Feeding the People is a fascinating book, although not quite what I expected. I thought it would be something quirkier, like Mark Kurlansky’s histories of salt and cod, which use foodstuffs as a window to societal development. Earle attempts the same thing, but she’s much more restrained by academic convention. This book is too formulaic; there are too many sentences like “in this chapter it will be argued that . . .” That’s a pity, because she writes with clarity and grace; she just needs to let her lighter side surface more.
Earle has a gift for spotting connections and for explaining how individual habits interact with wider philosophical themes. There can’t be many books on potatoes that reference Michel Foucault (beyond acknowledging that he looked like one). Still, I wish this one had been more fun to read. The prose can be testing, with its glut of “moreovers”, and relentless recourse to the word “statecraft”. And Earle’s style of argument often veers between the donnishly tentative (“It is impossible to determine”) and the bludgeoningly insistent. Discussing colonial tactics, for instance, she suggests that the introduction of certain foods had more to do with “legitimising particular forms of governance than with reducing hunger” – which I don’t doubt, but is no truer for being repeated three times over a single page.