Thursday, May 24, 2012

A History of the World in Six Glasses

A History of the World in Six Glasses
© 2006 Tom Standage
311 pages

A toast to human enterprise! Pick your poison -- beer, wine, rum, tea, coffee, or Coca-Cola. Three are alcoholic, three are caffienated: all were the stuff of empires, and the story of those empires is one Tom Standage is intent on telling. He begins with beer and wine in Mesopotamia and Egypt and moves to wine in Greece and Rome. The focus then shifts to Europe and the rum-fueled Age of Discovery that saw European nations expand across the world and remake it in their image. While distilled spirits ran the high seas, the intellectual minds of Europe stayed keen with coffee from Arabia. British and American imperialism are charted through Asian tea and Coca-Cola, respectively.

The result is light popular history that succeeds based on the author's lively tone and the perspective, which takes the lofty subject of World History and brings it down to the tavern table, supplying readers with both interesting tales about their beverage of choice as well as a greater appreciation for the role those drinks played in world history; some of the connections Standage reveals surprised even me. The importance of each drink varies; some are material, like the beer which was tied to agriculture, the basis of society, and the tea which drove British foreign policy and led to the opium wars. In the case of wine and coffee, the relevance is more ethereal: Standage champions wine-wet symposiums as an instrument of Greek excellence.  The section on Coca-Cola is an odd duck, the only one to mention a brand name. Perhaps this is because Coca-Cola succeeded like no other brand,  but it still sits oddly, and its chapters almost read like history with product placement. Standage is delightful to read, but his narrative isn't quite as thorough as I might have liked.There's no mention given to Coca-Cola's connection to the spread of fast food restaurants, for instance, though I had no idea how instrumental the Second World War was to its success.

Light, but fun; I'll probably be trying Standage's similar work, An Edible History of Humanity.

The Coffee Trader, David Liss
Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis

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