Tuesday, March 31, 2009

STI: Eater's Digest

March 22, 2009

Eater's Digest

Food is integral to life, and the production, consumption and regulation of it has obsessed people through the ages as these food history books show.


Culture And Cuisine: A History Of Food And People (2nd Edition)

By Linda Civitello

2007/John Wiley/432 pages/paperback/

$70.57 with GST


You would think that this survey of food through the ages would be a dry academic read, given the serious tone of the title and implied ambition of the subtitle.


But Linda Civitello's book turns out to be a rollicking romp that is a winning combination of pop history and trivial pursuit. The book also smuggles in serious academic intent in the way it sets man's relationship with food in a broader socio-political context.


It helps that each chapter is broken down into snappy segments which are interspersed with useful information boxes that cover chronologies, recipes and assorted digressions about historical facts and figures.


Civitello's book is, inevitably, a little short in the Eastern food history department although she makes a valiant effort at including India, China and Japan in her global survey. While this is far from exhaustive, it is nonetheless an astonishing feat of accessible scholarship that lays out, in admirably compact fashion, how man's relationship with food has evolved through the ages.


Whether she is relating the creation of ghee (clarified butter) to the hot climate of India, or parsing the hellish intersection of the slave trade with agriculture and American cuisine, she tempers her intellectual curiosity with a light, lively narrative hand. The result is a must-read for everyone with a passing interest not just in food but in the history of mankind.


Swindled: From Poison Sweets To Counterfeit Coffee ? The Dark History Of The Food Cheats

By Bee Wilson

2008/John Murray/370 pages/hardcover/

$47.84 with GST


Author Bee Wilson has hit upon an engaging topic which still resonates today. After all, the world is still reeling from recent shocking scandals about melamine-tainted milk and antibiotic-infected pork products from China.


But Wilson's focus is much narrower - Victorian England and 20th-century America. One cannot quarrel with how scrupulously the author has done her research. She unearths quite fascinating nuggets about the age-old, three-way tug-of-war between food producers motivated by profit, food consumers demanding quality at a fair price, and food regulators driven by politics and practicality. I was tickled pink by one trivial tidbit that margarine was once dyed that bright shade in order to differentiate it from real butter.


Although the topic is a meaty one, Wilson stews over certain aspects for too long, resulting in bland pacing and stringy narrative. A stricter editorial hand would have helped, especially in the first half where talk of leaded boiled sweets and adulterated coffee goes on for far longer than is necessary.


But the pace picks up again in the last two chapters as Wilson delves, all too briefly, into more recent developments in detecting food fraud, such as the DNA testing of basmati rice, and cites ongoing battles against swindlers in Bangladesh and China. While the list of swindles she documents is horrifying, what is even more terrifying is the realisation at the end of this book that while technology has improved and food has become more available, the quality of food has not necessarily improved. This will make you re-examine everything you buy from a supermarket shelf.


Hamburger: A Global History

By Andrew F. Smith

2008/Reaktion Books/128 pages/

hardcover/US$10.85 from amazon.com


This compact history of the humble hamburger threatens at certain points to degenerate into a mere grocery list of facts and figures.


But for more careful readers, the recitation of such information can offer insights into the social and economic trends that have led to the popularisation of the beef patty sandwich and the globalisation of this dish. If you are on the hunt for detailed sociological and political analyses, however, you might be better off trying other books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.


Nonetheless, this succinct little book does manage to cover quite a lot of ground. Beginning with a personal anecdote about the author's own first encounters with the burger, the narrative dives into a linear account of the invention of the sandwich and the evolution of the burger into a convenience food with a million permutations consumed by billions around the world. Some of the most intriguing revelations are in the chapter on The Global Burger, which names the local variants, including a nod to the famed Ramly burger of Malaysia.


While enjoyable, this slim book reads more like an appetiser than a main course.



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