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Near a Thousand Tables by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto


Rachel Perlow
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I am posting this on behalf of Yvonne Johnson and Priscilla, who will be leading the discussion of our first selection. In another thread they suggested starting an eGullet book club. It was decided that Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (published by The Free Press in June 2002) would be the first book discussed. If it is not available in at your local library, here is a link to buy the book on Amazon.

To give everyone interested time to get a copy of the book, the discussion will begin on November 25th, and will be dealing with about one chapter per week. Please contain all discussion about this book to this one thread.

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Thanks Rachel for bringing the topic up to the Media section. I think a book discussion could be a lot of fun. I don't mind helping lead the discussion, in the sense of helping kick it off, though I hadn't envisaged the thread needing leaders in the sense of directing the discussion. Here's hoping people will join in as spontaneously as possible, and that the discussion will be free-flowing.

The other day I came across some biographical information on the author

http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/staff/biogra...dez-armesto.htm

and a review of the book

http://www.manhattan.lib.ks.us/bookreview.html

(scroll down)

An article written by the author:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...,791966,00.html

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OK. Received my copy yesterday, a little surprise at the P.O., because I did not get one of those as-per-usual shipping notification e-mails from Amazon priorly.

Commencing reading right quick here.

How are we all finding it?

Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ●  Twitter    Instagram

 

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I've started reading, but my other half has started reading it too, and who knows where he put it down.

I'm wondering if all those who stated an interest in the book discussion idea in the earlier thread have received copies of the book? We're going to start this scintillating discussion on Monday.

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Any thoughts on the book?

____

For those who don't have it, but would like to join in here's a brief summary of Chapter 1. The invention of cooking

The chapter looks at one of eight revolutions that Fernandez-Armesto (F-M) identifies in the history of food. These aren’t in a linear order, they are more overlapping themes, and he assigns one chapter to each one.

Some of his arguments in the first chapter include:

When we eat raw food, e.g., oysters, the experience is a “throwback to a precivilized world and even to a prehuman phase of evolution” (3), a time before we cooked. He suggests we are now embarrassed by raw food and to cover up its rawness, we make it elaborate (e.g., steak tartare, sashimi)

“Culture begins when the raw gets cooked” (4). What makes humans separate from the rest of nature is cooking (not language, consciousness, use of tools). There are many ways of changing food, e.g., wind-drying, hanging, marinading, fermentation, but according to F-M, it was cooking—strong evidence of which goes back only 150,000 years-that had a huge effect on society because cooking brought people together around a fire, created regular patterns of mealtimes and social interactions and rituals as well as divisions in labor were enhanced.

Cooking was probably invented by accident.

Advantages in cooking: makes meat mess fibrous, more digestible, kills poisons and worms.

Modern day eating with the invention of the microwave allows family members to eat at different times and in isolation. F-A laments the loss of communal family meal times and doesn’t have much time for meals on the run.

There are many examples of cooking practices in many cultures—Japan, Hindu society—too many to list.

____

I have a problem with his basic premise that cooking made us social. I'll leave my thoughts for now. Is there anyone else out there?

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I'm still mid-chapter, but one thing surprises me. As he speaks about all the early methods of cooking, it seems that the matter of taste and flavor, and improving the taste and flavor, is already of major importance. IOW, even back then people didn't merely "eat to live." Somehow I'm very skeptical about this. Maybe I'm just reading it incorrectly. Maybe this is somehow connected to Yvonne's problem with the premise that cooking made us social? (I am skeptical about this as well.)

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I found that I'm enjoying the book much more than I thought I would; my first feeling about it was that he wouldn't know much about food and this would just be a miscellany of things he'd come across researching his Civilizations, but the preface and the first chapter have been full of delightful pieces of information.

(Yvonne, does his idea that cooking made us social beings come from Levi-Strauss at all? I've always thought I wanted to read his Introduction to a Science of Mythology, but never wanted to enough. Maybe I'll try this time.)

Several things I found very applicable to us food-obsessed people were:

"The great press baron Lord Northcliffe used to tell his journalists that four subjects could be relied on for abiding public interest: crime, love, money and food. Only the last of these is fundamental and universal. Crime is a minority interest, even in the worst-regulated societies. It is possible to imagine an economy without money and reproduction without love but not life without food. Food, moreover, has a good claim to be considered the world's most important subject. It is what matters most to most people for most of the time." (Preface, p. xi)

I know many people who have little interest in food and none in cooking. Their attitude toward my interest in food is very weird, and very condescending -- that I'm wasting my time in something they think is unimportant -- I should be writing, or making money or saving the world. (These same people are, of course, annoyed by my participation in egullet, which they think is a further magnification of a trivial interest.) So I was very charmed when I read the first paragraph of the preface. Food always matters.

On page 11 of Chapter 1, he writes: "When fire and food combined, however, an almost irresistible focus was created for communal life. Eating became social in a unique way: communal but uncollaborative. The enhanced value cooking imparts to food elevates it above nourishment and opens up new imaginative possibilities: meals can become sacrifical sharings, love feasts, ritual acts, occasions for the magical transformations wrought by fire -- one of which is the transformation of competitors into a community."

