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Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food

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Overview

In Near a Thousand Tables, acclaimed food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells the fascinating story of food as cultural as well as culinary history — a window on the history of mankind.
In this "appetizingly provocative" (Los Angeles Times) book, he guides readers through the eight great revolutions in the world history of food: the origins of cooking, which set humankind on a course apart from other species; the ritualization of eating, which brought magic and meaning into...

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Overview

In Near a Thousand Tables, acclaimed food historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto tells the fascinating story of food as cultural as well as culinary history — a window on the history of mankind.
In this "appetizingly provocative" (Los Angeles Times) book, he guides readers through the eight great revolutions in the world history of food: the origins of cooking, which set humankind on a course apart from other species; the ritualization of eating, which brought magic and meaning into people's relationship with what they ate; the inception of herding and the invention of agriculture, perhaps the two greatest revolutions of all; the rise of inequality, which led to the development of haute cuisine; the long-range trade in food which, practically alone, broke down cultural barriers; the ecological exchanges, which revolutionized the global distribution of plants and livestock; and, finally, the industrialization and globalization of mass-produced food.
From prehistoric snail "herding" to Roman banquets to Big Macs to genetically modified tomatoes, Near a Thousand Tables is a full-course meal of extraordinary narrative, brilliant insight, and fascinating explorations that will satisfy the hungriest of readers.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Food may be mankind's most popular subject, but its history is actually underreported. In this brilliant, scholarly work, Oxford professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto steps in to right the balance and offers a look at food through the lens of history.

Fernández-Armesto views the history of food as a series of revolutions, from the invention of cooking to the development of eating as ritual to food as a means of social differentiation. In most cultures, for example, the origin of cooking is traced to a divine gift, Promethean fire, or the luck of a culture hero. The very discovery of fire (and fire-based cooking) led people to abandon their solitary gnawing of bones and take up eating in groups around the hearth.

Similar connections abound throughout this history. From the raw to the cooked, from the chocolate riots of the 1600s to the ancient delicacy of snails, from the transition of foraging to farming to the culinary impact of imperialism, Near a Thousand Tables leaves no placemat unturned. Bon appétit! (Ginger Curwen)

From the Publisher
Rob Morse San Francisco Chronicle Fernández-Armesto picks apart the myths of food history with the delectation of a connoisseur picking apart a lobster.

Betty Fussell The New York Times Book Review Fernández-Armesto brings a humanity, civility, and excitement to serious food writing that may not have been seen since Brillat-Savarin.

The New York Times Highly provocative and entertaining...an erudite and surprising book with many eye-opening pleasures.

