1. Dwyer, Johanna DSc, RD

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Here is the answer for gifting people on your holiday shopping list who care about food, nutrition, and history. For those of us who work in offices with clients who have nutrition problems, these are 2 books to buy for patients to read while sitting in the waiting room. They can pick them up and leaf through a few excerpts while waiting for their visit. I'm a history buff, and so it was a treat that both of these books provide a lot of background and the back stories about the topics they tackle. Both also are lavishly illustrated and a pleasure to look at. And both provide bite-sized pieces of interesting but authoritative commentaries that you can sample at your leisure. I suppose each of these books could be read in 1 or 2 sittings, but for me it was more fun to pick each book up now and then as a break from tiresome mundane tasks


First up is Food Through the Ages: A Popular History. This is a fascinating tour indeed of food and eating it through the millennia. The author, Mike Gibney, PhD, is professor emeritus of Food and Health at University College Dublin. Gibney's reason for writing this book is that the more we know about the origins and history of the foods we eat, the more we can appreciate their various elements beyond their role as functional ingredients in some dish or other. The first chapter is called The Great Descent that takes us humans from the hunter gatherer days hundreds of thousands of years ago. Then we get into the food itself-starting out with Bread (not Bed!) and Breakfast, in no particular order, through Soup, to the Delights of Dairy, to Meat and Poultry, then Fish and Shellfish. After those main course choices, we turn to the other parts of the plate. It starts with the veggies, in a wonderful chapter on the products of the Garden, Orchard, Hedgerow, and Forest. A little later we see the white stuff: Rice and Noodles, Pasta, Potato. Then, there are the beverages, including Tea, with the interesting story of its connections with theft and opium, Coffee, with a nice long section on how it is grown, processed, and brewed. Were you thinking it was about time for dessert? Fair enough; a whole chapter is devoted to Sugar, complete with its dark past and links to slavery, then on to biscuits, cakes, and pastries and a whole separate chapter for Chocolate lovers, complete with the connections of this interesting food with sins, priests, and magic. One of the most fascinating chapters toward the end of the book describes the Columbian Exchanges of the huge number of foods that went from the Western hemisphere to Europe after the discovery of the New World and the many European foods that were introduced to the Americas at the same time. The last chapter is on building the larder.


Like chocolates, the book tends to encourage you to sample more than you initially intended. An example is Chapter 5 on Meat and Poultry. The author slips in a good deal of sound nutrition with the history. This reviewer learned that ancient humans used every bit of the animals they hunted for something-felt for blankets and fur for clothing, horns for drinking, bones for tools or needles, and of course the meat for eating. After always wondering what Kobe beef was (wagyu), the very fatty beef loved by the Japanese, there was a nice discourse on the breeds that produce it. But we also learn the origins of meat extracts such as Bovril, Maggi, and corned beef, and which breeds produce the famous pigs of Spain that end up no doubt against their wills as Serrano or Iberico ham, or Italy's equally delicious Parma ham. Did you know Frankfurters are called hot dogs because they look like dachshunds? Or that the Turducken of New Orleans cuisine has a long and venerable history of engastration (now called stuffing) of one animal inside another dating back to Roman times? For the nonmeat eaters among us, pick up the chapter on Fish and Shellfish. This reviewer was surprised to learn that there are more varieties of fish eaten than any other animal foods. The chapter starts with an interesting brief history of fishing before boats, and ancient man mastering the arts of catching or spearing fish, tickling trout to make it easier to grab the fish, and fish farming. There are plenty of details on codfish and the various ways of preserving it. There is a fine chapter on the Delights of Dairy for milk lovers. For the vegetarians, there is a whole chapter on Garden, Orchard, Hedgerow and Forest. The chapter concludes with a fascinating essay on mushrooms. Who knew that for hundreds of years that cuisines that included vegetables only provided cooked ones, with the sole exception of lettuce. There is a whole separate chapter on Rice and Noodles, and this reviewer learned that groups who eat their rice with chopsticks tend to prefer long-grain rice, whereas those who eat with their hands prefer the short and stickier varieties.


Mike Gibney, PhD. Food Through the Ages. Dublin, Ireland: Liffey Press 'Clareville.' ISBN 978-1-8383593-7-9


We all know we are in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and obesity in this country and in many others. The second book, Of Epidemic Proportions: The Art and Science of Obesity, consists of interesting short essays on obesity by Dr Sylvia Karasu. She is a psychiatrist who knows how to make a dreary subject interesting. My first impression of the book was how beautiful it is; it is a hefty tome with lavish illustrations in full color, and it is a pleasure just to look at the paintings and illustrations. This is the kind of book you can pick up, open to any page, and get a quick shot of knowledge about obesity, and then go on with whatever you were doing before that. I picked it up a few weeks ago and started at the beginning, learned a bit about the information explosion about weight, and then a quickie read on circadian rhythms and weight, and last but not least, "Did you ever see a fat squirrel?" which is a thoughtful recollection on the fact that animals in the wild rarely are fat. Interestingly, about a decade later, Mike Gibney, the author of the other book I am reviewing in this issue, wrote another book called "Did you ever see a fat fox?" on the very same thing! The next time I picked up the book, about a week later, I delved into the associations between excessive weight and cancer. In a page, Dr Karasu managed to explain the possible reasons for the association in a way everyone can understand. While I was well aware of the general associations, particularly with the hormone-dependent cancers, I was surprised to learn that those famous very fat Sumo wrestlers were at excess risk of certain specific cancers. Then, a few pages later, I happened upon a wonderful essay on the self-loathing of gluttony and how it relates to (and does not) binge-eating disorder. She also provides a rapid review of the history of the term in poetry and literature. Dr Karasu is a psychiatrist, and this is a particularly incisive piece about those poor individuals with binge-eating disorder, who take no pleasure in their immoderate eating, and the gluttons, who do take great pleasure in immoderate eating and who, the great physician, Sir William Osler, said, "dig their own graves with their teeth." Flip over a page or two and there is another wonderful essay on excessive weight and depression, and the complex relationship between weight and depressive disorders. There are so many chapters we could pick, but perhaps we should start with the essay that no doubt prompted the title, Of Epidemic Proportions. It begins with a dissection of the word "epidemic" and what it means, literally "upon the people." The high prevalence and rapid spread of obesity do characterize it as an epidemic, but Dr Karasu points out that obesity has always been with us, and that rather than making moral judgments that blame those who are overweight retrospectively, it is important to find ways to control the situation that we are facing today. She also warns against the medicalization of weight as a disease and the use of disease imagery that may have unintended consequences of expanding markets for those who sell obesity treatments. She goes on to some wonderfully perceptive and helpful discussions of the complexities of food cravings and of satiety and plenty of other topics that are still with us-the sugar substitutes, the effects of smoking on weight gain, and the potential role of the microbiota in the gut. All fascinating material well worth reading to gain a little more perspective on this difficult problem.


Sylvia R. Karasu, MD. Of Epidemic Proportions: The Art and Science of Obesity.


Expanded Edition. ISBN 978-0-578-79227-9 (available on Amazon).