A Short History of the American Stomach

There’s a fascinating section on kosher food in Frederick Kaufman’s A Short History of the American Stomach. It touches on the origins of kosher food in America (the 1656 arrival of Asser Levy, “the Jew butcher,” in New Amsterdam); Procter & Gamble’s 1912 ad campaign for Crisco, which touted the world’s first vegetable shortening as the product “the Hebrew race has been waiting 4000 years for”; and the 1930s shift to kosher by such iconic products as Coca-Cola and Heinz baked beans, reminiscent of the mainstreaming of organic food today. Then, most intriguingly of all, Kaufman jumps to the present day, when our supermarket shelves are lined with processed foods whose lists of ingredients go on forever.

“Consider that a single bite of a Frito-Lay brand certified-kosher barbecue-flavored potato chip delivers dehydrated starch from Idaho, dehydrated onions from China, dehydrated garlic from India, and a bit of paprika from Spain, all of which must be certified kosher,” Kaufman writes. At an annual trade show called Kosherfest, he meets a rabbi who explains, “Twenty certifications behind the certification, you see? I don’t think anyone understands the globalization of the food market as we do.” The result, according to Kaufman, is a sort of reverse rabbinical migration: “Just as Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster immigrated from Lithuania in 1890 to prepare kosher meat for the Jews of North Dakota, Shimon Freudlich, a Chabad rabbi, now lives in Beijing. Shalom Greenberg has moved to Shanghai. Moshe Gutnick works out of Australia, Yosef Kantor from Thailand…. All to supply the American food chain.”

Interesting, right? But just like that, the rabbis are gone, and that sums up Kaufman’s beguiling but occasionally frustrating book. There’s no false advertising here: this is indeed a short history. Under the umbrella of one big idea, Kaufman — overcaffeinated, hip, and witty — races backward and forward in time and across the continent. In what are sometimes too-brief riffs, you’ll read about actual Pilgrims and a Pilgrim reenactment; the Paul Bunyan of legend and a real-life Bunyanesque competitive eater; diet gurus then and now.

Here’s the big idea: that those seeking to define the American character should look not to the nation’s revolutionary history or its political institutions but to the American gut, in particular our longstanding tendency to alternately stuff it and deny it. “Contrary to popular opinion, neither American overeating nor American refusal to eat was the creation of postwar plenty, of overstressed adolescents, or of McDonald’s,” Kaufman writes. “The feast and the fast have always been American twins.” The settlers arrived in a vast new world and devoured it, just as American mass culture now swallows local cultures around the globe. But in the nation’s ruling paradox, these appetites, according to Kaufman, have only been satisfied through a peculiarly American brand of discipline and self-denial.

To illustrate his thesis, Kaufman unearths some tantalizing historical arcana, beginning with the Puritan age and its quite literal feasts and fasts, which established a correlation between food and religious notions of virtue and vice. Between 1620 and 1700 the Puritans decreed 664 days of regulated eating, most of them fasts (often referred to as days of public humiliation). Kaufman calls these our earliest examples of “binge-eating spiked with self-induced starvation.”

Cotton Mather is remembered today as a Puritan minister, but Kaufman argues that the food-obsessed Mather’s historical significance is as the country’s first diet doctor — one who comes off as something of a quack to modern eyes. He recommended drinking urine to cure ailments ranging from colds to cancer; his suggested remedy for colicky babies was horse dung juice prepared with wine and garlic; and, in an apparently widely held Puritan belief, he loved nothing more than a good vomit. “Since every aspect of good health could be ascribed to good digestion,” Kaufman observes, “almost every remedy for ill health could be reduced to digestion’s reverse.” Vomiting also had the allegorical bonus of representing redemption via the purging of sin: for Mather, the churnings of the gut paralleled the churnings of the soul.

Interspersed with the historical sections are explorations of our contemporary food fetishes. One chapter, “Debbie Does Salad,” compares the Food Network to pornography — the author spends hours watching the channel with a porn still-photographer. (“Classic porn style,” she declares of a drawn-out shot of lips chewing and swallowing arroz con pollo.) Elsewhere, Kaufman journeys to a secret Manhattan location where a cultish raw-milk collective gathers to purchase the illegal product from a farmer. He looks on at the Thanksgiving Meal Invitational competitive-eating contest as seven opponents spend 12 minutes inhaling as much turkey with trimmings as possible (his list of contests sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating — straight mayonnaise! — makes the stomach lurch). He also rattles off a few of the quirkier diets he discovered perusing the list of 700 diet-book titles printed out at his local bookstore: the corporate-style Sugar Busters!, the hokily spiritual Love Yourself Thin, and The Maker’s Diet, which bases its meal plan on biblical precepts. If it all seems a bit patched together, that may be because versions of some chapters have been published elsewhere (in Harper’s, for the most part).

Toward the end of the book, Kaufman considers what happens when we’ve consumed everything there is to consume: how does the stomach that once had to control itself in the face of virgin-land plenty respond to scarcity? In a revealing and disturbing section, he presents oysters as an example. The bivalves once appeared in abundance in our waterways, but the supply has been almost completely depleted. So scientists are creating bigger, better, genetically modified oysters that are born in a lab and then dumped into the water. Kaufman visits New York’s storied Grand Central Oyster Bar, where diners suck down oysters called Bogue’s Bay, named for a waterway in Virginia, without knowing that they are in fact feasting on “a Chinese river species that had been chromosomally whacked into existence by a laboratory in southern New Jersey.”

I wondered whether Kaufman had sampled the oysters, just as I wondered how he liked the contraband raw milk he ended up with after his trip to the black market. We get his family’s verdict on the Thanksgiving dinner at the Pilgrim reenactment in Plymouth (“This pumpkin is the worst thing in his world,” proclaims his young daughter), but how curious that we don’t learn about the author’s taste for the food he writes about. There are no Pollanesque paeans to the joys of eating here: Kaufman approaches his subject more from the brain than from the gut, and while he offers plenty to chew on, you might yet walk away a little hungry.