“Black Paths” and Trade Routes

In Barry Cunnelif’s Desert, Steppe, and Ocean, he makes the observation that trade routes never disappeared completely. Even if something had not been available for generations, as long as a sample remained, someone would say, “You know, I wonder if we/I can get more of that,” whatever that happened to be—lapis lazuli, fancy weavings, spices, unusual metal alloys, odd pottery. Movement of food also seems to have followed a similar pattern, although there were other complications, most notably the question of bulk transport of a perishable good.

I just finished reading a rather different book entitled Oceans of Grain. I’ll do a full review later, because I need some time to chew on the author’s ideas, pun intended, and decide what I think about them. The book is fascinating, and useful. One thing the author points out over and over is that the “black paths,” the trade routes for grain from the Russian and Ukrainian steppes to other places never went away. Come plant disease, come Black Death, the trade routes might fade from use, or be avoided, but they always came back. Just like the older routes across Central Asia, and I suspect in other places as well. People remembered that something good or useful came from “over that way,” and once demand returned, then transportation also restarted.

People always seem to want what we don’t have. Some thing different, something Odd, catches our eye and we dig it up, or trade for it, or (a very few per generation) go to see where it came from and if we can get more. Doing that for food is obvious, and appears over and over in history. Mesopotamian records, Chinese records, the Books of Genesis and Ruth, the decline of “Old Europe” and the arrival of the Proto-Indo-European speakers, the end of the Anasazi and the rise of the Rio Grande Valley peoples, they are all part of the constant story of finding food and bringing it home, or going to where the food is. But what purpose does lapis lazuli serve, or raw copper that is not made into tools? Obsidian made excellent sharp arrowheads and knives, although it is a bit more fragile than flint, and passed from hand to hand across continents, or at least across regions. But what about carpets and cloth? Apparently a market has always existed for “like what we make but different,” even if it is the same material? It seems to be part of being human to want unusual things, either for status, or just because they are “not like what we make.”

German highways overlay Roman roads, which often used or paralleled older routes, some of which might be animal trails to salt or good grazing or shelter. English roads follow Roman roads, but not always, because the Roman used roads to show power as well as to get there from here the fastest way possible. Ancient routes across the steppe connected grain-consumers to grain growers, and later railroads ran along the foot paths and cart-roads. To the east, old, old ways ran from oasis to spring to sheltered valley, from the Black Sea or even the Balkans east to China. Other routes branched off to the south, to Mesopotamia, the Oxus and Indus Rivers, and the Amur. Trading cities rose and fell with climate and culture, but despite multiple interruptions over the centuries, ideas and things passed back and forth. Domesticated horses, wheeled chariots, bronze technology, barley and other grains, silk and gems and spices, back and forth they went.

Perhaps, instead of Homo ludens or homo faber, we should use homo commercium. Man the trader instead of “man who plays” or “man the maker.” Because we swap everything and anything, and do it over the same paths for thousands of years.


Book Review: Garden Variety

Hoenig, John. Garden Variety: The American Tomato From Corporate to Heirloom. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) Hardcover.

We all know that there are only two things that money cannot buy, per country music. Those are true love and homegrown tomatoes. Most of us have probably grumbled about the visually perfect and rather bland super-‘mater that is found in grocery stores in January, and many of us have sighed and sweated over trying to raise our own tomatoes in pots, or in gardens. And then felt overwhelmed by the produce overload that is known as August-September (in much of the US). Tomatoes are argued over, debated, immortalized in song, have a folk history, and serve as a powerful symbol of the problems of mass-grown corporate agricultural produce. But what if that story is a lot more complicated that most activists think? Enter John Hoenig and his fun book, Garden Variety.

Hoenig starts about 200 years ago, looking at the slow rise in popularity of tomatoes, and the problem of preserving them. You can’t easily dry, smoke, salt, or otherwise store tomatoes. Potatoes, corn [maize], turnips, squash, cabbage, beans, all can be easily kept for the long duration of winter, but tomatoes were a seasonal luxury until canning came along. Ketchups of mushrooms, then tomatoes, and sauces came first because of the limits of technology. Those limits also led to the creation of lots of regional canneries, each using local produce and serving a limited area. In those places where immigrants and others introduced new diets, like the Italians in the late 1800s, tomatoes became a luxury, then a necessity. To have the first tomato of the season brought a lot of money to farmers, and so cold-frame-grown tomatoes appeared, or tomatoes shipped by rail. However, most tomatoes ended up in cans, either at home or through the local cannery.

WWI and especially the Great Depression and WWII led to the explosion of both canned tomato products and the super-cannery. Standardized foods, like canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Ro-Tel™ tomatoes-n-peppers, and canned meals grew in popularity. The wars absorbed almost all the tomato products that Heinz and others made, forcing gardeners to can at home. With the shift in the economy and changing leisure-time interests, home canning faded for a while. That shift also led to the end of the bracero and other farm-labor programs. This is where the “industrial tomato” arose, when labor shortages in the 1960s forced growers to finally take interest in a mechanical harvester. Said harvester needed sturdier tomatoes, leading to the modern industrial hybrids.

Most histories of food in the US turn here, following the rise in mass-consumption and the “blanding” of the American diet as corporations came to dominate agri-business. However, Hoenig takes a different track, and points out how a combination of “back-to-the-land,” “gourmet,” and “traditionalists,” led to the resurgence in farmers’ markets and heirloom local tomatoes. Yes, most packaged produce still comes from big farms and corporations. However, the local tomato didn’t wither on the vine, and in fact old-breed varieties grew in popularity, as did farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This complicates the story of “corporate food.”

The book is shorter than it seems, because of the extensive end-notes and bibliography. It is not academic, for all that it is written as an academic monograph. Hoenig aims the work at interested readers, people who might know a little about farm history, or gardening, or food history, and who want to learn more. There are no bad guys, no super-heroes, unlike some books about farming and agri-business in the US. The story never strays from the tomato. I got the sense that Hoenig is not entirely comfortable with the giant corporations that dominate supermarket shelves, and the environmental problems associated with monocrop farming. Those topics are not his focus, however, and he steers clear of the shoals of polemic. I suspect a lot of us share his concerns, and are interested in buying local and supporting more variety in ag when we can.

I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the history of food in the US, in farming and mechanization, and in quirky histories about produce.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.