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Near a Thousand Tables by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto


Rachel Perlow
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I think it’s a stretch to suggest that communal fire tending and cooking are the causes of socialization rather than its products.

This is a good point but doesn't it hinge on how people discovered they could control fire? And wouldn't the most obvious reason to organize a society be for the purpose of using the energy from a fire? For example, wouldn't ensuring that a fire didn't go out, or that people had a fair chance to use it for warmth or cooking necessitate things like a code of conduct when one was around it? I'm not sure there is an answer to this question bhut, wouldn't most societal rules stem from a funny mix of shared and private property?

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I got the book right before Thanksgiving and have been enjoying it. The style is erudite and engaging, and I am impressed with the vocabulary! I have started a list of unfamiliar words. (I assume most of the e-Gullet smarty-pants who are reading this book already know them all, but I will post them if anyone else is infested! :raz: )

The parts about cannibalism and scurvy were a bit much for me. I am very pleased to be on to the third chapter. I find the discussion of the evolution of farming and its negative effects on humanity fascinating.

There is one thing I am curious about. This is the first book I have read on the history of food, and I am surprised that so many of the ideas put forth (e.g. the campfire and cooking as the start of society and the thing that separates humans from animals) are so theoretical. Many of the concepts are presented as fact, but they seem more like theories/opinions to me. He is also very fond of stating that other theories are wrong, but he rarely offers any evidence. I understand that there are no absolutes, as the developments being discussed are often prehistoric, but the tone still surprises me. In all, I am reading the book as one person's perspective, kind of like op-ed as opposed to the front page. Is this assessment accurate? How do others see it?

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Many of the concepts are presented as fact, but they seem more like theories/opinions to me.  He is also very fond of stating that other theories are wrong, but he rarely offers any evidence.  I understand that there are no absolutes, as the developments being discussed are often prehistoric, but the tone still surprises me.

I agree that he is rather manipulative. The book is enjoyable and enlightening anyway, but it is important to keep that fact in mind.

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And wouldn't the most obvious reason to organize a society be for the purpose of using the energy from a fire?

It’s believed that hominids (the family of animals to which man belongs) were, like other primates, social well before the discovery of fire*. There are some fairly obvious evolutionary advantages to living in groups. A group can better protect itself from predators and rival groups. There is an advantage in hunting game in groups (hominids became hunters a million years before they tamed fire). There might also be advantages in communal child rearing – allowing nursing mothers to go off and feed, for example. Communal child rearing could be even more important in modern(ish) humans where maturation is such a slow process.

However, the web site I referenced above suggests that the social structure of pre-fire hominids (homo habilis, for example) was similar to that of chimpanzees. More human-like social structures appeared with homo erectus who was also the first hominid to tame fire. This is suggestive but there were many other changes occurring around the same period – the planet became colder and the numbers of large game animals increased, for example. It’s also impossible to determine cause and effect. Did the use of fire cause social changes or did developing intelligence lead to both the use of fire and to social changes? I think the most we can say is that communal fire tending and cooking may have caused changes in existing social structures.

In doing a little web research, I realized that fire was first controlled by homo erectus about 1m years ago and not by homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) who only appeared 150,000 years ago. So F-A’s claim that there is something characteristically human about communal cooking can only be defended by taking a rather broad definition of ‘human’.

*This timeline has interesting information on how humans evolved with specific reference to diet.

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Many of the concepts are presented as fact, but they seem more like theories/opinions to me.  He is also very fond of stating that other theories are wrong, but he rarely offers any evidence.  I understand that there are no absolutes, as the developments being discussed are often prehistoric, but the tone still surprises me.  In all, I am reading the book as one person's perspective,  kind of like op-ed as opposed to the front page.  Is this assessment accurate?  How do others see it?

he frequently uses words like "nonsense" and "bogus" when he dismisses certain early "theories" about health and nutrition. i don't find his language offensive here--basically he is saying that certain therories were flat out wrong, not necessarily because they were unscientific but because they were silly [i.e. bordeline insane!]. and i don't think he's being unfair. salisbury believed we should live soley on hamburger patties!

if anything, i'm impressed by how right on many early food scientists and nutritionists were about the origins of health and illness. it's almost as if the physical body has its own tuition about what it needs. people like graham sound like anorexics to me. i'm surprised no one yet has latched on to the notion of socially constructed meanings of eating--why do we eat what we eat? it's a great question--i don't pretend to know how to answer it right off the bat!

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chapter 3

watched a program called "Bosnia Hotel" on worldlink last night, a documentary about samburu tribesmen who had served in bosnia as un peacekeepers. juxtaposed to the central theme was a ritual circumcision, rites of passage to manhood, warrior status, etc., i guess.

anyway the first event was slaughter by strangulation of two goats. the two boys participating in the rite had to kill the goat, slit a little pouch in it's throat--as the blood pooled in the flesh, they dipped their lips into it and sucked up the blood. loudly, slurpily.

it really sickened me. and yet.........

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stellabella,

First, thanks for the post a few back on Levi Strauss. I'm not really up on sociology and anthroplogy, but the functionalism reminded me of Merton(?).

I'm behind with my reading. Yikes, I've not finsihed chapter 2. Off to read, as I really want to discuss cannibalism. More later.

