- Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health by Charlotte Biltekoff
Rarely does one get a chance to review of volume by a first-rate younger scholar, in this case an assistant professor of American studies and food sciences at UC Davis who is also a well-regarded vegetarian chef. This volume had its origin as a dissertation at Brown University, which is about (geographically and culinarily) as far away from San Francisco’s Green Restaurant where Charlotte Biltekoff worked as one can get.
Having framed the book, one might imagine that it is yet another account of how healthy eating saved (or didn’t save) America. On the contrary this is a sophisticated and difficult book because it argues that food politics and the concomitant ideas of a health body and lifestyle are forms of coercion. Certainly in the United States their origin is not only in the complexity of American eugenics, but they have maintained themselves in recent time as part of the “war on obesity” that has become the new calling card for American public health.
Who eats what has always been a central question in the United States. It is of little accident that among the first widely circulated books for Yiddish-reading [End Page 587] immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century an “American” cookbook trumped all others. Charlotte Biltekoff spells out in great and fine detail how the science of race improvement, Malthusian economics, and an obsession for producing healthy (and fat) babies merged into a post-World War II world of the ultrathin driven by ideologies of health and religion. Only in America could the result of the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, when Christ failed to return as predicted by the Millerite sect of Christianity, generate a religion rooted in food culture. The Millerite Ellen G. White simply reversed the claims about original sin and the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and argued for a strenuous vegetarian regimen as part of her new religion that followed her version of biblical principles. And so America became a land on which health, food, and religion (including its secularization) became entwined.
Charlotte Biltekoff does not return to Ellen White and the Seventh-day Adventists, but they haunt her volume. Yet they shape underlying attitudes of salvation through food that, in her telling, culminated in Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, and the “Edible School Yard,” the training ground of American locovars. Who worships what where is always the key, as is how such beliefs promise redemption: if not access to heaven at least to health. And a healthy citizen is, in good eugenic terms, a good citizen.
The images of “normal and healthy man/woman” (an odd version of what some economists call “rational man” and the law has called “reasonable man”) haunt such a history and can be seen in today’s politics of obesity. Michelle Obama has taken up childhood obesity as one of her primary interests as first lady. In her opening salvo on February 9, 2010, she commented,
It’s time for a moment of truth for our country; it’s time we all had a wakeup call. It’s time for us to be honest with ourselves about how we got here. Our kids didn’t do this to themselves. Our kids don’t decide what’s served to them at school or whether there’s time for gym class or recess. Our kids don’t choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in super-sized portions, and then to have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And no matter how much they beg for pizza, fries and candy, ultimately, they are not, and should not, be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We’re in charge. We make these decisions.1
Her view is that obesity is not a medical problem, even though it has health consequences; rather it...