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Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food


by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
This book deals with how the way we obtain food has influenced the nature of our societies. He also deals with many popular myths about food, and how certain agricultural and food production advancements have profoundly influenced our modern cultures.
 How best to grasp food's place in history? Historian Felipe Fern├índez-Armesto's Near a Thousand Tables places its beginnings in cooking, a social act that forges culture (and is perhaps responsible for it), then pursues it as a series of "revolutions"--from the inception of cooking, herding, and agriculture to food industrialization and, finally, modern globalization. Informatively dense yet spry and aphoristic, the book explores food as rite and magic (it "binds those who believe, brands those who don't"); the domestication of animals (snails are the world's oldest "cattle"); farming and food's use as an index of rank ("greatness goes with greatness of girth"--or at least it did); food's role in trade and cultural exchange (Tex-Mex cooking as a form of colonial miscegenation); and as a force in and for industrialization (canning as the cooking of the Industrial Revolution). In the end, we are brought to "the loneliness of the fast food eater" and the "desocializing" effect of microwave cooking and other forms of modern food manipulation that alienate us from the communal act that "made" culture. "Food gives pleasure," Fern├índez-Armesto writes, and "can change the eater for better or worse." He concludes, "the role of the next revolution will be to subvert the last."

This is a fascinating book that shows us ourselves: like the cannibal, who eats his enemy to appropriate his power, we believe in food's transformative effect, which through devotion to vegetarianism and other special diets will make us "better." It paints a picture both sweeping and precise.
--Arthur Boehm,


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