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
A Short History of the American Stomachby Frederick Kaufman
Frederick Kaufman Offers A Piquant Sampling Of American History by way of the stomach. Travel with him as he discovers the secret history of Puritan purges; introduces diet gurus of the nineteenth century; 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 provides a revelatory look at how we eat now.
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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
PRAISE FOR A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN STOMACH
“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
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Read an ExcerptA Short History of the American Stomach
By Kaufman, Frederick Harcourt Copyright © 2008 Kaufman, Frederick
All right reserved.
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 theextraordinary 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
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Meet the Author
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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