Publishers Weekly
For sheer volume of fascinating facts, this survey of gastronomic lore can't be beat. Fernyndez-Armesto (Millennium), a Professional Fellow at the University of London and member of the modern history faculty at Oxford, debunks popular myths, such as the idea that spices were needed in medieval times to disguise tainted meat and fish (in fact, fresh foods in the middle ages were fresher than today and healthier as well). He shows why the cultivation of rye, barley and wheat is one of the most spectacular achievements of humankind and informs readers that the whole grain cracker invented by Sylvester Graham was intended to impede sexual desire and promote abstinence. But the book is more then a litany of quirky tidbits; Fernyndez-Armesto charts how the evolution of human culture is directly connected to the way food is obtained. The logistics of agriculture and hunting have shaped notions of gender and community; food is often integral to concepts of the sacred in a society; and the loneliness of the fast food eater aided by such inventions as the microwave has become emblematic of contemporary society's fragmentation. Fernyndez-Armesto writes lucidly and conveys his enormous enthusiasm for his subject. While he draws upon the work of many historians and theorists including Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Claude LEvi-Strauss and Ferdinand Braudel his erudite analysis always engaging and accessible. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Noted historian Fern ndez-Armesto (Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years) has undertaken to provide us with a brief alternative to volumes like Alan Davidson's The Oxford Companion to Food and The Cambridge World History of Food. He proposes to "treat food history as a theme of world history to trace connections, at every stage, between the food of the past and the way we eat today." To cover this vast topic in a brief volume, the author has divided the subject into eight revolutions that range from the invention of cooking to industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries. This approach works well within each chapter but makes it difficult for the reader to put the events from different "revolutions" in order. Throughout the book, Fern ndez-Armesto makes no secret of his opinions and presents several surprising but well-supported arguments, such as microwave ovens are returning us to a presocial phase of evolution and "cannibals turn out to have a lot in common with vegans." His well-written, thought-provoking overview of food history is recommended for academic or special libraries where there is interest in food history. Mary Russell, New Hampshire State Lib., Concord Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Historian Fernandez-Armesto sinks his teeth into the role of food in human history. Countless books have been written on this subject, and it must be noted that the author doesn't have much new to say about it. Still, Fernandez-Armesto (History/Oxford Univ.; Civilizations, 2000, etc.) brings storytelling flair and encyclopedic learning to the task and turns in a highly readable if fact-dense survey. In his pages, for instance, the reader will learn that Captain James Cook, among his many other accomplishments, stole a page from the Dutch and introduced sauerkraut ("the only vegetable food which retains reasonable quantities of ascorbic acid in a pickled state") into the British naval diet, thereby nearly eliminating the risk of death by scurvy; that the general awfulness of Dutch cooking made Netherlanders "exceptionally responsive to the food of other cultures" (whence the good rijstafel and vindaloos of Amsterdam today); that Neolithic settlements in Greece made a robust business of snail farming, providing some of the first archaeological evidence of humans' herding and breeding animals for food rather than chasing them down in the wild; and that oysters, once considered food fit only for the lower classes, became prized only after they were scarce, while chickens, once eaten only by the well-to-do, lost their cachet when factory farming made chicken meat cheap and accessible. Dotted with anecdotes and trivia, the text also resounds with big themes that lend it substance. Cooking food, Fernandez-Armesto observes, is one of the few things people do that other animals do not, making it "at least as good as all the other candidates in an index of the humanity of humankind." And the questfor new foods is a powerful motor of history, leading to such signal episodes as the Colombian Exchange (by which coffee was introduced to the Americas, tomatoes to Italy, and peppers to India) and the current hubbub over genetic modification. All in all, a pleasure for foodies, and a satisfying read for students of world history as well.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743227407
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 9/2/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 741,255
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of the Modern History Faculty at Oxford University. He is the author of thirteen books, including Millenium: A History of the Last Thousand Years and Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 2: Dietetic Sorcery

Success in the treatment of scurvy reinforced the notion that food could be elevated, above its commonplace role as a nourisher, to the ranks of a healer. Food health became a quest in which rising science met abiding religion. It was both a pseudo-science and a mystic vocation: pseudo-scientific because of the new prestige of science in the nineteenth-century West; mystical because it was developed beyond evidence by visionaries who, in many cases, were religiously inspired: if food was the key to physical health, why not moral health, too? The ancient sages, who formulated character-forming taboos of abstinence and restraint, had nineteenth- and twentieth-century successors.

Traditionally, to command prestige, medicinal foods had to be rare and costly. Readily available remedies tend to work poorly, because patients are disinclined to believe in them; part of every affliction is mental and cures have to be psychologically convincing to register mental effects. The great Jesuit traveler of the seventeenth century, Jeronimo Lobo, admitted that he had no medical knowledge outside the handbook he carried with him; but he found that he was much valued for consultations wherever he went: this was the common experience of deracinated "holy men." On one occasion, during a spell when Catholics were persecuted, he was in hiding in Ethiopia, "surrounding ourselves with brambles in order to avoid attacks by thieves and wild animals, since the land had an abundance of both." It was Lent and he wanted little food, but to get wheat for mass and lamb for Easter he treated a farmer's asthma in exchange. With difficulty, he persuaded his patient that an emetic would do no good. "Although there was a dearth of many of the things that could be of use to him, there was one item in abundance and very much available, namely, syrup of goat's urine taken in the morning on an empty stomach...which could not fail to bring him the desired result." Lobo never found out whether the remedy worked: "I only know the payments did not continue." Modern Western practice in healthy eating is in Lobo's tradition, because, instead of privileging rarities, it ranks commonplace foods and entire diets and "styles" of eating in order of healthiness.

