A Short History of the American Stomach


Frederick Kaufman offers a piquant sampling of American history by way of the stomach.Travel with him as he tracks down our earliest foodies; discovers the secret history of Puritan purges; introduces diet gurus of the nineteenth century such asWilliam Alcott, who believed that “nothing ought to be mashed before it is eaten”; traces extreme feeders from Paul Bunyan to eating-contest champ Dale Boone (descended from Daniel, of course); and investigates our blithe efforts to re-create the plants and animals that ...

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Frederick Kaufman offers a piquant sampling of American history by way of the stomach.Travel with him as he tracks down our earliest foodies; discovers the secret history of Puritan purges; introduces diet gurus of the nineteenth century such asWilliam Alcott, who believed that “nothing ought to be mashed before it is eaten”; traces extreme feeders from Paul Bunyan to eating-contest champ Dale Boone (descended from Daniel, of course); and investigates our blithe efforts to re-create the plants and animals that we’ve eaten to the point of extinction.With outraged wit and an incredible range of sources that includes everything from Cotton Mather’s diary to interviews with Amish black-market raw-milk dealers, Kaufman takes readers on a Bourdainmeets- Pollan tour of the American gut.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

This rollicking survey of our national food manias from Cotton Mather (‘Look after thy stomach’) to Rachael Ray is amiably peripatetic.”New York Observer

“Witty and polemical . . . [Kaufman] makes some valuablepoints about how the stomach influences the waysAmericans view themselves.”—Los Angeles Times


Publishers Weekly

Kaufman, an English professor at New York's City University, pursues a hip, journalistic approach to America's all-consuming relationship to the gut, from Puritan rituals of fasting to the creation of the Food Network. Kaufman maintains that the feast-fast syndrome that torments America-obesity, anorexia, overeating, dieting, fads and cures, "gastroporn," pollution and purity of food, and self-sufficiency-all originate from our understanding of virtue and vice, first established by the Puritans. Indeed, these first settlers held that the stomach's equilibrium reflected one's spiritual state, and the process of digestion maintained the body's intimate fine-tuning between good and evil. Days of fasting were declared as ways of seeking spiritual guidance, and purges and emetics used to expunge evil and corruption from the system, much as today's advocates of raw foods and unpasteurized milk press their enzyme cures. To demonstrate examples of the ethics of eating, Kaufman discusses dietary restrictions such as kosher foods and, conversely, the lifting of all restrictions by the primal culinary tastes nurtured in the Wild West. Kaufman traces dieting to Ben Franklin's obsession with the virtue of temperance and offers myriad examples of how certain diets (e.g., vegetarianism, single-substance eating) were intended to effect one's transformation from within. With a final paean to endangered favorites such as bananas and oysters, Kaufman digresses forgivingly in this occasionally incongruous though entertaining study. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Vastly entertaining as it leads us through America's digestive history, this book serves up Kaufman's notion of a country whose development can be traced by the way its citizens eat, grow, digest, and think of food. Kaufman (English, CUNY) draws parallels between national policies and digestion: limiting meals to a single food, for example, became a symbol of political isolationism during America's antebellum period. We've spent much of our recent history involved in "imperialist eating," colorfully illustrated by the author's description of competitive eaters (aka gurgitators). Americans proudly celebrated National Days of Fasting well into the 19th century. Kaufman also addresses the benefits of ingesting raw milk, the extinction of bananas (which he writes will come within the next decade), days when lobsters were five to six inches long, the concept of our bodies as a business, and the romance of westward expansion as pioneers were led by their stomachs. Recommended for public library collections.
—Elizabeth Rogers

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Reviews
A series of trenchant arguments about the consistency of Americans' feelings for food, our great common denominator. Suspecting that the consumption-crazed, binge-and-purge culture is nothing new, Kaufman (English/CUNY) quotes young Washington Irving, who in 1803 marveled over the stunning culinary delectations available in New York City. The author then jumps forward two centuries to investigate the term "gastroporn": Watching a generous amount of Food Network programming, he gleefully compares the structure and style of X-rated films with the loving close-ups and sensuous phrases that are staples of cooking shows, Emeril Lagasse's "kick it up a notch" being one example. Kaufman notes that "the money shot"-the finished dish-is seldom the actual product of those ingredients you see the chefs squeezing and manipulating. Even the Puritans were obsessed with food, he declares, speculating as to the full menu of their first Thanksgiving. Kaufman's jolting chapter on vomiting (he prefers "puking") displays a masterful wit. He begins by elaborately, eloquently apologizing for raising the topic at all, then lays out a finely researched, deeply ironic chronology of how early Americans viewed vomit. Indeed, it's never sufficient for him to opine that the Puritans "adored laxatives and diuretics" when he can also dissect the inscrutable food writing of Cotton Mather. As Kaufman slowly returns to the present, he addresses a string of intriguing issues. An indictment of the milk-processing industry includes an account of his adventures within a secret raw-milk collective. Artificial genetic modifications have fundamentally altered many foods, he reveals, the sumptuous oyster in particular. Oneamusing passage skewers actress and diet/fitness guru Suzanne Somers, whose "misty never-never land of personal, economic and domestic bliss [is] meticulously documented on every overproduced page of her modern gastrosophical masterpiece, Get Skinny on Fabulous Food."Gourmets and gourmands alike will savor Kaufman's keen, caustic anatomy of the American palate.
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156034692
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 2/25/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederick Kaufman

Frederick Kaufman is a professor of English at the City University of New York and CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism. He has written about American food culture and other subjects for Harper's Magazine, the New Yorker, Gourmet, Gastronomica, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. He lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Debbie Does Salad  

A modern epicure is almost always eating the present dish as a kind of introduction to something else.


