Review: Food: A Cultural Culinary History, by Ken Albala

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

51o1TuD7cGL._SL500_[1].jpgProfessor Albala opens with the above quote from Brillat-Savarin, and goes on to prove the truth of it by exploring man’s relationship to his food throughout the millennia. This course of 36 half hour lectures covering everything from the food of the hunter-gatherers of the stone age, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance when trade brought exotic foods and spices to the table, to the age of expansionism and empire when trade empires were created, often on the backs of native people, and finally into the modern age where he discusses food trends, GMOs, nutrition, and counterculture food movements.

Professor Albala is an engaging speaker, so each lecture seems to fly by, and yet each is filled with information about how the availability of food changed human life over and over, beginning with the change from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian societies, a change that didn’t just have an impact on what we ate, but also on how hard we worked to get it, and on people’s roles in society.

He explains the importation of spices and non-native foods to Europe, and how they were costly and therefore exotic and destined only for the nobility.  And he explains how falling prices changed tastes, and changed what people spent their money on (tea and sugar.) He also discusses non-European societies and how their cuisines informed and were informed by trade and colonization.

Moving into the present, he explains the process of industrialization of the food chain, the rise of factory farms, and how counterculture food trends have been co-opted by big business.  He also does a very good chapter on GMOs, what they are, and why they both are and are not problematic.  In the end, Albala is upbeat about the future, discussing what he believes are probable changes for the better.  And it’s hard not to feel hopeful when he explains his ideas about why our food situation will improve.

This is another terrific course from The Great Courses, and one of the most informative and useful ones I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.  On the strength of it, I’m going to look for more from Professor Albala.


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