Among all such schemes, vegetarianism has the longest-standing claims and the most prestigious adherents to back it. All-vegetable diets have received endorsements, since antiquity, among sages convinced of the improving effects of all kinds of austerity, and among critics of human arrogance which claims dominion over beasts. These two strands came together in the plea Plutarch attributed to a potential dish, "Kill to eat if you must or will, but do not slay me that you may feed luxuriously." In the past, however, outside utopian fiction, despite persuasive advocates, vegetarianism captured whole societies or whole religious traditions only as part of a system of taboos, recommended by religious sanctions. Pythagoras and the Buddha were credited by early followers with vegetarian messages, but they were also believers in the transmigration of souls: all meat-eating might be cannibalism and parricide in a world where "the soul of my grandam might haply inhabit a bird." Now, in the modern, secular West, vegetarianism is recommended by a different kind of magic as a means to health (though never entirely without concomitant appeals to morality and, increasingly, to ecological anxiety).

The contemporary vegetarian movement can be traced back to specific origins in the late eighteenth century. Its sources of inspiration were, in part, traditional: the cumulative effect of classical and medieval vegetarian tracts, disseminated by an increasingly active press, and reflected in the gradually accelerating output by vegetarian writers in Europe in the previous two centuries. But it thrived because of new contexts which sustained it. Its beginnings are inseparable from the context of early Romanticism and the new sensibility toward the natural world evinced in the arts and letters of Europe and the New World at the time. It may not be fanciful, too, to locate it in the context of the rapid growth of Europe's population, which alerted economists to a genuine advantage of vegetable foods: they are cheaper to produce than edible livestock, which consumes disproportionate amounts of cereals. Adam Smith, who was a canny capitalist modestly susceptible to romanticism, omitted meat from his description of "the most plentiful, the most wholesome, the most invigorating diet."

Most other advocates of the new vegetarianism were more softhearted or less hardheaded. John Oswald was a sucker for bizarre and radical causes: a self-converted, self-proclaimed Hindu, who died fighting counterrevolutionaries in Jacobin France. His vegetarian tract, The Cry of Nature (1791), demanded inviolability for animal life. Critics were not slow to denounce "a wretch who would not kill a tiger but died unsated in his thirst for human blood!" The radical printer George Nicholson appealed to a classical topos: meatless "feasts of primeval innocence" in the presumed "golden age" which preceded competition between species. Flesh was "matter for corruption." Vegetarians who felt uneasy about the paganism or secularism of this classical imagery could turn to the Bible and find that God had summoned his chosen to lands of manna, milk and honey. The fact that the original manna was probably an insect secretion rather than a vegetable food was not yet known.

The early apostles of vegetarianism believed — or claimed they did — that food forms character. (A lot of food magic is sympathetic: in some cultures, women who tread rice grains must be bare-breasted because of the "ancient belief that the less they wear, the thinner the rice husks will be.") For early vegetarians, more than bodily health was at stake. Carnivores, insisted Joseph Ritson, in one of English vegetarianism's first sacred texts, An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty (1802), were cruel, choleric and bad-tempered. Meat eating led to robbery, sycophancy and tyranny. It encouraged the predatory instinct. Shelley became one of the most vociferous converts to this creed. "The slave trade," he claimed, "that abominable violation of the rights of nature, is, most probably, owing to the same cause; as well as a variety of violent acts, both national and personal, which are usually attributed to other motives." Meat food was the "root of all evil," and animal diet "the original and mortal sin," as if flesh grew on the tree of Eden. When man took to meat, "his vitals were devoured by the vulture of disease." If Napoleon had descended from "a race of vegetable-eaters" he would never have had "the inclination or the power to ascend the throne of the Bourbons." Shelley's friends were inclined to mock his vegetable appetite. Scythrop — the satirical shadow Thomas Love Peacock invented for him — was saved from suicide by the restorative effects of a boiled fowl and some madeira. Shelley's sister, however, shared the vegetarian creed. Frankenstein's monster refused the food of man and declined to "destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment."

