(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Here’s my favorite bit of the book – it comes from the chapter titled ‘The Edible Earth’ and the subject is wheat, which the author has nick-named ‘The World Conquerer':
No relief of the Triumph of Progress, of the kind which often decorates the tympana of our academies and institutions, would be complete without some ears or sheaves. Yet I can imagine a world in which this perception will seem laughable. A few years ago, I invented creatures of fantasy whom I called the Galactic Museum Keepers, and invited the reader to picture them, as they look back at our world in a remote future, from an immense distance of time and space, where, with a degree of objectivity unattainable by us – who are enmeshed in history – they will see our past quite differently from the way we see it ourselves. They will classify us, perhaps, as puny parasites, victims of feeble self-delusion, whom wheat cleverly exploited to spread itself around the world. Or else they will see us in an almost symbiotic relationship with edible grasses, as mutual parasites, dependent on each other and colonizing the world together.
I’d love to go on quoting, but I’d have to go on forever.
Fernandez-Armesto writes of cannibalism and of the family dinner table. Not in the same sentence, of course.
He writes of Nenets who ‘chomp living lice lifted from their own bodies “like candy” ‘. Of the claim that ‘the only objectively verifiable fact which sets our species apart from others is that we cannot successfully mate with them’, of meals that can become ‘sacrificial sharings, love feasts, ritual acts, occasions for the magical transformations wrought by fire’. And this is all before page 12.
The forging of community through food is explored (and I’m not sure I agree with his final conclusions about this but that’s part of the fun of it all, isn’t it?).
I thought of locavores when reading in the chapter ‘Food and Rank’ that
Diversity in diet is a function of distance: it attains impressive proportions when the products of different climates and eco-niches are united on the same table. For most of history, long-range trade has been a small-scale, hazardous, costly adventure; so diversity of diet has been a privilege of wealth or a reward of rank.
Have locavores flipped this thing over in terms of social rank today?
Crop yield comparisons, the ‘Green Revolution’, industrialized food and hygiene, non-eating and discussion of the Campbells soup can as postmodernist icon (another place where I had some questions about his conclusion but my head is spinning at the moment just trying to even list the ideas to think of so far, the few I’ve pulled out from this marvelous, dancing history book).
Books with lots of facts and research are often written with little index cards spread all over the place, to create the architecture, to keep the structure in mind, to remember what to write.
But I can not believe it with this book. The way it swoops around and sings, the way it gives off sparks within the gathered thoughts – makes me think that the author not only knows his subject incredibly well but that it’s just possible he’s been blessed with a photographic memory.
To end . . . from the frontspiece of the book, by Wordsworth:
And oft I thought (my fancy was so strong)
That I, at last, a resting place had found;
“Here I will dwell,” said I, “my whole life long,
Roaming the illimitable waters round;
Here I will live, of all but heaven disowned,
And end my days upon the peaceful flood.” –
To break my dream the vessel reached its bound;
And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.
I wonder if Wordsworth’s dusky hunger and sense of loss would have been salved by the glowing ball of light that is this book.
I’d guess . . . yes.