An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage

An Edible history of Humanity, a 242-page book by a British writer Tom Standage, was published in 2009 and immediately won the reputation of a second-to-none literary masterpiece for its originality and novelty. This unique work examines the impact of food on the history of humanity and inevitably impels a reader to view such an ordinary and common subject as foodstuff from a completely new perspective. The author claims that food has been a major driving force in the development of humankind and a factor which in plenty of cases determined the course of history. As a rule, military actions and wars, economic growth and industrial revolutions, geographical discoveries and cultural singularities, one way or another, were influenced by nourishment and diet.

An Edible History of Humanity is divided into six major parts, providing the detailed survey of food history from the pre-historic times to modern days. To begin with, the author goes back in time to the distant past. At the first pages of the book, readers find out about the original forms of food obtaining, namely, hunting and gathering which later evolved into agriculture and farming. Standage champions the idea that these human occupations are man-forced, not natural. He provides a demonstrative example explaining the nature of such habitual product as corn. Referencing to a number of scientific disciplines, the author proves that this popular crop which most people take for a naturally occurring plant would cease to exist long time ago, if it were not for human intervention.   In the next section Standage elaborates on the farming and agricultural ways of life and indicates that these methods of food acquisition became a “basis of civilization” and furthered the creation of the existing social hierarchy.

A considerable part of the book is devoted to spices. The author tells about “Western Europe’s hunger for the Orient’s spices”  during the Middle Ages, which gave a stimulus to a number of major world explorations and geographical discoveries. In particular, the ardent desire to obtain Eastern condiments resulted in the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan and the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

As a reader learns further, the industrialization of Britain was also inextricably linked to comestibles. Due to the scientific innovations and rotation of crops from the New World, many farmers were left without work. This resulted in the influx of growers to manufactures which, in its turn, led to the increase of coal mining and subsequent industrialization.   In the same section, the author tells about the calamity caused by the eatable, or, to be more precise, the dearth of it. The tragic period of mass starvation in Ireland that had lasted from 1845 to 1852, known as the Great Famine, was the outcome of potato monoculture. 

Further Standage explains the way food was used as a tool for the implementation of political and military ambitions in the hands of movers and shakers. As it is revealed on the pages of the book, provisions (or the lack of them) is an important weapon of war, not less powerful than guns or cannons. The proper food supply could change the course and results of many battles. For example, Napoleon, who tried to conquer Russia, failed to do it not because his adversary was too strong for him to defeat, but due to the major strategic inadvertence, as a result of which French soldiers were starved en masse.   A very similar situation happened during the American War of Independence, where one of the causes of the British army defeat was poor food supplies.

Not only at wars against foreign enemies, but also in domestic politics was foodstuff an important instrument in submission of people. The authoritarian communist rulers, such as the leader of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin and the founder of the People's Republic of China Mao Zedong, did not disdain famine as a method to subdue the folks. As a dire result of their agricultural politics, also known as collectivization, tens of millions of rural citizens were starved to death. Practically, the dictators who had stayed fat and satiated for all the time organized these famines.

Standage finishes his overview of the edible history of humanity with the closing section about the Green Revolution. The period between 1940s and 1960s was marked by numerous successful researches and discoveries in the agricultural sphere, the use of technologies and new methods. All this had beneficial influences and led to the increased crop production around the globe.

The history of human beings is extremely multi-faceted, and An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage is a grand work which shows one of its least-known sides. It reveals surprising, not known before facts, as well as shows familiar historical events in a totally new light. Today, this book deserves exceptional attention, due to its topicality and importance particularly in prosperous countries where food can be easily purchased at any supermarket and is so often taken for granted. It is amazing to see how the things we have always perceived as mere victuals turns out to be a weapon, a currency, a motive force of social, cultural, geographical, and political changes. Although the book is written in a dry, scientific, and matter-of-fact tone which makes it sometimes a little hard to read, it is still definitely worth spending time on.

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