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Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias

Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias

by Etta M. Madden, Martha L. FinchEtta M. Madden


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Perennially viewed as both a utopian land of abundant resources and a fallen nation of consummate consumers, North America has provided a fertile setting for the development of distinctive foodways reflecting the diverse visions of life in the United States. Immigrants, from colonial English Puritans and Spanish Catholics to mid-twentieth-century European Jews and contemporary Indian Hindus, have generated innovative foodways in creating “new world” religious and ethnic identities. The Shakers, the Oneida Perfectionists, and the Amana Colony, as well as 1970s counter-cultural groups, developed food practices that distinguished communal members from outsiders, but they also marketed their food to nonmembers through festivals, restaurants, and cookbooks. Other groups—from elite male dining clubs in Revolutionary America and female college students in the late 1800s, to members of food co-ops; vegetarian Jews and Buddhists; and “foodies” who watched TV cooking shows—have used food strategically to promote their ideals of gender, social class, nonviolence, environmentalism, or taste in the hope of transforming national or global society.
This theoretically informed, interdisciplinary collection of thirteen essays broadens familiar definitions of utopianism and community to explore the ways Americans have produced, consumed, avoided, and marketed food and food-related products and meanings to further their visionary ideals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803217973
Publisher: Nebraska Paperback
Publication date: 05/01/2008
Series: At Table
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Etta M. Madden is a professor of English at Missouri State University and the author of Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies. Martha L. Finch is an assistant professor of religious studies at Missouri State University.

The contributors to this volume include Jonathan G. Andelson, Priscilla J. Brewer, Wendy E. Chmielewski, Trudy Eden, Martha L. Finch, Etta M. Madden, Monica Mak, Kathryn McClymond, Maria McGrath, Ellen Posman, Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz, Mary Rizzo, Phillip H. Round, and Debra Shostak.

Read an Excerpt

Eating in Eden

Food and American Utopias

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-3251-9


Etta M. Madden and
Martha L. Finch

In 1986 the activist Carlo Petrini led a band of protesters armed with
bowls of penne pasta in a demonstration against the opening of a McDonald's
restaurant on the ancient Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Petrini
and his friends represented the Italian organization Arcigola (archgluttony),
which was working "to create awareness of local products and
awaken people's attention to food and wine and the right way to enjoy
them." For Petrini, American fast food represented all that was wrong
with the world: homogenization, industrialization, colonization, globalization,
dehumanization-in short, McDonaldization. Europeans
and North Americans, Petrini argued, had lost touch with their gastronomic
roots, with their sources of true pleasure and taste. "Fast-food
culture"-its corporate economics, its assembly-line mode of meal production
and consumption, its fat- and chemical-laden Big Macs and
fries, and the superficial, frenetic lifestyle it promoted-was destroying
authentic human life physiologically and aesthetically. That day, on the
Spanish Steps in Rome, the Slow Food movement was born.

Slow Food went international in 1989 and by 2004 had grown to
more than eighty thousand members in morethan one hundred countries,
including an American affiliate, Slow Food USA. The organization
promotes a global philosophy that is rooted locally in small convivia-groups
that meet regularly in a member's home or at a restaurant, winery,
or farm to learn about "matters of taste." Convivia hold "food and
wine events and initiatives, creating moments of conviviality, raising the
profile of products, and promoting local artisans and wine cellars." As
Slow Food USA puts it in its Guiding Principles, the members want to
"cultivate and reinvigorate a sense of community and place," as well as
promote "global collaboration." The Slow Food Manifesto, approved
by delegates to the "International Slow Food Movement for the Defense
of and the Right to Pleasure" conference held in Paris in 1989, outlines
the organization's global philosophy. The manifesto rejects "industrial
civilization" for it has "enslaved" us to "Fast Life, which disrupts
our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes, ... forces us to eat Fast
Foods," and threatens the environment and humanity itself with extinction.
The manifesto defends "quiet material pleasure" as the only effective
antidote to "the universal folly of the Fast Life." Sensory pleasure
derives from the "slow, long-lasting enjoyment" experienced when family
and friends gather "at the table with Slow Food." Those hungering
for authenticity can "rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking
and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food," as well as participate
in "virtuous globalization"-an "international exchange of experiences,
knowledge, and projects."

Slow Food has generated an expanding international network of heirloom
food producers, distributors, and consumers, among them the
likes of the renowned Berkeley chef Alice Waters, and retailer of high-end
gourmet products Williams-Sonoma. Among the organization's
numerous projects, a primary one has been building the Ark of Taste,
based on The Noah Principle: to "save" the world from the "flood"
of the homogenizing excesses of the modern world. Countering McDonald's
official One Taste Worldwide mission, Slow Food celebrates
regional uniqueness and global diversity. Into the conceptual ark go
endangered species of wild and domesticated plants and animals, endangered
artisan techniques of food and drink production, and endangered
practices of social civility, conviviality, and commensalism in order
to build "a more human and highly developed society."