Vegetarianism could never attain mass popularity on moral grounds — certainly not, in the nineteenth century, in competition with conventional religion. Good health, however, was salable in a way that good conduct could never be. Morality joined marketability in the whole wheat flour cult founded by a revivalist clergyman, Sylvester Graham, in the 1830s: his was the first American doctrine of global appeal since the Declaration of Independence. Graham was not just the "prophet of bran bread and pumpkins"; he was part of the bourgeois revolution in prudery, the revulsion the nineteenth century felt from the louche sexual habits of the preceding age. He believed that sex was not only immoral: it was unhealthy. Moreover, it was immoral most of the time but it was unhealthy all of the time, because sexual emissions were debilitating. Society was threatened by the indiscipline of an unrestrained sex drive. Consciousness of one's sexual organs was a sign of disease. Sex was paroxysm and orgasm resembled an attack of diarrhea. Graham agreed with the vegetarian warriors of the previous generation that flesh eaters were "despotic, vehement and impatient." An abstemious, vegetable diet would naturally cause and complement the minimal expenditure of semen, contributing to what Graham called a "physiology of subsistence."

At the same time he contrived to appeal to many wisps in the zeitgeist: anti-industrial rural romanticism; the idealism that called for the "return to the plough" and the reembodiment of Cincinnatus in American life. These blended in Graham's work with the rhetoric of "manifest destiny" and the economics of American imperialism, which looked to the settlement of the prairie and the conversion of the grasslands to wheatlands — an ambition that could only be fulfilled if there were a massive increase in cereal consumption. Sylvester Graham wanted it to happen in unfertilized, undebauched, virgin soil. His kind of bread, made from the whole wheat flour he formulated, would be baked lovingly at home by mothers. The unsuccessful part of his campaign was his effort to make Americans eat less: "Every individual," he declared, "should, as a general rule, restrain himself to the smallest quantity, which he finds from careful investigation and enlightened experience and observation, will fully meet the alimentary wants of the vital economy of his system — knowing that whatsoever is more than this is evil." That message was ignored. America was and remained a land of overeaters. Graham's flour, however, found a huge niche in the booming food market. James Caleb Jackson (1814-95) made a fortune from marketing Graham products, including the first cold breakfast cereal, which he called Granula.

Graham inspired imitators: a sequence of low-protein fanatics whose homespun philosophy came to displace science and to dominate mainstream thinking on nutrition for a century. By the 1890s, idealists and charlatans were competing for the huge profits generated by the markup on patent cereal products. The result was the start of the "Corn Flake Crusades," which soon became a civil war, as writs flew to protect the copyright in rival products which were all suspiciously similar. J. H. Kellogg's first cereal pirated the name Granula. He was a typical mixture of moralism and materialism, capitalism and Christianity. He came from an Adventist background: his sect had long espoused low-protein principles similar to Graham's. Unlike most of the food gurus of the time, he had studied medicine and supplemented his religious impulse with scientific ambitions: he wanted to eliminate the hundreds of millions of bacteria which, he believed, meat introduced to the colon — exterminating them with yogurt or expelling them with roughage. Eventually, the adrenaline of the arena seemed to take him over and his main ambition became to outdo all the other breakfast cereals on the market.

In part, the likes of Kellogg communicated successfully with the public because they were great showmen, with evangelists' instincts for playing an audience, creating a congregation. In part, too, they relied on mediation by ill-educated, self-styled "experts" in the science of nutrition, which still lacked a professional structure and standards. Sallie Rorer was highly typical and highly influential. She had no qualifications for her job — indeed, no educational qualifications of any kind. She was suddenly elevated to the administration of the Philadelphia School of Cooking because she was the star pupil when the first principal unexpectedly resigned. "Two-thirds of all the intemperance in the land," she believed, was due to "unscientific feeding." As a teacher she was charismatic, as a lecturer, magnetic, and she rose to be the acknowledged "Queen of the Kitchen" in the 1890s. Her demonstrations impressed audiences, if not with her food, with the radiance of the silks she wore to show that cooking could be clean. She was also a robust emotional bully. She tyrannized her biddable husband into the role of amanuensis for her cookbooks. She made her rich pupils clean their own utensils. Like many kitchen apostles she claimed to be a self-cured dyspeptic. Her claim to promote a "science" of "educated cooking" was sustained despite her collusion with advertisers and her endorsements of indifferent products, including proprietary cottonseed oil and corn flour. But she promoted good culinary causes: modest rates of consumption, salad every day, diets individually tailored to the needs of the sick.

