(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Historian and author Felipe Fernández-Armesto highlights the story of food as cultural history in eight revolutions. His eight chapters cover the invention of cooking, the ritual and magical meanings of eating, the domestication of livestock, the development of agriculture, the rise of haute cuisine, food and cultural exchange, the ecology of food production, and the industrialization of the food industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Everyone eats and everyone asks questions about food. What is for dinner? Where did this food first grow? Who learned to prepare it this way? Who markets this now? Answers to these questions are not found in organized records, so the task of researching food questions is left with historians who study journals, diaries, novels, political writings, and other ephemeral and incidental documents. This is what Fernández-Armesto has done. He has a talent for selecting interesting stories, individual anecdotes, and facts, adding his personal opinions and interpretations. Sometimes the presentation of facts seems disorganized, but nevertheless, enthusiasts of food history are in for a treat.

No one really knows what was the first natural food of humans, but Fernández-Armesto suggests the oyster. It is found throughout the world and is eaten raw and alive in its own little container. After gathering food, people began to alter it, by washing it, burying it to ferment, or drying it in the open air. Cooking food over the fire, however, was the first food revolution. People could change from eating food immediately after they gathered it to having predictable mealtimes and sharing responsibilities of food preparation. Food experiments began. The communal think tank could have introduced the ideas of using a skewer for small pieces of meat, wrapping food in leaves and fat, digging a pit and lining it with stones to hold food and protect it from the wind, and throwing water on those stones to produce steam. Containers would be useful if they could survive high temperatures. Perhaps the turtle shell, an animal skull, and baskets soaked in water and smeared with clay were tried.

When eating food became a social event, rituals and food magicians appeared; this was the second revolution. Fernández-Armesto gives an example from his research in Fiji, where people were warned that a certain fruit grown in a graveyard would bring mouth ulcers. One of the most emotionally charged food rituals is cannibalism, or anthropophagy. Reports from Christopher Columbus’s second transatlantic trip in 1493, Captain James Cook’s explorations in the South Seas between 1768 and 1779, and missionaries to Fiji confirm that the practice really existed. There are several explanations for cannibalism, ranging from desperation in protein-starved societies to a ritual among people who may have regarded their enemies as game animals. Some cannibals reported that they did not want the dead to rot, so they ate the flesh out of respect.

Self-made nutritionists are found in every culture and in every century and offer food for healing, nourishment, and moral health. These voices insist that food is medicine and suggest that people eat one food for a cool disposition, another for a slim figure, yet others to control or increase one’s lusts. Fernández-Armesto cites a recent author of Chinese diets who claims that sweet potatoes can cure both diarrhea and constipation. Some people eat a high protein diet, while others eat only vegetables. Food scientists, however, encourage dietary balance in people’s menus. Wars make people aware of how little control they have over what is available to eat. After wars, when food is in abundance again, food magicians reappear.

The third food revolution was hunting and herding animals to control their quantity and quality. The purpose of controlled stock breeding was mainly to increase food production, decrease waste, and feed more people. The snail may well have been the first cultivated animal, as evidenced by a huge pile of snail shells found in a cave dating from 10,000 b.c.e. It is not known whether stock breeding methods were developed by an intellectual process of experimentation or by trial and error. The management of reindeer in northern Europe is said to have existed three thousand years ago. The Incas selected the best deer from their hunt to release back to the wild to improve the next year’s hunt. Fernández-Armesto suggests that while it is currently trendy to credit ancient hunting people with ecological awareness, they often were guilty of...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)