Monday, September 17, 2018

Food fight! A mouthwatering history of who ate what and why through the ages by Tanya Steel

I'm going to be honest - I did not like this book. I expected to like it, I requested it to review, and I wanted to put it down within the first couple pages. Your mileage may vary.

After a quick list of safety tips, the book jumps into the history of food. The chapters cover the prehistoric era, ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, medieval times (England and a little Europe), Mongols and the Silk Road, Renaissance (Florence and a little Europe), American Revolution, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution (England), World War I (USA and a little England), Great Depression (USA), World War II (USA), the sixties (America), and a future imagined life on Mars.

Each chapter starts with a one and a half page "bite-size history" giving a general overview of the time period. The chapter also includes a number of features - A day in the life, featuring a common or lower-class person, Spicing things up, which has additional facts, Menus of the rich and famished, focusing on what the upper classes and wealthy people ate, Yucky habits of yore, and other statistics and factoids. Each chapter ends with two recipes adapted from the time period and a "Popcorny" quiz that reviews the chapter.

There are lots of photographs, cartoons, photoshopped animals waving spoons and wearing chef hats, quotes from kids who tried the recipes, and more. So what's not to like?

Well, did you notice the distribution of geographical areas covered? It's really a history of Western (primarily British) white people through the ages, not of the world. There are a lot of facts and information glossed over and left out, like the continents of Africa and South America for starters. There are only a few brief sentences mentioning the contributions of Native Americans and African slave labor to the food we eat today, not to mention Mexican influences. There's no mention at all of the Caribbean sugar trade and accompanying slave trade.

The chapter on the Great Depression doesn't mention African-Americans or Latinos at all and the opening cartoon shows a black man serving a white man and boy at a bread line. I'm.... really, really skeptical that would have happened? The review of Roosevelt's New Deal and how it revived the economy leaves out completely the fact that it mostly was open only to whites. The chapter on the sixties has space to mention the new trend of vegetarianism, but not a single mention of migrant crop workers and the work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

Finally, the "Yucky Habits of Yore" fact blips were blatantly prejudiced. The first one, in the prehistoric age, says "Early humans ate what was available, including insects! Mmm...cicadas?" Completely ignoring the fact that many cultures today eat bugs and insects, it's purely a cultural thing whether or not you find it gross, and implying that said cultures are primitive early humans is just... I have no words. In the chapter on the Mongols, this same section lists the following as yucky facts "In the 1230s, the Mongols built a fountain that spouted fermented mare's milk.; Mongol soldiers might drink their horses' blood or milk if they were thirsty.; The Mongols believed animals had to be killed in the shadows so the sun wouldn't see it happen. They didn't want the earth to know about the sacrifice either, so they made sure not to spill blood on the ground." The other "yucky habits" are things like the Romans cleaning plates with urine, colonial people pooping at the dinner table, or kids in factories having to eat dirt that got on their food. Hmm, interesting that the only cultural practises described as "gross" were those of non-white, non-Western peoples and ones that are still in use today.

This could have been interesting. The author had a lot of fun facts and National Geographic does a great layout. But it didn't live up the hype and the overlooking of major historical events, the experiences and contributions of non-white, non-westerners, and poking fun at other cultures was extremely off-putting.

Verdict: I don't recommend this book.

ISBN: 9781426331626; Published September 2018 by National Geographic; Review copy provided by the publisher

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