Wine Book Review: History on a Plate (and in a Glass?)

Andreas Viestad, Dinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal. Reaktion Books, 2022.

All roads lead to Rome, they say, so the idea of a history of the world centered in Rome is not ridiculous. And, for food writer and activist Andreas Viestad, all pathways in Rome lead to his favorite restaurant, La Carbonara, so it is the only logical place to begin.

When in Rome …

Viestad (a favorite in the Wine Economist household for his television series New Scandinavian Cooking), takes us through a meal at La Carbonara, reflecting upon the experience as the courses follow their traditional sequence.

Viestad’s stories are not as intentionally global as the “history of the world in one meal” subtitle might lead you to expect (note that this is “a” history, not “the” history). Instead he talks mainly about Rome and Romans, and then Italy and Italians, leaving it mainly to the reader to connect dots to the world-wide implications and insights.  It’s fun! You learn a lot reading this book. And you get hungry, too.

The chapters are organized around the familiar elements of the Italy meal. Bread, antipasto, oil, and salt. Pasta, pepper, meat, fire, and lemon. And wine, of course, because this is dinner and this is Italy, so of course there is wine.

The best thing I can imagine would be to share a table at La Carbonara with Viestad and work through the  phases of the meal with him, listening to the stories he tells. (There would be room for a guest — in the book he dines alone!) And then, stuffed with pleasure, we would take the stroll around Rome he describes in the final chapter, ending with a soothing/shocking scoop of intense lemon sorbetto (lemons being the last topic discussed).

Since this first-person experience is unlikely to take place, I guess the second best thing is to take up the opportunity to read this creative and interesting book.

The Problem with Wine

But there’s a problem. Taken as a food book or a history book or a cultural guide for anyone who loves Italy or Rome, it is hard to deny Dinner in Rome‘s charm. But from a wine perspective it is hard not to be disappointed.

This may be because, as I read other parts of the book, I was mentally writing the chapter I hoped Viestad would write about wine. That chapter, I thought, might mirror in some ways the chapter on pasta, which invokes the Italian idea of “the civilization of the table” that Viestad suggests might easily be confused with the idea of civilization itself.

Is there a civilization of the glass that we might raise up along with the civilization of the table? Some think so, I believe, and there is even an Italian journal devoted to the idea. It is called Civilta del Bere (the civilization of drinking). So, you see, I was thinking about a chapter that might stress the ways that wine brings people together and both shapes and reflects relationships, both at the table and in other ways.

While the chapter that Viestad writes addresses many aspects of wine, his main point is that wine is alcohol and the point of alcohol is inebriation much of the time. The idea that wine is just the local alcohol makes me sad, since I think wine has much more to offer than that, but it is a problem since there are many who have this view.  My latest book Wine Wars II finishes with a section on “Wine’s Triple Crisis,” which examines the wine = alcohol syndrome and concludes that it is a threat to the future of wine as we know it. If wine is just alcohol, who needs it? There are cheaper ways to get numb!

Civilization of the Glass

Would it be possible to write a history of the world that framed wine and the civilization of the glass in a different way? Yes, I know it is possible because it has already been done. Economist editor Tom Standage’s 2005 book A History of the World in 6 Glasses uses beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola to trace an outline of global history.

It is interesting that Standage and Viestad focus on the same places and periods when it comes to wine: ancient Greece and Rome. But Standage tells very different stories. The Greek symposium, which in Viestad is all about getting drunk, is for Standage all about philosophy and, if the alcoholic temptation of drink is there (and it is), it is a passion to be resisted and controlled — a process that we might call civilization.

As Greek trade took wine throughout the Mediterranean, Greek culture and civilization tagged along. The civilization of wine and civilization — hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Wine in Rome, in Standage’s telling, has many layers. Taste, class, power, and empire all appear. If wine were just its alcoholic component it would not have been so important. I guess I stand with Standage in my thinking about the civilization of the glass and I feel a little bit sorry for Viestad that he doesn’t find more interesting stories in his half-full glass.

Highly Recommended

I wonder — would it be possible to write a book that tried to tell a history of the world in one wineglass the way that Viestad has done with one meal? Yes, I think it might work, although you’d need to break things down a bit so that the grapes, glass, bottle, cork, and the forces that spread them around the world and then brought them all back together wineglass could tell their stories.

But deconstructing your glass of wine wouldn’t be enough, as Viestad demonstrates with his Roman dinner. You also have to consider the whole and its significance. The civilizations of the table … and the glass.

Dinner in Rome by Andreas Viestad is highly recommended. A fine addition to your food and wine bookshelf.

One response

  1. Great column, Mike. I think you sell yourself short. Why shouldn’t you hook up with Andreas for dinner in Rome and talk about expanding his concept to expand the wine dimension? I’m sure the book is just the start, I have to assume he is going to do some video on this.
    Good analysis on the approaches to wine in the two books. I like your idea of a similar book using wine and all the elements you mentioned. With all the similar wine books around, this concept would add a different dimension.

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