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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 131-138
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We Are What and How We Eat
COMMON, EVERYDAY ACTIVITIES--SUCH AS PLAYING, EATING, LOVING, AND WORKING--are ideal subjects for students of the culture of the United States. Explaining them makes it imperative to cross disciplinary boundaries. However "natural" they seem at first, culture and tradition have profoundly shaped them. Of these fields, scholars in American Studies have devoted much attention in recent years to two: playing and loving, including the latter's co-conspirator, sexuality. In contrast, eating has only begun to emerge as a subject with a cultural past. Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of books by historians greatly enriched our sense of how to think about the relationships between food, culture, and the past. Most notably are Warren J. Belasco's Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry (1989), Joan Jacobs Brumberg's Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (1988), and two by Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (1993) and Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (1988). 1 With the publication Amy Bentley's Eating for Victory and Donna R. Gabaccia's We Are [End Page 131] What We Eat, the study of food and eating, as fields within history and cultural studies, has reached an appreciable maturity.
Amy Bentley, a historian on the faculty at New York University in the department of nutrition and food studies, uses rationing in World War II as a specific focus to weave a story with broad implications. Her emphasis on the gendered and communitarian aspects of the nation's experience with rationing in World War II adds to the growing evidence for the 1940s as a formative period. Key aspects of her study--the combination of local and national, the focus on public policy, and above all her insistence on the production, buying, and eating of food as culturally constructed--make her story an important, complex, and illuminating contribution to the history of food and, more generally, of American life.
Working closely with business, labor, and consumer groups during World War II, the U.S. government educated, cajoled, and forced citizens to buy and consume food in ways that minimized the diversion of labor and foodstuffs from the war effort. Bentley begins her story exploring how the Office of Price Administration (OPA) organized price controls and rationing but failed to allay the anxieties that resulted from "the real disruption of the social hierarchy occurring as a result of total war" (14). Next she turns to the media's image of the "wartime homemaker," a figure designed to offer stability at a time of national crisis. Bentley successfully argues that what undercut the power of this icon was the persistence of divisions along racial and class lines as well as the efforts of women themselves to assert their power, something that met resistance especially when they tried to extend the reach of their public roles into policy making. Bentley then explores the iconography of "the ordered meal" (60), seen most prominently in Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want (1943), that emphasized the importance of a gendered and racialized hierarchy, social order, and material abundance precisely when wartime conditions threatened traditional social relationships and aspirations. A chapter on red meat's association with maleness and sugar's with femaleness ensues, as Bentley considers the foodstuffs that were the subjects of the most intense foci of both government control and consumer anxiety. There follows a chapter on another dyad, canning and working in victory gardens, activities that were also highly gendered in the wartime battle over production on the home front. As she does throughout the book...