The Gourmet Q + A: Tom Standage

tom standage

If you’ve ever found yourself dreaming about dinner while eating breakfast, you may consider food the driving force of your day, but author Tom Standage considers food the driving force of history. In his new book, An Edible History of Humanity, Standage, the business editor at the Economist, explains how food has been the impetus behind much of society’s transformation and organization, not to mention “geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion.” Sound improbable? Standage’s examples are pretty powerful: In his view of the world, the British lost the Revolutionary War in large part because they failed to provide adequate food for their troops; the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because the regime could not feed its people; and the reason we say someone is a family’s “breadwinner” is because of food’s practically ancient association with wealth. Over tea, English muffins, and jam at one of the restaurants inside the iconic London department store and food mecca Fortnum & Mason, writer Lynn Andriani spoke with Standage about the thinking behind his book.

Lynn Andriani: Your last book was a history of the world told through drinks. What made you want to explore it through food?

Tom Standage: When I would visit a museum and I’d see paintings, I’d think, “The people who made this—what were they drinking and eating?” The artifacts I was seeing had been used at events; people had eaten off of them and drunk from them. The guy who built this—he had to eat and drink something at the end of the day. So what was it?

LA: You begin with a discussion of corn. Why?

TS: [My young daughter] once remarked that she thought food came from the Internet. So we took her fruit-picking in Kent, to remind her that food comes from farms, not from our online grocer, Ocado. We also went in a “maize maze.” But I realized that the contrast I had expected to make to her—namely, that the Internet is man-made and artificial, whereas food in fields is natural—was wrong. The maize (or corn) was just as man-made as the Internet, in a way, because it was domesticated by humans. It doesn’t occur in nature and would not exist without human intervention. So I started to think of foods as man-made technologies. Maize and other staple crops provided the technological foundations of civilization.

LA: Take this strawberry jam that you’re eating. How is that a technology?

TS: In [England], farming started to become more productive in the 18th century. The output of food grew, but the population was growing as well, and eventually we ran out of land to grow food for everybody. We started relying on imports from the West Indian colonies, like sugar, which produces a lot of calories per acre. So in effect, we started to use the caloric output of the West Indian colonies to feed the workers in the factories in Britain.

Jam is part of this because in the 1870s, the import tariffs on sugar were taken away, and sugar became much cheaper. This was just the point where women were starting to go and work in factories as well, so they had less time to cook for their children. Using bread and jam became an easy way to prepare food quickly with high caloric value. You can give people jam sandwiches, and they get lots of calories quickly. You don’t have to cook anything, don’t have to heat anything, you can send them off to work with their sandwiches. So jam helped to fuel the industrial revolution.

LA: Okay, that explains how food affected the industrial revolution. Let’s look at how food can alter people’s social behaviors. For instance, what’s your take on the current trend of growing your own food?

TS: I find it a bit strange, this fetishization of growing your own food. People think it’s important that we don’t lose this connection with where our food comes from. But most of them couldn’t tell you how their computer worked, or fix their own car, or do plumbing. I can’t do any of those things, which is why I pay someone else to fix my car. It’s fine if you want to do it for exercise or you want to do it for fun. This is what Marie Antoinette did before the French Revolution. She was dressing up as a peasant girl and milking cows. (But of course the cows were very carefully cleaned so she wouldn’t have to see the mud!) The Romans did the same thing. The Romans loved the idea that they were at heart good, honest farmers, unlike the Greeks, who were doing their poetry and their philosophy and so on. The Romans knew how to grow grapes and that sort of thing. It’s rather like film directors and dot-com millionaires, how they own vineyards in California.

LA: That plays into the idea of food as a symbol of wealth. As you write, these days, “poverty is a lack of access to food; so wealth, by implication, means not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from.” How did we start associating food with wealth?

TS: Before agriculture, when people were hunter-gatherers, it made sense that they shared stuff. We didn’t all have to carry a knife. We could have one knife that we shared. One of us could carry a bow, and one of us could carry a net. As soon as you settled down, you could accumulate goods, because you didn’t have to carry everything everywhere.

Today, we see food as a symbol of wealth, in having the boss over for dinner or the business lunch, in the banquet where the hierarchy is very clear, or in the competitive dinner party culture. They’re all about displays of wealth. That’s something that goes back thousands and thousands of years. Another way you can measure wealth is the proportion of household income spent on food. For most people in the developing world, most of the household budget is going on food. In the rich world, it’s a tiny fraction. These associations between food and wealth persist. They’re very, very deeply ingrained.

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