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A book summary of Marvin Harris' Good To Eat - an anthropology of food and why we eat what we do

Have you ever opened a book and loved it from beginning to end? That's happened to me many times. Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason" and "Rights of Man" come to mind, but also every book by Marvin Harris. 



I first encountered Marvin Harris' writing as I read through the book pages on Derek Siver's site. The first, was Cows, pigs, wars and witches and I highly recommend you check that out.

But Harris has an entire anthology of books - all centered on human anthropology. He does a fantastic job of putting our history together in a readable, concise, but thoughtful summary. 

They are very similar, but predate, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, but they are also more complete, more accurate, and less biased.

Marvin Harris was an excellent journalist. He would occasionally insert his opinion, but would also preface it with the fact that he had no data to back up this presupposition. He provided data for everything else and presented his theories as unbiased as any human could.
 
I have owned many of Harris' books for a few years, mostly on pdf kindle formats. I just prefer real books, so when I had the chance to scoop a few of the books up at a recent estate sale, I went for it.

The first to be read: 
 
Good to Eat


Oh my gosh. I can't even begin with this book. It was fantastic from beginning to end. It did seem as if some of the material was recycled from a few of his other books (namely; cows, pigs, wars and witches) but there was so much more in this book. 

Many years ago I struggled with eating meat. The cruelty, the suffering, the viciousness of it all. Reading omnivore's dilemma finally gave me the words to explain what I was feeling and an honest rationalization of why I should eat meat. It ended a destructive 2 year stint of veganism and started me on my continual journey of selecting healthy food. 

Since then, I have visited feed lots, bought from local farmers, interviewed people that work in pig facilities, and watched cows be killed and slaughtered. I have also killed an animal with my own two hands for the first time. It was something I will never forget. 


But understanding why we do things, as individuals and as societies, is extremely important. If nothing else, it makes your actions conscious. 

Good to Eat does all of this. It goes over the history of human consumption. Why do we eat meat at all? Is it better if we don't? Why do we eat some animals and not others? Why do Hindu people shun beef and in fact religiously venerate cattle? Why do Jewish and Muslim people shun the pig? Why do American's not eat horses, dogs, cats, insects? These are all important questions and they are all answered in this book. 

Harris does an amazing job of laying out the history. If you found history to be boring when you were in school, you were right. But that is only because our system forces us to remember dates and people. Marvin Harris lays out the story. And the story is amazing. In all of his books, he goes over the human story (aka anthropology) and he has fantastic tales to weave.
A  sacred sebu cow roaming India


Good to Eat got a little hairy when the author started to talk about cholesterol and eggs, somewhere in the first third of the book. I was scared. This book was written in 1985 and science is always evolving. But to Harris' credit, he handled the issue swimmingly. He did not claim that the information from his day was the truth or even accurate. He just laid out the data. He discussed what was known in the past, what was presumed now, and gave information from clinical studies to back up his assertions. Even better, he picked apart the issues in the data. Once again, leaving us with the history of what was done, what was "known" and what we can safely know now. He did a great job. 

Like any older books that address food and health, it is clear the answers have always been known. My daughter once asked me why  there isn't there a solution to human health. Oh but there is. It's quite simple actually. Eat a balance diet, mostly plants. Move everyday. Get adequate sunlight. Be nice to other people. And find a purpose. 

It really is that easy, yet oh so hard. It goes against the status quo, the media giants, the large corporate interests that want us to feel unhappy so we buy and buy again. Everyone has a vested interest in keeping this sick mill going. The rat race (The best description of the rat race can be found in the beginning chapters of the Rats of NIHM. If you get a chance to read it, take the time to share it with a child. It's a great tale of love, adventure, hope, and triumph.)

This is a book I would whole heartedly recommend to anyone interested in food - why we eat what we do, why we forgo other edible goods, and what has changed in the human story.

In addition, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few of his other great books. Equally interesting and well researched. 



I have read all of these, except for America Now. It is on my shelf awaiting it's turn......










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