Anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping in Germany will have been struck by the sheer number of “bio-stores,” or organic food stores. Germans’ wholehearted embrace of organic food, in dramatic contrast to the United States, is not a recent or an upper-class phenomenon but one rooted in a century and a half of discussion and debate over the relationship between healthy diets, bodies, and environments. Historian Corinna Treitel has written a wonderful new book exploring this history, focusing on what she terms “natural eating,” a set of dietary guidelines generally including the reduced or eliminated consumption of meat, sugar, and alcohol. Building off a rich historiography on German environmentalism and the alternative lifestyle movement known as “life reform,” Treitel asks a new and productive question: How did “eating naturally” come to be integrated into radically divergent political ideologies across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from being rooted in a deeply liberal project in the aftermath of 1848 to aligning with Nazism during the Third Reich, and then being absorbed, in different ways, into the state ideologies of both East and West Germany? Treitel explains both the political fluidity and the popularity of natural eating through the twinned themes of hunger and health. Natural eating promised to end domestic hunger in times of dearth (by maximizing food productivity and reducing dependence on imports), and offered the possibility of optimizing popular health in times of prosperity. She sees these concerns as operating chronologically; concerns over hunger dominate the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the end of the Second World War signals a shift to health as the overarching concern of the German state. Treitel situates “eating naturally” as central to what she calls the “biopolitics of German modernity” (p. 3). Her analysis shows that the normalization and popularization of natural eating took place in a fluid and nonhierarchical process of exchange and debate, one driven as much by laypeople and marginal figures as it was by experts and the state. Beyond the theoretical value of this case study, one of the most important contributions of the book is its success in illustrating the complex relationship between nature and modernity, as natural eating advocates consistently and often simultaneously framed their lifestyle as both a rejection and an embrace of modernity. The book’s subtitle, “Food, Agriculture and Environment,” highlights the three major themes that run through the book. However, additional unpacking of the category of nature would have honed many of the book’s arguments. What was the relationship between food and nature? Treitel approaches this question primarily through the lens of agriculture. Indeed, the book’s discussion of natural and organic farming—including debates over fertilizers ranging from night soil to powdered rocks—was especially fascinating. Nonetheless, a more integrative discussion of nature could have linked such topics with other themes of the text, especially those of gender and race. Treitel carefully explores links between anti-Semitism and natural eating. However, larger connections between race, food, and nature remain implicit rather than explicit, begging the question of how categories of artificial versus natural might illuminate racial thinking. Similarly, gender is not systematically employed as a theoretical category. Treitel notes the importance of masculinity to Imperial German natural eating discourses, and traces the key roles played by women in disseminating natural eating information to the wider public, but gender’s centrality for understanding the production and consumption of food remains underexplored. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic book and eminently relevant to the readers of this journal. “Natural eating” intersects with environmental history across several registers. Vegetarianism in the United States is frequently linked with environmentalism and the Left, a symbol of rejecting the establishment and even moving “off the grid.” In contrast, modifying individual food consumption (from switching to organic groceries to reducing meat consumption to balcony farming) has become one of the most popular strategies for environmental “activism” among the middle class. Treitel’s book offers a beautifully researched and written historical context for such trends, reminding us that these forms of critique and such proposed solutions to crises are not contemporary but have a long and complex history. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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