Eat raw, lean meat but avoid the llama milk

The Cambridge World History of Food

December 15, 2000

It takes a publisher with the resources, capability and vision of Cambridge University Press to embark on such a gargantuan, idiosyncratic project as The Cambridge World History of Food . This two-volume, boxed set has almost 3,500 pages, each filled with double columns of small print. By my calculations, the 171 essays and the brief dictionary of plant foods that constitute the pair of volumes, comprise just under 4 million words. And then there are the 260-plus pages dedicated to three indices: Latin names, names and subjects.

CUP knew what it was doing, however, as several years previously Kenneth Kiple had produced for them the monumental, but still financially successful, Cambridge World History of Human Disease , published to wide acclaim. The food project strives to meet the same standards as its forerunner and, so far as I can judge, comes very close to achieving that.

The two volumes are, between them, divided into eight parts, the first of which is dedicated to reconstructing and assessing the diets of ancestral and contemporary hunter-gatherers, the human mode of livelihood for 99 per cent of our history. The most surprising point here is that our palaeolithic predecessors nutritionally did quite well for themselves. Certainly, they were considerably better off than the sedentary folk who followed them. Indeed, some nutritionists and biological anthropologists think that the descendants of hunter-gatherers did not achieve the nutritional par set by their aboriginal ancestors until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the same with human stature: experts claim it is only in the past 100 years or so that humans have become as tall as their Stone Age originators.

The essays in part two cover the shift from foraging to farming, examining above all the incidence, form and consequences of the various Neolithic revolutions that occurred around the globe. One generalisation that can be made is that people gradually moved from gathering to growing, most likely because many large game animals were then disappearing, thanks to climate change and, very possibly, over-hunting. The conventional wisdom was that this shift facilitated population increase and, hence, the creation of towns and later cities.

In fact, it now appears to have occurred the other way round: an expanding population necessitated enlarged food resources within their own region and, for that reason, started to experiment with cultivation. The nutritional mistake so many peoples then made was to rely excessively on any one particular staple of the so-called "super-foods": rice, maize, manioc and wheat. Cultivation of any of these can sustain enormous numbers of people, but only at great cost to their wellbeing, as a diet over-reliant on a super-food does not provide the range of minerals, vitamins and protein needed for a healthy body. The super-food kept them alive, but not in an optimal state. The trouble was, increasing the concentration of people increased the chance of pooling and so transmitting disease. Crops and animals bringing people together might also become the root cause of something laying them all low.

People domesticated plants and animals, but were in turn domesticated by them. This process of "mutualism" emphasises the interdependence of sedentary populations and their sources of food supply. Turning a breed of savage animal into the meekest of the meek demanded, and most likely stimulated, a high degree of social organisation, while developing strains of plants that produced relatively high yields tied their cultivators to annual cycles of sequential tasks. Even today some people say they "are" the food they eat, so acknowledging just how profoundly the cultivation and consumption of a staple comes to control their way of life and to constitute the very fibre of their being.

Historically, the deliberate transportation of food plants has had as striking an impact on demographic patterns as domestication did. American slavers introduced maize, manioc, sweet potatoes, a novel strain of yam, peanuts and chillis to Africa to provide sufficient food for their human cargoes. These imports were so successful and so popular they ended up not just feeding the slaves but enabling more fruitful conditions to create lots more future slaves as well. The new foods had such a revolutionary impact that African populations exploiting them swelled fantastically. Slavers and their agents were only too ready to exploit the commercial possibilities of this surge in numbers.

The process was similar in Europe, though more gradual. The introduction of maize in southern Europe and of white potatoes throughout supported huge population increases. By the 19th century, populations became so engorged that millions of Europeans, like their enslaved predecessors, migrated to the home of the plant foods that had enabled the surplus of which they were a part.

The 50-plus chapters of part two are organised thematically, according to food groups. Thus there are sections (each of several chapters) on grains, roots and tubers, vegetable supplements, nuts, oils and foods from animal sources. Each entry shows where, how and by whom a particular plant or animal source of food was first domesticated, and how it was subsequently diffused around the globe. Part three consists of 13 chapters, each dedicated to a different dietary liquid: not just beer, wine and water, but kava, khat and kola nut as well. Part four is devoted to "The nutrients": one chapter on each of the vitamins and the key minerals, and the remainder to proteins, fats, and essential fatty acids. The second half concerns the flipside by looking at what can go wrong: deficiency diseases, food-related disorders, and chronic diseases associated with malnutrition.

In part five, the contributors examine the history and culture of food and drink in one region of the world after another, while those in part six investigate the interrelations between "History, nutrition and health": topics here include famine; food fads and aphrodisiacs. Part seven deals with "Contemporary food-related policy issues", for example food entitlements, food labelling and non-foods such as dietary supplements.

