Review

The Foods That ‘Changed’ the World

What happened to all those bestselling individual food histories?

commodity-books-lead
commodity-books-lead
By , a lecturer in history and fellow of Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge.

Twenty-five years ago, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World hit the shelves. The book was a surprise sensation, a New York Times bestseller about a fish that, by Kurlansky’s own reckoning, the average American ate, at most, 4 pounds of each year. (That average American consumed, by contrast, 233 pounds of red meat.) Cod also spawned its own genre of global food microhistories. By 1999, just two years later, readers could consume books on the “humble potato,” nutmeg, and chocolate. 

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Cod wasn’t the first history to use food as a lens. Sidney W. Mintz’s 1985 classic, Sweetness and Power, showed how the trajectory of a food—in Mintz’s case, sugar—could be used to tell a story of imperial power, the rise of the modern world, and the unattributed contributions of marginalized people. The driving force of the sugar economy was Africans enslaved in the Americas, and in turn they powered the rise of the British and French empires. 

Twenty-five years ago, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World hit the shelves. The book was a surprise sensation, a New York Times bestseller about a fish that, by Kurlansky’s own reckoning, the average American ate, at most, 4 pounds of each year. (That average American consumed, by contrast, 233 pounds of red meat.) Cod also spawned its own genre of global food microhistories. By 1999, just two years later, readers could consume books on the “humble potato,” nutmeg, and chocolate. 

Cod wasn’t the first history to use food as a lens. Sidney W. Mintz’s 1985 classic, Sweetness and Power, showed how the trajectory of a food—in Mintz’s case, sugar—could be used to tell a story of imperial power, the rise of the modern world, and the unattributed contributions of marginalized people. The driving force of the sugar economy was Africans enslaved in the Americas, and in turn they powered the rise of the British and French empires. 

But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the emerging idea of globalization challenging the supremacy of hegemonic state power, Kurlansky’s Cod started a trend. Books looking at the history of the world through one food captured readers’ attention at a particular moment of global economic change. Judith A. Carney’s Black Rice, published in 2001, presented a hotly debated new interpretation of Africa’s technological and intellectual contributions to the rise of agriculture in the Americas. A few years later, volumes on rum and bananas joined the growing range of books that told the history of the Americas through food. A series published by Reaktion Books starting in 2006 looked at a wide variety of foods in global history: avocado, lemon, mushroom, corn, coffee, and more. Kurlansky published more, too, on milk, salmon, and oysters. 

Of course, Marxist historians had been using economic forces to explain world history for more than a century. But in the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, popular interest in economic history took off, untethered from the ideological battle between Marxist and anti-Marxist analysis. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, people were curious about how the new unipolar world might look. There was no longer the clarity of theoretical, neatly separated spheres: “Third World,” “free world,” “communist bloc.” Would global trade bring global peace? What would the world look like now that everyone was free to eat McDonald’s and drink Coca-Cola? 

Rather than explaining world-historical change as being about the politics of states, these books proved that consumer demand for a single food could create unexpected global economic and trade connections. Kurlansky showed in Cod how buying salted cod had led to the rise and fall of empires. Consumer demand for the white fish gave rise to new industries, new food delivery systems, and new commercial interest groups that called for political support, intervention, and, in some cases, annexation. With the West’s recent triumph of capitalism over communism, readers wanted to know, how would global consumer demand change history? 


Cod opens in the 1997-present as a fishing vessel sets out from a small Newfoundland harbor town. The fishermen explain to Kurlansky how their lives have changed as a result of overfishing. After 1,000 years of provisioning the world, by 1992 the cod was almost entirely gone, which is why that year Canada closed most of its eastern waters to groundfishing (the catching of fish that live close to the seafloor, including cod). These fishermen were reemployed by the government to fish for cod—but only to tag, measure, and report back to the conservation scientists who monitored the cod population. 

Book cover of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
Book cover of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky, Walker & Co., 294 pp., $17 (pb.), June 1997

The book then zooms back in time, to the start of cod’s global history, an era of medieval Basque fishermen, Vikings, and an Atlantic Ocean abundant with 3-foot-long cod. In a narrative interspersed with historical recipes—the inclusion of recipes became common practice in these books, linking the genre to another emerging trend, hipster heritage and local food and drink cultures—Kurlansky unfurls a new history of the European relationship with the Americas. 