I'm not sure what he means by "communal but uncollaborative." I once worked with a woman from an extremely dysfunctional family where they never ate together. They just got their food from the kitchen and went off to eat alone. We worked together in an office at night. She only ate food from McDonalds. I started cooking food and bringing it to work to share with her. She actually liked my cooking, but wouldn't eat with me. She sat in a corner and ate with a napkin over her plate, pulling pieces of food out from under the napkin with her fork. This was so weird to me. She explained that she thought eating in front of other people was disgusting and that people should have stalls that they could go into to eat when they had to eat in a public place.

He also seems to be saying that cooking can be seen as an index of our humanity, and since I've always thought cooking is an art form (although transient, but then isn't music really?), I liked this idea.

Also, interesting notes on various innards (offal) being used as very early vessels in which to cook other parts of the animal, still seen today in all forms of sausage.

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i'm impressed with his etymology--i've learned the roots of "focus," "cannibal," and "cultivation." so far it's a great mix of anthropology and sociology, and history. every now and then i stop and read aloud a passage to my sociologist spouse, who claims that there's been lots written in the social sciences about the role of food sharing and the meaning of eating -- and they've long contended that societies have evolved around communal cooking fires.

he's heavily influenced by levi-strauss. i read a fascinating piece once about the cultivation of manioc among amazonian tribes. the manioc is the sole domain of the women, who sing songs to the goddess nuunqui as the plant, tend and harvest the tuber. she is their most sacred deity--"cultivation" indeed.

i've been struggling with the notion of vegetarianism for a while now; i appreciate the health and moral /ethical arguments that can be made in the west for a meatless diet, and yet as a traveler to the far corners of the earth [well, i hope] i know that meat is the most coveted of foods. i am enjoying reading about how the animal has been used to feed through the ages--stomachs and bladders used as cooking pots, etc.

my time is crunched right now but when i get back to work next week i'm eager to enter into an earnest discussion--thank you, priscilla and yvonne, for starting this.

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I know many people who have little interest in food and none in cooking.  Their attitude toward my interest in food is very weird, and very condescending -- that I'm wasting my time in something they think is unimportant -- I should be writing, or making money or saving the world.  (These same people are, of course, annoyed by my participation in egullet, which they think is a further magnification of a trivial interest.)  So I was very charmed when I read the first paragraph of the preface.  Food always matters.

amen to that. me too. and by the way, we ARE saving the world, one small meal at a time. :smile:

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Do the concepts of people gravitating to better tasting food and a more hospitable dining atmosphere really shock anyone? But is this charcateristic unique to humans? Cooking food aside, do animals prefer certain places to graze because of taste? And do they have preferences as to whom they graze or feed with? Do cows have grazing preferences?

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I, too, am finding the book enjoyable and very well written. I'm not sure that I have anything to say about it, though. I would have liked a separate bibliography and the inclusion of a time line to help place food developments into the larger historical context. The time line link below does not quite do it...

Food timeline

I have a feeling that there was a deliberate decision not to include a time line, not only because the times of so many developments sare either unknown or so wide as to be relatively meaningless, but also because the book is thematic rather than chronogical, but I would have found it interesting anyway.

The thematic structure of the book allpws for some very stimulating juxtapositions -- like cannibalism and vegetarianism being treated in the same chapter, on the meaning of eating.

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I question F-A's major point that cooking made humans social. Don't the facts that human infants have a long period of vulnerability and development offer a stronger case for socialization? The more humans collaborate in rearing children the more likelihood of success in numbers. This argument would not support his argument that humans are different than other animals for other species socialize and collaborate in rearing of young. F-A seems to be looking for something we do that other animals don't do to prove our social nature--why he focuses on cooking so much is a little puzzling to me. Or am I missing something? I imagine humans could've achieved just as much without cooking? (I'm not up on Levi Strauss at all. Wish I were.)

The last part of the first chapter on the microwave reads like a rant to me and the tone is very different to the the one he uses in the rest of chapter. Surely a cooker in previous generations offered family members the freedom to eat meals at different times. I don't think F-A can blame the microwave for the flexible current family life style.

I agree the anecdotes up to now have been very enjoyable, but I look forward to chapter 2 on cannibalism.. Maybe it'll have more meat.

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The discussion of raw food made me remember the threads on the California board about Roxanne's, the raw food restaurant in the Bay Area, where nothing is subjected to heat over 110 degrees f., although there does seem to be rather intensive technique and manipulation of the ingredients (I also think the no meat is served, is that right?) Raw foodists have whole theories about the health benefits gained from eating raw food, but as a diet it sounds rather dreary.

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You mean the times I spent in sleepaway camp cooking dinner in, and then sitting around, a campfire and doing things like singing songs or getting close to girls wasn't socialization? How can any group activity not be part of the socialization process, including doing group activities with children?