The closing part, eight, is a dictionary of the world's plant foods. Its key innovative feature is its compiler's concern to list (and to cross-reference) every synonym of a particular food plant. Thus seekers of colewort will be directed to cabbage, of colicroot to wild yam, and of sand leek to garlic. This exhaustive, cross-cutting style continues in the 200-page index, where every mention of a particular food is cited, under the entry for that food and under the entries for the particular countries where that food is important. The dovetailing enables any curious reader to trace the development of a food historically and geographically.

This history has great strengths. It is a true compendium of knowledge about food-related matters at the turn of the century. There is no doubt it will be a valuable work of reference for many, even providing a biologically based answer to the eternal question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It is also a storehouse of amazing facts, in the best mode of Ripley's Believe It or Not : rats fed exclusively on egg-white are dead within 17 days; an anthropologist who volunteered to eat like an Inuit for a year (two pounds of raw lean meat and half a pound of raw fat and nothing else daily) ended the period in better physical shape than he had started. And so on. Personally, my favourite information bites were: why llamas are not milked; why the 18th-century English were so keen to trade in turtle; and the Victorian suggestion (here revived) that animals were domesticated first for sacrificial rather than nutritional purposes. Finally, reading the chapter on kava only reinforces the realisation of just how blind Tony Blair was to ban its use in this country.

It would be very strange for a project of this size not to have its faults, blindspots and omissions. I was surprised how relatively few there were. First, the editors candidly admit that food in the West is given far greater coverage than is deserved in a history that claims to be global in scope. Their justification, that the West has been much more systematically studied than anywhere else will not, I am sure, mollify a certain section of their readers. The origin of the contributors is even more lop-sided: out of a total of 158, 122 are from the United States. Indeed, only ten are from outside the West. That disproportion becomes even worse when we take into account how much each contributor has written: several have contributed two essays, five have written or co-written three, and one seeming polymath has penned eight; none of these multiple contributors is non-western.

Second, despite their avowed concern with the cultural, the editors and their contributors are very often remarkably insensitive in their terms for and attitudes towards non-western peoples. Throughout the books (and even in their press release), peoples who lived or still live in small-scale, non-industrialised societies are referred to as "primitive", sometimes with inverted commas, often without. Inuit are called "Eskimos", even though they have spent much effort in recent decades trying to get rid of this derogatory epithet. In the chapter on "Social and cultural uses of food", a social anthropologist keeps on referring to "we" (understood in an exclusive manner), as though the readers for this history, with its claimed worldwide reach, would all be Euro-Americans. Perhaps the most surprising mistake comes in the dictionary, where Native Americans are referred to as "red men". My American sociology colleague down the corridor gasped on seeing this: she had not seen "red men" in an academic book for decades.

Third, given the truly interdisciplinary nature of this project, there is some inevitable overlap in the contents of different chapters. In fact, some pairs of chapters provide competing viewpoints on especially controversial topics, such as vegetarianism, and the historical relations between nutrition and the decline of mortality. This open-ended approach was an inspired idea of the editors, as it facilitates a richer understanding and prevents premature foreclosure of debate. However, one real disadvantage of this unrestricted style is that certain approaches may not receive the criticism or praise they deserve. For example, in several chapters the "ecological materialist" approach of Marvin Harris is mentioned uncritically, though his arguments have been questioned repeatedly on a factual basis and also for their essentially neo-colonialist stance.

At the same time, the revolutionary effect on the anthropology of food of Mary Douglas's structuralist approach is never mentioned. Yet, it is very hard these days, for instance, to talk seriously about the Jewish prohibition on eating pork without putting reference to Douglas up front. Difficult then, not to think that the chapter entitled "Food prejudices and taboos" is not all too revealingly named.

Fourth, as for the almost inevitable omissions, I was surprised not to see any chapter, sub-chapter section, or even index entry on pregnancy cravings; and shocked that the chapter on "Sugar" made no reference to Sidney Mintz's fundamental Sweetness and Power .

Finally, I have to ask, who is this 2kg boxed set aimed at? At the Oxford Food Symposium this year, where CUP set up a stall to pre-sell their product, the main reaction I overheard from British and American food historians and journalists was that the books were too big to handle, too heavy to sit on one's lap, and too expensive for an individual to afford. At this rate, the only customers for this history will be libraries and the odd rich academic. And when was the last time you met one of them?

Jeremy MacClancy is senior lecturer in anthropology, Oxford Brookes University.

The Cambridge World History of Food

Editor - Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Cone Ornelas
ISBN - 0 521 40216 6 (set)
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £95.00
Pages - 1,120 and 2,153

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