- The Future of Critical Eating Studies
Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s study on eating in nineteenth-century America is mesmerizing. From the playful literary history of children’s tales in the antebellum period to the tightly woven cultural analysis of chromolitho-graphed trade cards for food products in the Gilded Age, Tompkins convincingly makes the case that eating as a social practice was inextricably tangled with the construction and performance of nineteenth-century American identities.
Tompkins begins in the first chapter around the fireplace of the colonial northeastern home, as it is from here that she argues that the complex public eating cultures of the United States have descended. Tracing the transition from hearth to stove and kitchen, Tompkins suggests that a charged eating culture, one in which cooking and eating were increasingly linked to class and ethnic difference as well as bodily inversion, emerged as domestic space and cooking labor was reorganized in the early decades of the century. From chapbooks to domestic manuals, the kitchen and the mouth emerge in this chapter as sites of food and language, eating and speaking, connections that Tompkins theorizes through the trope of “orality.” Dietetic reforms of the 1830s, examined in the second chapter, sought to manage this potentially subversive orality: the eating, speaking, and, now within the politics of Sylvester Graham’s writings, eroticized mouth. These reforms are situated by Tompkins within Foucault’s notion of “biopower” as she carefully extricates the racial logic of nationalist and imperialist dietetics through an analysis of Graham’s Treatise on Bread and Breadmaking (1837) and William Alcott’s The House I Live In (1834).
Eating as a racially performative act is developed further in chapter 3 [End Page 317] with Tompkins’s account of “black edibility” across three antebellum novels: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859). Tompkins argues that images of the black edible body were, much like Grahamite dietetics, connected to the formation of whiteness. If the reformers of the 1830s managed difference through articulating “improper eating,” by the 1850s, Tompkins argues, whiteness was to be constituted through “eating the other,” through the internalization of racial difference. Her close reading of these extreme images is a convincing cultural explication of what she calls “the libidinal logic of American racism,” a logic of desire and violence that continues to play out in the ever-present images of black bodies as food in American culture.
Tompkins returns in chapter 4 to the themes of chapter 2, examining via the novels of Louisa May Alcott how the racial and imperial alignment of body, nation, and home was to be rearticulated in the postbellum period. Overseas trade and emergent forms of white female self-sufficiency, she argues, were to render the boundaries between body and nation more permeable. The final chapter examines the racial logic of eating in turn-of-the-century trade cards, a unique archive of advertising that Tompkins keenly interrogates for what it reveals about the racialization of nineteenth- century commodity culture. She argues that the position of eating and the mouth in these cards, as sites of interracial encounter, points to the existence of a shared eating culture in which eating was analogous to political power and consumption was further entangled with citizenship.
Across these very different case studies Tompkins makes it clear that eating in nineteenth-century America was intimately linked to different identities and political projects. The strength of this book lies in its theoretical innovations, particularly Tompkins’s agenda for what she terms “critical eating studies.” She productively argues that this new framework moves food studies scholars away from their current commodity fetishes and towards considering eating as a social practice and symbolic process. Tompkins’s theorization of the mouth, “the obvious center of eating culture” and “dense transfer point of power,” is most provocative. It is in her cultural history of the mouth that her claims to more closely bind food studies to queer studies and critical...