- Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice by E. Melanie DuPuis
Dangerous Digestion, by E. Melanie DuPuis, sets out to explore a particular why question: why have waves of middle-class white reformers set as their target of reform the American diet? Her preliminary answer is that “it has something to do with the American idea of freedom” (ix). The resultant book is, in part, a discussion of the ways in which the dietary advice and political advice issued by that particular group of reformers have mirrored each other over the course of American history.
Ultimately, however, Dangerous Digestion is a call to reject the purity politics of “ingestive subjectivity”—a politics that has involved white middle-class people telling everyone (else) in sight how they should eat and how they should live in order to maintain the borders of body and of nation. She argues for replacing that ingestive politics of purity with a politics of digestion and fermentation that focuses on “inclusion, relation and transformation” (14). “Purity politics,” she asserts, “prevents . . . all of us . . . from moving forward to deal with the problems that face us today” (14). And to face those problems, “we have to re-think our bodies” (14).
For that call to be compelling—that is, for political change to require that we rethink our eating bodies—DuPuis must show not only that that dietary and political advice mirror each other but that they actually mutually constitute each other. It will not be sufficient for her to show that the two kinds of advice use similar tropes and figures of speech or that the arguments used in these two arenas operate in “parallel” or “in tandem” with each other (phrases she sometimes uses to describe the relations between them).
The book is divided into two sections. The four chapters in the first section (“Freedom”) tell a history of American dietary advice that is framed to draw our attention to the ways in which this advice has run alongside conceptions of freedom that prevailed at four different moments [End Page 201] in the nation’s history, beginning with its founding and ending at the beginning of the twentieth century. How, she asks, do these notions of freedom parallel ingestive subjectivity, which emphasizes strong borders and the need to keep out danger and protect purity? How, in each of these periods, did thinking about the health of the human body echo thinking about the health of the body politic?
Part 1 features episodes and names that will be quite familiar to scholars of American food studies (though they were not all familiar to me, a philosopher of food). In chapters on the gilded age and the progressive era, for instance, we encounter figures such as Horace Fletcher, the man who taught us how to chew our food (hint: a lot); Ellen Swallow Richards, whose euthenics movement taught us what good American living and eating should be (hint: New England); and W. O. Atwater, who taught us how to feed American workers efficiently (hint: think of fueling a steam engine). Readers new to American food scholarship would likely find this history quite useful. Readers familiar with that history might find that, despite its familiarity, the parallels DuPuis draws between dietary advice and political advice are novel. For instance, she discusses the ways in which eighteenth-century attitudes about freedom and health linked differently to notions of (dietary) self-control and pleasure for northern whites and for southern whites, though both views of freedom “justified controlling others. . . . Neither point of view was immediately open to the argument that slaves deserved freedom” (27). Several chapters focus on the ways in which whites’ conceptions of freedom and health reinforced white supremacy and the subjugation of immigrants, African Americans, ethnic minorities.
Part 2 moves the discussion to the present day. It begins with two chapters that set out to show the ways in which the recurrent themes of purity versus danger and of the importance of protecting bodily integrity...