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Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eatby Sarah Murray
Synopses & Reviews
Today the average meal has traveled thousands of miles before reaching the dinner table. How on earth did this happen? In fact, long-distance food is nothing new and, since the earliest times, the things we eat and drink have crossed countries and continents. Through delightful anecdotes and astonishing facts, Moveable Feasts tells their stories.
For the ancient Romans, the amphora---a torpedo-shaped pot that fitted snugly into the ships hold---was the answer to moving millions of tons of olive oil from Spain to Italy. Napoleon offered a reward to anyone who could devise a way of preserving and transporting food for soldiers. (What he got was the tin can.) Today temperature-controlled shipping containers allow companies to send their frozen salmon to China, where its thawed, filleted, refrozen, and sent back to the United States for sale in supermarkets as “fresh” Atlantic salmon.
Combining history, science, and politics, Financial Times writer Sarah Murray provides a fascinating glimpse into the extraordinary odysseys of food from farm to fork. She encounters everything from American grain falling from United Nations planes in Sudan to Mumbais tiffin men who, using only bicycles, carts, and their feet, deliver more than 170,000 lunches a day.
Following the items on a grocery store shopping list, Murray shows how the journeys of food have brought about seismic shifts in economics, politics, and even art. By flying food into Berlin during the 1948 airlift, the Allies kept a city of more than two million alive for more than a year and secured their first Cold War victory, appealing to German hearts and minds---and stomachs. In nineteenth-century Buffalo, the grain elevator (a giant mechanical scooping machine) not only turned the city into one of Americas wealthiest, but it also had a profound influence on modern architecture, giving Bauhaus designers an important source of inspiration.
In a thought-provoking and highly entertaining account, Moveable Feasts brings an entirely fresh perspective to the subject of food. And today, as global warming makes headlines and concerns mount about the “food miles” clocked by our dinners, Murray poses a contentious question: Is buying local always the most sustainable, ethical choice?
"Murray, a Financial Times contributor, takes a look at the literal journey of food through multilayered essays of the history of food transportation. From the banana export business of Central America (which was rife with America's economic gain and political manhandling) to the creation of the barrel (which revolutionized transcontinental trading and contributed a new dimension to the art of winemaking), the dozen chapters each start with a straightforward item — the shipping container, a tin can, a tub of yogurt, etc. — and delve into topics of greater significance like globalization, empire building, localized farming and food aid programs. For example, her essay on the amphora, a container used to carry olive oil throughout the ancient Roman Empire, not only depicts the social and economic importance of olive oil in Roman times but also leads into the contemporary debate of regional designation of origins for foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or Newcastle brown ale. Erudite and thoroughly researched, this is a fascinating read for both foodies and those who love how the minutiae of life often provide a fresh lens with which to view the world." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"After decades of blissful ignorance, Americans have begun pondering how the food we consume each day arrives on our plates. Michael Pollan's 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' (2006) forced readers to face the fact that our demand for a range of reasonably priced meats and produce comes with serious environmental consequences. Now two new books, Ann Vileisis' 'Kitchen Literacy' and Sarah Murray's 'Moveable... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Feasts,' give us even more reason to re-evaluate the meals we take for granted. But they come to very different conclusions about whether to embrace or decry our increasingly complicated food web. 'Kitchen Literacy' chronicles how the growth of the increasingly complex food distribution system — railroads transporting animals and factories producing canned goods — eventually led consumers into a 'covenant of ignorance' with supermarket chains, food manufacturers and advertising firms. All of them insisted that sleek packaging and catchy slogans mattered more than the traditional, hard-earned expertise homemakers had relied on for years. Vileisis' tone can be preachy at times: 'We as consumers,' she tells readers, 'will need to recognize how our everyday choices affect the larger environment and, then, to forge a new and influential role for ourselves.' She approvingly offers up as a counterexample to present-day practices the story of a colonial midwife who knows the names of the cows her family eats, as well as every patch of ground on which her husband has cultivated grain for their daily bread. Yet her book performs a valuable service in reminding readers that we were not always so clueless when it came to making food choices. Murray, by contrast, has more reverence for the technological marvels that transport comestibles across vast distances. She pays homage to the Emma Maersk, the world's biggest ship, which is capable of transporting 500 million bananas 'in a single voyage,' as well as to the cargo planes that bring corn and sorghum food aid to Africa. While 'Moveable Feasts' explores some of the downsides of these lengthy journeys — the greenhouse gas emissions that inevitably accompany plane trips, for instance — Murray tends to dismiss most environmental concerns. Buying food from impoverished foreign nations produces jobs as well as carbon emissions, she maintains, and 'development experts argue that poverty is also environmentally damaging.' She even questions whether buying local produce and meats is a laudable goal, claiming that the car trip to a distant farmer's market is often more environmentally harmful per unit of produce than buying food shipped long distances in an efficient vessel like the Emma Maersk. 'Moveable Feasts' is packed with fascinating information, including how nearly 5,000 deliverymen operating in the massive Indian city of Mumbai manage to deliver lunches from the tens of thousands of wives who've just cooked them to their husbands who have already been at the office for several hours, with an accuracy rate of '99.999999 percent.' But it would have been a better book if Murray had provided her readers with a more critical assessment of some of the voyages she chronicles, such as the one taken by farmed salmon from Norway to China just so Chinese workers can pick out fish bones at 1/25th the wages of their Scandinavian counterparts. Instead, she's enamored with the sleek efficiency of the shipping container that serves as 'globalization's porter,' keeping the salmon at minus 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit the entire way. In the end, Murray's objective is not to focus on the mixed blessings of global trade but to tout the intricate mechanisms that sustain it. 'The advance of civilization,' she writes, 'has depended on being able to convey food from where it is grown or produced to shops, kitchens, and dining rooms.' Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for The Washington Post." Reviewed by Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Today the things we eat and drink have crossed oceans, continents, and even airspace before reaching the dinner table. The complex systems and technologies devised throughout the centuries to deliver our food supply reveal surprising things about politics, culture, economies--and our appetites. In Mumbai, India's chaotic commercial capital, men use local trains, bicycles, and their feet to transport more than 170,000 lunches a day from housewives to their husbands, with almost no mix-ups. Modern shipping containers allow companies to send frozen salmon to China, where it can be cheaply thawed, filleted, and refrozen, before traveling back to the United States where it's sold in supermarkets as fresh fish. Moveable Feasts takes a novel look at the economics, logistics, and environmental impact of food, and brings new perspective to debates about where we get our meals.
About the Author
Sarah Murray is a travel writer and longtime Financial Times contributor who reports on the relationship of business to the environment. She lives in New York City.
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