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  • The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World
  • Andrew P. Haley
The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World. By Trudy Eden. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008. 203 pp. $37.00 (cloth).

For Europeans settling in newly "discovered" British North America, the colonies offered vast lands and rich opportunities to experiment with food. The choices that settlers made about what to plant spoke to their aspirations for both a new existence, freed of the conventions of European life, and their eagerness to preserve, even when nature resisted, the traditions of home. How and what colonial Americans ate has received increasing attention from scholars in recent years, and most have concluded, with a touch of patriotic zeal, that ties to the Old World were ultimately not strong enough to keep newly minted Americans from exploiting the culinary opportunities that North America offered. With the publication of The Early American Table, Trudy Eden muddies the water, suggesting that America's revolution in dining was as influenced by new European philosophical ideas about food as it was influenced by first contact, geography, or nascent revolutionary fervor.

To make her case, Eden embarks on two concurrent investigations. Eden's intellectual history of the philosophy of man and food leads us [End Page 751] from ancient Greece to King George's England, spanning thousands of years and the Atlantic Ocean. Simultaneously, her social history of the American colonies seeks to demonstrate the efficacy of these ideas. Eden wants to show that ideas about food that were in wide circulation throughout Europe played a central role in determining how American colonists ate and set the stage for America's revolutionary embrace of abundance. Bringing these two projects together into a coherent argument, however, proves tricky.

When the first Europeans arrived in what would become British North America, Eden argues, their diets were governed by a humoral conception of the body in which combinations of heat and moisture, regulated in large part by diet, determined not only health, but also status. Humoral philosophy held that diet consisted of four natural elements, and in the mother country as well as in America, it was widely believed that virtue, economic success, and race were a reflection of what you consumed. Eating like a prince made you a prince; to eat like one of the savage natives of North America was to risk becoming a savage.

The humoral order ruled supreme until the Scientific Revolution, and then, in fits and starts, the idea of the mechanical body displaced it. Increasingly it was understood that the heart was a pump and the stomach a crucible, and that chemistry, rather than temperature and moisture, determined what a person should and should not eat. This new approach to science and health, first widely publicized in the English-language world by George Cheyne in 1724, did not radically alter what the English ate at home or abroad, but it did change what it meant to eat well. The humoral idea had encouraged the belief that eating particular foods produced virtue, a theory that equated moral superiority with wealth, given that a heavy purse was often necessary to secure a diet that could lead to ethical perfection. The mechanical philosophy, in contrast, was more democratic. Everyone had basically the same biology, and almost anyone could achieve some degree of balance between good foods and bad. Diet no longer produced virtue; rather, moral merit was evidenced by the discipline required to maintain a healthy diet.

Eden's extensive research into ideas about diet in English-language philosophical and scientific texts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produces a fascinating study of how the Scientific Revolution changed the meaning of eating. Although Eden's investigation of the mechanical body is cut short by the book's adherence to a political timeline (the book ends with the American Revolution, not the complete acceptance of the mechanical way of thinking about food), Eden's efforts to link scientific transformations to the virtue of attaining [End Page 752] the "golden mean" and eventually to democratization are provocative. However, the book's intellectual history of food is unintentionally undermined by the second...


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