- Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat by Robert N. Spengler III
Of late, the adjective "granular" and its nominal partner in crime, "granularity," following a trendy decade of corporate and technology parlance in which they are used generally to signify "detailed" or "specific," has progressed into ubiquitous use in everyday journalism and scholarship. A "granular reading" thus bespeaks a close attention to detail, but one that tends to forget, in our digital high-definition world, the more irritable connotations of granularity. And grains can be irritating. There used to be a time when a certain graininess, as with photographs, was thought of as detrimental, preventing clarity and deeper knowledge because that very granularity obscured the details beneath a shield of ambiguity. That was the conceit of Antonioni's Blowup, in which a photographer thinks he may have inadvertently documented a murder, getting closer and closer to evidence as he blows up the photograph in his darkroom, and then veering away from that dogged pursuit by not only the disappearance of the material evidence, but by an anomic reluctance to pursue further. Looking away seemed preferable to looking closer at a certain point. Grains may contain infinite space, to borrow from Prince Hamlet's nutshell, for those things that are bounded within them; and they can also be irritants, to those "who have bad dreams" (Hamlet 2.2.273–275). The important thing, in all of these instances, may be the commitment to making all those grains cohere into meaning. Trends may come and go, but never has the word "granular" been more apposite for a book review than when used to describe Fruit from the Sands: the Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat. The "we" in the title refers to western Europeans, but the breathless ride across terrains and millennia that the book offers is for everyone.
Three introductory chapters and a concluding chapter provide a contextualizing narrative for the nine chapters that form the bulk of this book, declaring that the archeological botanical (archeobotanical) record will demonstrate how "we have reached this fever pitch of global communication, commerce, and resource distribution [and gained] the ability to reshape the ecosystems around [us] and even the climate of the earth itself" (p. 3). The book offers a corrective to impulses to claim certain ingredients, and, transitively, certain recipes (for example, apple pie) featuring those ingredients, as "belonging" exclusively to a single purported authentic regional and cultural identity. He writes: "your grandmother's apple pie is not the only food on your table to trace its roots back to Central Asia, nor the only one to travel the great Silk Road. Pistachios (Pistacia vera) originated in the foothills of southern Central Asia, and almonds (Prunus dulcis) and English walnuts (Juglans regia) [End Page 76] trace their lineages back to the foothills of southern Eurasia" (p. 7). What Spengler's book aims to reveal is how, from the viewpoint of the foods we consume, enmeshed we have been for centuries, and how even a word like "origin" is merely a question of how far back the archeological record is willing to let us peek.
Along the Silk Road, which Spengler defines "not as a road" but "as a cultural phenomenon of exchange and interaction starting in the third millennium BC and intensifying during the first millennium BC, as exchange and mobility (in various forms) turned Central Eurasia into a complex social arena" (p. 8), an abundant sensorium of goods moved, finding new lodgings and reproducing in their new environments. Spengler deftly pivots from the thriving bazaar markets of today's Samarkand and Kyrgyzstan to the orchards bearing the same products in the time of Alexander the Great in the fourth century, B.C. Along the way, he samples descriptions culled from historical texts, frequently written by people who were themselves borne along the Silk Road, which cannot help but take on an incantatory...