Review of:
How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture.
Jennifer Jensen Wallach. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013. Pp. xv + 241. A Note on Sources. Index.




Writing a history of American food is a daunting task. All nations’ food cultures are complex, but food in the US, because of its multicultural character as well as the wide range of geographic regions and natural resources within the country, is particularly difficult to summarize and define. In this well-written and highly readable account, Jennifer Wallach succeeds in giving a coherent and scholarly history that ties food practices into larger historical trends and social contexts. Her account recognizes the numerous ironies and contradictions inherent in a society that has wavered since its beginnings between idealistic values and beliefs and the pragmatic necessities of survival. Wallach also explores in detail the histories and significance of selected foods and foodways traditions, making the book appealing to anyone interested in food as well as in American culture.

In her introduction, Wallach outlines her purpose in writing this book: synthesize previous research on the topic, contribute new insights of her own, and “…encourage students of history to recognize that the study of eating…can yield insights into a seemingly endless variety of other human behaviors” (xv). In my opinion, she successfully achieves those goals. Also, the last one clarifies her audience and explains some of the themes addressed—the roles of race, class, and gender in American culture as well as the ways in which ideas about religion, expansion, technology have shaped the institutions of American society and everyday practices of many Americans.

This approach makes the book an excellent text for classes in the disciplines of history, American studies, and food studies, although, at times, terms and concepts specific to historians of the US are used that need more explanation for the non-specialist. There also is occasional poor phrasing that gives an impression of simplistic cause-and-effect that I do not think the author intends and that do not fit with her usual nuanced readings of the past. Interpretations of the nation’s history as well as of its foodways are highly contested. Wallach usually makes that clear, but at times offers her own interpretation as the final one. I actually think this is quite useful for teaching, since students can then argue for or against her conclusions, but I am also concerned that some readers might confuse opinion for fact. Of more concern is an editorial decision to not include references within the text even for quotations. Wallach summarizes a great deal of scholarship, but usually credits only one or two authors in her summary. Her notes on sources at the end are helpful but not as extensive as they should be. On the whole, though, Wallach offers insightful perspectives on how food represents the complex history of American culture.

As its title suggests, the book explores how Americans have eaten since the beginnings of European settlement. Wallach identifies and discusses significant factors shaping those eating habits, demonstrating how they have led to a modern food system based on industrial agriculture with diets emphasizing large quantities of food that is highly processed, heavily packaged (both literally and figuratively), and low-cost. Her final chapter, “The Politics of Food,” looks at the contemporary issues of agribusiness practices, obesity and food access and security as well as the myriad obsessions around food as political statement, lifestyle, and entertainment. She usefully critiques these various movements surrounding food, not as judgment of their morality or effectiveness, but as continued expressions of Americans negotiating their own identities as well as a national one.

The book is arranged historically, with each chapter examining certain themes evident during that era. The themes speak to larger questions of American identity and character, helping to make historical events relevant to today’s readers and consumers. This approach also means that chapters can stand on their own in classes focused on particular themes.

In Chapter 1: “The Cuisine of Contact,” Wallach revisits the Thanksgiving story, delving into both the historical events mythologized and the construction of that myth in the mid- 1800s. She clarifies some of the details of that history—Tisquantum’s (Squanto) life history and his time in Europe as possible origin for his knowledge of fertilizing corn with fish; differences between pilgrims and puritans; the different motivations and goals of Plimoth and later Massachusetts settlements with Jamestown, Virginia and how that translated into foodways; and other details that demonstrate the complexities of understanding the past. Chapter 2: “Food and the Founding,” continues in this vein, examining how “colonization, conquest, and slavery” (55) are integral to the establishment of American food culture. Similarly, Chapter 3: “Foodways in an Era of Expansion and Immigration,” demonstrates that exploring and conquering new lands and new cuisines both enlarges Americans’ horizons and makes them cling to the known. Throughout these chapters, Wallach expands the reader’s understanding of what would now be considered racist and discriminatory attitudes as resulting from cultural beliefs about health, morality, the spiritual world, and human nature, as well as class systems and legacies of “old world” cultures. (This does not excuse the greed and apathy that figured into this history, but it does give insights into the dilemmas that faced those individuals.)

The next chapters also follow historical trends, but address central themes that have shaped American food culture. Chapter 4: “Technology and Taste,” looks at how the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected and institutionalized the classic dualism of man over nature, eventually creating an aesthetic and ethos among many Americans favoring highly processed foods, inexpensive foods. In “Gender and the American Appetite,” Wallach examines the ironies of the impact of technology on gender roles. Although women always held less political power, their economic and social significance was recognized prior to industrialization. Technology both freed women from domestic chores but made them less necessary and actually affirmed the notions that cooking and food work were easy and trivial. A fascinating account is given of Melusina Faye Peirce whose writings and work in the 1860s and later called for women to demand their domestic sphere be taken seriously and laid the foundation for the home economics movement. Although Wallach does not mention this, Peirce’s husband was one of the founders of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. Maybe her critiques of the meanings of women cooking impacted his thinking! Chapter 6: “The Pious or Patriotic Stomach,” explains the various food movements of the 1800s and 1900s that tied eating habits to notions of morality, health, and American nationalism. “Food Habits and Racial Thinking”: Chapter 7, explores the impact of racism on mainstream American eating habits. She looks not only at attitudes towards Blacks, but also varieties of White, European, as well as Chinese and Mexican immigrants. Wallach recognizes that a “melting pot” food culture does not necessarily mean acceptance and respect for the cultures behind that food. In her final chapter, as already mentioned, she explores some of the on-going themes and issues in American food history.

Overall, Wallach contributes to the small body of scholarly literature that looks at the historical sweep of American food culture and teases out the ways in which struggles over national, group, and individual identity were expressed through food. Perhaps more significantly, she also addresses questions that go beyond the fields of food studies and American studies to demonstrate that understanding the social and cultural contexts of food practices is more than simply an enrichment of our knowledge and enjoyment of food. There were both advantages and disadvantages to the progression of our eating habits; individuals made choices according to what was available to them at the time and according to the worldviews and value systems of those times. Understanding those contexts help explain not only what we eat today, but also how and why.

1. While there are a number of excellent studies of specific eras and themes in American food culture, there are only a handful of scholars who have tackled its history in its entirety. Wallach’s notes on sources mention some of these, but I mention here ones that are frequently cited as references and textbooks: Levenstein, Harvey. 2003. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press; Levenstein, Harvey. 1988. Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. New York: Oxford University Press; Pillsbury, Richard. 1998. No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place. Boulder, CO: Westview; Root, Waverly and Richard de Rochement. 1976. Eating in America: A History. New York: William and Morrow; Smith, Andrew F. 2009. Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. New York: Columbia University Press. Two books that explore region and ethnicity across the US are: Gabaccia, Donna R. 1998. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, and Long, Lucy M. 2009. Regional American Food Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press. Also, an excellent classroom text for studying American food from a cultural perspective is Counihan, Carole M., ed. 2002. Food in the USA: A Reader. New York: Routledge