A Short History of the American Stomach

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Don’t be surprised if you’re feeling queasy after reading Frederick Kaufman’s brief but comprehensive examination of our collective guts. The glut of information within—and what it all means to (and for) America—is enough to make even the strongest stomach turn.

As a country, we are preoccupied with food. Hundreds of diet books line shelves, while the Food Network is available in 90 million homes (and has spawned a troupe of celebrity chefs). Many books blame this current obsession with food and weight on trans fats and the explosion of the fast-food business, but Kaufman begs to differ. His book argues that our gastronomic interests have deep roots in American culture and can be traced back to the earliest settlers. For the Puritans, eating carried moral and religious significance. Eating disorders, fad diets, food-consumption contests: These, according to the author, aren’t recent phenomena but reflections of long-standing American ideals. When Kaufman compares the “sport” of competitive eating to the idea of manifest destiny, it seems absurd for a moment; but his argument—that both hinge on consumption and control—makes sense.

Kaufman’s witty historical analysis will be a treat for anyone interested in food. He even finds insightful things to say about obscenely dry historical figures like 17th-century minister Cotton Mather, whose diaries are ripe with passages of binge-and-purge Puritanism. By invoking the teachings of “gastrosophists” such as Sylvester Graham (yes, as in the cracker), and linking them to our current food-crazed culture, he deftly illustrates how America always has, and probably always will, lead with its gut.

—Amy Plitt

By Frederick Kaufman. Harcourt, $23.00.