The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17

Recipes for history

Two links on the history of city/country dynamic in civilizations that go great together. The first one is about older stuff: an interview with Peter Heather about his book Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Modern Europe, which looks at the whole first millennium rather than the usual rise and fall:

What the book is trying to show is that the Roman Empire came into existence at a point where the relative underdevelopment of central, eastern, and northern Europe meant that the comparatively more developed Mediterranean world could provide a powerbase of sufficient strength to dominate the continent. As soon as development in northern Europe caught up, however, that relationship was bound to reverse, no matter what any Roman ruler might have tried to do about it. You can also see the first millennium as the time when Europe as some kind of unitary entity comes into being. By the end of it, dynasties are in place across the vast majority of its territory, and their subsequent history will lead pretty directly to the modern map of states. The same had not been remotely true at the birth of Christ a thousand years before…

To my mind, the most relevant finding is that this whole process of economic development and state formation in the non-imperial Europe of the first millennium was the result of a developing range of contacts with the more developed imperial world. In a process highly analogous to modern globalization, flows of wealth, weaponry, technology, and ideas ran from more developed Europe into its less developed periphery in increasing quantities and over a wider geographical area as the first millennium progressed. And, as in modern globalization, the benefits of all this were not shared equally by the totality of the population in non-imperial Europe, but were largely monopolized by particular groupings who used the wealth weaponry and ideologies to build new political structures which put themselves firmly at the head of their own societies.

Sometimes it’s impossible to remain imperial. If your imperial power—as it often is—is based on a pattern of precocious regional development, then as soon as surrounding regions catch up, as they undoubtedly will, that power must ebb (the fate of the Mediterranean in the first millennium). In these circumstances, it is important to accept the inevitable and gracefully renegotiate a new strategic balance of power, or one is likely to be imposed by force.

The other link is Edible Geography’s transcript of a talk by historian Rachel Laudan, who looks at the rise of Wal-Mart in Mexico City (and the end of hand-ground tortillas and the ridiculous amount of work/time that go into them) from a similar long-historical perspective:

There’s only one way to feed a city, at least historically, and that’s to feed it with grains—rice, wheat, maize, barley, sorghum, etc.. You can go round the world, and there just aren’t cities that aren’t fed on grains, except for possibly in the high Andes. Basically, to maintain a city, you’ve got to get grains into it. Be it Bangkok, be it Guangzhou, be it London, or be it Rome—throughout history, grains and cities are two sides of the coin.

And what do you need in terms of grains? For most of history—really, until about 150 years ago—most people in most cities, except for the very wealthy, lived almost exclusively on grains. They got about ninety percent of their calories from grains.

That meant that for every single person in a city you had to have 2 lbs of grains a day, turned into something that people could eat.

[Holding up a standard supermarket package of tortillas.] This is a kilo of tortillas. That’s what one person in a city needed. It’s the same weight, more or less, whatever the grain is—you can go to the historical record, you can research in China, in India, in the Near East, and you will still be talking about 2 lbs of grain-based food for every person in the city every day.

So you can do some calculations. If you’ve got a city of a million, like ancient Rome, you’ve got to get two million pounds of grain into the city every day. It’s the same for all the cities in the world— it’s 2 lbs of grain per person. That’s the power, that’s the energy that drives cities.

Even when you watch a TV series like Rome, one of the things that comes across is how obsessed the Romans were with grain — keeping grain coming into the city, getting it to the markets, using it to feed their armies, maintaining imperial control over regions (like Egypt) that supplied the bulk of their grain. For them, corn crises were like our oil crises; peak corn was their peak oil.

And they knew it. Google “Cicero corn.” It’s amazing how much he talks about it; disputes about corn come up in one lawsuit or political speech after another like paternity tests on “Maury.”

And as the example of Mexico City shows, this is far from ancient history. One of my favorite little pieces of cultural criticism is Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher’s essay “The Potato and the Materialist Imagination,” which looks at debates about potatoes and population in 19th-century England. A point that Laudan makes is that you can’t just eat grain like you can fruit — at a minimum, you’ve got to shuck, grind, and cook it, turn it into couscous or tortillas or whatever. When you’re talking about bread, or anything that adds extra ingredients, the degree of difficulty goes up.

But that degree of difficulty is what a civilization is — a division of labor that necessitates socialization, technology, rituals, aggregation. The English were terrified about growing potatoes in Ireland, not because they were worried about famines, but the opposite. Because potatoes grew underground, they thought the crop was famine resistant — nobody had any kind of experience with destruction of crops by a fungus. No, they were worried because potatoes worked too well — you could dig them out of the ground, boil them, and eat them, and sustain a huge population for a fraction of the cost of bread. And without bread, no civilization. This is what the English did to maintain their labor force in Ireland, the Prussians did in Poland; they leaned on it and dug calories out of the ground and grew and grew until it almost killed them, which is why America is full of Walshes and Sczepanskis today. (Laudan refers to a similar crisis in Spain; when the Spanish first ground maize, they didn’t use alkali to process it the way the native Mexicans did, and many, many people contracted pellagra, a nutritional deficiency that causes blindness.)

