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Tom Standage: The ultimate foodie

The author looks at the evolution of food. It's history you can sink your teeth into.

June 18, 2009|Scott Timberg

Tom Standage is known for his 2005 book "A History of the World in 6 Glasses," which begins with the invention of beer in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and works up to the United States and its love of Coca-Cola.

His latest project, "An Edible History of Humanity," takes a similarly long view. Beginning with the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer culture to farming, the book considers early food surpluses (which encouraged specialization and hierarchy), the way curiosity about food spurred global exploration and the modern use of food in warfare and politics.

Standage, the business editor at the Economist, spoke to The Times from the magazine's offices in London.

How does "An Edible History" fit in with "A History of the World in 6 Glasses"?

I was on tour for the drinks book, and my wife said, "You're gonna do food next, right?"

The history of food is actually a much more serious story. The drinks book is quite frivolous: It says each era has a dominant drink, and each drink didn't do much more than reflect what is already going on. I'm not really saying that drinks changed the world.

There's a contrarian streak to this book: You argue that crops are less natural than we think, and you see contradictions in the locavore movement.

What I'm trying to do is take a level-headed view of our food culture, and some of that ends up not agreeing with the food fads of the moment.

They're rather like fundamentalist religions. The people who say we need only biotechnology, or only organic food, or only local food -- I don't think are right. The trick is to work out when we should use one and when the other.

Your book appears at a time when there are a lot of serious books about food.

I divide the other books into two categories: The kind that looks at a particular single food -- the fish or the potato -- and the kind that looks at a particular cuisine or eating custom. "How Southern cooking got to be the way it is"; there's also a very good history of curry.

But that's about how history has influenced food, and I'm more interested in how food has influenced history.

A lot of medieval and Renaissance history was driven by the spice route. How did it become so world-changing?

Mostly because it was mysterious: It was good marketing by the Arab middlemen. People knew spices came from far away, but they didn't really know where, so they could imagine they came from paradise, and there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the layout of the world. There were all these amazing stories about giant birds making their nests out of cinnamon, and having to make a full-body suit out of leather to harvest it.

Spices were also a great way to show how rich you were.

You call "the post-Columbian stirring of the global food pot" almost as important as the adoption of agriculture.

It certainly was as far as changing the ecosystem was concerned. If you're an alien, looking at the earth from space, you see this massive shift when farming was adopted, and it's the biggest environmental change in history. And then you see another massive shift as the kind of crops change, and things are transplanted all over the place.

And then you get a backlash against spices: As soon as the Europeans learn how to get these things at lower prices, they immediately lose interest. You get a switch to much simpler and plainer.

Which brings us to the present.

That's the funny thing. The food most venerated now, in the richest part of the richest country in the world: I'm going to San Francisco, so I'll be near Chez Panisse. And what are they serving? Basically the food of the Italian peasant. We're playing at being poor.

You could see the grow-your-own movement the same way. What are people who work in banking or law doing on the weekend to relax? They're farming. It's kind of bizarre. It's happened before in history, you know -- the Romans did the same thing. And Marie Antoinette liked to play at being a farming girl, a shepherdess. Both of those examples are at the height of the civilization, right before it collapses.

Is it fair to say that both the Roman and Soviet empires fell because of an inability to feed their people?

In the Roman case it's not clear: The Roman Empire had trouble maintaining the loyalty of the border troops.

But in the Soviet case, yes. Ideologically, the Soviets believed collectivizing anything made it better, including farming, and I completely disagree. If you say you're going to reward people no matter how hard they work, most of them won't work as hard. Furthermore, you take away most of the incentive to make things more productive. So in Russia they thought if you put small farms together you get more food, but actually you got less.

The Chinese made the same mistake on a much bigger scale, and the result was the biggest famine in history.

You've taken a long perspective on food and the human race. Does it leave you optimistic for the future?

Climate change will manifest itself for most people as a food problem. You won't be able to grow the crops you grow now in the places you grow them. There will be fights over agricultural land and so forth.

That said, I'm optimistic: If you look at history, every time there has been a crisis we thought we couldn't solve, technology has solved it. So I think with a combination of approaches we can sort this out.

This is the century where we face the crunch . . . a very interesting time to be alive.

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