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Food in Global History
Food in Global History. Edited by RAYMOND GREW. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000 . Pp. 304 . $30 (paper).
It is only common courtesy to begin a book review with praise and save the complaints for last, but I am uncommonly annoyed. This is a collection of articles with a lot of fascinating details and without--as you would expect of such as book--strong organization to guide the reader. It is much in need of an index. Just where is that interesting bit about meat consumption in Meiji Japan? Unless you made a note when you saw it last week, you'll spend an hour trying to find it. There is no index. I don't know whether to blame the editor or the publisher.
There are other sins of omission. In her article on "Circles of Growing and Eating" Professor Friedman refers several times to Colin Duncan's The Centrality of Agriculture: Between Humankind and the Rest of [End Page 197] Nature, for which she has high praise. I should probably read it myself. But it isn't in the references listed at the end of her article. This is the kind of error that anyone--a graduate student seeking to endear her or himself--could find and correct.
Other sins of commission include an excess of jargon. We used to scorn people of cultures other than our own. Now we file them under "Other" and go on our way as if we have done all that can be expected of us. They used to be "backward," now they are "other." There is on page 99 a sentence about Otherness that is fraught with meaning . . . or, better, fraught with fraught: "The core of ethnic food symbolism is that it inscribes the duality of otherness and identity on (in) the body." Gertrude Stein sometimes wrote that way.
We scholars aren't poets or mystics, but simple souls trying to understand and transmit to readers and students what we know or think we know about the past. We should be required to swear on Fowler's Modern English Usage to express ourselves as clearly as we can to as broad an audience as possible. Instead we whistle and twitter at each other in the high treetops.
There, I've blown off enough steam to go on to consider Food in Global History without chewing the rug any more. The collection is uneven--collections almost always are--and the subject, food in history, is as impossibly enormous as, say, politics and history. A book that stretches from hunter-gatherer diet to sixties-counterculture tastes is bound to sprawl. It might have helped to organize it in subdivisions specifically and immediately related to food: for instance, nutrition and demography, nutrition and disease, nutrition and ethnicity, but that may be another book entirely and it isn't fair to complain that Flaubert wrote about Madam Bovary and not about Ahab and the white whale.
There are some fine articles here. Mazumdar's "Impact of New World Food Crops on the Diet and Economy of China and India" considers a matter that may be as significant demographically as any in the last half millennium. Solomons' "Child Nutrition in Developing Countries" provides us with a corrective view of the alleged objectivity of science in a matter rife with confusion, ignorance, and political dynamite. His analysis of "the Undernutrition Paradigm"--"paradigm" is as tired as "Other," but let's go on--has lots of news for us in the First World. Among said news is the tale of the adventures of the Protein Gap in the Third World. It used to be the worst nutritional problem there. Now it isn't, not because there is more protein but because definitions and assessments have changed. Drewnowski's "Fat and Sugar in the Global Diet" persuades us to revise our view of the horrors [End Page 198] of those two quasi-addictive foods. Yes, it is true, as the popular press has been telling us for years, that...