Reader Review: Empires of Food
We have been warned by food experts that our ‘agriculture’ is destructive to animals, insects, fish and plants, and is unsustainable. Tristan Stuart wrote that ‘infinite abundance is an illusion’ (Waste, 2009) and in the words of Carolyn Steel: ‘our food system is no more secure, ethical or sustainable than Rome’s was’ (Hungry City, 2008). Now Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas want to warn us that we face a similar fate to previous food empires: we face collapse. I both understand and agree with their message and it is reluctantly that I argue that, as a historical study, Empires of Food leaves much to be desired. The book is described by its publishers Random House as a ‘history’; it is therefore as history that I will evaluate Empires of Food.
It makes for bad history when historians begin a study having already drawn their conclusion. It is, in effect, history written backwards. Fraser and Rimas have set out to secure a conviction and willingly ransack the past in the search of evidence to bolster their case. Arguably, neither author is a historian, but they do claim to have written a work of history. However, their methodology is flawed.
The authors’ use of footnotes is, first of all, erratic. Their quotes frequently refer to a book or website, but not to any specific pages. Far too often they also make unsubstantiated assertions. They claim, for example, that Israel provides one of the few cases of a country that went to war for water, but do not specify which war they are referring to. Furthermore, there are the errors in historical fact - in 1591, for example, the King of Spain Philip II was not the Emperor of Austria.
Furthermore, Fraser and Rimas frequently make jokes or puns claiming, for example, that ‘piracy, like bad lighting and tuberculosis, was one of the ancient world’s accepted misfortunes’. Unfortunately, this type of silliness punctuates most pages of the book. The sub-heading of a section that examines Hannibal of Carthage is, for example, ‘Hannibal Lectured’. The authors also frequently attempt to draw somewhat inappropriate parallels with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The Early Christian Desert Fathers are, for example, compared to ‘the hippie movement of recent generations’. St. Anthony allegedly ‘opened an organic farm’ and St. Benedict ‘invented a successful business model’, his monasteries being ‘much like modern transnational corporations’. The St. Denis fair to the north of Paris is also described as ‘similar to today’s Walmart’. At times, I was left wondering if I was reading an adult version of the Horrible Histories series.
Fraser and Rimas attempt to frame their narrative with the tale of the Florentine businessman Francesco Carletti, who, in the late 16th- and early 17th-century, travelled around the world. However, I found Carletti’s adventures, above all, decorative and they added little historical understanding.
Lastly, the book lacked any clear transitions. Part four, for example, opens in today’s China, eight pages later we are with 16th-century Carletti in the New World; after four pages he is jettisoned and we are in ancient Mesopotamia; within three pages we are in ancient China; nine pages later it is ancient Sumeria; we return to China after just two pages, and then after a further two pages we are in the UN’s Millennium Goals. The entire book is structured in this way.
Nevertheless, Empires of Food is a light read, with a serious purpose and an important lesson. It is worth reading, albeit not as a work of history.
Paul Doolan is Head of History at Zurich International School.