It was fishermen, rather than Christopher Columbus, who knew that there was land on the other side of the Atlantic from Europe. They kept it secret because they wanted exclusive access to that land’s rich offshore fishing. Cod, and particularly the innovation of salt cod, made long-distance fishing possible because the fish could last the long journey, and the wide market for it made riskier ventures worthwhile. 

By the 1700s, fishermen from Britain, Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the soon-to-be United States were competing over groundfisheries across the North Atlantic. Control of this precious food was on the table in the negotiations at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. World wars saw Iceland’s economy boom as a result of its new control over its own fishing waters. As late as the 1970s, Britain and Iceland were fighting “cod wars” for territorial control of fishing grounds.

Cod remained popular with consumers as salt cod was replaced with its frozen version. In the 1920s, Clarence and Eleanor Birdseye found a way to industrialize a process they witnessed in Labrador, Canada. Frozen fish led to fish sticks, which made use of the enormous quantities of other groundfish, not just cod, being scooped up by increasingly thorough industrial trawlers. Fish sticks led to new factory towns in New England. 

And then, by the 1990s, the fish that had once been so abundant that early European settlers in North America could scoop it “out of the sea in baskets,” Kurlansky writes, was gone. A whole way of life, built around the cod economy, was over. And, as the book closes, it’s not entirely clear whether, even with the temporary conservation measures in place, it would ever come back. 

When Cod came out, the North American Free Trade Agreement was just 3 years old. The trade union of Canada and the United States, whose fishing grounds provided the cod “that changed the world,” marked yet another step in a story of trade liberalization that had begun in the 1970s. The World Trade Organization (WTO), only 2 years old, had already grown from 76 member states to 131. Two years later, in 1999, a large coalition that included labor unions, conservative politicians, and progressive environmental organizations protested against the WTO trade negotiations in Seattle. Global trade was in the news, and its significance and consequences were the subject of active debate.

Book cover of Salt: A World History
Book cover of Salt: A World History

Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky, Walker & Co., 484 pp., $19 (pb.), January 2002

These new trade agreements promised to distribute global trade in ever more efficient ways to ensure that everyone could have quick and cheap access to necessary foods. Salt, Kurlansky’s follow-up bestseller, published in 2002, looks back at how this particular and necessary food connected parts of the world in specific trade patterns. He explores how different cultures processed food to get access to salt and how it shaped trade routes. Salt, even more so than Cod, embraces the environmental determinism of history: All cultures had a need for salt, but their methods for getting it depended on what was available locally. In Asia, the vehicle was soy sauce; in Europe, salted fish; in Africa, a complex trade between the Sahara and the coastal regions. The book is also full of fun, easily remembered historical facts, the kinds that make these food histories so digestible: In England, for instance, towns with names ending in -wich are often associated with ancient salt production. The ancient artisanal methods for accessing and using regional saltworks declined as global trade expanded, leaving only these scattered linguistic and culinary artifacts of its past importance to local industry. 

Most of the readership for these books, by the genre’s height in the first half of the 2000s, had stopped experiencing capitalism as the expansion of industrial jobs. With outsourcing on the rise, it wasn’t the victory of U.S. industry over Soviet industry that was celebrated. Instead, capitalism was cast as triumphant because it was able to provide consumers with what they wanted. Consumerism went hand in hand with democratic liberalism, packaged together as freedom of choice. People were engaging with systems of power as consumers, with a belief in the rights and protections granted to that group. Consumer rights were more trustworthy than so-called democratic rights because they crossed partisan political divides. And consumer demand was a purer and more comprehensible explanation for local and international power jealousies than ideology.

Yet while neoliberal globalization celebrated the deregulation of consumption and brought new levels of economic freedom, it also brought greater environmental change that it was ill-equipped to respond to. At the end of each of these single-food histories was a new question for the era of global free trade: Can we feed the world without destroying it?


It’s no coincidence that 1999, the year of the Seattle WTO protests, also saw the publication of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, a handbook published by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. By 2006, the proliferation of single-food histories was joined by Michael Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan argued that the technological progress that had made all food available all the time in globalized consumer markets was responsible for environmental destruction and a fundamental rupture between food and culture. 

