A Short History of the American Stomach Hardcover – Feb 4 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Kaufman, an English professor at New York's City University, pursues a hip, journalistic approach to America's all-consuming relationship to the gut, from Puritan rituals of fasting to the creation of the Food Network. Kaufman maintains that the feast-fast syndrome that torments America—obesity, anorexia, overeating, dieting, fads and cures, gastroporn, pollution and purity of food, and self-sufficiency—all originate from our understanding of virtue and vice, first established by the Puritans. Indeed, these first settlers held that the stomach's equilibrium reflected one's spiritual state, and the process of digestion maintained the body's intimate fine-tuning between good and evil. Days of fasting were declared as ways of seeking spiritual guidance, and purges and emetics used to expunge evil and corruption from the system, much as today's advocates of raw foods and unpasteurized milk press their enzyme cures. To demonstrate examples of the ethics of eating, Kaufman discusses dietary restrictions such as kosher foods and, conversely, the lifting of all restrictions by the primal culinary tastes nurtured in the Wild West. Kaufman traces dieting to Ben Franklin's obsession with the virtue of temperance and offers myriad examples of how certain diets (e.g., vegetarianism, single-substance eating) were intended to effect one's transformation from within. With a final paean to endangered favorites such as bananas and oysters, Kaufman digresses forgivingly in this occasionally incongruous though entertaining study. (Feb.)
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Paul Bunyan is not the only figure maltreated in this book. The author sites, and often quotes from, all the early samplers of American cuisine -- Bartram, Crevecoeur, Franklin, Irving et al. -- yet misses the point of each one by treating them in the same frat boy manner. The whole thing reads as if the author had lost his research notes in a fire and, locked in a room with a deadline approaching, decided to just wing it. There are no footnotes, nor is there a bibliography.
For a more sophisticated take on the same subject, read David Kamp's The United States of Arugula, which is carefully researched, highly informative, and much more entertaining.
Here's a sample of what you can expect:
"American religion, American economics, American politics, and American media had all been devoured by the great maw. At the Plymouth harvest dinner reenactment [the topic of the chapter], where nothing was real except the food, the primal, eldest origins of the country had met the American stomach and gone down the hatch too. And still, the enteric brain pushed forward. It wanted more."
Breezy, clever-sounding - but what does it all mean, if anything?
There is a book to be written on this topic - this one isn't the right one. It merely skims the surface and isn't a coherent whole.
And don't let the length fool you. This is REALLY short. Without the index, it is 194 pages of the kind of type you see in young adult titles. I read this in about 2 hours, and I'm not a particularly fast reader.