Social progress tied to diet

by Morton Sosland
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One certain thing about the constant pace of innovation under way in food processing is the incentive this apparently provides authors who are mostly engaged in telling the “story” of the food Americans and sometimes the world eats. Yes, more than a few of these books have caused considerable anxiety and even despair among food manufacturers, particularly those by writers of volumes like “Wheat Belly” who tend to focus on a single aspect of the diet as the cause of not just obesity but many other human illnesses. Similar quackery and fad advocacy prevails in many other examples. One of the latest food books, though, is quite different. Titled “How America Eats,” this volume looks at the industry from the perspective of how food has driven and been driven by social change and social progress.

The author of the new book, subtitled “A social history of U.S. food and culture,” is Jennifer Jensen Wallach, assistant professor of history at North Texas University in Denton. Ms. Wallach’s listed specialties, besides the history of food, include the African-American experience from the Civil War to modern times. As one reviewer stated, the book’s unifying theme is how the food Americans have eaten stands as “a nonverbal way of articulating ideas about what it has meant to be an American.” In much the same way, she stresses that men or women who disagree with how Americans eat quickly become outsiders.

Reflecting her other specialties, Ms. Wallach points to popular foods like fried chicken, donuts and turkey as foods that have gained popularity largely because of the way African-Americans have combined the food preparation of their homelands with Native American and European traditions. She contends that “American cuisine,” often described as reflecting the simple tastes of a free people, in reality stems from hegemony, theft and strife in relation to race, class and gender. She includes specifics of the way that certain dishes combine African cooking techniques with American ingredients to arrive at “melting pot” dishes that are now mainstays of the diet, reinforced by traditions that maintain their popularity in the face of modern merchandising aimed at persuading consumption of so-called “new” foods.

Another commentator on Ms. Wallach’s effort declares that “understanding the American diet is the first step toward grasping the larger truths, the complex American narratives long swept under the table.” This effort to relate the study of American history to foods eaten in the past and currently presents to the food industry a marketing opportunity that is quite different from any of the past. The author acknowledges that technological advances as well as industrial progress have been as important as the mixture of ethnic cultures in determining what Americans not just eat, but want to eat. The great role food has played in reinforcing the unique American dream provides the industry with the basis for gaining new understanding and appreciation on the part of consumers.

Defining what it means to be an American in terms of dietary preferences is a bold concept put forward in this book. History is replete with stories of conflicts that had their origination in food-related issues.

In asserting that processing and product innovation have equaled the underlying social pressures in bringing about dietary change in the past, Ms. Wallach has managed to point to an entirely new reason for the focus food processors place on advances in processing, packaging and merchandising. If she is right in citing the way that the evolution of food lies at the very heart of America’s history and progress, then pressing forward to achieve meaningful gains has rewards beyond the well-being of a company or even an industry. Thus, a book devoted to showing how developments in America’s diet account for social and cultural changes is not just of interest for this pioneering approach but also on account of the message it provides to the industry that is its subject — food manufacturing.
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