Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. NY: The Free Press, 2002.
Review by Rebecca Stuhr
Polymath Fernández-Armesto covers a lot of ground in his cross-cultural history of food. He contemplates the foodways of prehistoric humans, calling the "cooking revolution" the first scientific revolution. He examines the sociability of food beginning with groups of people sitting around the cooking fire, the ritual significance of food, including the practice of cannibalism, the development of herding and breeding, beginning with the herding of snails and oysters, and, of course, the development of agriculture. Fernández-Armesto gives fascinating descriptions of feasts in his chapter on "Food and Rank" ("69,574 guests at a banquet that lasted ten days...." The menu included oxen, sheep, lambs, 20, 000 pigeons, 10,000 fish, and 10,000 desert rats (p. 104)) and he considers the path of food from the elite down to the peasant and from the peasant up to the elite. In perhaps his most interesting chapter, Fernández-Armesto follows the path of food around the world. The most prominent items being sugar, salt, spices, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, tomatoes, and some additional fruits and grains. He illustrates how the need for items such as sugar and salt drove European expansionism. In both his discussion of food and rank and in the colonization of the world through certain grains, vegetables, and fruits, Fernández-Armesto's strength is in providing a history that does not privilege the West: Europe or North America. Europe and North America are placed in a historical context with the ancient civilizations that preceded and influenced their rise (something like viewing the world through the Gall-Peters map projection rather than the Mercator map projection).
After all of Fernández-Armesto's historical perigrination, he concludes with the state of cooking today, which features over-processed, overly convenient fast food, the microwave, and the solitary eater. He writes,
"For people who think cooking was the foundation of civilization, the microwave ... is the last enemy ..best suited to that public enemy, the solitary eater. ... The microwave makes possible the end of cooking and eating as social acts. The first great revolution in the history of food is in danger of being undone. The companionship of the campfire, cooking pot and common table, which have helped to bond humans in collaborative living for at least 150,000 years, could be shattered" (p. 222).
But Fernández-Armesto is optimistic that the "excesses of industrialization" will be undone and that the "role of the next revolution in food history will be to subvert the last" (p. 224) .
2nd Floor TX 353 .F437 2002