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Near a Thousand Tables

by: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

New York NY: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster 2002, $25.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-7432-2644-5

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 28

Subtitled: A History of Food, it is gratifying to find this author’s inclusive approach from Andeans to those in Zimbabwe. So many food historians shortchange non-European food history, not this one. There are thirty-three pages that discuss things Chinese. We virtually jump for joy as they make up about fifteen percent of the total.

But is everything so good? Read about some errors (such as some cited by Rachel Laudan; those carefully checked Chinese factual materials found things in the Sino-arena OK with one exception. Was surprised to learn that the author, with thirteen books to his name, did not know or check everything. While the title uses the word 'Near,' we should point out its very accuracy is near, but not always on target. Chapter one does discuss oysters stuffed into an omelette as the 'signature dish of the region of the Chinese province of Xiamen.' Oops, here is one goof, Xiamen is a city and not a province. This and other Chinese inclusions are single to two sentences, accurate or not, and so many things represent incomplete or inaccurate pictures.

There is one about Chinese classification of "barbarian tribes into 'raw' and 'cooked' according to the degree of civilization they saw in them" that really never approaches any table. The sentence reporting that Chinese medicinal humors have now fallen into disuse is a fact that also fell off his table. He may be a Professorial Fellow of Queen Mary at the University of London, but has he observed an herbal shop on a week-end in winter?

Since he wrote the book, the SARS epidemic has shown how far off-base and how far away from any table he may be. Local herbal shops and traditional medical doctors are recommending humoral prescriptions; and Chinese, other Asians, and Caucasians are purchasing humoral treatments for pneumonia now more than ever. One shop recently sold thirty thousand prescriptions in just over one week. How much disuse in that?

Some gripers might ask how historical are writings with prejudicial points of view? The ones that bristled this author includes: 'can one take seriously the nostrum of Chinese dietetics such as celery, peanuts, garlic, jellyfish, and seaweed for hypertension' and 'the notion that diet should serve to preserve a balance between yin and yang ... (is) clouded with emanations of the ‘mystic east’...(yet manages) to retain western adherents.' For our closure, an item hardly near anyone's table is 'Mongols breed white-tailed yaks for sale to China as providers of fly whisks.'

The Wall Street Journal calls the book "interesting to the hungry man in the street" and we agree. However, it is additionally filling with strong opinions about eight great revolutions in the world of food history. Read up and fill up, just be entertained.

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