Book Time: Empires of Food

A mutual friend put me in touch with Evan Fraser, co-author of Empires of Food, and I’m really glad that she did. Fraser sent a copy of the recently published book and I’ve been steadily enjoying it. And I’m not alone there.

To be honest, when I saw the subtitle “Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,” I was a bit nervous that the book would be a bit dry. But this tale of agricultural fragility is quite approachable. I was sucked in by the first line of the intro–”The two authors of this book have never gone hungry”–and pulled along from there.

The authors chose the adventures of 16th Century Italian trader Francesco Carletti as the narrative string, and his travel leads readers through chapter topics as diverse as water, dirt and ice. And to be sure, it’s a real accomplishment for authors to make dirt (or soil) interesting.

The chapter of most interest from a waste perspective is “Ice: Preserve Us.” In it, the authors detailed how food rots and historical ways to slow that process:

Bacteria brew in damp organic matter, so the goal of food preservation has always been to reduce the water in food, robbing the bacteria of a home…

An alternative to getting rid of the water is to perform a sort of molecular jujitsu with fermentation, using the bacteria for good. It’s not the path of least resistance in food processing, since it requires work, but it’s historically the most enjoyable.

We learn a fair amount about the role of ice in preservation, including the daring entrepreneur who shipped pond ice from New England to India–and got rich doing it.

From there, the chapter meanders into a discussion of how animals came to be consumed weeks after its slaughter. And how, amazingly, the accepted practice for 19th Century California growers was to ship their produce via train to East Coast markets where payment was based on the goods’ condition.

I wouldn’t advise reading Empires of Food specifically to learn about preservation or food waste in different civilizations. But I would recommend reading it.

And you might get to do so soon, as I’m giving away the book to anyone who’s a liker of the Wasted Food Facebook page by high noon on Friday.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to love this book. The whole thing sounds interesting, but even the small sections on preservation will be fun for me. I grew up on a sailboat with no refrigeration and a seldom used ice box. My parents were happy to make do with canned items (even bacon), grains and freeze dried fruits, but I wanted to know more about what we could do to make things last. Plus, I wanted a little variety (canned corned beef hash was everyone’s favorite and I hated it).

    I found an old cruising book by Lin and Larry Pardey and it included lots of information for people in our situation. We learned about coating eggs in vaseline, wrapping cheese in vinegar soaked cloth and a lot of other methods to make fresh food last on a voyage. I love this topic.

    By the way, last night my husband threw out half a bowl of popcorn that had been dressed in a lot of melted butter. Believe me…we are buying your book.

  2. Posted September 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Eggs coated with vaseline?? Sounds like a field day event–the vaseline egg spoon race. But it’s also fascinating.

    Food preservation is not a topic that excites most people, but it looks like we share this interest.

    So are you going to give my book to your husband to get him to stop throwing out popcorn?! (By the way, now I’m totally craving buttered popcorn.)

  3. Posted September 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Yes—I’ve tried hard to stop wasting food and will admit that in the past I was terrible. I started new diets by throwing away anything “not allowed” and sadly, this happened almost every Monday for years! :)

    These days I’m better and certainly more aware. While my husband agrees with the principles and “gets it”, he’s guilty of over ordering in restaurants and not eating the leftovers as well as this weird popcorn thing. He pops the same amount every single time…no matter how much he wants. It’s a strange habit-it has to be exact.

    Can’t wait to get the book!

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