You Eat Their Words

The brainiacs over at Gastronomica have published a 2 kajillion–word monograph on gastropolitics throughout American history, concentrating on healthy-living gurus and zealots from Revolutionary War physician and framer Benjamin Rush up to modern-day best-selling author Michael Pollan.

The result is a richly documented and engaging account of how Americans have tried to find perfect living through perfect diets. Rush’s advice of a mostly vegetable diet and moderation in spirits went hand-in-hand with his calls for the abolition of slavery; Rush saw a direct link between good eating and healthy morals. Later in history, ordained minister Sylvester Graham championed his eponymous cracker as a weapon in the fight against sin, particularly the (cough) “solitary vice.” And later still, Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) saw in the dietary habits of Chinese immigrant workers the “half-civilized” nature that threatened the health of the American workforce.

The conflation of good food and good morals (sometimes rightfully, sometimes tenuously, and sometimes with no foundation whatsoever) continues right up until the present, and the Gastronomica story weaves the threads together with great skill, presenting a magisterial overview of utopian eating in America. It also includes the following zinger:

In his essay ‘Unhappy Meals,’ Michael Pollan tries to clear up the confusion of today’s dietary advice by boiling down the conflicting prescriptions into a simple recipe: ‘Eat food. ... Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.’ Unfortunately, as history has shown, unless we also want to return to your great-great-grandmother’s enema bag, that may not be the best advice.

“We pretend,” the piece concludes, “like the vegetarian abolitionists, that our dietary choices will solve our personal and national problems. At least they will absolve those of us who eat well.”

For anyone trying to disentangle the threads of food, social justice, and political history, this story is a hearty dish worth savoring.

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