Saturday, June 12, 2010

Much Depends on Dinner

Much Depends on Dinner by Margaret Visser

Assigned for my academic reading, this books offers a thematic history of certain basic food components and their cultural components. It's most effective when it gets outside the food itself, and explores elements of ritual in the production and presentation of food. It's less compelling in the overview of the actual food, as it's format--a chapter on corn, a chapter on lettuce and so forth--highlights the radical incompleteness of the account. It is simply too broad a topic to be effectively surveyed in this way, and for every interesting fact produced there is a larger failure in over-ambitious claims and associations for the history. It's basically trying to offer a type of crude world history organized around the "central" elements of the meal, but the approach shows a weak historiographical understanding of good methodology for this type of ambition. Even if considered as an general undergrad intro work, the structure of the book is not approrpirate.

There are some specific troubling claims across the work as well--most glaringly the rather Orienalist assumption of Chinese society being innately collectivist, and using rice to ostensibly explain this aspect. The broader issue is with Visser's organization and failure to set realistic limits for what she can cover, an issue not helped by the book's rather alienating prose.

Better than: A History of Food by Ray Tannahil

Worse Than: A History of Everyday Things by Daniel Roche

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