America’s obsession with food

An English professor examines America’s ‘gut-centricity.’

Top TV celebrity chefs lick their fingers and glance coyly at the cameras even as they tantalize viewers with unattainable meals.

The Food Network has 90 million enthusiastic viewers but if you ask Frederick Kaufman, professor of English at New York’s City University, the shows are just another example of “gastroporn.” This is only one of the topics that Kaufman explores in his recent book, A Short History of the American Stomach. Although the current preoccupation with food seems to have reached a peak within the past 15 years, Kaufman makes the case that Americans have been obsessed with food ever since the Puritans stumbled off the Mayflower.

From the historical writings of Cotton Mather and William Alcott to the modern-day antics of on-air chefs, Kaufman dissects the country’s fixation with its gut. His tastes are wide-ranging: eating contests at Coney Island, a lab genetically engineering Chesapeake Bay oysters, and an underground raw milk coven in New York.

En route back to the first American meal, Thanksgiving, Kaufman covers the Puritanical preoccupation with laxatives and diuretics, the reasons Benjamin Franklin gave up his vegetarian diet, and why dairy farmers created a 900-pound “Mammoth Cheese” in honor of Thomas Jefferson supposedly made from “the milk of one thousand Republican cows.”

With sharp, irreverent commentary, Kaufman digests America’s relationship with food. The bottom line: It’s all consuming. “And the more I learned,” he writes, “the more convinced I became that absolutely nothing had changed” throughout US history.

Because he locates the stomach as the center of outsized American idealism, Kaufman’s probe is more ironic than it is literal, reveling in pointing out inconsistencies from the furthest extremes of eating. Where else but America would the sheer volume of ecofriendly vegetarian books destroy entire forests? What about those diet gurus who promote the live-forever diet and yet die young? And why do Three Cheese Pizza Bagels need to receive a seal of approval from kosher certifiers?

The best of Kaufman’s reporting delves into the driving forces behind issues as broad as capitalism by considering, in detail, the throng of rabbis who inspect 13,000 grocery items produced in accordance with Jewish food laws.

At times, Kaufman appears to gloss over historical nuance, but this brief, chatty tour offers a fascinating interior view of the nation’s gut-centricity.

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