- Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World by Michael LaCombe
In his book Political Gastronomy, Michael LaCombe takes up an element of early American history and culture that is still poorly understood—the function of food and its various ancillary activities such as the growing, eating, and exchanging of victuals. LaCombe focuses on the early English settlements around the Atlantic before 1660, which in his study means Roanoke, Jamestown, Bermuda, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. Although LaCombe emphasizes the special status of food as both dietary necessity and symbolic value, the book primarily studies the symbolic meanings that English settlers and native peoples located and negotiated in their political actions, especially their continuous “struggle for precedence” (8), authority, and leadership. In order to sidestep debates about the alleged dysfunctionality of early English settlements, LaCombe asserts his interest in “what contemporaries envisioned as an appropriate social order, how that order should be manifest in everyday life, and how to respond when experiences diverged from the normative vision” (22). From the perspective of a literary scholar, it is refreshing to see a historian take seriously the efficacy of symbolism, especially the performative qualities of authority through the enactment of food and eating.
While LaCombe acknowledges a differential in the power relationships between Indians and English settlers, his focus on exchange and symbolic efficacies of food leads him to certain euphemisms that obscure the ways in which English settlers destroyed Native American food sources during imperial warfare. While I laud LaCombe for not discussing the conquest as a foregone conclusion and for using the focus on food to replace the “familiar story” of dysfunction with “one of experimentation, a process of trial and error that eventually resulted in a [End Page 240] durable model for English settlement” (21–22), one cannot help but assume that this “durable model” is ultimately a euphemism for colonial expansionism and Indian removal. Also, the preponderance of English perspectives on the meaning of food and the negotiation of authority is troubling, especially given recent scholarly innovations in the interpretation of Native American literacies and advances in ethnohistorical understandings of cross-cultural contact.
As demonstrated by chapter 1 (“‘Commutative Goodnesse’: Food and Leadership”), LaCombe is most adept at situating colonial concepts of food and leadership within contemporary English social and cultural constructs. He demonstrates early modern English understandings of the close relationship between effective leadership and the abundance of food, relying in large part upon a reading of Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundredth Points of Good Husbandry (London, 1587). On the colonial side, he somewhat strays from the focus on food when discussing the ways in which Virginia leaders used the humanistic concept of the via activa and the rejection of idleness to ground their claims to authority. The illustrations included here and throughout the book—such as an engraving on the stages of baking bread taken from John Penkethman’s Artachthos (London, 1638)—are carefully chosen, but they provide a separate subtext without an explicit connection to the discussions in the main text.
Chapter 2 delves into colonial deployments of food and specifically the control of the food supply to allow leaders to gain authority. LaCombe usefully distinguishes among sufficiency, qualitative consistency, and the proper control of the food supply as equally significant concerns for leaders to establish and settlers to accept claims of authority. Jamestown’s tenuous food supplies during the early period and especially incidents of cannibalism witnessed during the “starving time” under council president George Percy take a central place in the discussion, but some of LaCombe’s analysis appears fairly obvious. For example, he follows Percy’s characterization of the famine via the inconceivable foods Jamestown residents ate—beginning with cats, dogs, and snakes and ending with human beings: “Its larger importance to the story of political culture in the early English Atlantic world lies in the fact that images of food conveyed a range of meanings that other aspects of social life cannot. Percy could find no other...