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Posts Tagged ‘Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’

(This is part 3 of 3 posts.)

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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.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

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(This is part 2 of 3 posts.)

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Plod, plod, plod.

Plodding is a fact of life.

Everyone does it. There are those who embrace plodding as the most virtuous and acceptable way to live. Within this form of thinking, the idea of stepping out of the circle of plodding to do a little jig or a mad pirouette or a sudden break-dance is a nefarious idea.

I’m rather anti-plod myself. Although I plod often enough and know that life requires plodding, I also believe that if one can escape it, one should.

The writing of history often starts off with a traditional form. It’s called a time-line, and the thought of time-lines (outside of the idea of memorizing facts, which is not the highest calling I personally can think of) leaves me feeling a deep despair.

Open the book and there they are – the march of history goes forward from beginning to end, measured out by time. My mind goes to thoughts of Alfred Prufrock.

I opened the pages of ‘Near a Thousand Tables’ and there was no time-line.

Instead, there was a dance. A dance of ideas, a whirling through history viewed as concepts plucked in gathered handfuls. History not viewed straight-line but rather as a sea.

Instead of ‘And at the beginning there was . . . ‘, there is this: The Invention of Cooking. Followed by (gasp) (see me doing a little dance myself) The Meaning of Eating – Food as Rite and Magic. Then Breeding to Eat; The Edible Earth; Food and Rank; The Edible Horizon; Challenging Evolution; and finally Feeding the Giants.

He’s not coloring within the lines.
Thank goodness I do not have to think of Alfred Prufrock.
Halleliuija!
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Though I would like to write more on this, at the moment I must go plod at some usual things. My mind is filled with dance and the sea, though – and if I have the least chance to set in a bit of anti-plod here and there, I will.

And I’ll also come back to write more on this dancing book of food history in the next post.

1578415522_56d573209f

Sorry, dudes. I think it already happened.

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(This is part 1 of 3 posts.)

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‘Near a Thousand Tables’ is a very different book within the genre of food history than I’ve ever seen or read before. There may be books equal to (or similar to) it – my reading on food history is only a small part of the other sorts of reading I do so I may have missed something like it along the way. If so, I rue it. There should be more books like this.

Let me set my placement as ‘food history reader’ so my thoughts on this book can be weighed and measured knowing that stance:

* The first food history book I ever read (aside from grammar school lessons on turkeys and pumpkins et al) was Larousse Gastronomique. The volume was the 1971 edition. Though Larousse is not defined exactly as a ‘food-history’ book there exists within it a tremendous amount of food history nonetheless. The reading of it (in my mind at the time) was as preparation to be a chef – the idea of which was a vague stirring inside me. I read each entry from A to Z and loved it. In retrospect (in view of the marketplace for these sorts of things) it’s shame I didn’t read it now instead of then and try to sell a book based upon following the entries! But I can not read that thing from A to Z again.

* Masses of Gourmet Magazines, from the years anywhere between 1960 and 1990. The writers during those years of Gourmet often wrote of food history under the guise of merely writing of gourmet food. Somewhere around 1990 this sort of writing disappeared from Gourmet – swallowed below the wide swaths of surface food: how to cook and what to cook to be a gourmet cook par excellence, where to travel, what to buy for the kitchen. I can understand how this happened – the foodie revolution had begun and as a group-in-general foodies are interested in the ‘now’ of things: what’s hot and what’s not. The urge was for a fashion statement and Gourmet shifted its tone to suit the readers. I’m glad it did, and glad it survived. In recent years, Ruth Reichl has been gently and intelligently re-shaping the magazine to be more than just an ephemeral statement about acquisition and food fashion. Today Gourmet has morphed back from being a rainbow-colored gigantic lollipop wrapped in shiny cellophane with a nice big stick to hold tightly while waving around in the grip of a well-manicured hand, into something more than that. Thank goodness.

* Waverly Root – and how he has come under attack in later years! James Beard – who is not as well known for his writings as he is for the charitable Foundation created with his name whose Board often appears to be trying to figure out how to handle or mis-handle the fairly decent lashings of money they manage to gather. MFK Fisher – who writes of food history almost by default as she writes, as she does write to entertain and story-tell, to gather her audience close with their ears eagerly perked. Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson. Roy Andries de Groot, Evan Jones. The Settlement Cookbook. The Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Marion Cunningham. Patricia Bunning Stevens. Margaret Visser, Charles Perry, John Egerton, Sherrie Inness, Rachel Laudan, Clifford Wright, Paula Wolfert, Madeleine Pelner-Cosman. And so many more I can not remember at the moment. These readings come from this part of the globe and not other parts of the globe solely due to the fact that I can only read my native language (English) (as opposed to other languages) at a level that allows the understanding of any subliminal intonations in the text (or as many as a general reader might try to find, anyway). I dearly love the writings of all the above authors. And aside from love which is a fanciful thing, I respect them all immensely.

* Cambridge ‘World History of Food’ sits on my bookshelf, as do the Oxford ‘Companion to Food’ and Oxford ‘Food and Drink in America’. All great reference books, but I’m unsure how much I really ‘learn’ from them as I dread to pull them off the shelf for fear of falling asleep due to the generally dry academic writing styles and the length of the entries. I am not a true scholar, in this sense.

That’s where I’m coming from as a reader. Add the fact that I also have a strong aversion to reading things wherein the author appears to have pulled out a bunch of facts from somewhere and plopped them down like a lesson plan on to the page with little or no value added: no creative POV to take the thing to the next level – or alternately, if the author’s voice is not the sort that would independently charm me into not really caring if there were a next level added or not.

Having said all that, I am madly in love with ‘Near a Thousand Tables’.

In the next post I’ll tell you why – and tell you of my respect for the book too. Right now I’ve ranted on for so long that it is past time to go make breakfast – or be charged with Treason by my children. Treason by Reason of Blogging.
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P.S. In my urge to rush off to feed these obviously-starving-to-death children I forgot to add a very important something (or rather someone) – Reay Tannahill. Her book ‘Food in History’ is my very favorite food history book in the world till now.

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organic prius

You put your left foot in

You put your right foot out

You put your left foot in

And you shake it all about

You grab yourself a partner and you turn yourself about

That’s what it’s all about!

Anybody remember the hokey-pokey dance? Always fun, even the confusing parts that should not have been but were, in the silly way of these song-and-dance routines.

What to eat. Why to eat it. Who does it affect, this seemingly not-all-that-important-decision made three or four or five times a day.

These are questions that run through every thoughtful person’s mind – some more, some less.

What a luxury of questions they are too – when one stops to consider that many people in the world can only ask themselves one question regarding their food: Where can I get enough of any sort to survive and thrive?

I haven’t come up with my own clear-cut food philosophy when it come to the (big? small?) questions of what I should eat. Like many others I know, I do the hokey-pokey. One day at a time, sorting and sifting the masses of information surging over the information superhighway, hoping that what I read is true enough to lead me down the right paths.

One writer I trust to give me accurate and useful information and ideas is the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In a compelling article in the Times-Online yesterday his essay begins:

The State exists to feed people. Politicians proclaim defence or law and order or social issues or wealth creation or health as their priority. But without food, nothing else matters. For most of history, leaders were those who knew how to get it – sometimes by hunting prowess, sometimes by means of a gift for commanding herds, sometimes by naked power, forcing subjects to work in the fields and dig ditches, and sometimes by mediating with the gods or spirits of nature.

The article can be found here. It’s one of the most interesting essays I’ve read on this topic (ever).

Artwork credit Mike Licht/NotionsCapital

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