"By studying what Americans have been eating since the colonial era, we are further enlightened to the conflicting ways in which Americans have chosen to define themselves, their culture, their beliefs, and the changes those definitions have undergone over time. Understanding the American diet is the first step toward grasping the larger truths, the complex American narratives that have long been swept under the table, and the evolving answers to the question: What does it mean to be American?"—Jennifer Jensen Wallach, How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture1
The time is right for a special issue of American Studies on "Food in America." Scholarship on food studies in an American context and in an interdisciplinarily-framed set of approaches has been growing in both published volumes and in professional meetings.2 Interest in food studies is at an all-time high, and the research field may be said to be "coming of age" in relationship to American Studies. Indeed, the writing on food politics alone is overwhelming. But such contemporary "foodie" issues as social concerns over agribusiness, nutrition and disease in America, environmentalism, and the future of food practices are also proceeding in conversation with scholars who are increasingly studying food practices and American history as definitive ways to understand evolving American identities. [End Page 5]
The history of food studies and its relationship to American Studies is relatively recent. It has deep roots, however, in the intertwining of approaches from anthropology, geography, science studies, and history.3 Most important to the establishment of ongoing American Studies interventions into food studies were works that examined American food habits as ethnic histories that evolve over time through contact with other American groups. For example, Donna Gabaccia's We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (1998), Harvey Levenstein's Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (2003), and Hasia R. Diner's Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2001) all set the stage for understanding how diet and food practices undergird ethnic identity, assimilation, and resistance to assimilation.4 Indeed, as Warren Belasco noted in 2006, even such common expressions about American identity as "the melting pot" or "the mixing bowl" evoke food metaphors and practices in relationship to issues of immigration, diversity and multiculturalism, and assimilation.5
Recent titles build upon this foundation. The Larder: Food Studies Methods from the American South (2013), edited by Elizabeth Engelhardt, John Edge, and Ted Ownby asserts that regional, gendered, and racial identities may be understood through the lens of food practices and practitioners.6 Marcie Cohen Ferris furthers this line of thought in The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region (2014) where food as "cuisine and commodity" has shaped the struggles and identities of the antebellum Plantation South through to civil rights protests at lunch counters of the 1960s.7 Likewise, Psyche Williams-Forson's Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2006) and Rebecca Sharpless' Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 (2010) are part of a growing number of titles examining African American identity and its relationship to food practices.8 In their hands, it is not just ethnic cuisines that are important for understanding identity but the entire domestic front of food production and preparation. The logical outcome of their scholarship is the 2015 collection of essays edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach with essays by both Williams-Forson and Sharpless, Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama, a volume that demonstrates how food practices in the hands of African Americans have served as a mode of cultural resistance.9
Carolyn de la Peña's Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda (2010) tackles another integral angle to contemporary food studies, as she explores the relationships among chemical companies, pharmaceutical firms, and consumers for the ways that food – even in the shape of sweeteners – becomes a complex technology put to cultural use.10 Jennifer Jensen Wallach's How...