In Near a Thousand Tables, acclaimed food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells the fascinating story of food as cultural as well as culinary history -- a window on the history of mankind.
In this "appetizingly provocative" (Los Angeles Times) book, he guides readers through the eight great revolutions in the world history of food: the origins of cooking, which set humankind on a course apart from other species; the ritualization of eating, which brought magic and meaning into people's relationship with what they ate; the inception of herding and the invention of agriculture, perhaps the two greatest revolutions of all; the rise of inequality, which led to the development of haute cuisine; the long-range trade in food which, practically alone, broke down cultural barriers; the ecological exchanges, which revolutionized the global distribution of plants and livestock; and, finally, the industrialization and globalization of mass-produced food.
From prehistoric snail "herding" to Roman banquets to Big Macs to genetically modified tomatoes, Near a Thousand Tables is a full-course meal of extraordinary narrative, brilliant insight, and fascinating explorations that will satisfy the hungriest of readers.
For sheer volume of fascinating facts, this survey of gastronomic lore can't be beat. Fern�ndez-Armesto (Millennium), a Professional Fellow at the University of London and member of the modern history faculty at Oxford, debunks popular myths, such as the idea that spices were needed in medieval times to disguise tainted meat and fish (in fact, fresh foods in the middle ages were fresher than today and healthier as well). He shows why the cultivation of rye, barley and wheat is one of the most spectacular achievements of humankind and informs readers that the whole grain cracker invented by Sylvester Graham was intended to impede sexual desire and promote abstinence. But the book is more then a litany of quirky tidbits; Fern�ndez-Armesto charts how the evolution of human culture is directly connected to the way food is obtained. The logistics of agriculture and hunting have shaped notions of gender and community; food is often integral to concepts of the sacred in a society; and the loneliness of the fast food eater aided by such inventions as the microwave has become emblematic of contemporary society's fragmentation. Fern�ndez-Armesto writes lucidly and conveys his enormous enthusiasm for his subject. While he draws upon the work of many historians and theorists including Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Claude LEvi-Strauss and Ferdinand Braudel his erudite analysis always engaging and accessible.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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August 25, 2003
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Excerpt from Near a Thousand Tables by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
From Chapter 2: Dietetic Sorcery
Success in the treatment of scurvy reinforced the notion that food could be elevated, above its commonplace role as a nourisher, to the ranks of a healer. Food health became a quest in which rising science met abiding religion. It was both a pseudo-science and a mystic vocation: pseudo-scientific because of the new prestige of science in the nineteenth-century West; mystical because it was developed beyond evidence by visionaries who, in many cases, were religiously inspired: if food was the key to physical health, why not moral health, too? The ancient sages, who formulated character-forming taboos of abstinence and restraint, had nineteenth- and twentieth-century successors.
Traditionally, to command prestige, medicinal foods had to be rare and costly. Readily available remedies tend to work poorly, because patients are disinclined to believe in them; part of every affliction is mental and cures have to be psychologically convincing to register mental effects. The great Jesuit traveler of the seventeenth century, Jeronimo Lobo, admitted that he had no medical knowledge outside the handbook he carried with him; but he found that he was much valued for consultations wherever he went: this was the common experience of deracinated "holy men." On one occasion, during a spell when Catholics were persecuted, he was in hiding in Ethiopia, "surrounding ourselves with brambles in order to avoid attacks by thieves and wild animals, since the land had an abundance of both." It was Lent and he wanted little food, but to get wheat for mass and lamb for Easter he treated a farmer's asthma in exchange. With difficulty, he persuaded his patient that an emetic would do no good. "Although there was a dearth of many of the things that could be of use to him, there was one item in abundance and very much available, namely, syrup of goat's urine taken in the morning on an empty stomach...which could not fail to bring him the desired result." Lobo never found out whether the remedy worked: "I only know the payments did not continue." Modern Western practice in healthy eating is in Lobo's tradition, because, instead of privileging rarities, it ranks commonplace foods and entire diets and "styles" of eating in order of healthiness.
Among all such schemes, vegetarianism has the longest-standing claims and the most prestigious adherents to back it. All-vegetable diets have received endorsements, since antiquity, among sages convinced of the improving effects of all kinds of austerity, and among critics of human arrogance which claims dominion over beasts. These two strands came together in the plea Plutarch attributed to a potential dish, "Kill to eat if you must or will, but do not slay me that you may feed luxuriously." In the past, however, outside utopian fiction, despite persuasive advocates, vegetarianism captured whole societies or whole religious traditions only as part of a system of taboos, recommended by religious sanctions. Pythagoras and the Buddha were credited by early followers with vegetarian messages, but they were also believers in the transmigration of souls: all meat-eating might be cannibalism and parricide in a world where "the soul of my grandam might haply inhabit a bird." Now, in the modern, secular West, vegetarianism is recommended by a different kind of magic as a means to health (though never entirely without concomitant appeals to morality and, increasingly, to ecological anxiety).
The contemporary vegetarian movement can be traced back to specific origins in the late eighteenth century. Its sources of inspiration were, in part, traditional: the cumulative effect of classical and medieval vegetarian tracts, disseminated by an increasingly active press, and reflected in the gradually accelerating output by vegetarian writers in Europe in the previous two centuries. But it thrived because of new contexts which sustained it.