has become the backbone of everything else to come after. Part II explains how civilization – with all its glories and pitfalls – came about thanks to agriculture. Part III focuses on food and trade, with special focus given to spices. Part IV is about the Industrial Revolution, and about how innovations in agriculture allowed for that to happen. Part V explains how food has been used as a weapon, as well as the power of famines to create ideological shifts that lead to revolution and war. Finally, Part VI is about the future, and how issues connected to population and development affect what and how much the world eats.

Now, this isn’t exactly what the title had led me to expect. I was rather hoping, as I mentioned, for a greater focus on food, which would be used as a way of explaining certain aspect’s of a country’s history and its relationship with other countries. I think was rather thinking it would be like A History of the World in 100 Objects, except with food taking the place of the artifacts Neil MacGregor used for his book. An Edible History of Humanity, however, isn’t so much about food as a lens for history as it is how food has been used at various points throughout history to create various important shifts to shape what we now call the present.

Let me clarify: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, I feel that Standage is trying to say something very important with this book: about how food, more than oil or gold, will shape the direction humanity takes in the future, by showing how food has shaped the past. His opinion on GMOs and biofuels are all very interesting, and certainly put a new spin on how these ideas can be addressed. His historical perspective is also useful in understanding how agriculture, population, and industrialization all played a role in creating the current state of the world in the twenty-first century, and while his predictions regarding climate and food production are nothing new (the book was first published in 2009), his predictions about what might happen in the years to come echo similar predictions being made today.

Regardless, I found myself slightly disappointed by this book. I suppose it’s simply because it’s not the book I was looking for (pun unintended). And while there’s nothing wrong that I can see with what Standage has put down in his book, it’s just not what I was expecting – or hoping, rather – it would be. There really wasn’t much that was new in it to me; most of it I’d already found out from other books (in particular, A History of the World in 100 Objects), or via a host of podcasts I’d been listening to over the past few months. I was hoping for food with a side of history, and I got history with a side of food.

Overall, An Edible History of Humanity isn’t that bad a read, despite that rather misleading title. There’s nothing difficult about the language, and while its tone isn’t as lighthearted as some people might like, it’s not too heavy, either. It’s a great read for someone who’s looking for a light non-fiction read, or for someone who’s interested in figuring out in the easiest way possible how agriculture is connected with everything else in society. For the serious history buff, or even for the serious food buff, this might not exactly be the best read, delving as it does in all the wrong places, or delving into things that might already be known to the reader.


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