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Book Review


Robert N. Spengler III, Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019. Pp. vii + 374. Notes, Bibliography, and Index. $34.95 (cloth) and $26.95 (paper).


     The ancient Silk Roads consistently provide researchers, students, and enthusiasts with a rich and fascinating subject that not only encompasses multiple geographical and cultural regions, but also spans several centuries. Some argue that the Silk Road provides the best examples of cultural exchange and human interaction and development throughout the ancient world. Until now, the majority of the work on the Silk Road has come in the form of singular studies that focus on specific regions or civilizations along its route, or of a particular period. Robert N. Spengler III’s Fruit from the Sands seeks to connect the history of the Silk Road across terrain and time to our daily lives by examining the free-flow of foods the denizens of Asia cultivated, transported, and consumed along this skein of trade routes and tracing the origins of the foods we eat every day all around the world.

      As an archeobotanist, Spengler’s approach is decidedly multi-disciplinary. He weds some of the latest biological science to the already plentiful historical scholarship on the subject. While the book examines foods specifically and their origins in antiquity, it is more about the consumption of these foods, the great lengths people went through to obtain and grow them, and how they inevitably assisted in their widespread proliferation across the whole of Asia and later, the world. Given that for thousands of years people continually have sought new flavors and textures among the foods they eat, Spengler cleverly likens this behavior to what Karl Marx had once described as “commodity fetishism,” the desire to obtain the exotic or novel (4). Indeed, this very behavior consistently drove the discovery and eventual pursuit of the new foods, spices, and methods of food preparation that have become staple in bazaars and kitchens everywhere. To be sure, Spengler’s perspective of Asia as a world “system” is not entirely new or innovative; however, his focus on when the parts of this system first became interconnected in the manner we now understand is unique for his research, and the data it generated does occasionally challenge the accepted historical (and even archeological) narrative, suggesting the dispersal of various foods and grains began as early as the start of the first millennium BCE, perhaps far earlier than most previously believed.

      Arranged neatly into two distinct portions, Part I of Fruit of the Sands, “How the Silk Road Influenced the Food You Eat,” examines the historical legacy that early plant species imparted on the modern cuisines we enjoy today, along with a detailed, yet comprehensive look into the silk and spice routes that ran throughout Asia. One learns quite early that much of what historians and anthropologists understand about the goods that were transported along the Silk Road comes by way of Arabic sources during the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE), and in some cases emanates from sources that even predate it. A number of the earliest descriptions of various grains and fruits were written by Islamic geographers who, in the course of their travels, wrote extensively about rivers and irrigation systems found within the Iranian Plateau. Their travels to and from rest stops at various caravanserais allowed them to see, and of course, taste, first-hand the dynamic local cuisines of the region. Spengler points out that even after several centuries, the wide assortment of goods readily available in the local bazaars of these caravan cities still remains nearly unchanged. Comingled among the many cotton and silk textiles, pottery, and metal implements were an equally-enticing array of nuts, cheeses, eggs, and exotic animal meats. The author suggests that this very convergence of agricultural and meat products centuries ago led directly to the distinctive Arabic and Turkic cuisines that are now popular throughout the Islamic world today, including kofta (a staple meatloaf dish heavily seasoned with Cumin), and zerde (a popular, saffron-flavored rice pudding). By showcasing the earliest appearances of common crops, such as millets, nuts, sorghum, and citrus, Spengler explains that the Silk Road and its slightly lesser-known counterpart, the Incense Road, existed far earlier (as early as 2800 BCE) than many have believed (40). In other words, he contends that the Silk Road’s commercial origins did not exist solely within the geographical or chronological framework of the Classical and Han dynastic periods, or that it was only of their design (47). Spengler reasons that to think otherwise only promotes the romanticized, yet wholly inaccurate perspective of the Silk Road entrenched within public’s mind. Part I of the book concentrates on the history of the Silk Road and on the species of plants which were most prevalent in its commercial activity. There is ample discussion, sometimes excessively so, of the genetic origins of these plant species. Because of this, the uninformed may find Spengler’s departures into science-heavy discourse distracting, if not prohibitive.

      Part II, “Artifacts of the Silk Road in Your Kitchen,” is where Spengler’s work shines best and solidifies his argument, for it presents the connections between the archeological evidence explored in the previous section directly to what people around the world see and eat on their tables today. That the Silk Road played a leading role in cultural exchange, and that it extended well beyond just Asia, is the heart of the point he makes here. Beer aficionados may find Chapter Six,“Barley”, historically interesting, as Spengler details the grain’s earliest origins in the Fertile Crescent nearly ten thousand years ago. Over several centuries, successive generations of farmers across Eurasia successfully improved the different naked and hulled varieties they cultivated for both fermentation and food use. These newer varieties not only provided farmers more rows of grain on each stalk, but also were substantially hardier and easier to grow in arid climates. Barley’s ubiquity throughout the ancient Silk Road attests to its usefulness as a source of drink as well as bread. Especially interesting was the fact that barley’s prominence in the ancient world underwent a cultural fall-from-grace once threshed wheat came to the fore. The lighter, and whiter breads made from wheat became the preferred starch for the nobility and privileged, thereby relegating barley several rungs downward on the socio-economic ladder. Barley quickly came to be recognized as the crop of the poor, or as Spengler puts it, went from “cherished to shunned” (139).

      Tempering the rather lengthy discussions the author features are actually a nicely-chosen collection of illustrations, photographs, and hand-drawn renderings of the many plant varieties and archeological artifacts depicting foods throughout the Silk Road’s history. The book also provides the reader several detailed maps to illustrate pertinent geography. The front and back matter is thorough and includes some helpful information on relevant dates, semantics used, and even an excerpt of a mid-19th century traveler’s account of Central Asian market towns along the Silk Road. Spengler’s book accomplishes what he set out to do, explaining how the dispersal of plants and animals along the length and breadth of the Silk Road influenced the development of global cuisines and agricultural practices. Despite its exquisite examples and descriptions, the dense writing and heavy terminology at-times can be a slight hindrance, depending on who chooses to open it and read it. Its use and success as a teaching tool in the classroom therefore depends on an instructor’s creativity and teaching style. If used thoughtfully and appropriately, Spengler’s Fruit of the Sands could help students in a lecture classroom make the connection between their lives and the historical past more familiar and hopefully, more welcomed.

Robert Klemm teaches World History and chairs the History, Arts, & Social Sciences Department at Lanier Technical College in Gainesville, Georgia. He can be reached at


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