Here's my latest piece of book reviewing that just appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle - Friday, June 5, 2009:
EDIBLE HISTORY OF HUMANITY' Tom Standage (Walker; 269 pages; $26)
CATCHING FIRE, HOW COOKING MADE US HUMAN Richard Wrangham (Basic; 309 pages; $26.95)
When Alan Davidson published "The Oxford Companion to Food" just a decade ago, he wrote, "Food history is not recognized as a discrete subject for academic work." Well, a decade is a long time in academia and even more so in book publishing, and the table is now groaning under the weight of books that endlessly slice and dice the historical and cultural significance of food and eating.
To stand out in this all-you-can-eat buffet, you need a new angle, maybe even a cheap gimmick. Four years ago, Tom Standage came up with one and wrote "A History of the World in 6 Glasses." Now in "An Edible History of Humanity" he's attempting something with much less of an angle, looking at history as "a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food." This sounds like a subject of infinite scope, though the book clocks in at about 250 pages.
In it Standage covers such topics as the history of the spice trade, the invention of agriculture, the connections between sugar and slavery, the role of food during war, famine in Ireland, in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. This is all fine as far as it goes, but mostly it doesn't go very far. Given the vastness of any one of these topics, Standage's attempts at compression and synthesis are always likely to seem superficial.
I found myself far more engaged by the parts than the whole. I was delighted to learn, for example, that the ancient Romans considered lions, leopards and Indian eunuchs to be "spices" and that carrots were white or purple until 16th century Dutch horticulturalists bred new species in honor of William of Orange. I was also amazed to discover there are 1,400 seed banks in the world. The biggest and best is Norwegian and located in the Arctic Circle; the most vulnerable is in a freezer in the corner of a wooden shack in Malawi. I'd have preferred more of this and rather less waffle as when Standage writes, "That food has been such an important ingredient in world affairs might seem strange, but it would be far more surprising if it had not."
Standage's book aspires to a lofty overview. In "Catching Fire" Richard Wrangham, an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard, is aiming for nothing less than a new theory of human evolution. His hypothesis is that while we ate raw food we were bound to remain primitive. It was only with cooking, made possible by the harnessing of fire, that we became recognizably human.
Wrangham begins by effectively proving that eating raw food is time-consuming, inefficient and not especially healthy. If this annoys members of the raw-food movement, he'd be delighted, I think. An adult chimpanzee, he tells us, spends six hours a day chewing food. This has very high "digestive costs," meaning that large amounts of energy are used up simply in digestion. By cooking food we've already completed the first stage of the digestive process. The calories in cooked food are therefore extracted more easily, saving time and energy. And what did our ancestors do with that surplus time and energy? According to Wrangham they used it to evolve big brains.
He also asserts that cooking transformed social behavior. Cooking demanded a level of organization and cooperation that basic hunting and gathering didn't. The sharing of meals also had a "civilizing" effect. Only the calmer, more amenable neighbors got invited to dinner.
However, the lone cook was vulnerable and needed a protector; a husband, in other words. "The rule that domestic cooking is women's work is astonishingly consistent," Wrangham writes, and is usually assigned a very low value. This leads him, unhappily, to conclude that "cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority." Evolution, it seems, is no respecter of liberal niceties. Wrangham is willing both to accept and regret this inconvenient possibility, which is all part of his book's appeal.
Wrangham has a curious mind, in all the best senses. His range of references includes James Boswell, Mrs. Beeton and Mick Jagger. He recounts stories of lost adventurers who survived in the most inhospitable places as long as they could cook their food, others who starved when there was food but no way of cooking it. He tells of the Bonerif tribe of Indonesia in which single women were free to have sex with any man they chose, but the moment they cooked for him they were considered to be married. This is colorful stuff, and Wrangham obviously has an eye on a general readership, but he never talks down, and he's a trustworthy guide through some daunting intellectual terrain.
I think we'll have to leave it to Wrangham's fellow evolutionary anthropologists to decide just how valid his theory is, but to an interested layman his conclusion that "we humans are the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame," is thoroughly plausible. As new angles go, it's pretty much unbeatable.