American pie and food for thought

We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

Harvard University Press: 1998. PP.278 £16.50, $24.95
Pizza the action: contestants at the first world pizza-eating championships held in New York in 1996. Credit: AP

The academic study of food and eating will have achieved a legitimate place among scholars when authors no longer need to defend their subject matter from accusations of triviality or frivolity, and when writers of dust-jacket blurbs stop having to describe a book on its social history as “thoroughly entertaining”. Despite still having to suffer these minor indignities, Donna R. Gabaccia's book goes a long way towards making them obsolete.

Like others in the field, it considers the puzzle that human beings are simultaneously conservative and adventurous eaters. Like others, it plays about with Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's aphorism of 1825: “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.” These beginnings are the springboard for its examination of about two hundred years of recurrent ethnic exchanges of both food and people that will reveal the identity of Americans. In the process, though, this book takes us further than others by exemplifying some intellectual attitudes that are well worth considering.

Organized largely chronologically, the book wisely avoids puns on melting-pots and cooking-pots, relying instead on creolized eating, a notion used here in a loose sense without reference to dominant or dominated groups. It begins in colonial times, takes us through the most fevered period of the mixing of cultures, tastes and immigrants (roughly from the 1880s to the Second World War), past a self-conscious 1970s reassertion of ethnic variety, to reach the present and the mildly surprising claim that the “foods we eat commemorate a long history of peaceful cultural interaction”.

Early burger: the first McDonald's hamburger stand opened in 1948 in California. Credit: AP/MCDONALD's HO

Plenty of thought-provoking and probably little-known details are presented along the way. For instance, slaves would sell their surplus home-grown vegetables and fresh meat to their masters. Both Chinese and non-Chinese lunch counters in a small area of Massachusetts served chow-mein sandwiches, an enterprising 1920s invention; as if it were not enough of a cross-cultural blend to mix chow-mein noodles, bean sprouts, chopped meat, onions and gravy in a hamburger bun, non-meat versions were available for Roman Catholic customers on a Friday. And later in this century, in an anonymous memoir, an Italian boy wrote that it never occurred to him that “just being a citizen of the United States meant that I was an ‘American’. ‘Americans’ were people who ate peanut butter and jelly on mushy white bread that came out of a plastic package.”

Gabaccia has a lightness of style, but this should not beguile readers into thinking that this is just a pleasing story-book with vivid illustrations. It is a skilfully written professional history imbued with a social anthropological sensibility. I wish that more British social anthropologists (and sociologists) in this field would trouble themselves to return the compliment by paying such diligent attention to social history. Gabaccia not only embraces the anthropological insight that human beings bestow meaning on food, making it not just good to eat but also good to communicate with, but goes on to grasp the other side of the anthropological debate, which requires detailed analysis of the material and economic circumstances that bring people and food together to allow communicative meanings to be created.

But more than this, Gabaccia recognizes that understanding eating habits requires not just one but several histories: of recurring human migrations, of agriculture, of (big) business and of consumption. This intellectual attitude and methodological grip on the study of food and eating is the book's great strength. It is this attitude — not its substantive, and slightly unconvincing, conclusions, including the declaration that Americans' eating habits show them to be a nation of multiethnics rather than a multiethnic nation — that guarantees the book's respectable academic scholarship. And it is this attitude that students would do very well to follow.

The book will help to give students a good start. But it is frustrating to find so lean an index, and that not all sources are referenced. Was this to try and keep the price down, or anxiety lest a greater weight of footnotes put off a popular market? Even if the latter, courting a wide readership is not to be confused with promoting the public understanding of science. A decision to reference everything properly would at least have spared author and editor the embarrassing slip of the pen that attributes The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's 1906 fictional exposé of the conditions of the Chicago slaughterhouses, to his contemporary Sinclair Lewis.

But the book's appendix of sources is a fine entrée for beginners. The important references to the professional literature on the social history of eating in the United States will give novices all they need to start by themselves. Even better, for the specialist and potential graduate student alike, Gabaccia provides an enthusiastic couple of pages as an enticing guide to remarkable, apparently extensive but seemingly untapped archives. And anyone investigating industrialized eating could do a lot worse than bear in mind her shrewd observation about commercialized food consumption: “American eaters' search for the familiar and the novel became matters of consumer choice just as producers' and retailers' experiments with both innovation and traditional techniques became marketing strategies.”

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Murcott, A. American pie and food for thought. Nature 393, 427–428 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30885

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