Organized in four parts that address major themes in food studies while minimizing redundancy, The Routledge History of American Foodways is a well-conceived, comprehensive assessment of the field. The first half of the collection tends toward examining food production: Part 1, “Cooking Times,” is a chronological survey in five chapters; Part 2, “Ingredients,” compiles six distinct commodity histories. The second half of the collection tends toward examining consumption patterns: Parts 3 and 4, “Recipes” and “Appetites,” are somewhat less cohesive, but all chapters examine how culture, identity, and place have impacted foodways. Although some editorial choices—confining fruits and vegetables to a single chapter, for instance, the same as less prominent elements of the American diet like alcohol and fish—limit analytical depth in places, the “Ingredients” and “Appetites” sections are particularly strong thanks to contributors’ more argumentative departures from pure historiography. The entire collection will remain a useful reference for years to come and would be an excellent textbook for undergraduate courses in food or environmental history (particularly when the more affordable paperback edition is published), but its relevance extends much further. Indeed, many essays are eminently teachable in an array of American history courses that cover topics like industrial capitalism, slavery, and imperialism. If there is one overarching theme in the wide-ranging collection, it is that food does more than simply shed light on how power relationships have manifested themselves along lines of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality. From early American power struggles between indigenous peoples and European colonists to the post–World War II era of industrial agriculture, food is not merely an index of power inequalities—food is power, wielded as a cudgel by the powerful and potentially leveraged by the marginalized as a tool of resistance. Many essays deftly examine the origins and evolution of these inequalities, and although there is a general tendency to unwittingly reinforce the divide between food production and consumption by examining rural places primarily as agricultural spaces and major cities as the primary sites of consumption (hence largely overlooking rural American food culture), several contributors successfully bridge that divide. Elizabeth Abbott’s “Sugar,” for instance, points out that the costs of the sugar industry’s focus on “cheap and abundant production” (p. 128) were disproportionately borne by slaves and, later, ethnic whites who labored in the cane and beet fields. At the same time, affordable sweetener-laden processed foods and soft drinks came to dominate the diets of these same marginalized groups both because corporations wanted it that way and, as another contributor argues, consumers tended “to favor quantity at cheap prices over quality at extra cost” (p. 236). Jennifer Jensen Wallach, meanwhile, adds a fascinating and disturbing bodily dimension to these narratives in her survey of how food produces racial hierarchies, raising vexing questions about the limits of consumer agency and choice when she concludes that the cumulative influence of centuries of power inequalities expressed through the market mean that “people may learn to accept and even to like the foods that have been made available to them and that other people they identify with eat. These learned behaviors have real bodily consequences” including various markers of ill health (p. 306). If one aspect of this story bears more scrutiny than the collection allows, it is the extent to which consumers have successfully used food as a way to build community and resist hegemonic market forces. Elizabeth Zanoni, for instance, surveys a range of scholarship that explores “food as a means through which immigrants craft and express group identity, to food as a site for building and reinforcing power relations, particularly through racial exclusion” (p. 279), but, like Wallach and many other contributors, she ends up seeing the latter as a much more formidable force than the former: the market everywhere coopts and corrupts. That rather dim consensus may be largely accurate, but it may also have methodological roots. As Zanoni and other contributors point out, unearthing what could prove a more empowering narrative of marginalized groups’ foodways from the ground up may demand a more radically interdisciplinary tool kit that embraces oral history and ethnographic fieldwork ranging well beyond the historical archive. Such approaches are largely outside the scope of a collection such as this but suggest ample opportunity for future research in an ever-growing field. © 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: email@example.com 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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