Book Review: The Cambridge World History of Food

From the title, it might seem that this book should be an erudite companion to a kitchen shelf full of cookery books. But beware: it would have to be a strong shelf, this being a massive two-volume work.

The book’s approach is not always as mouth-watering for the general readers as its subject. It is a survey of what the world eats, long on history, nutrition and global comprehensiveness but short on anecdote and recipes.

With that caveat, the scholarship is fascinating. I did not know, for example, that Frederick the Great had ordered potatoes to be grown against famine. With a laudible openness of mind, he championed the cause of the tuber, with such success that Marie-Antoinette wore potato flowers in her hair.

Garlic, together with fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks and onions, was one of the deprivations for which the Israelites blamed Moses: they had eaten of them freely in Egypt.

Less familiar foodstuffs, such as dogs, insects and even algae , are covered in equal detail. There is extensive chemical and nutritional information. Despite the size of the book, the global range means that the food histories of individual countries must be short.

Fortunately the entry on the British Isles is excellent, if sometimes provocative: ‘Agriculture [in the 1950s] had become a highly sophisticated energy-intensive system for transforming one series of industrial products into another series of industrial products that just happened to be edible.’

The history of contemporary preoccupations such as slimming and vegetarianism are compelling, though British readers may find too many examples to be taken from the United States.