If you like to be that person at the dinner party who impresses guests with random facts and interesting (at least to you) historical references, then Moveable Feasts will provide you with several meals’ worth of fodder.
While digging into an Indian feast, you can wow tablemates with the tale of Mumbai’s industrious dabbawallas, who, every weekday, transport more than 170,000 home-cooked meals from the hands of wives and mothers to the offices of their hungry breadwinners. At Sunday lunch, that humble bread roll can serve as a launching pad for describing the rise and fall of the grain elevator as a mechanism for moving wheat between ships and canal boats. A dessert of bananas foster will be your perfect segue way into a discussion about how bananas, today the world’s most exported fruit, were first brought from Jamaica to the US by schooner in the late 1800s and sold as a luxury food. So rare were bananas that an 1899 issue of Scientific American published directions for how to peel them. It would take the advent of the refrigerated steamship to make the banana ubiquitous.
Author Sarah Murray, a longtime Financial Times contributor, says that she has “long been driven by a curious obsession with cargo transport”. Indeed, while specific foods may be the hook Murray uses to draw us into her book (each chapter begins with the definition, origin, and etymology of a foodstuff), the evolution of transportation methods and strategies for preserving food to make these long journeys receive the most attention. Murray’s self-described curiosity also shines through in the way she writes—so much so that you feel as if you are along for a joy ride with her stream of consciousness. Some readers will think this writing style is invigorating; the linear thinkers among you may find Murray’s many diversions distracting. All in all, the twists and turns of her inquisitiveness tend to make the book more a collection of facts—fascinating facts, mind you—than a cohesive narrative.
The first chapter opens with a description of a hill of pottery in Rome, the detritus of a prosperous empire that was importing food products in clay jars from its farthest reaches. Murray highlights one of Rome’s most important imports—olive oil, most of which came from Spain. Learning about how archeologists are piecing together—literally—an important story about the Roman economy is compelling. But, this story alone does not satisfy Murray. A few narrative leaps later, and she is delving into a discussion of European Union labeling rules and how marketers have long banked on the aura of place to sway consumers. I’ll keep the mystery alive—you’ll just have to read the book to find out how she gets from one topic to the other.
It is a sign of how connected food is to the key issues of our time—globalization, global warming, poverty in the developing world—that Murray is able to pursue so many side stories. One of the most fascinating facts in the book is that Norwegian salmon is harvested, frozen, and sent by container ship to China, where it is de-boned in a factory, refrozen, and then sent on to markets in Europe and the US. Murray uses this story as a jumping off point for talking about the history of the container ship and how these ships make the salmon’s journey economically viable. But she doesn’t stop there. Soon, we are knee-deep in the story of a Korean farmer who committed suicide outside a World Trade Organization meeting in 2000, followed by five pages of writing about labor rights, government protectionism, and agricultural subsidies.
The most cohesive chapter introduces the military’s influence on the food we eat. It is common knowledge that military research was critical to the invention of the Internet, but did you know that military research also made possible the recent appearance of re-sealable, flexible, plastic “retort” pouches of food on supermarket shelves? Tinned tomatoes are Murray’s muse for a discussion that starts at a military installation in Natick, Massachusetts, where Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) are developed. The military invented retort packaging as part of its effort to ensure these meals are easy to carry, don’t need refrigeration and can last years without spoiling.
Murray traces innovation in the way armies preserve and transport food back to the 1800s, a time when Napoleon famously said, “An army marches on its stomach”. In 1810, the French government gave Nicholas Appert an award for developing a method of preserving food for soldiers and sailors—sealing it in airtight glass containers and boiling the containers for a few hours. A Brit soon employed a similar method using tin cans, which became more popular. At least, until now. The retort packaging, developed at Natick, may be the new tin can.
If you are keen to let yourself go on a bit of an intellectual ramble, you will find Moveable Feasts endlessly interesting. You’ll also likely begin giving more consideration to the way that food gets to your table. And, of course, you’ll be eager to plan your next dinner party.