PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food

by Nina Etkins

Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2006

xi + 301 pages. Tables, maps, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$50.00 (cloth), ISBN 0816520933

Food, we are told by Nina Etkins, is as much values as it is vitamins; as much culture as it is carbohydrates. Etkins’s Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food is a fascinating and highly original exploration of the complex and evolving relationships between peoples, places, and foods. In it the author attempts to deploy a biocultural perspective “which views health as affected by both the ideational elements that shape human-food interactions … and the biological consequences of food consumption” (4). Etkins weds the social and the pharmacological constitution of medicinal foods to illustrate what she suggests is a coevolutionary relationship between medicinal foods and the humans that eat them. Thus this book is above all an attempt to bypass reductionist arguments that have attempted to delineate the social construction of medicinal plants or offer a strictly scientific assessment that treats the human context as incidental to medicinal value. Edible Medicines instead portrays the medicinal properties of foods and their social lives as mutually constitutive. Blending equal parts biochemistry, anthropology, history and sociology, this is a book that, if at times difficult for non-specialists to follow, offers a unique multidisciplinary survey of global ethnopharmacology which promises to interest and educate readers from any number of academic backgrounds.

This is a remarkably difficult book to classify as it deftly and routinely crosses disciplinary and geographical boundaries. Edible Medicines is essentially a review of extant research in quite disparate fields around the globe and yet, by consulting an impressive selection of secondary sources and her own research into the Hausa people of Africa, Etkins is able to position herself to successfully facilitate a long overdue dialogue between the social and natural sciences on the question of ethnopharmacology. With a clear commitment to develop the historical, anthropological and biological components of her story fully, Etkins’s Edible Medicines covers a dizzying array of topics in chapters that nonetheless shine in their own right. Her introduction, for instance, provides a quick survey of allelopathy and the study of the alkaloids, phenolics, and other phytochemicals that provide medicinal plants with their distinctive properties. At the same time, however, her exploration of the organoleptic (sensory) properties of plants and human interpretation of particular sights, smells, and colors situates phytochemicals in a distinctly human world and ensures that this book is something more than a simple characterization of chemical traits. In later chapters Edible Medicines continues in its attempt to wed social and pharmacological descriptions of medicinal foods. “Food in the History of Biomedicine” offers a brief survey of western approaches to medicinal food from Hippocrates to Endocrinology; “The Lives of Social Plants” briefly highlights the social and medicinal significance of plants such as Khat, Coffee and Yerba Maté; “Medicinal Qualities of Animal Foods” briefly shifts the focus from plants to include the medicinal use of insects. Thus while particular chapters might place more emphasis on the sociology or history of medicinal foods, the anthropological and pharmacological facets of Etkins story are never overlooked.

In the end, however, there are limits to what can be taken from this book. With a gaze that manages to juxtapose everything from Hippocrates and present-day Fijians to Christopher Columbus and phytochemicals, it may not be surprising that those looking to Edible Medicines for depth in any one area will leave disappointed. This is a book whose strength is its wide coverage, its broad conclusions and its impressive bibliography but whose weaknesses include a tendency to skim such subjects as the Columbian Exchange or the Galenic medical system in but a few short pages or even paragraphs. What Etkins includes is invariably valuable and meticulously researched but is often just a taste of fascinating stories that inevitably leaves the reader wanting more. What the average reader will be able to draw from this work is lessened still by a reliance on an often arcane and frequently frustrating technical vocabulary that seems unwarranted in a work aimed at a broad audience. The repeated use of words such as “organoleptic,” and the use of phrases such as “At present, most attention is paid to the positive effects of people-plant proxemics via passive-visual and participatory-cultivating-cooking interactions” (41), frequently left this reader at a loss.

Additionally, the author fails to adequately engage with issues of intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples and the recognition of indigenous medical knowledge. While contending, for instance, that the medicinal plant Kava is vitally important to Pacific Islander ritual and social life, she only cursorily describes how this same plant was adopted by settlers in the area and, at the same time, spread throughout the world with diasporic communities of Pacific Islanders. Similarly, the processes by which tea was transplanted throughout European empires in East Asia are summarized in little more than a few lines. In her discussion of the diffusion of spices Etkins suggests that novel plants “were more than simple introductions and substitutions; they were further transformed in their cultures of destination” (95). In what follows, however, whether an account of the connection between Chinese five spice and cosmology or an explanation of the antimicrobial properties of spices, readers are given precious little insight into how these plants were spread, how knowledge of their properties was maintained or transformed and why these particular plants became relevant to the spiritual and medical lives of the peoples around the globe. In effect, the diffusion of knowledge is frequently treated as an event rather than, as an emphasis on coevolution might suggest, an historical process.

In retrospect this flaw seems part of a larger failing to adequately consider the impact of globalizations and colonialisms on the diffusion of medical knowledge and a reluctance to discuss the political dimensions of medicinal foods in the modern world. Aside from vague descriptions of “political economy” that pop up throughout the work, there is little explicit attention to the asymmetrical power relationships that affect bodily and mental health, relationships with and access to natural environments, and the survival of religious and ritual life in colonized communities.

Ultimately, and in spite of some very real flaws, many scholars will find this book a welcome addition to their collection. Whether interested in the history of botanical exchange, the cultural significance of medicinal plants or the chemical characteristics of everyday foods, there are few readers who will not gain something by reading this well researched and fascinating book.


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