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Book Review


Kiple, Kenneth F. A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 368 pp. $27.00.

     With the sure hand of a master chef, Kenneth Kiple has presented world historians with another feast of food history based on the two-volume The Cambridge World History of Food (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), which was edited by Kiple and Kriemhild C. Ornelas. In spite of undergoing distillation from the mammoth encyclopedic compilation to a text of some 300 or so pages, the volume did not become a "world history-lite" version. This is a solid work that encompasses a full-banquet stand-alone spread, not a sampling. Kiple claims for food history no less than the perspective of globalization's narrative, from early agriculture's worldwide impact on humans in the planetary food chain to the Age of McDonald's.

     What does "food globalization" really mean to Kiple? It seems simple enough to couple technology and capitalism in a global sphere and project back more than ten millennia to the earliest interactions, intersections, and transfers of knowledge and goods. Kiple emphasizes economic change and equates the story of changing food ways with "technological progress" and the commercialization of cuisines leading to integration.

     The book is organized roughly chronologically, with early chapters on the broad transition from hunting to agricultural systems and pastoralists giving way to a regional exploration of current evidence for the domestication of specific crops (grains, vegetables, nuts, and fruits) and their counterparts in the animal kingdom. A brief summary of the dubious impact of the Neolithic is followed by a sequence of chapters arranged as a traditional world history text: Rome, Islam, Europe, China, Europe again, European exploration and conquest, Columbian exchange, sugar, Spanish America, and colonial North America. These chapters cover all manner of old staples and newly imported foods, understood as part of the more recent diffusion of people and technology. Food in relation to colonialism, industrial capitalism, and nationalism is presented within its Euro-American contexts. The final six chapters explore health, nutrition, commercialization, and the impact of technology on agriculture and food in the last century. This latter section derives more directly from the scholarly contributions to food studies by Kiple himself.

     Is food globalization anything more than the dizzying movement of products and technologies? Kiple presents precious few examples of the role of food in negotiating complex relationships between identity and globalization. The important domains of cultural negotiation are largely left unexamined. Yet, as Brillat Savarin has observed, humans are what they choose to eat and choice means everything in the dynamic global marketplace. Foods help to shape a view of the world's past and present. Without consideration of the social and cultural dimensions, historians will find Kiple's explanations for the world's changing tastes frustratingly elusive.

     If the invention of agriculture is the beginning of Kiple's narrative, then the homogenization of cuisines provides its inevitable final course. The author tests this premise in the Caribbean. For example, noting that the Caribbean was a site of intense competition by dueling cuisines from multiple continents, Kiple views the imported diets of whites as the "winners." Unfortunately, this emphasis simply doesn't hold up in the actual tasting of the Caribbean's national dishes (such as Jamaica's saltfish and ackee) or regional cuisines (as the products of the ubiquitous use of chilli peppers, pervasive curries, and African-derived seasonings and stews). Kiple wrongly concludes that any persistence of African and Asian food ways were the unfortunate consequence of the plantation past and poverty seemingly unrelated to issues of cultural identity.

     Cultures do interact on the North American continent (especially in Chapters 17 through 20), but with the exceptions of Chinese (Cantonese) "tsap sui" and Louisiana Creole jumbalaya and Southern cooking, Africans and Asians were not much involved according to Kiple's telling. This Euro-American emphasis is only partly the consequence of the relative dearth of scholarship. By choosing the teleological focus on global corporate culinary control, Kiple swaps the agency of the home kitchen for the steady gaze on the golden arch. Much of food history's appeal, however, involves the thoughtful consideration of overwhelmingly female-dominated homescapes, which in turn can counter the distanced view of global economies.

     Inevitably, in a condensed work of this scope, Kiple glosses over scholarly debates in favor of carefully worded dodges and acknowledged uncertainties. Abbreviated histories of complex cuisines occasionally create unnecessary confusion and errors. On page 207, Kiple states definitively that Asian rice was brought to Louisiana by the British in 1718, but on the very next page (page 208) he asserts that rice was introduced to Charleston in the seventeenth century. In fact it is far more likely that both of these recorded introductions refer to African, not Asian, seed rice.

     In spite of these drawbacks, the book has many spicy tales that make for good classroom hors d'oeuvres, and will not disappoint world history teachers. For example, the Duke of Bourgogne's order for a whopping 380 pounds of pepper for his 1468 wedding feast or the brief stories of coffee, cocoa, and tea will stimulate discussions and engage students. On the other hand, chapters on nutrition may put students to sleep, as they lack the same entertaining anecdotes with cultural ties. For teaching world history, Jeffrey Pilcher's briefer Food in World History (New York: Routledge, 2006) arguably remains a more sustainable and nuanced framework for the topic of food and globalization for classroom use.

     There is little doubt that the recent gluttony of food histories are enriching the research and teaching of world history. This accessible volume is a welcome addition to the feast table. Its value as world history classroom text is likely limited, but it should remain a definitive and ready reference for teachers and the hungry audience of general readers.


Candice Goucher
Washington State University, Vancouver


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