—William Alcott, 1846


In the year 2000 an American Cinco de Mayo celebration featured the world’s largest taco, fashioned from nine hundred pounds of meat. The taco generated a fair bit of press but could not compare to the sensation created almost two hundred years earlier when supporters of Thomas Jefferson presented the president with a New Year’s gift, a nine-hundred-pound “Mammoth Cheese,” said to have been produced from the milk of one thousand Republican cows. Such tales amuse but don’t amaze us anymore. The outrageous demands of the American stomach have become our daily bread.

                But back in the day when Federalists walked the earth, the stomach could still engender shock and awe. In January of 1803, not too long after the presentation of that mammoth cheese, a young journalist who called himself Jonathan Oldstyle traversed the most fashionable streets of New York City, astonished by the extraordinary abundance of food, and by the extraordinary might of its consumption. He published his cultural observations in New York’s Morning Chronicle:

I had marched into the theatre through rows of tables heaped up with delicacies of every kind—here a pyramid of apples or oranges invited the playful palate of the dainty; while there a regiment of mince pies and custards promised a more substantial regale to the hungry. I entered the box, and looked around with astonishment . . . The crackling of nuts and the crunching of apples saluted my ears on every side. Surely, thought I, never was an employment followed up with more assiduity than that of gormandizing; already it pervades every public place of amusement . . .

                The eating mania prevails through every class of society; not a soul but has caught the infection. Eating clubs are established in every street and alley, and it is impossible to turn a corner without hearing the hissing of frying pans, winding the savory steams of roast and boiled, or seeing some hungry genius bolting raw oysters in the middle of the street.

Within a decade, this young food writer would become America’s most famous author. His name was Washington Irving.

                Irving was a social critic, and his food writing, social commentary. In an 1807 edition of Salmagundi (a literary magazine he founded with his brother and a friend), Irving declared that 

the barbarous nations of antiquity immolated human victims to the memory of their lamented dead, but the enlightened Americans offer up whole hecatombs of geese and calves, and oceans of wine in honour of the illustrious living . . .


Irving had perceived that eating and drinking in the pristine nation introduced an entirely new set of rituals and sacraments, for food and food alone could embody “the sublime spectacle of love of country, elevating itself from a sentiment into an appetite.”

                A few decades after Irving’s magazine pieces, the obsessions of nineteenth-century food maniacs had matured from raw oysters, raw apples, and nuts into the liver puddings and chicken jellies of Miss Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery. The most popular cookbook of the nineteenth century, Directions plowed its way through sixty printings, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and made its author one of the first in a long line of celebrity chefs. And Miss Leslie, famous for her sarcasm and wit, grew so expansive that in her final years she could not walk.

                A century and a half before the advent of Zagat online and starchefs.com, American food delirium had already engendered a sect of haute-bourgeois extravagance—our first clearly recognizable foodies (as opposed to the chowhounds, who had been gnawing bark off the trees from the very beginning). Hard-line nineteenth-century food moralists such as Sylvester Graham and William Alcott may have railed against the immoral luxuries of white bread, store-bought milk, and more than two ingredients per dish, but Jacksonian gastrosophisticates continued to lust after Miss Leslie’s peach leather and gooseberry fool, cocoa-nut pudding, and raspberry charlotte. The food protestants knew that beneath such culinary desires lay perversity, sickness, and damnation, but their rhetoric could hardly diminish the popularity of America’s first haunt of high cuisine, the restaurant Delmonico’s, where the menu featured chateaubriand, lobster Newburg, and limitless liters of Château Margaux. With dread imagination, the reformers could envision a marketplace glutted with disease-inducing excitements (i.e., spices) and chemically tainted butter. Never could they have conceived of our present debauched trade in chocolate fountains and olive stoners, thermoforks, ergonomic meat hammers, and bidirectional marinade injectors.

                America’s eating infection has progressed, just as our obsessive need to possess recipes has morphed from shoe boxes stuffed with file cards to cookbooks.com, a database that brims with one million possibilities. To sample every one of them (at a steady rate of three meals per day, one new recipe per meal) would take more than nine hundred years.

