When I got Frederick Kaufman’s A Short History of the American Stomach, I had expected something along the lines of Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, perhaps with the cultural slant of Bill Bryson’s Made in America.
The key word here is “short,” since the official page count of 224 is a generous one, and even still describes a dimensionally-small book with large print. For all intents and purposes, A Short History of the American Stomach isn’t really a history at all; rather, it’s a collection of separate essays by Kaufman (or seems as such), linked by a shared theme of gastronomy and bound in a small volume.
Then, too, “history” implies a work of scholarship, and while Kaufman strikes me as a very intelligent man, I admit to being more than a little peeved by the complete lack of citations, endnotes, or bibliography, despite his frequent use not only of obvious references, but direct quotations. Like Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange, Kaufman’s book is pseudo-gonzo—a mix of armchair historian and investigative reporter.
The misleading title notwithstanding, I found a lot of what Kaufman said to be genuinely interesting: his thesis falls into two essential points:
- Americans in particular fetishize food.
- This is not a recent phenomenon.
He covers ground in roughly that order, beginning with a chapter on both the commercialization and the sexualization of food in America. As an ideal example of both, he cites the Food Network, a relatively recent television station which has, in the narrative arc of Emeril, become a major player in the television market. Food isn’t just nourishment anymore: it’s entertainment. And why not, given that televised food tugs so many of the same strings as pornography?
[Barbara Nitke] and I watched as Giada [De Laurentiis, Food Network star] prepared sopme italian cookies. As usual she was dressed in a tight, sleeveless top. “Now I can touch the dough and elongate it,” she said. “I’m getting it all over my fingers.” When Giada squeezed a lemon, the camera moved in for a close-up of the abundant yellow stream. “All that juice,” came Giada’s thick voice-over. “Oh my god,” said Nitke. “It’s watersports.”
But of course this shouldn’t be surprising: both the culinary and sensual realms deal overtly with the senses, involving as they do the looking, touching, smelling, and tasting (less so with hearing, though given Kaufman’s description of Giada’s voice-over, perhaps I should reconsider my position). They both produce pleasant chemical reactions in the brain; they’re both entertaining. It’s more interesting that we don’t more often consider the many overlapping elements of food and sex.
As if to spite this introductory melding of the culinary with the coital, Kaufman then takes us back to the foundation of America, noting the curious gustatory habits of the Puritans, who, though sexually repressed, were known to throw a hell of a banquet. They were also, however, prone to fits of fasting, generally believing it to be a red phone to God, and so it is often by the power of the stomach that men lived their lives.
It is impossible to overemphasize how important the stomach was to people of earlier ages; they were, in a word, stupid. They can be forgiven for attributing just about every malady under the sun to “dyspepsia” since medical science hadn’t given them many other options. And indeed, when you consider how much diet affects health, and how sensitive the stomach can be to other ailments, it’s hardly surprising that the well-meaning Cotton Mather to write “It may be one of the truest maxims ever yet advanced by any of the gentlemen, has been that a distempered stomach is the origin of all diseases.” Conversely, certain foods gained an official blessing—usually for an arbitrary reason—as panacea for all ills of the stomach; Mather was particular fond of whey.
Some of you might see the pattern already: the Cotton Mathers are alive and well in the 21st century, blaming the gastrointestinal tract for everything from cancer to sunburn. Sometimes they come in the form of the raw foodists (which Kaufman covers), who insists that raw milk boosts immunity, or that processed food contains the vague but frightening “toxins”1. Or, even better, that a colonic or laxative (or, if you’re lucky, both) will “flush” the GI system and therefore the whole body.
The raw foodist movement—and really the organic movement as a whole—is a reaction against the increasingly technological nature of food production2; we’ve been using hybrid grains for quite some time, but it’s becoming harder and harder to find food that hasn’t been somehow enhanced, multiplied, or increased by science. Kaufman’s final chapter details the story of oysters in America: the original east-coast population of the tasty3 mollusc was depleted, and via a number of contrivances, eventually replaced a more hardy breed. Work continues, in fact, to breed the perfect race of oysters which are both wildly populous and significantly larger than normal; the same process has happened to bananas, which is a little-known fact about a more widely-appreciated food.
As astute readers may have noticed, there is not much about the above that is tied very tightly to America; certainly, the Old World has far stranger culinary peculiarities than us, and genetic engineering and its resistance movement (raw foodism) exists in Europe, too. Excepting that Kaufman’s chosen examples are geographically within America, his point is not culturally American. But this is not necessarily a bad thing: Kaufman’s book is still a pocket version of Michael Pollan, and still contains interesting little non-fiction vignettes about the larger field of gastronomy.
- Bill Maher, normally such a smart guy, dashes my respect for him when he goes on these very tangents[↩]
- I don’t count things like colonics, since I consider them pure snake oil; the alt. medicine movement is a cynical attempt at commercialism, not a personal reaction to fears.[↩]
- I say this hypothetically: I would no more eat an oyster than I would eat my own boogers.[↩]