“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.”—Epicurus
This fascinating book examines the biology and culture of foods and beverages that are consumed in communal settings, with special attention to their health implications. Nina Etkin covers a wealth of topics, exploring human evolutionary history, the Slow Food movement, ritual and ceremonial foods, caffeinated beverages, spices, the street foods of Hawaii and northern Nigeria, and even bottled water. Her work is framed by a biocultural perspective that considers both the physiological implications of consumption and the cultural construction and circulation of foods. For Etkin, the foods and beverages we consume are simultaneously “biodynamic substances and cultural objects.”
The book begins with a look at the social eating habits of our primate relatives and discusses our evolutionary adaptations. It then offers a history of social foods in the era of European expansion, with a focus on spices and “caffeinated cordials.” (Of course, there were some powerful physiological consequences of eating foods brought home by returning explorers, and those are considered too—along with consequences for native peoples.) From there, the book describes “street food,” which is always served in communal settings. Etkin then scrutinizes ceremonial foods and beverages, and considers their pharmacological effects as well. Her extensive examination concludes by assessing the biological and cultural implications of bottled water.
While intended primarily for scholars, this enticing book serves up a tantalizing smorgasbord of food for thought.