Like all self-made nutritionists she had her bêtes noires: mustard and pickles should be banned, puddings avoided and the use of vinegar minimized: "If salt and vinegar will eat away copper, what must it do to the delicate mucus lining of the stomach?" She eschewed pork and veal on the grounds that they "took five hours to digest" and was proud of never eating fried food. "Banish the frying pan and there will not be much sickness either in city or country." Her early prescriptions for breakfasts were heartily in the American tradition but she later developed the theory that "stomach mucus" accumulated overnight and should not be disturbed by more than a little fruit, milky coffee or patent cereal. This was the only matter on which she ever admitted changing her mind. All but contagious disease could be eliminated by a healthy regimen.

Above all, one should eat to live, not live to eat. "Every pound of flesh more than necessary," she wrote, "is a pound of disease." To eat three meals a day was "unrefined." Rorer advocated smaller, simple, dainty meals for the urban age. She disguised meanness as "daintiness." Like so many dietitians, she did not really like food. She excoriated waste, recycled leftovers. The day's routine should begin, she said, by salvaging the leftovers the maid might throw away. A sortie into the larder might produce some strips of suet, the tough trimmings from the breakfast steak, stale cheese, stale bread, cream gone sour, a boiled potato, some celery leaves and a cupful each of leftover fish and peas. She pureed the peas and celery for soup, combined the cheese and bread in a savory rarebit, minced the beef, rendered the suet, put the sour cream into gingerbread, creamed the fish and piped the potato around it.

Rorer and Kellogg both fell under the spell of the most showmanlike of all the health food crusaders of the fin de siècle. Horace Fletcher was an obsessive in the tradition of Sylvester Graham. He advocated low protein intake with the same passion but in a more secular vein, stressing always his scientific claims, which were bogus, and the priority of bodily health — the one good about which everyone agreed in America's contentious and plural society. He took one of the shibboleths of the Victorian nursery — food should be chewed — and turned it into a creed. From his palazzo in Venice he urged eaters to masticate until food loses its taste. Liquids should be swished around in one's mouth for at least thirty seconds before swallowing. Most of what he represented as "pure" laboratory science was opinionated nonsense. He insisted, for instance, that "digestion took place in the rear of the mouth." By adopting Fletcher's methods, his doctor claimed to have cured his own "gout, incapacitating headaches, frequent colds, boils on the neck and acne, chronic eczema of the toes...frequent acid dyspepsia" and loss of interest "in my life and work": the typical testimonial of a barker at a medicine show. But despite what he claimed was his stunningly low protein intake of forty-five grams a day, Fletcher astonished all observers by his extraordinary physical prowess, which, when he was fifty-five years old, rivaled that of Yale University oarsmen and West Point cadets in trials of strength. It should be said that Fletcher left out of account the copious amounts of chocolate he ate between meals.

Thanks in part to Fletcher's fame, the claims of the low-protein cult began to be investigated by intrigued scientists in the early years of the twentieth century. Russel H. Chittenden of Yale was converted to Fletcherism and became a zealous apostle for eating less. Although Fletcher died of a heart attack aged sixty-eight, Chittenden lived to eighty-seven, while Kellogg died at ninety-one. The balance of scientific opinion, however, continued to uphold protein. This is not surprising, as one of the few verifiable laws of dietetics is that the experts always disagree. Protein had, moreover, a respectable tradition on its side. The first really serious program of systematic inquiry into the problems of nutrition had been launched in the 1830s by one of the outstanding heroes of the history of food science, Baron Justus von Liebig: his classification of the nutritional components of foods into carbohydrates, proteins and fats was the basis of all further work on the subject. He boiled, pressed, infused and pulped meat in a search for a purified form of protein. The work suggests an alchemist intent on a transmutation or perhaps, more justly, a refiner purifying ore. He admired the nutritional qualities of fat, which, "by the quantity of carbon it contains, stands nearest to coal. We heat our body, exactly as we heat a stove, with a fuel which, containing the same elements as wood and coal, differs essentially, however, from the latter substances, by being soluble in the juices of the body." Meat "contains the nutritive constituents of plants, stored up in concentrated form." This notion was not original to Liebig: he set out to prove a commonly held fallacy, well expressed many times over in the 1820s by the first great amateur of food science, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Envying an English party's roast mutton at an inn, that irrepressible gourmet, by his own account, "inflicted a dozen deep wounds on the forbidden joint, so that its juices should escape down to the last drop" and then scrambled a dozen eggs in the gravy. "There we made a feast of them, laughing uproariously to think that we were in fact swallowing all the substance of the mutton, leaving our English friends to chew the residue."