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"about his agrarianism critique--farming actually less efficient than hunting?"

haven't read his critique, but it isn't a new idea. some biologists and antropologists seem to think that mankind was forced into agriculture because of a population explosion due to religion's(?) forbidding the killing of surplus children. there seems to be some evidence supporting this theory as well as the idea that generally, hunters are better fed than primitive farmers. farming, though, has the advantage of more stability than hunting.

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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It is interesting linking repressive social developments with technical innovation. The development of empire in the spice trade & the role in the establishment of western europe's technical advance part funded by the triangular trade are dwelt on later.

And the dominant position of wheat even later carries implications for the social organisation around it's processing.

So the standard reading of people as vehicles for the transmission of ideas/syphilis/your favourite virus works also as the agents of grasses, with which we will carpet the earth and be enslaved by.

Edited by Gavin Jones (log)

Wilma squawks no more

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gavin & okra, you've summed up what i've read in ch. 3 so far. i am still confused--how did agriculture increase disease? it is because it concentrated populations? or was there something about having less meat in the diet that made humans more vulnerable? i'm confused about that.

okra, so, hunting cultures dealt with population increase by killing off extra kids? ritualistically? interesting. can you tell us more? i bet the missionaries flipped out :smile: to add a little anecdote to this, last march i visited miazal, an ecuadorian amazonian shuar village which is open to small groups of tourists, accessible only by light aircraft. there's an ancient belgian catholic priest living among this particular group of shuar. i can't remember his name but i did meet him briefly. he's been there since the 60s and now they say he's more shuar than catholic, but, well....anyway.

when i met him he was accompanied by his little adopted "daughter"--she was severely retarded, but a sweet loving little thing who hugged everyone and everything--i say she was severely retarded becasue she could not verbalize--she only made indistinct grunting noises, and she was very poorly coordinated--she could walk, but that was about it. the priest found her abandoned in the jungle. apparantly when she was born her parents knew she was "physically inferior" and they just put her out for the snakes and birds. of course my western sensibilities are slightly jarred by this, but then again, if you live in the jungle and scratch, hunt and forage for a living, do you have time to nurture a severely retarded child? :unsure:

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I found the scurvy symptoms in Chapter 2 fascinating and also macabre, which I think our author means for us to be flogged with--but more interesting was how quickly sufferers improved upon ingesting Vitamin C-rich foods. But, and I keep thinking this and it's keeping me from ripping through the book at my normal pace, why is this shoehorned in under the rubric The Meaning of Eating?

More later when I've got time and collected thoughts.

Priscilla

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

 

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stella,

as for killing disabled or surplus (twin!) infants: i simply can't remember my sources except that they are several, and except for one: an argentine anthropologist who told me that, among those doing field research in mixed hunter/gatherer/very primitive agrarian (basically wandering) tribes in the amazonas, it has for long been a known fact. and the only explanation for their living "in balance with nature"...he also told me that there has been some reluctance to reveal this, as it might lessen the sympathy for the "noble savages". apart from this, genocide - attacking and killing whole neighbour tribes - has played a role in keeping down the entire population, if canetti is to be trusted (i think he is).

fast growing populations paired with a primitive agriculture will result in a more stable society and, most important, a division into landowners, warriors and slaves/peasants. you can guess how the peasants and slaves fare. and archaeology suggests that the average height diminished with agriculture - increasing to the hunter level only as late as the 20th century. some studies tell us that hunters/gatherers only have to "work" 4 hours a day to live well. but then of course, they don't have doctors, hospitals etc.

part of this is surely in the grey zone of speculation. but at least it makes sense...

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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it didn't shock me to see for myself a child who had been abandoned. in fact, it made sense in a very odd way. the fact that the priest had adopted her was wonderful, and she's sweet little girl, but he couldn't adopt ten more, for example.

i find the premises in ch. 3 provocative, interesting and confusing all at once.

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  • 9 months later...

It only took me about a year to get to this book. Read the whole thing - lots of it has been written elsewhere - or so it seemed to me. It took some time to plow through.

It was a small tidbit that really took me by surprise - he wrote that the Italian tricolor (the flag) of red, white, and green, represents tomato, mozzarella, and avocado. I always thought it was basil.

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Thanks for dredging this up, tsquare. I didn't know this thread existed. I read this book about 4 months ago. I stumbled upon it when that dastardly Amazon posted one of those dastardly "people who bought this book also bought..." suggestions. I remember posting on some other thread at the time that there was at least a multi-page eGullet thread in each chapter. :laugh:

Now I will have to go back and reread the book and see what was discussed here in more detail. It is a fascinating subject and I found the treatment very interesting. I don't necessarily agree with every conclusion but he is thought provoking.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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  • 1 month later...

Fifi, have you read Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond? It offers a much more detailed (and fascinating) discussion of the rise of agriculture and animal domestication.

I also enjoyed Margaret Visser's The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Thanks for those tips. I haven't read them. They are now on my "to buy" list. :biggrin:

Too bad this thread never really go off the ground. I will have to go back and reread it. Maybe it will revive.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Fifi, have you read Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond?  It offers a much more detailed (and fascinating) discussion of the rise of agriculture and animal domestication.

I also enjoyed Margaret Visser's The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners.

Have you read Visser's other book, Much Depends on Dinner? It came out earlier and I thought it was better than Rituals, but perhaps that's just me.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detai...294512?v=glance

Edited by fresco (log)
Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"
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