- Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century by Kyla Wazana Tompkins
Robin Bernstein’s recent book Racial Innocence has stimulated critical conversation about how the material objects and practices associated with childhood have helped to construct white subjectivity in the United States. Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s new study takes this conversation in a slightly different direction. It is primarily concerned with the material practices of cooking and eating, but it also opens up further archives and tropes for considering how the culture of childhood (which is legendarily concerned with food) is further implicated in the construction of a national white body politic.
This highly ambitious and fascinating work situates itself at the intersections of several critical areas currently of interest in literary and cultural studies of the nineteenth century, most notably food studies, body theory, whiteness studies, and transnational constructions of American citizenship. Tompkins seeks to expand and complicate the discussions taking place in all of these disparate areas through an examination of representations of eating and cooking in the United States during the long nineteenth century. She argues that food studies has remained too focused on what she calls the “object-based fetishism of the foodie world” (2), privileging a concern with the actual foods consumed rather than attending to the discourses and anxieties surrounding the sites where food is produced and the bodies that do the cooking and eating. Conversely, she suggests that critical race theorists, as well as other body theorists in gender and queer theory, have tended to discuss body boundaries like the skin and have neglected to examine the ways in which non-normativity is also fleshed and embodied through the consumption of food. Racial Indigestion encompasses a wide range of texts: from chapbooks and woodcuts of the 1780s and ’90s, through canonical mid-century literary texts, to advertising trade cards popular at the end of the century. She demonstrates throughout how changing notions of white American citizenship were supported through the consumption of racially marked bodies; conversely, she also traces how, at each point, these racially marked bodies refuse to go down easily and be digested, thus challenging the development of the white body politic.
Tompkins’s introduction usefully articulates three of the strands she traces through the century: first, that eating practices are construed as politically charged individual choices, tied as they are to commodity consumption and thus to issues of imperialist expansion and trade; second, that the mouth is a constant site of interest, representing by turns abjection, threat, and political power; and third, that the performance of eating is closely connected to theatrical practices more generally. The white mouth can eat suspect foods, including black bodies rendered in candy and foods imported from other (nonwhite) parts of the world; but the black mouth, Tompkins reminds us, [End Page 359] also “speaks, laughs, and eats in the face of the violent desires of white supremacy” (9). Thus, her concern with the comedy and excess of eating also leads her to investigate the excesses and subversive potentials of the other things mouths do—namely, laughing, using vernacular speech, and performing in cross-racial roles.
Chapter one, “Kitchen Insurrections,” follows the eighteenth-century hearth as it transforms into the nineteenth-century kitchen, and uncovers the ways that the comedy, abjection, and subversive potential associated with the hearth stick to the racially segregated space of the modern kitchen. Tompkins begins with an analysis of a Dame Trot nursery rhyme, as a characteristic example of hearth lore in which the hearth is a locus for dirt and bodily contamination, but also for socializing, role inversion, and subversive pleasure. As she describes how the hearth was increasingly replaced by cleaner and more efficient stoves from the 1820s through the 1840s, Tompkins introduces a variety of nostalgic laments for the older, messier central hearth. She offers an interesting rereading of Herman Melville’s short story “I and My Chimney,” interpreting it not as an attempt to reinstate patriarchy through the hearth, but in fact as a celebration of gender role inversion through the...