Tag Archives: Food History

Kyla Wazana Tompkins – Racial Indigestion (2012)

RacialIndigestionMuch like Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, this book was much more race/gender/queer theory than food history. This should not be surprising given that the central argument of the book is that eating is central to the performative production of raced and gendered bodies in the 19th century, but I still would have liked to see a bit more discussion about the role of food.

The 19th century is an area that I have a specific interest in so reading this book was still enjoyable, although it was dense at times. I especially enjoyed her discussions surrounding the Alcott family and the different ideas that sprung up surrounding diet that I have discussed earlier. One of the strongest points she made was in looking at how the Americans linked the omnivores diet, which embodies a republican virtue of balance not found among the British, to racial and imperial superiority.

Bread, as it played a central role in American’s diets, also played a central role in this books. She discussed the role of bread in households as well as the impact of the change from open hearth cooking to stovetop cooking had on the family.

While she touches briefly on Sidney Mintz’s work on sugar, I wished she dealt more with it, especially since he is one of the preeminent scholars on the links between food and race. Overall however this was an interesting read.

Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation (2001)

Fast Food NationEric Schlosser’s book is often lauded by food studies scholars as being a foundational text in the field, and it is easy to see why. Predating Supersize Me by a number of years, Schlosser was the first to really expose the Fast Food Industry for what it is.

Schlosser begins his book with a history of the “Founding Fathers,” men like Carl Kochner (of Carl Jr’s), the McDonald brothers and Colonel Sanders, who made their fortunes by inventing and reinventing the fast food industry bringing us to where we are today. It’s interesting that all these men started their businesses around the same time, the post-war 1950s in response to changing social and cultural patterns. Schlosser spends a chapter looking at the history, but it is something that bears further investigation.

The bulk of Schlosser’s work is looking at the problems that exist within the industry. He dedicates chapters to concerns about the environment and animal welfare, as well as the exploitation of human labour from teenagers working for minimum wage in the restaurants to working conditions in slaughterhouses. Some of it was difficult to read, but I think Schlosser intended it to be that way.

This book is great, and one of the best things about it is that since it was written in the late 1990s, it’s very easy to see how far the fast food industry has come. It is by no means perfect, and there are obviously still many problems and not all chains are a like. Since the book was published however, many restaurants have undergone rebranding and have started to offer “healthier” alternatives such as salads as well as committing to environmental causes. Working conditions in both restaurants and processing plants remain a huge issue however and debates about minimum wage have danced around news feeds for a number of years now. Most recently McDonalds has reported a loss off profits this year. With new movements towards local and organic foods, the fast food industry is going to have to start coming up with more ways to compete.

While Schlosser’s book has shown us how far the fast food industry has come, it is very clear that the industry still has a long way to go.

Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)

OmnivoresDilemma

In this book about how humans eat, Pollan provides a solid look at the history and the different traditions which have brought us (North Americans) to where we are today in terms of the food we consume. Pollan does his best to include a good overview of the different “food systems” active on the continent; industrial food, organic food, and food we forage ourselves. The end product is a critique of the American way of eating.

In recent years there have been a number of documentaries and books critical of the fast food industry, (Supersize Me, Food Inc., Fast Food Nation, etc.) but Pollan goes into even more detail looking at the history of corn in American to the way animals are treated. Corn is the cornerstone of the industrial food market as it has changed the way animals, as well as humans eat. Animals evolved to eat grass, but more than half of a feedlot’s cow’s food comes from corn. That cows become sick from eating too much corn is just one example of the many abuses feedlot animals experience.

Pollan also writes at length about the industrial-organic complex, which for me was a real eye-opener. Pollan uses Whole Foods as a proxy to write about how the marketing geniuses peddle an irresistible commodity: self-satisfaction. Because “Organic” or “free-range” is not regulated, companies and businesses can practically slap a label on anything they choose. He found that the “free-range” chicken on offer, actually hails from a confinement operation, and one box of California-produced organic lettuce requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to process and ship to the East Coast.

In contrast to the industrial-organic complex, Pollan also interviews local farmers and people who forage food themselves. For one of his meals he kills a pig himself and describes the experience as almost religious; having killed the animal with his own hands, Pollan wanted to honour it by making it delicious to eat.

This book was eye-opening. While I had some knowledge about the fast food industry the information Pollan provides about the industrial-organic food complex was really shocking. I will be thinking twice next before buying anything labeled organic, and my try instead to shop locally at markets.