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Racial Indigestion

Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

Kyla Wazana Tompkins

Publication Year: 2012

The act of eating is both erotic and violent, as one wholly consumes the object being eaten. At the same time, eating performs a kind of vulnerability to the world, revealing a fundamental interdependence between the eater and that which exists outside her body. Racial Indigestion explores the links between food, visual and literary culture in the nineteenth-century United States to reveal how eating produces political subjects by justifying the social discourses that create bodily meaning.

Combing through a visually stunning and rare archive of children's literature, architectural history, domestic manuals, dietetic tracts, novels and advertising, Racial Indigestion tells the story of the consolidation of nationalist mythologies of whiteness via the erotic politics of consumption. Less a history of commodities than a history of eating itself, the book seeks to understand how eating became a political act, linked to appetite, vice, virtue, race and class inequality and, finally, the queer pleasures and pitfalls of a burgeoning commodity culture. In so doing, Racial Indigestion sheds light on contemporary “foodie” culture's vexed relationship to nativism, nationalism and race privilege.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. vii


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pp. ix-xiii

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Introduction: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

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pp. 1-13

In 1900, the Thomas Edison Company produced a silent gag film called The Gator and the Pickaninny, depicting a theatrical scene in which a black child is fishing on a water shore. An alligator crawls up behind him and eats the child...

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1. Kitchen Insurrections

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pp. 15-52

We begin at the hearth. Here, at the mouth of the fireplace, at the bottom of the chimney’s throat, lies the ground for what follows in chapters 2 through 5, a conversation about the literature and visual texts that flowed from nineteenth-century eating...

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2. “She Made the Table a Snare to Them”: Sylvester Graham’s Imperial Dietetics

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pp. 53-88

As one of the century’s best-known antimasturbation campaigners, Sylvester Graham has long been thought of, particularly in popular histories of food and medicine in the nineteenth century, as the apotheosis of nineteenth-century...

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3. “Everything ’Cept Eat Us”: The Mouth as Political Organ in the Antebellum Novel

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pp. 89-122

Toward the end of Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Venus, the embattled Saartjie Bartman, also known as the Venus Hottentot, is offered a box of chocolates by her lover and captor, the Baron Docteur. Parks’s 1997 play dramatizes the life of Bartman...

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4. A Wholesome Girl: Addiction, Grahamite Dietetics, and Louisa May Alcott’s Rose Campbell Novels

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pp. 123-144

The first line of Work, Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel, opens on a revolutionary note. Revolution was in the air: the end of the Civil War had brought enormous change, beginning with the emancipation of the slaves and the passage of the Fifteenth...

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5. “What’s De Use Talking ’Bout Dem ’Mendments?”: Trade Cards and Consumer Citizenship at the End of the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 145-181

The food reform movements that emerged during the antebellum period and that evolved to haunt the novels of post–Civil War writers such as Louisa May Alcott contained a remarkably prescient fear of the food culture that was to succeed them...

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Conclusion: Racial Indigestion

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pp. 183-187

As I finish this book, I have been writing and thinking about food for almost two decades. From my beginning as a food writer and journalist and then on through my graduate education, food, eating, and the life of ideas have maintained an intricate relation...


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pp. 189-239


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pp. 241-258


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pp. 259-275

About the Author / Images

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814738375
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814770023
Print-ISBN-10: 0814770029

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 806343240
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Racial Indigestion

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Food habits -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Diet -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Cooking -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Human body -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Graham, Sylvester, 1794-1851.
  • Alcott, Louisa May, -- 1832-1888 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Food in literature.
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