- Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century by Kyla Wazana Tompkins
In 2006, Sandra Oliver wrote a call to arms for food historians.1 Her forum in Gastronomica asks scholars of American culinary history to devote more energy to a “people’s history” of their field. Less reliance on cookbooks, classic works of literature, and the habits of the upper class and more on diaries, journals, letters, actual food supplies, nonelite foodways, and consumption in postcolonial America is what gustatory history needs.
By many measurements, Racial Indigestion heeds Oliver’s call. From colonial kitchen architecture through post–Civil War food advertising, Kyla Wazana Tompkins serves up fi ve case studies of how popular images of eating were integral to constructing and reinforcing social categories in America. She begins in the kitchen, or, more accurately, the space around [End Page 578] the family hearth. Through the late eighteenth century, hearths drew households together for substantial periods of the day. They were places of warmth as well as where the food was happening. Thus, men, women, and children all engaged in the cooking experience. Because of the shared space and experience of food prep, everyone participated in the social and political life of the household. As much as challenging notions of colonial gender roles, Tompkins uses her study of the hearth, seen through popular songs, poems, children’s chapbooks, and fi rst-person accounts, to argue that understanding how social power works requires us to look at intimate human practices, such as putting things into our mouths.
After starting with both fresh sources and piquant analysis, Tompkins turns to what Oliver criticizes as the old habit of relying on prescriptive and fictive evidence from postrevolutionary America and the antebellum South. Tompkins offers chapters featuring Sylvester Graham, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and works by Hawthorne and Melville. With a heavy measure of literary and feminist theory, focusing on these sources allows Tompkins to conclude that images of white Americans consuming black bodies were more widespread than just those seen in theatrical performances, such as blackface. Images such as a white child devouring a gingerbread cookie meant to look like a black doll engaged nineteenth-century readers in two essential questions. First, cannibalistic images of whites consuming black bodies were a literary way of asking whether or not slaves were human or, more accurately, whether the reader was aware and accepting of the dehumanizing nature of slavery. Second, Tompkins presents the case that such images acknowledged that the presence of slaves and free blacks had to be dealt with in America. How the country was going to consume its racial minority into its body politic was going to define the nation.
One of Tompkins’s keenest insights is about the social power slaves wielded because of food. Tompkins provides a close reading of why and how slaves who controlled food exerted authority in their relationships with their owners. Serving food as a slave meant knowing the most intimate details about white slave owners. It meant knowing what they craved or disdained, what they put into their bodies, what sustained them. It meant that a slave owner’s fate was, to a degree, in the hands of the people who handled what they ate.
The real meat of the story and the argument in Racial Indigestion arrives when Tompkins addresses the sources she holds most dear. In postbellum America, food advertising flourished. To gauge the politics of race after the Civil War, the author uses her personal collection of trade cards, designed and published by increasingly national food producers rather than by a massive advertising industry. People collected and traded these printed [End Page 579] cards. The cards owe their visual imagery and captions to the tradition of American theater performance, especially blackface. As Tompkins argues, the first widespread advertising of a national consumer culture linked food and consumption with racial identity. “In these cards the mouth becomes a space of interethnic and interracial encounter,” writes Tompkins (163). Trade card images of...