Plenty of ink has been spilled about twenty-first century Americans’ bizarre, conflicting views towards food—our simultaneous obsession with eating and weight loss, escalating struggles with anorexia and obesity, cultural love of both triple cheeseburgers and Master Cleanse diets. Such attitudes are usually characterized as distinctly modern phenomena, fueled by post-war advertising and the ever-growing influence of mass media.
But in A Short History of the American Stomach, Frederick Kaufman argues otherwise. “The feast and the fast,” he writes, “have always been American twins.” Kaufman claims that elements of today’s food culture—from fad diets to binge eating to the equation of diet with virtue—date back to Puritan times. The United States, in his conception, “was and remains one of the most gut-centric and gut-phobic societies in the history of human civilization.” And he proceeds to trace our national tendency to “devour,” both physically and metaphorically, from early American gourmandizing to the present day.
It’s a tidy little book premise, and a lively read, full of novel revelations about our forefathers’ eating habits. Who knew that Revolutionary-era Americans loved egg-eating contests (shells and all!), or that the earliest lyrics of “Yankee Doodle” were all about feasting on Native American food—or that the Puritans treated any physical or spiritual ailment with a good vomit? (They left that one out of My First Thanksgiving.)
Kaufman’s penchant for liberal metaphor and flashy prose leads him in a few strange directions. It’s one thing to poke fun at “food porn”; it’s another to sit down with a former pornography star to discuss, in graphic detail, its resemblance to the Food Network. Westward expansion may parallel the expansion of the American palate, but a zeal for bear steak and beef brains hardly spurred erstwhile Davy Crocketts to explore the wild frontier. Furthermore, Kaufman’s animated flippancy, while lending real humor to the absurd habits of nineteenth-century Americans, comes off as somewhat callous when it plows on through kosher eating habits and modern-day eating disorders.
There’s no question that Kaufman has a way with words, or an uncanny ability to dig up the weird little details of our nasty past. It’s easy to see how the Puritan’s patterns of fasting days and feasting days, intimately tied up with religion and perceived morality, translate to our extreme eating attitudes. I'd never known that the government declared formal fasting days (the way Obama might ask for a moment of silence) well into the nineteenth century. It’s unquestionably bizarre that modern media wholly dissociates food from hunger—how we salivate over the dishes on the Food Network (and, for that matter, the close-ups in Photograzing) whether we’re hungry or not. And there may indeed be something consumptive in our historical tendency to colonize and exploit every piece of land we come across.
Does our love of food reflect an all-consuming hegemony, sublimated sexuality, misdirected worship, or the information age "bowing down before the stomach"? Kaufman touches on each, often within the same page, and his ultimate conclusions seem a bit tenuous. But no matter how we define our foodie tendencies, and whether or not the American appetite can really be equated with the American dream, A Short History of the American Stomach elicits some serious food for thought.
"A Short History of the American Stomach" is now available in paperback.