- Recent Works in the History of American Food
I am always first across the street to sniff a new restaurant’s menu, the first to scan the cookbooks in a new acquaintance’s kitchen. But after a read of the recent crop of US food histories, it is time for me and food studies to admit that cookbooks and menus are kind of boring.
There are some recipes and menus, but not too many, in a slew of mostly good and frequently excellent food histories from the last four years. Scholarly and at the same time widely reviewed and prominently placed in bookstores, they include histories of butter, lunch, the Jewish deli in America, the Chinese restaurant in America (two books, actually), Nathan’s hot dogs, and segregation and desegregation in twentieth-century southern restaurants. Also on offer are the newly revised but still insufferable memoir of celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower, a history of dining out in America through ten exemplary restaurants from the past two hundred years, a history of food in New York in five categories (appetite, bread, sugar, drink, and meat), and a history of food in America through eight flavors (black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha).1
The same questions get repeated a lot. Who were the geniuses who thought up new ways to cook things? How did the consumption of food signal social [End Page 113] status or define what it meant to be an American? How did regional and ethnic food define its region/ethnicity for itself, and for outsiders? How did poverty, sexism, and racism affect workers and customers in food industries? To what extent did longer commodity chains for food increase or threaten people’s health and prosperity, and how have people tried to shorten those chains? How did the government regulate food businesses, and how did it create and fiddle with markets connecting each link in the food commodity chain? Were labor conditions bad? Was someone trying to make them better? How have the answers to all these questions changed over the past two centuries or more? Sometimes these books also ask the question that can be answered with cookbooks and menus: what dishes did people eat? These are the dullest passages, probably because they focus on the food rather than on the people growing, selling, cooking, and eating it.
The most interesting work in this recent wave of research focuses on the antebellum years—Cindy Lobel and Gergely Baics on New York City and David Shields on the South. They raise the same questions as other recent food historians, but not through the narrow prism of particular ingredients, flavors, restaurants, or cuisines. Instead, they define themselves with a rigorous devotion to a particular research method. Lobel is a traditional archives-and-periodicals historian, Baics a cliometrician, and Shields is a bit of a reenactor, constantly trying to bring the past into the modern world. Together, these three books show how the introduction of capitalism, North and South, slave and free, changed foodways in America.
Lobel’s Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York argues that before the Civil War, a new "food culture" emerged in the homes, markets, and restaurants of that city, creating many of the conditions that still exist today in New York and elsewhere: greater food quality in wealthier neighborhoods, an increasing distance between the places where food was grown and consumed, a commitment to dining in specialized spaces with appropriate décor and utensils, periodic scandals about tainted and adulterated food, and curiosity about ethnic cuisines.
Lobel spends most of her pages on the antebellum era...