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Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America

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America has always been blessed with an abundance of food, but when it comes to the national diet, it is a land of stark contrast and paradox. In the early months of the Depression, for instance, there were 82 breadlines in New York City alone, and food riots broke out in such places as Henryetta, Oklahoma, and England, Arkansas. Yet at the same time, among those who were better-off, absurd weight-loss diets were the rage - the Pineapple-and-Lamb-Chop Diet, the "Mayo Diet" of raw tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, ...
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Overview

America has always been blessed with an abundance of food, but when it comes to the national diet, it is a land of stark contrast and paradox. In the early months of the Depression, for instance, there were 82 breadlines in New York City alone, and food riots broke out in such places as Henryetta, Oklahoma, and England, Arkansas. Yet at the same time, among those who were better-off, absurd weight-loss diets were the rage - the Pineapple-and-Lamb-Chop Diet, the "Mayo Diet" of raw tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, and even a Coffee-and-Donuts Diet. Why do Americans eat what they eat? And why, in a land of plenty, do so many eat so poorly? In Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Levenstein offers a sweeping social history of food and eating in America, exploring the economic, political, and cultural factors that have shaped the American diet from 1930 to the present. Levenstein begins with the Great Depression, describing the breadlines and the slim-down diets, the era's great communal eating fests - the picnics, barbecues, fish fries, and burgoo feasts - and the wave of "vitamania" which swept the nation before World War II, breeding fears that the national diet was deficient in the so-called "morale vitamin." He discusses wartime food rationing and the attempts of Margaret Mead and other social scientists to change American eating habits, and he examines the postwar "Golden Age of American Food Processing," when Duncan Hines and other industry leaders convinced Americans that they were "the best-fed people on Earth." He depicts the disillusionment of the 1960s, when Americans rediscovered hunger and attacked food processors for denutrifying the food supply, and he shows how President Kennedy helped revive the mystique of French food (and how Julia Child helped demystify it). Finally, he discusses contemporary eating habits, the national obsession with dieting, cholesterolphobia, "natural" foods, the demographics of fast-food chains, and the expanding role of food processors

America has always been blessed with an abundance of food, but when it comes to the national diet, we are a land of stark contrast and paradox. Levenstein offers a sweeping social history of food and eating in America, exploring the economic, political, and cultural factors that have shaped our diet since 1930. 15 halftones.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Smoothly written and full of information."--Publishers Weekly

"A fascinating account of the economic, political and cultural factors that have been brought to bear on the way Americans have eaten from 1930 to the present."--Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Levenstein's examples and anecdotes of folly and worse, and his debunking of experts and authorities from Margaret Mead on, make lively reading."--Kirkus Reviews

"With intellectual gusto and uncommon equanimity, Harvey Levenstein has done a remarkable job describing what food has meant in America for the last sixty years. His scrupulous account of all the cultural beliefs and biases that flavor how it is manufactures, marketed, cooked, eaten, exalted, damned, and denied transforms this gastronomic history into a tale of epic proportions. If a society is what it eats, Paradox of Plenty is a revealing portrait of a nation that loves and loathes itself, and has good cause to do both."--Jane and Michael Stern

"Lively, entertaining....Well-written and thoroughly researched, this overview gathers together information that many health and food enthusiasts will find interesting and enlightening."--Library Journal

Donna Seaman
In scrutinizing our eating habits from the Depression to the present, Levenstein has tapped into many of the endearing and infuriating absurdities of American business and popular culture. As he charts our dogged, often ill-informed pursuit of nutrition and convenience, he runs head-on into our obsession with thinness, the wiliness of advertising, and our tremendous capacity for fads. The postwar boom in processed foods ushered in a new age of culinary mediocrity and declining nutritional value, which, in turn, ignited a demand for "natural" foodstuffs when the hazards of pesticides, food additives and preservatives, and the overuse of sugar and salt were recognized. While the middle and upper classes fretted over dieting and longevity, the poor stayed hungry. There are paradoxes aplenty in this keen dissection of food fashions and passions, right up to the latest FDA infighting over codification of nutritional claims on food labeling. Levenstein combines scholarship with perception, wit, and exceptional storytelling skills as he illuminates the ways such diverse elements as gender roles, supermarkets, frozen foods, the mania for vitamins, and changing attitudes toward ethnic food have influenced our eating preferences. Levenstein's "Revolution at the Table" (1988) examined American eating habits from 1880 to 1930. Bon appetit!
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195055436
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/1993
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Harvey A. Levenstein is Professor of History at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Depression Paradoxes 3
1 Depression Dieting and the Vitamin Gold Rush 9
2 The Great Regression: The New Woman Goes Home 24
3 From Burgoo to Howard Johnson's: Eating Out in Depression America 40
4 One-third of a Nation Ill Nourished? 53
5 Oh What a Healthy War: Nutrition for National Defense 64
6 Food Shortages for the People of Plenty 80
7 The Golden Age of Food Processing: Miracle Whip uber Alles 101
8 The Best-fed People the World Has Ever Seen? 119
9 Cracks in the Facade: 1958-1965 131
10 The Politics of Hunger 144
11 Nutritional Terrorism 160
12 The Politics of Food 178
13 Natural Foods and Negative Nutrition 195
14 Darling, Where Did You Put the Cardamom? 213
15 Fast Foods and Quick Bucks 227
16 Paradoxes of Plenty 237
Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Periodicals 257
Notes 259
Index 323
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