Food histories—or the history of the world through a food—present readers with a conundrum. Consumers have agency and so should think about how the things they eat are shaping the economy and shaping the politics around them. But in a global economy where a necessity like wheat is dominated by several large producers, how much power do consumers really have? 

Book cover of Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World
Book cover of Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World

Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World, Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, The New Press, 352 pp., $27.99, May 2021

The early iterations of these food histories focused on the ways that consumer demand shaped world history. In more recent books, after 2008 and an economic crisis that showed the fragility of global systems, the power of a single food to change the world has been tempered with the ways in which disease, environmental change, and control by businesses, states, and empires impact consumer demand. 

As Jocelyn C. Zuckerman asks in her 2021 book, Planet Palm, “Had consumers really demanded this product, or had it somehow been the other way around?” Palm oil was the classic “invisible” food. Widely used in West Africa for centuries, it was first used in Europe as a “processed” food in margarine in the late 19th century as a means of providing cheap sustenance to Europe’s poor. As a result of a combination of agricultural frontier land investments, rising global demand for cheap food, and a shrinking number of global food corporations dominating the market, it has spread into most processed foods. Palm oil is now fueling a global health and environmental crisis, highlighting that Western consumers may not have the power they once assumed they did. India is the world’s largest importer of palm oil. Indonesia, the world’s largest producer, threatened to pull out of the Paris climate agreement when the European Union announced plans to phase out palm oil biofuels.

When national food security is threatened, what should nations and empires do? As Scott Reynolds Nelson explains in his new book, Oceans of Grain, while there are many definitions of an empire, “at its deepest level an empire may be a monopolizer of food along ancient grain pathways that it never fully understands.” Protecting those food supplies is at the heart of statecraft and empire-building. Oceans of Grain reinterprets the history of the past 200-plus years through the contest between Russia and the United States over dominance of the global wheat market. When Russia prohibited grain exports in 1853, likely to ensure that its military could have access to cheap food in its fight against the Ottomans, the price of wheat in Western Europe jumped 35 percent, and bread riots broke out across southwestern England. So began the Crimean War. Wheat—its price, availability, and distribution—has been at the heart of war and revolution for centuries. 

Book cover of Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World
Book cover of Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World

Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World, Scott Reynolds Nelson, Basic Books, 368 pp., $32, February 2022

Nationalism and protectionism were the logical consumer responses to powerlessness in the face of global change. It doesn’t matter if a British reader of Planet Palm stops consuming palm oil; India is its biggest market. It doesn’t matter if a Senegalese fish consumer eats only locally caught fish; Chinese demand is what is causing the exhaustion of its fishing grounds. It doesn’t matter that Egypt used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; as the world’s largest wheat importer, it’s facing record-high prices because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Food security is a global problem. It is an environmental problem. But as these books show, consumers are only part of the equation in understanding the search for new food frontiers. There is also local politics—and commercial interest, investors, and the ambitions of would-be empires—to factor in. 

The questions raised by Cod 25 years ago remain relevant, even as the stakes of the globalization debate have shifted. Fishermen overwhelmingly supported Brexit, with one report estimating that 92 percent intended to vote to leave the EU. The U.K. government bundled with Brexit a now-abandoned promise that EU fishermen would not be allowed to fish in a zone 6 to 12 nautical miles from the British coast. Kurlansky knew this was coming. When Spanish fishing was allowed into Irish waters in 1994, fishermen in Cornwall and Devon “had someone else to blame for their dwindling cod stocks.” Even in the 1990s, the British, who had launched three cod wars against Iceland to keep those waters open to them, were concerned that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was a failure because it allowed other European states into U.K. waters. As the fish started to run out, the response was to shut the fishing grounds to outsiders. By 2022, the North Atlantic cod was still not back. But global alternative sources for the fish are also shrinking, with Russian imports banned in many countries in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.

Global food security was not really global after all. And with dozens of individual food histories stacking up on the shelf, it becomes clearer that it won’t be a single food that changes the world.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 print magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Bronwen Everill is a lecturer in history and fellow of Gonville & Caius College at the University of Cambridge. Most recently, she is the author of Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. Twitter: @bronweneverill

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