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A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization.

A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, by Kenneth F. Kiple. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007. xvi, 368 pp. $27.00 US (cloth).

The latest in a veritable feast of recent scholarship on food history, this book condenses 10,000 years of humanity's relationship with this very basic necessity of life into a volume of just over 300 fascinating pages. Twenty-seven chapters, arranged in loose chronological fashion, describe our obsession with finding, producing, and securing food supplies from our days as a hunter-gatherer society to the present world of fast food, soaring obesity rates, and genetically modified foods. While the findings are hardly new, culled almost entirely from the author's edited two volume Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, 2000), they are effectively presented within an engaging framework.

The narrative is told through the context of "globalization," a word that for all its popularity over the past decade is too often vaguely understood and unexplored in even the most serious of studies. To his credit, Kiple does define the sense in which he uses the term: "a process of homogenization whereby the cuisines of the world have been increasingly untied from regional food production, and one that promises to make the foods of the world available to everyone in the world" (p. 1). He ably traces the diffusion of farming cultures throughout the world, describing the variety of methods, routes, and consequences. "The Columbian Exchange" and the Industrial Revolution rightfully garner much attention for their transformative effects on demography and the production, processing, and distribution of food.

Though there is much here to agree with, one stops short of a full endorsement over his notion of causality. Kiple believes that the most significant changes observed in the history of food are attributable to factors of economics and technological change, with much less import given to societal and cultural influences. Whereas there is no denying that the production and distribution of food is inseparable from worldwide market conditions and advances in agricultural, manufacturing, and transportation technology, what we eat and how we eat it are also inextricably guided by societal norms and cultural traditions. Granted that decreasing diversity of species over time means that more of the world's population will eat the same strain of wheat, for instance, but it is almost certainly the case that it will not be prepared or eaten the same way in Canada as it is in China or Chile. There are social and cultural dimensions to food history which Kiple does observe, but these food-ways assume a "winner takes all" approach which is ethnocentric and simplistic. The persistence of age-old worldwide culinary traditions prompts one to ask if the homogenization of tastes is truly inevitable. These traditions continue to exist because they hold meaning and purpose for people. As Kiple believes, food defines who we are.

While Kiple regularly serves up morsels of obscure information, such as the German War Office's Stockpiling of kola nuts in 1890 because of their supposed power in generating courage, the challenge of squeezing such a grand narrative into a conventionally sized volume brings some common problems. The inclusion of curious snippets may seem trivial when presented in brief treatments of major historic developments. For example, his three sentences on the use of clipper ships in the Chinese tea trade and the resulting sailing competition between the United States and Britain makes nothing of the revolution in oceanic transport of which they were a part. Shipping from the early modern era to the advent of the container ship physically enabled the greater movement of products and people around the world. Improvements in such areas as navigation, shipbuilding, defense, port facilities, and marine insurance led to more frequent and safer voyages, thus shrinking the globe and creating worldwide markets. Secondly, multiple chapters averaging eight to ten pages appear disjointed when further divided into subheadings, giving the book an encyclopedic feel. Chapter two is especially tedious in this manner, as Kiple runs through the domestication of thirteen different species in eleven pages.

Finally, the light treatment afforded most topics seriously distorts our appreciation of their overall significance in the story of food globalization. For instance, his treatment of the North Atlantic international cod fishery is shockingly deficient at one short paragraph of just three sentences. From the sixteenth century to the end of the twentieth century, the fishing industry operating in the waters stretching from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland south to Cape Cod was a monumental source of food for those living along the Atlantic littoral. It is estimated that an average of 250,000 metric tons of cod were shipped from Newfoundland to Europe each year since the late seventeenth century to satisfy the insatiable demand for fish that could not be met by yields from traditional fishing regions such as the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Bay of Biscay. Codfish sustained Europe's repopulation after decades of plague and its lowest grade became a staple for captives in the African slave trade. Such discussion is all the more warranted due to the late-twentieth-century collapse of fish stocks and the threats to other marine species and a way of life after centuries of extractive industry in this part of the world.

These reservations aside, Kiple must be congratulated for an informative and usually entertaining synthesis of ten millennia of food history. His expertise in the study of health and disease is apparent, and he is particularly strong when examining the relationship between food preparation, consumption patterns, and well-being. As food that was once thought exotic becomes the everyday, and food once considered out of season is found in every season, he believes there may well be positive and negative consequences for human health. Though his support for genetically modified foods as a potential cure for world hunger promises to be controversial amid contemporary calls for organic farming practices, Kiple's work will not be confused with either the immaterial or the everyday.

Michael F. Dove

University of Western Ontario
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Author:Dove, Michael F.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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