The Slow Food movement captures in a nutshell (or a snail shell,
since the slow-moving snail is the emblem of the organization) the
themes of this volume. Taken together, the essays explore an American
"culinary triangle," to borrow a familiar term from the structural anthropologist
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Rather than the raw, the cooked, and the
rotted, however, the essays here bring together three central themes that
weave their way throughout American culture and history, contributing
to a distinctly American ethos: the role played by food and foodways
within communities that hold utopian aspirations for bettering themselves
or the world at large. Foodways, according to the folklorist Lucy
M. Long, include "the network of behaviors, traditions, and beliefs concerning
food, and involve all the activities surrounding a food item and
its consumption, including the procurement, preservation, preparation,
presentation, and performance of that food." Shared foodways, as the
Slow Food movement demonstrates, contribute to the successful construction
of any community of like-minded individuals.

However, communities are complicated entities, particularly in our
postmodern global society. Reviving "the kitchen and the table as centers
of pleasure, culture, and community," a Slow Food convivium's
leisurely, intimate gatherings around food paint a familiar picture of a
community as a group of individuals who physically meet, talk, and enjoy
the pleasures of eating together. Participants intend these convivial
gatherings to connect the grassroots-embodied local community with
a diffuse but active global community of members who likely never will
meet face to face and sit down to a meal together. Yet they are linked
meaningfully not only by participating in an innovative economic system
of food production, distribution, preparation, and consumption
that spans the globe but also by sharing their ideas, stories, and values
about food through print publications and the Internet.

Utopianism, like community, is also a complex notion. The Slow
Food movement offers a clear instance of a community with utopian
ideals and goals. Petrini claims they are "without nostalgia," but members
want to bring from the past into the present, and from rural locales
into industrialized society, an idealized time and place when people
grew their own vegetables, made their own cheese, baked their own
bread, and sat down with family and friends to enjoy a meal produced
and prepared by their own hands. They want to access real or imagined
"taste memories" and "rescue" unique regional foods and foodways-the
Andean root yacòn, Indian mustard seed oil, British Somerset
cheddar cheese, American heritage turkeys, for example-from extinction
caused by such "evils" as agricultural industrialization and biogenetic
modification, typified by fast-food culture. Slow Food is typical of
many utopian groups, for it looks to an ideal past in order to promote
its distinct vision of a better present and future, one in which human
beings are "saved" by learning to slow down, develop taste memories,
experience true pleasure, and live authentically, with deeply felt connections
to each other and a more humane, "civilized" world.

America has provided an environment particularly conducive to our
culinary triangle's three elements-foodways, communities, and utopianism-coming
together in a dynamic generation and exchange of meanings
and practices. Especially since the publication of Eric Schlosser's
popular exposé, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American
(the subtitle of the UK edition is What the All-American Meal Is
Doing to the World
), the global spread of American fast-food restaurants
represents to many the displacement of local values and practices
by U.S. cultural imperialism. And yet for others, whether in Los
Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, or Capetown, consuming a Quarter-pounder
with Cheese means symbolically ingesting all they see as positive about
the United States: political and religious freedoms, military superiority,
educational opportunity, technological advancement, economic power,
material luxury, and the abundance of natural resources that have made
these possible. This real and imagined American cornucopia of natural
and cultural products, symbolized and enacted through American
food and foodways, provides the setting for the diverse communities
explored in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias. Yet contradictory
interpretations of America-as both a utopian land of abundant
resources and possibilities and, because of that abundance, also a fallen
nation of consumers who fret over their diets, health, and apparent cultural
poverty-complicate meanings of America-as-utopia. In response,
communities have developed distinct food practices to promote their
own visions of how life should be lived in America.

A Brief History of American Abundance

The seeds of American fast food, the cultural meanings it symbolizes,
and the contradictory responses it has elicited were planted more
than five hundred years ago by the earliest European explorers, who
exclaimed at their discovery of a marvelous "New World" overflowing
with unimaginable riches. From early travel narratives that described
in vibrant detail the discovery of exotic new foods, to recent accounts
that have presented the United States as "breadbasket to the world,"
food has served as a primary symbol of American abundance. Utopian
images of America as the land of plenty were shaped by the first explorers,
who often used biblical language to rhapsodize about America as a
millennial land, the New Jerusalem foretold in the Bible. Christopher
Columbus imagined he had found the Garden of Eden and claimed that
God had shown him where to find this "new heaven and new earth,"
where a richness of natural resources awaited harvesting. Later voyagers
promoted American riches to Europeans hungry for economic
profit, religious or political freedom, and other opportunities. Captain
John Smith described Virginia in 1612: "The mildnesse of the aire, the
fertilities of the soile, and the situation of the rivers are so propitious to
the nature and use of man as no place is more convenient for pleasure,
profit, and man[']s sustenance."

