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Empires of food. Feast, famine and the rise and fall of civilizations.

empires of foodBy Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas.

Random House, 2010

As I turn the last page of this amazing book I feel a swarm of ideas and concerns.

The book is written under the premise that the study of food is a vital part of the humanist curriculum. Couldn’t agree more.

The authors point time and time again that food isn’t about fashion, religion or preferences food is about survival for people and for civilizations.

This is so much more than a book with a fluent account of scientific and historical facts, I’d say that it is more of a companion with “whom” to explore the rise and fall of cultures that have been crushed by their own ambitions, lack of planning, learning and either caused or naturally occurring environmental catastrophes.

The formula to understand food begins with hunger, followed by the need to satisfy it now and in the future.

The next elements are: food production systems, trade and of course the politics of it. All of them ruled by the principle of scarcity and competitive advantage.

Full purses and full bellies don’t always come hand in hand and nature can only be forced to provide so much before going sterile. Nature does not care for our economic woes.

Reading this book is like having coffee (or rather a big pot of coffee) with a nerdy party. The revision of the history of food production is divided in three parts and nine chapters.

The narrative structure intermittently follows the life of Francesco Carletti (1573-1636) a Florentine merchant who’s life, adventures and misfortunes provide a canvas in which the authors pour a rich historical context that is constantly interrupted with up to date examples and comparisons to our modern concerns.

The authors managed to maintain a dynamic dialogue in which the reader takes part as long as one’s able to keep up with the historical jumps and angles from which they dissect crucial aspects such as food security, food wars, environmental disequilibrium, the dangers of monocrops, water scarcity, food consumption trends, the morals and ethics of food production and consumption, famine and the blurry concepts of fair and organic.

Anyone with a hungry tummy should read this book. Being food literate is much more than reading labels, is about understanding the consequences of our choices and that hopefully every responsible consumer translates into a responsible family and then a community.

At the face of a troubled food production system one must decide between indifference, complaisance or nihilism… I take my chances with being hopeful and do my best to inspire others to make a change for good, even a tiny one and stick to it.

So go read this book and pass it on.

Again my gratitude to MrD.


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