Monday, April 7, 2008

Moveable Feasts

Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat, by Sarah Murray, is a series of good stories about the intersection of food and transport that are marred by an ill-fitting conceit. Part of the problem is Murray's choice of subtitles; while each story connects food to transport, there is no consistent "journey" involved. Based on the subtitle, I expected to read something about the history of food(s) and how we came to eat them, similar to Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, which traces how curry evolved and developed over the centuries and how Britains ended up eating it as a national cuisine. Failing that, I expected descriptions of how food has gotten to market over the ages; this is apparently where she started, since there are solid stories about amphoras carrying olive oil, clipper ships carrying tea, refrigerated trucks carrying bananas, and airplanes carrying strawberries. A discussion of food miles in a section on yogurt doesn't really fit the pattern of transport methods but is clearly related, as is an interesting chapter on grain elevators on the Great Lakes. She gets a little side-tracked into transport logistics with long discussions about FedEx and tiffin carriers, worth reading but again a change in emphasis.

Then there are interesting stories about the Berlin airlift, Sudanese food-aid efforts, and Mongol dairy products that are good reading but definitely don't fit the apparent structure of the book. This mismatch is made worse by the conceit of a grocery basket of items, with each chapter ostensibly telling the stories of the journeys that food makes. The Berlin airlift is the most egregious example here, since it is linked to chewing gum but gum is only mentioned in passing (from my reading about the airlift, candy bars would have made a more logical connection, but it would still have been tangential). The book would be more more coherent if it were organized historically and had a more accurate subtitle; it would be best if she had simply been open about her fascination with the way food and transport have intersected over the years, and told those stories without any clever conceits.

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