07 April 2013

Book review: Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Cultures (1986), by Marvin Harris, *****

Eating injera with hot spices at Lalibela, Ethiopia
testo italiano di seguito


Why are human food habits so diverse? Why do Americans recoil at the thought of dog meat? Jews and Moslems, pork? Hindus, beef? Why do Asians abhor milk? Harris leads readers on an informative detective adventure to solve the world's major food puzzles.

He explains the diversity of the world's gastronomic customs: what appear at first glance to be irrational food tastes turn out really to have been shaped by practical, or economic, or political necessity. In addition, he sheds wisdom on such topics as why there has been an explosion in fast food, why history indicates that it's "bad" to eat people but "good" to kill them, and why children universally reject spinach.

Good to Eat is more than an intellectual adventure in food for thought. It is a highly readable, scientifically accurate, and fascinating work that demystifies the causes of myriad human cultural differences.


This is a highly readable account of why the world's diverse civilizations eat what they eat; why peoples in different parts of the world grow to abhor certain readily available foodstuffs; and why they usually don't eat each other.

The starting point of the book is man's generalized craving for animal food (meat, fish, milk, eggs), because it is a source of more and better proteins than vegetarian alternatives. Only soybeans approach animal food in this respect, though plant food provide indispensable fibers. Despite the evil effects of too much meat, grain eaters tend to live less. Top primates, including man, tend to be omnivorous, an obvious advantage over animals dependent on fewer food categories.

Harris explains why Indians don't (by and large) eat beef, though they did in the past. It was at the time of Asoka (3rd century B.C.) that once widespread animal sacrifices were stamped out to prevent loss of animal plow-pulling power, dung and milk. And yet, beef is eaten in India and calfs are regularly slaughtered when not needed.

In the Middle East, the problem with pork is not so much its being prone to carry disease in hot weather or if not cooked properly: that is not unique to pork or to the Middle East. Pork is a staple in hot climates from the Indian ocean to the Pacific. It is the fact that in Middle Eastern circumstances pigs need extra shelter, water and lots of plant food that humans themselves can eat. Pigs are sometimes seen as dirty, but given enough water they are anything but. In Papua, women will sometimes breastfeed a pig if somehow it gets separated from the sow.

Horses were banned from the grill in the middle ages because they were more useful alive to be mounted in war. A war horse was worth more than a slave. later, horses never became a main source of meat because cattle and pigs are far more efficient producers of proteins.

Dairy products are not eaten by most peoples in East Asia. They can not digest lactose. Why? Because the condition of their agriculture never required as much plowing as elsewhere and therefore not as much milk producing animals.

Most people in the world eat insects. Europeans and Americans are the exception rather than the rule. At least now: the ancient Greeks and Romans did eat cicadas and grasshoppers. That's because for us it is less efficient to chase insects than raise animals in a farm as a source of food. There are billions of insects out there to provide us with proteins, but they are small and mostly hard to get.

And the book goes on, discussing at great length why people, by and large, don't eat one another... but I'll leave that to the reader to discover in the book!

Highly recommended.

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Recensione italiana

Racconto molto leggibile sul perché le culture del mondo si sono sviluppate in modo molto diverso fra di loro. Il libro spiega perché mangiamo quello che mangiamo e perché aborriamo quello che evitiamo di mangiare.

Il punto di partenza è che il genere umano generalmente cerca cibo di origine animale (carne, pesce, uova) perché è fonte di proteine più che il cibo di origine vegetale, anche se le piante ci forniscono le indispensabili fibre. I primati più sviluppati, tra cui noi umani, sono onnivori, un evidente vantaggio su altri animali che sono dipendenti da un numero più limitato di fonti di nutrimento. Nonosante il danno che viene dall'abuso di carne, e culture che mangiano solo vegetali tendono a vivere meno di quelle onnivore.

Harris spiga perché in India (di solito) non si mangia carne bovina, anche se ciò avveniva in passato: i buoi servono di più a tirare gli aratri, e forniscono latte e sterco combustibile. indispensabili per le culture di quel paese. E comunque i bovini vengono macellati e mangiati in India più di quanto appaia a prima vista.

Nel medio oriente, il problema del maiale è che consuma molta acqua, che lì è scarsa e quindi preziosa.

I cavalli erano banditi dalla tavole nel medio evo perché più utili in guerra. Un cavallo poteva costare più di uno schiavo, e maiali e bovini fornivano la carne necessaria in modo più efficiente.

In Asia orientale non si mangiano latte e formaggi. Quei popoli non digeriscono il lattosio. Perché? Harris spiega che il tipo di agricoltura prevalente lì, a differenza che in India, non richiede aratri (e quindi buoi) e quindi i bovini diventano iù convenienti come fonte di carne che di latte e formaggi.

La maggior parte dei popoli del mondo mangia insetti, spesso perché, pur essendo piccoli e non facili da catturare, sono economici e non richiedono conoscenza di allevamento.

Il libro spiega anche perché gli umani, in genere, non si mangiano a vicenda, ma questo lo lascio scoprire al lettore...

Altamente consigliato!

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