- Savory BitesBooks on Eating in Early America
A few years after his book Civil Tongues and Polite Letters (1997) connected eighteenth-century literature to American coffeehouses and taverns, but prior to his immersion into writing about foods of the Carolina low country (“Prospecting”), David S. Shields published an essay on global consumption. “‘The World I Ate’” (2001) illuminates the ideas of French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, contrasting Americans’ diets of denial and simplicity with their desires to indulge every sensual dream of food. For Shields, the obese and irascible New Yorker of Broadway, Edward, memorialized in Brillat-Savarin’s meditation 21, provides the symbolic prophecy of what America and Americans would become—in light of the power of empire and in spite of the messages preaching simple eating and Puritan restraint. Well-known works of American literature, such as Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Joel Barlow’s “Hasty Pudding” (1796), embody these thematic tensions between indulgence [End Page 495] and denial, idealizing nation building even while gobbling up others in the process.
The poignant political themes of these works and Shields’s professional path of the last two decades mark the ever- increasing variety of studies devoted to food culture that have continued to influence American literary scholarship. Studies of food—and all activities associated with it—continue to pour forth from academic and popular presses at a rate that is difficult to capture in print.1 At least three recent scholarly titles addressing American food culture are beyond the purview of this essay. The edited collection spearheaded by Benjamin E. Zeller, Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, has a title provocative to early American literature scholars but contains nothing colonial or of the early Republic. Similarly, Allison Carruth’s Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food asserts a forceful argument about the politics of appetite, yet it focuses on twentieth century and contemporary literature. And Mark McWilliams’s Food and the Novel in Nineteenth Century America, which discusses the tensions between simplicity, abundance, and haute cuisine, primarily represents in its chapters on the early Republic ideas that appeared in his engaging essay in Early American Literature a decade ago (“Distant Tables”).
Listing titles of these recent publications serves little purpose other than to reinforce the array of materials available for those seeking to refine their teaching or scholarship in what was at one time a specialized niche of early American studies. The three volumes considered in this essay provide additional examples of the specialized approaches and breadth of the field. What links the three, more than “food practices in early American literature,” however, is their emphasis on eating as a political act—a topic only implicit in one but made an overt purpose of the other two. Anne Chandonnet’s Colonial Food, a slim introductory volume, glorifies the adoption and hybridization of food practices among the various peoples interacting on American soil as “fusion cuisine”—not overtly a political label, but one idealized nonetheless through her presentation (17). Michael A. LaCombe makes his stance apparent in his book’s title: Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World. Eating, he argues—whether in the colonial Carolinas, the Chesapeake region, or New England—was never merely consumption of nutrients, although survival was crucial and “hunger regularly trumped fears of hybridity” (51). Even more so, Kyla Wazana Tompkins asserts in Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th [End Page 496] Century the political nature of eating through symbolic depictions of the kitchen as architectural space and consumption of the racialized Other. She makes apparent not only differences among groups and individuals but, more importantly, unexpected reversals of their supposed power that emerge through imagery of eating.
In spite of the linking theme—the politics of eating—these publications manifest obvious differences, not just with the temporal...