- Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice by E. Melanie DuPuis
E. Melanie DuPuis
Oakland: University of California Press, 2015, xiv + 213 p., $34.95
With the number of publications on the development of the American diet increasing at an impressive rate, several authors have recently turned to the history of American dietary advice in a search for where [End Page 535] everything went wrong. E. Melanie Dupuis’s Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice joins Charlotte Biltkekoff’s Eating Right in America (2013), Jessica Mudry’s Measured Meals: Nutrition in America (2009), and, to a lesser degree, Helen Zoe Veit’s Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early 20th Century (2013), in combining history and advocacy and in emphasizing the intertwinement of dietary advice with particular moral, class, and socio-political positions – an intertwinement that is active in both past and contemporary discourses on “eating right.”1
Dupuis’s central argument is that, throughout American history, discourses of dietary advice have mirrored contemporary discourses of political inequality. Her book is thus less about the history of medical theories of digestion and diet than about how dietary advice functioned as a vehicle for communicating political, moral, and social views, even as these same views were subsumed into advice on what and how to eat. In Dupuis’s view, dietary advice was only partially about the way the body worked. It also served as a way to express how the body politic should work. Dupuis draws on structuralist anthropology and its dichotomies of inside/outside, clean/dirty, and toxic/non-toxic, using them to explore how the concepts of free will, control, and discipline reveal parallels between ideas of society and ideas of the body. Dietary and political reform movements receive particular attention since, as the author points out, their central actors frequently overlapped, and one can thus provide a window to the other.
Dupuis’s short book is divided into two main sections. The first section, “Freedom,” presents case studies from different eras in American history: the founding era, abolitionism, gilded age, and progressive era. Tracing connections between discourses on diet and discourses on morality and governance, she shows for each era its specific digestive expression of internal and external dangers. The “freedom” of the section heading is the freedom to govern oneself, which was predicated upon self-control, including control of one’s appetites and control of one’s body. Excluded from this self-governance were those who were not free to choose what went into their bodies (such as slaves), those who lacked control of their appetites (the Southern aristocrats who would not subordinate their appetites to Northern ideas of social status), and those who did not follow contemporary practices of purity (workers and immigrants). The body that struggled to defend itself from external and internal dangers through controlling the food it allowed in, was, as Dupuis makes clear, a white, middle-class, Protestant, Northern body. [End Page 536]
Dupuis brings little new material into her discussions in the first section and, instead, relies heavily on the work of scholars such as Biltkekoff and Harvey Levenstein. Her contribution lies in exposing the parallels between ideas of ingestion/digestion and ideas of governance as a constant in American history. In the second section, “Ferment,” she shifts to advocacy mode and adds her criticism of several of the most popular contemporary dietary reform movements. These movements, she claims, pursue a similar politics of purity as did her historical actors, communicating social and political values through the vehicle of dietary reform and dietary advice.
Dupuis’s assessment of these dietary reform movements is devastating. The bifurcation of American food systems into industrial-based and quality-based systems has been noted by other authors. For Dupuis, this bifurcation reiterates the class system that has plagued discussions about dietary reform throughout American history. The diets, foods, and dietary practices of lower income groups have always been on the wrong side of the debate. The question of “eating right,” however, is not often framed as a problem of income...