Liebig's was an enterprise typical of an age which tried to reduce everything to science: at about the same time, Constable claimed that painting was science; Laplace convinced readers that love was mere chemistry; Darwin conceived the notion that aesthetics and morals were produced by biological processes. Food, like most of what is worthwhile in life, is intractable to such reductionism. Meat products in fact gain no nutritional value by "extraction"; but rival firms vied to improve on Liebig's efforts. Meat extract wars, comparable to the corn flake crusades, followed in the 1870s (below, p. 200-201). Diets high in protein, or consecrated to meat, were propounded as vigorously as those of the vegetarians and Fletcherites. The most eloquent spokesman was James H. Salisbury, author of The Relation of Alimentation and Disease (1888). He was an adept of what he called "nerve force" and an exponent of hot-water libations to "wash out the digestive organs like an old vinegar-barrel." His experiments on himself — subsisting on an exclusive diet of one kind of food after another — left him with a revulsion of vegetables. Baked beans and oatmeal had tortured him with flatulence. Too many greens caused "vegetable dyspepsia" or chronic diarrhea. They filled

the stomach with carbonic acid gas, sugar, alcohol, acid and alcoholic and acid yeast plants. These products of fermentation soon begin to paralyze the follicles and muscular walls of the stomach, so that it becomes flabby and baggy, and will hold an unusual amount of trashy foods and fluids. The organ has been turned into a veritable sour "yeast pot."

Vegetables, Salisbury thought, should be forbidden to invalids and strictly controlled for everybody else. Man, he argued, is by nature "two-thirds carnivorous," with teeth and stomach designed by evolution to tear and digest meat. Starch, the staple of the cereal-mongers, was

the enemy of health....Eat the muscle pulp of lean beef made into cakes and broiled. This pulp should be as free as possible from connective or glue tissue, fat and cartilage....The pulp should not be pressed too firmly together before broiling or it will taste livery. Simply press it sufficiently to hold it together. Make the cakes from half an inch to an inch thick. Broil slowly and moderately well over a fire free from blaze and smoke. When cooked, put it on a hot plate and season to taste with butter, pepper and salt; also use either Worcestershire or Halford sauce, mustard, horseradish or lemon juice on the meat if desired.

This recipe, devised by Salisbury for consumptives but recommended for virtually every condition, was evidently the type or epitype of the "hamburger steak," which was then just beginning its career as the world's future favorite dish. Salisbury's theories are forgotten and almost every informed eater today would repudiate them. But their curse lives on in nearly 46,000 McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's restaurants worldwide.

In the early years of the twentieth century, as the debate over protein stalled and palled, "purity" became the new priority: dirt was one danger on which almost all dietitians were agreed. Hygienic preparation was part of the public image on which all the great early food giants of America — Heinz, Kellogg's, Franco-American — built their business. "Stacey's Forkdipt Chocolates were fork-dipped because 'the fork is cleaner than the hand'" and "Bishop's California Preserves were 'the only fruits in the world with a $1,000 purity guarantee on every jar.'" Yet the nutritionists' world was rife with corruption. Lack of niacin caused pellagra, one of the few deficiency diseases actually current in America when the vitamin craze took over after the First World War; but it was confined to urban black poor who lived off cornmeal and the connection was effectively suppressed until the 1930s. Until then, producers of quack remedies with impressive names — "Stream of Life," "Pellagracide" — defended their markets, while employers of the pellagra-prone blamed heredity, immorality, "bad blood": anything to justify low wages and unhealthy food doles. Elmer McCollum was one of the most influential nutritionists of all times. His experiments with rodents at Yale convinced the world that vitamin-rich foods were good for general health — promoting the big physiques habitually overvalued in America. He spent years decrying white bread's "deficiency in dietary factors." Yet when he joined General Mills as a consultant he appeared before a committee of Congress to denounce "the pernicious teachings of food faddists who have sought to make people afraid of white-flour bread." Dr. Harvey Wiley, campaigner against processed foods, became the health columnist of Good Housekeeping magazine and endorsed advertisers' mush, like Jell-O and Cream of Wheat. Appropriate industries proselytized for the coffee-and-donuts diet; a crash diet of fruit and raw vegetables was promoted by Californian fruit interests; the United Fruit Company backed the "bananas and skim milk" diet of the Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr. George Harrop. This became Americans' favorite, just ahead of the "Grapefruit-juice Diet."

