• An Edible History of Humanity

  • By: Tom Standage
  • Narrated by: George K. Wilson
  • Length: 10 hrs and 2 mins
  • 4.1 out of 5 stars (512 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Throughout history, food has acted as a catalyst of social change, political organization, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict, and economic expansion. An Edible History of Humanity is a pithy, entertaining account of how a series of changes---caused, enabled, or influenced by food---has helped to shape and transform societies around the world.
©2009 Tom Standage (P)2009 Tantor
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

What listeners say about An Edible History of Humanity

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Flawed, but worthwhile

Not a bad book, but not a great one either. Standage, an editor at The Economist, tells a story similar in outline to that of “A Splendid Exchange,” and both books fall far short of Jared Diamond’s comprehensive, scholarly “Guns, Germs and Steel.” Beginning from the observation that even a medieval farm would be incomprehensible to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, Standage discusses the domestication of the major staple grain crops (maize, wheat, rice); the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to pastoralism and sedentism before covering the role of spices in the ancient economy; the first and second green revolutions, with particular emphasis on how late 19th century developments in chemistry allowed for a vast increase in the global food supply through production of nitrogen-rich fertilizers; and how ready access to food (or lack thereof) affected combat strategies from the ancient world until the advent of mechanized warfare in the 20th century.

Some of these topics hang together better than others: the discussion of domesticated agricultural crops and farm animals as a form of biotechnology (albeit an ancient one) complements the later discussion of the interplay between technology and agriculture (sugar refining begat industrialization, which begat fertilizers, etc.) nicely. In contrast, some of the later sections on the spice trade as a spur to European global exploration, and especially the parts about food and war, seem more like a re-hash of standard historical surveys of the Age of Exploration and the Greatest Hits of European Colonialism, with some bits about food added as an afterthought. Why not talk about how coffee fueled the Enlightenment? Because the live-off-the land mobility of Alexander and Napoleon is just so much sexier. But then, why not talk about the Mongols? They pulled off conquests of much greater scope than Napoleon or Alexander; understanding how they stayed fed while conquering more technologically sophisticated cultures would be fascinating.

Finally, I think the whole narrative suffers from a Eurocentric historical perspective; part of this is understandable, since it was European expansionism that distributed new foodstuffs globally. Who can imagine Italian cooking or Irish suffering without New World crops like the tomato and the potato, respectively. But then why not tell some of those stories? Why is New World chocolate now grown in Africa, and refined in Europe? How did coffee from the shores of the Red Sea wind up growing in the highlands of South America? These would have made for more interesting case studies, that really highlight the global nature of trade in foodstuffs, than some of the material that is in the book. But overall, not a bad read.

19 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Interesting information, distracting accents

The information contained in this book is excellent, full and very interesting. I was disappointed with the frustrating narration and slightly stilted organization of the writing. Regardless of the minor writing style distractions and the major narration distractions, I would highly recommend the book.

I recently read Tom Standage's "History of the World in 6 Glasses." Similar to "An Edible History of Humanity," 6 glasses is a not-quite-chronological and broad-ranging history of the world focused on one aspect of humanity. Also similar to 6 glasses, Edible History is organized what feels like a 5 paragraph essay format or a textbook chapter. Standage starts with his general introduction to the chapter topic, fills it out with specific examples, interesting details and related stories or anecdotes. Unfortunately, he tends to then restate his "thesis" or the main chapter points before moving on to a related but separate topic which he introduces using similar phrasing to the previous topic introduction. I found this annoying at first (in both books) but was less bothered as the audiobook progressed (I skimmed the summaries in the 6 glasses book which I read instead of listening to).

The narrator's faults I had more trouble moving past. When the book began I thought I was listening to a filmstrip narration or an educational video being show during a particularly boring elementary school class. Later, when I had come to terms with the filmstrip-voice (though I never liked it), I was pained by the voices used by the narrator to distinguish quotes from various famous characters in the book. The Christopher Columbus voice was annoying, the Adam Smith voice was painful and the French pronunciation was painful to anyone who doesn't expect a nasal R in people and place names.

My frustrations with repetition and terrible narration aside, I enjoyed the book greatly. I was particularly pleased with some explanations on various topics that were more complete and more clear (except when spoken in French) than those I have read in previous books. I tend to devour a lot of this sort of book--idiosyncratic histories of specific topics--and I felt like this book was a complement to those I have read. On the few occasions when the author repeated information I already knew, he generally quickly related it to his topic of food and other ideas he had also been discussing.

Though the book suggests it will simply be a history of food, the author does an excellent job of integrating and incorporating politics, world events and individual experiences into his interpretation. I look forward to reading more of Tom Standage's work (hopefully with a different narrator).

There were a few remarkable specific areas where Standage improved upon my previous understanding of events or issues. Standage gave a much better explanation of the development of maize than I encountered in my previous reading (particularly Gavin Menzies' problematic 1421). I also was fascinated with the discussion of the health benefits of hunter-gather societies over agricultural ones and the explanation of why the nutritionally inferior agriculture took over and transformed the world.

Unfortunately I took notes for this book on my iPhone Audible App and the automatic spelling correction has replaced my note about something in 6000BCE in the near east with "bug blogs" I'm guessing they didn't have bug blogs in 6000BCE, so I'll have to go back and figure that out.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

A big heaping feast of history

An Edible History is a wide world history of food, agriculture, and society. Standage, who wrote the wonderful book "The Victorian Internet" about the rise and role of the telegraph, writes even more comprehensively about food and it's role in history. It's rich with detail and yet paints a broad picture of food, economics, and science across thousands of years and the entire globe. The audio production is crisp, even with the occasional strangely acted-accented quotation.

A high quality, well written work translated effectively for the audio format.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Not as good as "6 Glasses"

How could the performance have been better?

Narrator was not engaging and slow. I had to speed the reading up in order not fall asleep. The narrator for Standage's other book made the book come to life, this narrator did not.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

factual & entertaining

As a social history buff, I really enjoyed this factual, yet entertaining account of history as seen through food. It reminds me of Guns, Germs & Steel, another of my favs. Works as an audiobook as well.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Narrator is boring

Struggled to pay attention. I restarted it a few times. Eventually I had to give up.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Not as good as 6 Glasses

Material was fine. Nowhere near as good as 6 Glasses. Narrator was abysmal. Truly killed any enjoyment. I do NOT recommend. Thanks.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Dull

What disappointed you about An Edible History of Humanity?

The narrator was so monotone that I nearly fell asleep...while jogging.

What could Tom Standage have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

Had any inflection in his voice, or interest in the subject.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

He took a fairly interesting subject and read it like only the most boring college professor can.

What character would you cut from An Edible History of Humanity?

n/a

Any additional comments?

Though the subject matter seem interesting, this book ends up making it more like a dull botany class.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Flawed, but still worth a read

This book lacks the intellectual brilliance of Michael Pollan's work, and the reader is slow and ponderous. Still, there are a number of interesting historical perspectives on the history of food.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

Interesting, but nothing ground-breaking

This book had plenty of information regarding the affects of food on the history of the world. However, I found little ground-breaking or truly new information in it. The performance was good but the book itself was not very entertaining.

2 people found this helpful

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