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I agree, Yvonne, the anti-microwave rant was discordant in tone, quite out of place, in fact, it seemed while reading. Hmmm...breezy? Hope not. Breeziness can be fatal.

(And I've got no love lost for microwaves, myself--don't use 'em, but neither do I villify those who do. Like Calvin Trillin said a long time ago, it's just that we like to eat while we're waiting for our food to cook.)

Chapter 2 has more cannibal citations than I could imagine being assembled in one place! Riveting, merely from the provocatively macabre subject matter. Flirting with breeziness, perhaps, but perhaps that is forgiveable when dealing with cannibalism in a post-Monty Python world.

More later.

Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ●  Twitter    Instagram

 

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why he focuses on cooking so much is a little puzzling to me.  Or am I missing something?  I imagine humans could've achieved just as much without cooking?

Why he focuses on cooking as the basis of socialization is because he chose to write a book on food history and imbuing the cooking of food with such great importance elevates his chosen subject matter and, by extension, himself.

It was the discovery of fire that may be at the heart of socialization. Many are needed to attend to a purposeful fire and one fire can provide heat and light to a group of people. Cooking, as he said, probably started accidentally when small animals, fruits and vegetables inadvertantly succumbed to a fire that may have been started by lightning or spontaneous combustion.

So, I would conclude, that its fire itself that brought about socialization. Cooking was merely a byproduct.

Edited by stefanyb (log)
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So, I would conclude, that its fire itself that brought about socialization. Cooking was merely a byproduct.

Isn't this a distinction without a difference? If you are willing to say that it was fire, isn't it really how people learned how to use and control fire that is at the heart of civilization and doesn't that gibe with his theory?

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So, I would conclude, that its fire itself that brought about socialization. Cooking was merely a byproduct.

Isn't this a distinction without a difference? If you are willing to say that it was fire, isn't it really how people learned how to use and control fire that is at the heart of civilization and doesn't that gibe with his theory?

I see a definite distinction.

The discovery of fire is so much more basic than the advent of cooking. It would be like saying that learning to skin animals was responsible for humans covering their bodies, not just learning to hunt in the first place. One is a whole limb on the developmental tree and the other is but a small branch. They may be related but not interchangeable. And, it changes the timeline as well. If socialization began with fire then it began way before the advent of cooking and makes attributing socialization of humans to cooking neither accurate nor logical.

Edited by stefanyb (log)
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Socialization couldn't possibly have begun with fire, unless running away from it was a group activity :wink:. Socialization in regards to fire could only have been a product of being able use a contained fire and figuring out how to use it as a source of energy. I can understand Armesto's point about cooking, but I would think that using a fire as a source of keeping warm precedes it's use for cooking. Cooking seems like it's a pretty sophisticated use of fire when keeping warm is a simple one.

For 50 bonus points, who made the first fire and was he cold or hungry or both?

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(I'm not up on Levi Strauss at all.  Wish I were.)

structural functionalism: based on the organic analogy, the way a society is structured enables it to function in a certain way--if this sounds like a tautology, it basically means that in order to succeed, the society must be structured in ways that allow it to advance: the young must be nurtured and educated, people must be fed and housed, clothed, etc.

ancient native americans were able to create sophisticated civilazations because of CORN: it provided enough protein and energy to allow them to accomplish other tasks beyond the gathering of adequate food.

chapter two: captain cook gets credit for being the first to eliminate scurvy aboard his expeditions. F-A forgot to mention that poor old cook ended being EATEN himself........

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the origins of salisbury steak, graham crackers, and compartmentalized cafeteria trays--this book is chock-ful of interesting and worthless trivia!! :raz: i can't put it down--thanks, gals, for starting this thread, and turning me on to such a great read.

i'm still in ch. 2, the meaning of eating. i can't speculate where he's going with this. what about "taste" as a social construct? in my experience as an esl teacher i've always been surpirsed by the distaste for certain foods among certain groups, e.g. vietnamese kids like tart candies, but not chocolate. i realize i'm generalizing, but i have seen patterns. i could argue that a fresh godiva praline is more delicious than a dried tamarind--am i right? what about the amazonian chicha? do they really like the way it tastes, or do they just drink it because they are hooked on the alcohol? or because they have to to stay alive?

capt cook trivia--he and his crew overstayed their welcome in hawaii--the natives began chasing the men down the beach--cook, being a captain, refused to run, and they caught him. later the crew waged an armed attack on the natives and sent the second in command, william bly, back to retrieve cook's body. the only part of him that remained was a buttock. when my husband told me this story i was puzzled--wouldn't the buttocks be tender and juicy, and therefore desirable, cuts? maybe they were saving the best for last?

as for the role of fire/cooking in the development of any society: think about what fire made possible--people could live in cold regions where they could not have survived before, they could make rotting meat edible, etc.

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Many animals are social -- ants, whales, deer, meercats and, most relevantly, non-human primates. It’s just another evolutionary strategy for propagating the genes. I think it’s a stretch to suggest that communal fire tending and cooking are the causes of socialization rather than its products.

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