Some of the dietary gurus were dazzled or self-deluded. Some were mere cranks. Some were charlatans. Among the breadlines of the early Depression and Dust Bowl, the overnourished of America were morally beleaguered. They wanted food to give them more than sustenance. This represented an opportunity for a new brand of grand-scale snake-oil hucksters. None was greater than Gayelord Hauser. With his advice, you could "gargle your fat away" at reducing parties. His laxative diet — one of many which imperiled dieters' health, tortured their bodies and flushed their guilt — was followed by the Duchess of Windsor. His "Be More Beautiful" diet was "a one-day house-cleaning regimen....You will be amazed at how the fat rolls off." Dr. William Hay, creator of "Fountain of Youth Salad," insisted on separating proteins from carbohydrates and both from what he called "alkalines": many people continue to be suckered by the scientific sound of his nostrums. Lewis Wolberg's language was typical of the exploitative nutritionists — pretentious, sententious, didactic:

Human eating is rich in tradition. It is cloaked in glamorous adornments, customs and taboos. It is disguised by convention and adorned with numerous social embellishments. These often corrupt nutritional efficiency and frequently lead to gastronomic sins....Civilized people live on foods which are pitifully devitalized and improperly balanced.

He opposed sauces, variety ("too much variety breeds gastric discontent") and midnight snacks. He recommended milk, mastication, bananas and the "splendid physiques" produced by the diets of "the pre-European Maori, the savage Samoan, the African native and the Greenland Eskimo." His scale of progress was phony and the assumptions on which it is based were false. He characterized those at the bottom of the scale as "tribes whose methods of food pursuit and cookery are reminiscent of the Stone Age." His description of such peoples, as far as I can judge, was fantastic in every particular:

At the bottom of the eating scale are the African Pygmies and the Brazilian forest men. The Pygmy subsists on an unadorned diet of fruits, nuts, insects, grubs, honey and shellfish. He eats his food raw and he frequently starves. Like his ancestor, the Eocene lemur-monkey-man, he is content to gather food in times of plenty without bothering to make provision for times of dearth. The Brazilian forest-man is a barbarous creature whose eating habits are disgusting and who, when hunger grips him, is wont to poke a stick into an ant hole in order to allow ants to crawl into his mouth.

In a climate dominated by nonsense, each scientific discovery passed instantly into the hands of shysters. Vitamins were the twentieth century's new obsession — the discovery which impacted on dietary doctrines in the Western world in the new century with a force similar to that exerted by proteins and carbohydrates in the nineteenth. The vitamin could almost be classed not as a discovery but an invention, postulated just before the First World War by scientists engaged in an alchemical quest for the "life principle" — the essential ingredient that made food sustain life. Rats fed on "pure," isolated carbohydrates, fats, proteins and minerals did not survive unless they were also given real food. Frederick Gowland Hopkins, the Cambridge professor who demonstrated that milk was such a food, called it an "accessory food factor." This was a better name than vitamins, which are not amines — hydrocarbon compounds produced by rotting. They are, however, vital, though not all are diet-dependent. Most people rely on sunlight for vitamin D and there is a vitamin called K which is synthesized by bacteria in the intestine.