Other travelers in the 1600s compared the abundance of American
commodities with their lack in Europe, claiming that the "savage" Native
people they encountered were unable to take full advantage of the
land's riches. Indians simply took what they needed with ease, said
these writers, and celebrated with feasts during which they ate "until
their bellies stand forth, ready to split with fullness." Numerous colonial
promoters provided long and detailed descriptions of indigenous
fruits, fish, and game, hoping to attract more settlers, with technologies
supposedly superior to those of "indolent" Native people, to harvest
American resources, creating wealth for colonial investors. Many of
those who did settle in America believed that they had been led by God
out of Europe into the "land of promise" and a "new paradise." Plymouth's
William Bradford imagined Christ inviting his people in New
England to "eat ... and drink freely" of the banquet of wine, milk, sweet
spices, and honey spread before them in the wilderness garden.

Proponents of the myth of American abundance held up both the
land and the "New World" societies established there as physically,
morally, and spiritually more healthy and pure than those left behind
in Europe. Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideal for the New Republic was
reflected in the "new man," the American farmer, about whom Hector
St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in 1782. In Europe men were "mowed
down by want, hunger, and war." In America the "precious soil ... feeds
and clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat,
our richest drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged
spot." In America, Crèvecoeur's imaginary farmer proclaimed, a European
immigrant experiences a "sort of resurrection." He "involuntarily
loves a country where everything is so lovely," where there is "room
for everybody," where "instead of starving, he will be fed." In 1817 the
English visitor William Cobbett perpetuated this vision: in America
"you are not much pressed to eat and drink, but such an abundance is
spread before you ... that you instantly lose all restraint."

Crèvecoeur and earlier colonists did express some fears about the
detrimental physical and moral effects that consuming foods grown
in the "savage" American wilderness might have on their "civilized"
minds and bodies, and many immigrants, of course, encountered far
more hardships than those who glorified American abundance had described.
Nevertheless, the glowing rhetoric prevailed. It has shaped
the expectations of the millions of immigrants who have arrived here
since the early nineteenth century. In the 1800s eastern European Jews,
encouraged by letters from relatives and friends who had already participated
in the "New Exodus" to the New World, were lured by the "land
of milk and honey" and "of mystery, of fantastic experiences, of marvelous
transformations." In her study of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century
Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants' foodways, the historian
Hasia Diner has noted that pangs of hunger drove the immigrants out of
their countries of origin and promises of plenty powerfully drew them
to America, "a place where [they] could find work," and work "meant
being able to feed oneself and one's family."

Visionary ideals of American abundance continued to shape discourse
at the national level throughout the twentieth century. Writing
in the 1950s, the historian David M. Potter argued that a primary factor
influencing "the American character" was "the unusual plenty of available
goods or other usable wealth which has prevailed in America." For
Potter, the land's physical resources and political freedoms had generated
a "politics of abundance," which "fused ... these two ingredients-freedom
and abundance-... in American democratic thought." This
fusion, in practical terms, meant a higher standard of living, including
better nourishment, for Americans than for the rest of the world. More
recently, however, Harvey Levenstein has pointed to the cultural revolutions
of the 1960s as initiating a "crack" in the "facade" of the American
abundance myth as Potter had described it, a crack noticed by proponents
of Slow Food. Industrialization of agriculture, biogenetic modification
of foods, continuing malnutrition and obesity, and obsessions
about health, dieting, and thinness have challenged former meanings
of America as the land of plenty, creating the "paradox of a people surrounded
by abundance who are unable to enjoy it." Nevertheless, not
unlike colonial travel narratives that served up a cornucopia of American
fruits, fish, and game to a European readership hungry for the exotic
and for profit, it is still primarily food products-now Coca-Cola
and McDonald's restaurants-that serve as the most potent emblems of
the inherently conflict-laden myths of American abundance and consumption
to the rest of the world.

Utopianism, Communities, and Foodways

Throughout American history visionary ideals of abundance and the
paradoxes they have generated have been articulated by communities
of like-minded individuals and enacted in those communities' foodways.
We refer to such visionary ideals as "utopian"-a term that extends
beyond the religious connotations of Eden and paradise to other
discourses of social reform and improvement. Since Thomas More's
Utopia was published in 1516, many people have used the term utopia
to signify "an imaginative vision of the telos, or end, at which social life
aims." More cleverly coined the word utopia from the Greek eutopia,
which means "good place," and outopia, which means "nowhere." In
their discussions of utopia, scholars often consider two basic types:
"fictional" utopias such as More's-appearing in print as political or
philosophical treatises, religious manifestos, or novels-and "communal"
utopias-actual groups of people who live together, sharing property
and labor, with the intentional purpose of creating "good places"
in specific locales.


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