There were three transformative miracles in the nineteenth century that made the world what it is now, and they all came out of the ground: potatoes, petroleum, and paper made from trees. We thought they’d all last forever. We’ve been living in their shadow all along, and only now are we beginning to shiver.


“Potatoes, petroleum, and paper made from trees.” Beautiful. Great post.

These are important connections! And in the early 20th C, folks were already searching for a retrofuture of industries built from the soil, an inexhaustible cornucopia. Looking for connections between George Washington Carver and Henry Ford, I recently found Carver saying this (in 1942 or ’43): “There will come a day when, out of the soil, we will make our houses, our clothes, our automobiles— everything on earth we need. Plant chemistry is just at its beginnings. We have only opened a crack in the door. The age of plastics has not yet arrived. If wars are caused by the lack of things there will be no more wars because the earth will pour forth plenty for everybody. There will be no such a thing as a have- not nation. Mr. Ford understands that. That is why we began working together years ago.”

And when you talk about preprocessing of grains, couscous is a great example because it’s a highly intermediated food product. It’s wheat, cooked, dried, ground, made into flour, extruded into pasta, cut up into little tiny pieces, and then boiled for the table.

Tim Carmody says…

Even before I read your Carver quote, I was actually going to add “plastics” to my 3 Ps. It’s tied to paper and petroleum (and photography), although not really potatoes.

Paper, petroleum, and potatoes in the nineteenth century all interestingly have the same structure — these materials/technologies that enable enormous growth, which are already responding to a crisis caused by… new technology and enormous growth! We couldn’t harvest/produce wheat for bread, cloth for paper, or whale oil/coal for lighting/locomotion fast enough. Here’s this amazing, utopian way out, using these junk products in huge abundance that we didn’t really know what to do with, and we find a way to make it work, at least for 150 years. It’s like if we really were able to strap on those “Mr Fusion” reactors from Back to the Future and power our flying cars with crushed soda cans. (Only later, we’d find out that all the little Mr Fusions actually created spatiotemporal ruptures that were going to make everyone fat and then destroy the planet. But still.)

Plastic not really related to potatoes? You’ve never had a compostable potato plastic spoon droop in your soup?

I’ve known people to curse Carver–people who are allergic to peanuts, of course. Though who knows if it’s his fault or someone else’s.

Couscous and pasta baffle me. I mean, they are delicious and I gorge on them happily, but how they made sense in the pre-Industrial world I will never understand. It takes so much energy to make them! Even leavened bread baffles me. Maybe b/c it’s just not a strong part of my culinary heritage, but boiling grain or making flat bread is just so much easier when you don’t have an industrial infrastructure to lean on. The only thing I can think of is that pasta creates an easily digestible form of semolina that still leverages its protein content.

Tim Carmody says…

I did eventually find the connections — wax paper, and then plastic bags, which keep chips from going stale, let you ship and sell them in grocery stores (hello petroleum!) and kick off the modern junk food industry. Constellational thinking wins again!

I concur. I wonder if you could add phosphorus to the list: visually if not aurally alliterative.

Interestingly, a little googling gets me the figure of 1.6 billion tons of wheat, corn, and rice produced every year. Laudan’s recipe calls for about 2.3-2.6 billion tons of grain to be produced globally. I’ve often heard people say that we do actually have enough food in the word, it’s mostly a distribution problem, so I wonder if the difference really is made up by potatoes, cassava, and minor grains like barley and quinoa; I wonder how much sub-Saharan Africa’s reliance on cassava is problematic for its transition to a continent of cities.

Tim Carmody says…

Millet’s important here, too; I remember reading something about how ramping up millet production could solve a lot of nutritional problems in Africa, the Caribbean, etc., but it’s hard to push because it’s culturally déclassé and a lot of work to harvest and prepare. It’s a hard thing — everyone all over the world wants the comforts of modernity, but we don’t want to build/maintain the infrastructure.

There’s also the Jared Diamond/Collapse angle: all those Vikings, trying to raise cattle in Greenland, all grossed out by eating fish. Human beings are not always lucky when it comes to these things.

That’s so weird to me that Vikings were grossed out by eating fish; Icelanders are all about the fish and having just read the Millenium series, I’m newly aware of how much things like herring and cod figure in the Swedish diet. I’ve read a lot about how cassava is actually an incredibly dense crop (in terms of calories per arable area) but it takes some serious energy to convert it to something that can be stored; because farmers have to transport it to the urban centers to get it processed before it spoils they a) often end up losing a lot of it and b) they don’t get the economic benefit of adding that value themselves. Creating cheap, dependable mini-processing machines would greatly help them.

Over lunch someone added another plosive to the list: plantains. Not sure how they figure in this story though.

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