Vitamins began as science and became a craze. Vitamin A — the retinol natural in offal, butter and animal fat — or beta-carotene, which abounds in carrots, had to be added to margarine, even though deficiency in it was virtually unknown in the countries which adopted the measure. In Britain and America, food processing which reduced the vitamins in comestibles became a focus of anxiety in the 1930s, even though there was no evidence that it caused diet-deficient disease. In 1939 the American Medical Association recommended reinjecting processed foods with enough nutrients to bring them up to their "high natural levels." Before the Second World War, America was swept by a craze for thiamin — the so-called "morale vitamin"; Dr. Russell Wilder declared that a policy of thiamin deprivation of subject peoples was "Hitler' secret weapon." Vice President Henry Wallace endorsed the jingle "What puts the sparkle in your eye, the spring in your step, the zip in your soul? The oomph vitamin." "Vitamins will win the war" was a slogan of the U.S. Food Agency. An army nutritionist claimed he could turn five thousand draftees into supermen — invincible shock troops — with vitamin pills. In the civilian world, cafeteria food was officially judged "poor" if it missed any two of the following: an eight-ounce glass of milk or equivalent, three quarters of a cup of a green or yellow vegetable, one "serving" of meat, cheese, fish or eggs, two slices of whole grain or vitamin-enriched bread, one pat of butter or vitamin-enriched fortified margarine, and four to five ounces of raw fresh fruit or vegetables. While servicemen supposedly learned about "balanced meals" from compartmentalized trays, the president of the American Dietetic Association believed the return of demobilized "apostles of good eating...would save the country's undernourished from themselves." "I've got my vitamins," sang Ethel Merman, "A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-I-I-I-I've still got my health so what do I care?" This appropriate satire was wasted on a public probably disposed to believe that vitamins F, G, H, if not known to exist, would surely be discovered.

War or the prospect of war stimulated and warped governments' appetites for nutritional research. Wartime efforts to get "food for children" had to be concealed under the slogan "Eat more food and kill more Japs." Healthy armies would guarantee victory. Sir Robert McCarrison, Britain's most influential nutritionist on the eve of the war, proved to his own satisfaction the advantages of "a perfectly constituted diet" by feeding it to "some dozens of healthy monkeys from the jungles of Madras." Those he deprived of vitamins and mineral elements developed conditions ranging from gastritis and ulcer to colitis and dysentery. Meanwhile, three or four years' nurture transformed slum children in Deptford from invalids "rickety and bronchitic...with adenoids and dental caries...[and] inflammatory states of eyes, nose, ears and throat" into specimens of the "well made child, with clean skin, alert, sociable, eager for life and new experiences." Four hundred tuberculosis sufferers' children at Papworth Settlement were made healthy by "adequate food." McCarrison's grand strategy was to "build an Al nation." Hence the medical profession's campaigns in the 1930s to "bring the nation's diet up to the optimum" with milk, butter, eggs and meat. This menu reflected the prejudices of another food Tartuffe, John Boyd Orr, who during colonial service was impressed by the Masai of Kenya, eaters of meat and drinkers of milk and blood, who towered over their high-fiber, low-fat Kikuyu neighbors.

The experience of war, when it came, seemed to belie all the dietary theory which preceded it. British fruit consumption went down by nearly 50 percent, though this was offset by potato eating, which rose by 45 percent, and consumption of vegetables, which rose by a third. Loss of meat and fish had to be made up by milk and cereals, unrefined flour products and vitamin additives. The result was a new nutritionists' craze — which endures to this day — for a wartime diet and, in particular, the elevation of coarse flour to the ranks of a panacea. Yet there may have been other explanations for the paradox of a war which was good for public health. Rationing redistributed food to the less well off, while mothers got more contact with health agencies. Children were evacuated out of heavily bombed slums to healthy, rural areas. Conditions in heavily bombed parts of postwar Germany were more extreme and therefore, perhaps, better fields for research. Nutritionists' experiments in Wuppertal established that the degree of refinement of flour made no difference: all children who got extra bread of any kind gained height and weight equally.

Copyright © 2002 by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface 

One

The Invention of Cooking

The First Revolution 

Two

The Meaning of Eating

Food as Rite and Magic 

Three

Breeding to Eat

The Herding Revolution: From "Collecting" Food to "Producing" It 

Four

The Edible Earth

Managing Plant Life for Food 

Five

Food and Rank

Inequality and the Rise of Haute Cuisine 

Six

The Edible Horizon

Food and the Long-Range Exchange of Culture 

Seven

Challenging Evolution

Food and Ecological Exchange 

Eight

Feeding the Giants

Food and Industrialization in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries  

Notes 

Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2003

    For anyone who loves to eat!

    This is a wonderful, entertaining read, covering everything from ancient foods, to the invention of the microwave to cannibalism. I highly recommend it for cooks, food connoisseurs and people who just love food!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 28, 2011

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