- A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization
Is it possible to write a world history of food without simply reinforcing master narratives of “civilization”? Many recent works (e.g., Tom Standage’s popular The History of the World in Six Glasses ) suggest that teleological just-so stories of progress and Western hegemony are difficult to avoid. Kenneth F. Kiple’s A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization makes a valiant, if imperfect, attempt to escape such traps. The book arises in part from Kiple’s mammoth undertaking as editor of The Cambridge World History of Food, and unlike Standage, Kiple brings erudition and (literally) encyclopedic knowledge to his study. His central argument, while simple, is provocative. “Until now,” he argues, “we have looked at the Neolithic Revolution as if it were something that happened a long time ago. From another angle, however, it is still ongoing—a process of agricultural evolution” (p. 296). For Kiple, globalization begins with the invention of agriculture, predating by several millennia more familiar transformations such as the Columbian Exchange. This longue durée approach runs throughout A Movable Feast; Kiple even challenges the idea that “fast food” is new, gesturing toward venerable traditions of street food in places such as Edo and Damascus.
Kiple’s study is replete with interesting anecdotes (although this is also one of A Movable Feast’s weaknesses: at times, it reads as little more than a list, albeit a fascinating one). He also makes a concerted effort to escape the Eurocentrism that mars so many global food histories. Asia and Africa play central roles in his story, and not just as [End Page 235] outliers: the Silk Road, for example, was a two-way street between the Yellow Sea and the Mediterranean, with winemaking traveling in one direction and noodles migrating in the other. However, in all too many cases his interpretive allegiances often seem to lie with the centers of “civilization.” The kumiss (fermented mare’s milk) of the Asian steppes was, in Kiple’s view, a “notorious Mongol libation,” and the fat-tailed sheep bred by Genghis Khan’s ancestors were “grotesque-looking” (p. 93). The Toltec empire collapsed because of “hoards [sic] of desperate Chicmec refugees” and “waves of wild desert folk” (p. 112), and the Aztec polity that followed is described as “an era of marching armies, war gods, and screaming captives sacrificed” to a “predatory empire” (p. 125). Even China falls prey to unnecessary bias; eggs buried with saltpeter and tea—a great delicacy—are characterized as “abominations in the eyes (and nostrils) of Westerners” (p. 23). Whether it is China or the Aztecs in the eyes of Europe, or the Mongols in the eyes of the Chinese and the Chicmecs in the eyes of the Toltecs, Kiple’s tendency is to write from the perspective of the more “civilized” society, reinforcing both hoary stereotypes and longstanding normative paradigms.
These biases and interpretive slips are especially apparent in A Movable Feast’s treatment of aboriginal peoples and societies based on hunting and gathering. Kiple notes that hunter-gatherers fared better in terms of physical well-being and equitable resource distribution than many sedentary agriculturalists; indeed, it was the latter whose lives were nasty, brutish, and short. Arguing such a claim is “blatantly heretical in light of the Western teleological spin given to the history of human progress” (p. 3), Kiple then succumbs to that same spin—indeed, his central argument about “agricultural evolution” is built upon it. Comparing indigenous North Americans to societies elsewhere, Kiple notes that aboriginal people “maintained their health . . . by not completing the transition from hunting and gathering—and such incompletion characterized most North American Native societies” (p. 122). This notion of indigenous societies as “incomplete” is both incorrect (many aboriginal North American peoples practiced agriculture) and reminiscent of outdated hierarchies. At times, Kiple even seems to blame indigenous peoples for their own “incompleteness” or for the dietary misfortunes of others: aboriginal South Americans “passed up a good source of protein” by not...