                But don’t be absurd. Nobody cooks all those recipes. In fact, everyone knows recipes aren’t for cooking. Instead, the relationship of the recipe to the typical American cook has transformed into something akin to the relationship between sexual intercourse and the voyeur. So, after you’ve exhausted the offerings from cookbooks.com (which should take a week or so), the more traditional style of cookbook awaits—the profusion of which has managed to dwarf the diet-book industry. More than thirty-nine thousand inheritors of Miss Leslie’s tradition account for business worth $375 million a year. The books fall into the classic divisions, the clinical manifestations of American food mania: imperialist (Superfoods, How to Cook Everything, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating); scientific (Molecular Gastronomy, What Einstein Told His Cook); spiritual (The Sauce Bible, The Smoothies Bible, The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible, along with innumerable barbecue, wine, and mixed-drink bibles); and medical (The Self-Healing Cookbook, The Fibromyalgia Cookbook, The Dysphagia Cookbook).

                And then there are the hordes of recipe monomaniacs, ready to plunk down ducats for single-titled tomes devoted entirely to eggs or cheese, cupcakes or crepes, dough or salmon. (Not to neglect fried chicken, apple pie, or The Book of Yogurt.) Scores of sexually suggestive offerings mix and match involuntary impulses (Saucepans and the Single Girl; Dining in the Raw; InterCourses; Fork Me, Spoon Me). Add to the above an entire sector of the business that has developed around treatises expressly dedicated to cooking equipment—from convection ovens and microwaves to woks, juicers, food processors, pressure cookers, rice cookers, slow cookers, and the tagine. Not to mention the thousands upon thousands of ecstatic pages devoted to the grill, George Foreman and otherwise. Vegetarian tracts have laid waste the forests.

                Peculiar cookbooks demand peculiar ingredients. Just as the postmodern intestinal devotee (someone like you, dear reader) can order vinegar six-packs from eBay, loquat vinegar from igourmet.com, and chocolate vinegar from cybercucina.com, Miss Leslie provided meticulous instructions for the creation of such gastronomic wonders as shallot vinegar, chili vinegar, and horseradish vinegar—the last of which none of the sites presently carries. While many of us have moved beyond the specifics of Miss Leslie’s oatmeal gruel and rennet whey, our eating mania has persevered. Inundated as we are with shelf loads of champagne honey mustards, cognac quince mustards, and handcrafted carmelized ginger-fig mustards (not to mention ever-growing stockpiles of mango, watermelon, and star-fruit chutneys), we hardly note that in the great tradition of American food madness, we are worshipping at the altar of the edible.

If and when we ever stop to think about our need for that perfect fennel wasabi habanero, we consider our yearning an outgrowth of modern, international, sophisticated tastes honed in the decades since Julia Child introduced us to aspic. We take our nori-wrapped artisanal foie gras, our roasted cilantro shisho chiffonades, and our tikka masala tapenades as signs of our contemporary culture of epicureanism. It certainly never occurs to us that when it comes to our stomachs, we long ago lost all capacity for reason.

                That’s because our stomachs aren’t governed by reason. Recent scientific investigations have led to increasingly refined theories of the stomach’s power. American researchers have disinterred a medical theory from more than a century ago that places the stomach in the center of everything, a theory that asserts the digestive tract constitutes a brain in and of itself. “Gut reaction” has become more than a phrase.

                Michael Gershon, chairman of Columbia University’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, believes there is a brain in the gut. This “second brain” has a hundred million neurons—which is more than the spinal cord—and controls the expansion and contraction of the body’s sphincters, the O-ring muscles located, among other places, up and down the digestive tract. Any elementary human-biology textbook will tell you there are sphincters in the pupils of the eyes, sphincters in the heart, and sphincters in the sexual organs. There are cervical sphincters, urethral sphincters, pyloric sphincters, two separate and distinct anal sphincters, and the sphincter of Oddi, which controls secretions from the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. But we never have to think much about getting food from our throats to our stomachs, from our stomachs to our intestines, and from our intestines on down, just as we don’t have to calculate how to equilibrate our own blood pressure. According to Professor Gershon, the brain in the gut takes care of such things.

                Of course, Michael Gershon was not the first American scientist to reach such conclusions. Frederick Byron Robinson’s landmark study “The Abdominal Brain and Pelvic Brain” was first published in Chicago in 1907. “In the abdomen there exists a brain of wonderful power maintaining eternal, restless vigilance over its viscera,” wrote Robinson.

Copyright © 2008 by Frederick Leonard Kaufman

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents


                Preface   ix

1.             Debbie Does Salad              1

2.             The Sweet Taste of God     29

3.             The Secret Ingredient          59

4.             Manifest Dinner   87

5.             Gorging on Diets  117

6.             The Gastrosopher’s Stone 151

7.             Gut Reaction         187

                Acknowledgments               195

                Index      197

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2008

    Complete waste of Time!

    Kaufman attempts to write on a subject that he has little knowledge or passion for. The writing is boring. His points are clever rather than insightful. I could not make it all the way through this book and would not reccomend it. Simply put, I wish I had my money back.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2008

    A reviewer

    Take One part History, add a dose of Politics, combine with Culture and Philosophy and you get A Short History of the American Stomach. This Author has a critical eye and an ironic wit. This book gave me a much deeper understanding of the role food plays in our culture.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2011

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