vrijdag 10 februari 2012

Two books with three-word titles, both containing the words 'food' and 'history'

Recently I have read two books on the History of Food.

The first was 'Food in History' by Reay Tannahill. It was first published in 1973 but my Penguin is a revised edition of 1988. It's an easy read that deals with the origin of our food-sources, the history of national cuisines and the complexities and political issues civilizations from the Romans to the present have needed to overcome to feed itself. The first part deals with pre-agricultural food and seems very low on information content and maybe a bit outdated, the last part deals with food security in the language of the 1970ties. It's a good book to get a general picture of things (the history of Chinese cuisine in 3 pages, a few medieval recipes, the birth of modern cookbooks, the assimilation of corn in the European diet, etc etc) but it doesn't really nourish in the long run. 

The second book I read was 'History of Food' by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat. It was first published in French in 1974 and translated to English in 1992. It's a 700 page tome of small print that comes with endorsements by Raymond Blanc and H.G. Ballard. It solely deals with the history and cultural facets of individual food sources, it neglects non-European cuisines and is Franco-centric to a fault. I haven't actually read it because its is unreadable. This book is like a collection of Wikipedia pages on speed or like one of those Chinese encyclopaedias Borges wrote about. The matter is made worse by the fact that chapter-headings only provide a meagre indication of what the chapter will actually be about. This history of food is unsystematic to the point of randomness, but not in a good way. What I find especially annoying is that Toussaint-Samat makes grand claims about all sorts of things (the origin of language included) without any reference or source. This book is a waste of space.

The dictum is: never read one book. In this case it is followed with: two is not enough either and readers of this blog are encouraged to submit better books on the subject if they know any. Thank you!

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