Pub. Date:
Westview Press
No Foreign Food: The American Diet In Time And Place / Edition 1

No Foreign Food: The American Diet In Time And Place / Edition 1

by Richard Pillsbury
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813327396
Publisher: Westview Press
Publication date: 05/01/1998
Series: Geographies of the Imagination
Edition description: REV
Pages: 275
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Lexile: 1350L (what's this?)

About the Author

Richard Pillsbury is professor of geography at Georgia State University.

Read an Excerpt


On What We Eat
and What We Don't

And speaking of rice, I was sixteen years old before I knew that everyone didn't eat rice every day.

--Smart-Grosvenor, 1992

Every Saturday night for the first twenty-two years of my life at precisely 6:00 P.M. I sat down for a dinner of baked beans, Parker House rolls, coleslaw, and fruit pie at my grandparents' home with my entire extended family, who lived within thirty miles of Chico, California. The menu never varied, though periodically the cast did; two of my father's siblings, who lived far from this isolated community, would come when they could find time in their busy lives. The New England heritage of the family was well reflected in this unchanging menu; yet no member of my father's immediate clan had lived in New England proper for almost a century. Even the great earthenware bean pot that had been acquired in Nebraska prior to my grandfather's turn-of-the-century move to California was not from New England.

    This continuing dining experience was not unique in those days, as family played a far more important role in daily American life. We may have been a bit extreme in the expectation that all the siblings would appear each week with their children and spouses, but what else would they have done in those days before television in small-town California? The pattern came to an end, of course, in the decades after World War II; my grandparents became too old to host such a large gathering (fifteen to twenty most Saturdays), and my cousins and I began leaving first for college and then for jobs scattered throughout the United States. Even the great orgiastic Thanksgiving dinners of thirty-five or more eventually disappeared as we became too scattered to even consider gathering in such an isolated place so far from the mainstream of our lives. Indeed, I have not had a single baked-bean dinner since leaving home; nor do I know what became of that great pot after my grandmother died. I moved into another world far removed from that traditional, New England farm-family milieu in which I was raised, as did all of my cousins.

    All of our diets are constantly changing and are shaped not only by our past but by our daily lives. What we eat today is dependent on the way we were raised, where we were raised, and when we were raised and on the communities in which we have lived. Today I live in a community that is blessed with a grocer who has taken it upon himself to provide the greatest selection of perishable foods imaginable at reasonable prices. On any day of the year I can walk into his warehouse-sized food emporium and purchase fresh peaches. In early summer they will be local southern fruit, but as the season progresses they will be from California and even later in the season from New Jersey or Pennsylvania. It is winter now, and those sitting in bins will be from Chile and other Southern Hemisphere growing areas.

    The array of food in this establishment is beyond expectation: fresh ginger from the Fiji Islands gobee root from Japan; oranges from Israel and Spain; free-range chickens from California; fresh oysters from the Gulf Coast, Washington, and Japan; farm-raised salmon from Chile and Norway, wild salmon from Alaska, and smoked salmon from Scotland. The bakery bins are filled with more than thirty varieties of breads ranging from basic American white to Afghan flat bread, Jewish rye, "San Francisco" sourdough, and three kinds of still-warm French baguettes. An agricultural cornucopia of unparalleled variety is immediately available to me, yet when I look at my weekly menu, it is little different from that steady diet my mother served when I was a child living in a small town. The variations that have crept into my home diet stem not from the vast array of fresh foods that I can purchase at any time but rather from the give-and-take of a marriage in which each of the individuals brings a different heritage to the dining table. Thus my Italian-heritage wife thinks of manicotti and spaghetti when she seeks comfort food, not baked beans. Our menu of preferred and frequently prepared foods is an amalgamation of our individual preferences, experiences, and traditions.

    All of our individual diets are constantly changing packages of preferences, availabilities, and experiences. For example, I can remember my sister-in-law from Tucson introducing the first taco to the family table and my first (restaurant) pizza--served, of course, in a reputedly rat-invested hole-in-the-wall in the wrong part of town. Tracing individual and regional foodways is a difficult undertaking; it is important to first gain some understanding of the origins of the nation's foodways.

Americans and Nutrition

Dietary habits are one of the most conservative elements of culture and one of the most difficult to trace. We know surprisingly little about the factors that shape a diet or a particular cuisine. The notion that we eat what is available is simplistic. The drive toward meeting the human body's basic nutritional needs also clearly has played only a small role in molding human dietary habits. Most nineteenth-century Americans believed that a healthy diet was an ample diet. In those times a healthy person was one who consumed vast quantities of food. The ideal human figure took on increasing girth. Likewise, one's food choices were generally felt to be of little consequence outside the ranks of a few fanatics such as Sylvester Graham and W. K. Kellogg. It was widely believed that if you liked fatback and ice cream, for example, you ought to consume them in unlimited quantities. It was volume, not content, that promoted a healthy body. The health fanatics did make inroads into American foodways, but they had no firm knowledge of chemistry, which underlies today's concepts of good nutrition.

    Vitamins were not even conceptualized until a 1908 rat-nutrition research study demonstrated that unknown food elements were essential for life and health. Vitamin B was first isolated in 1911, though it was not until 1916 that it was proven that beriberi was caused by a vitamin B deficiency. The United States Food Administration began distributing literature to American schools, encouraging the consumption of milk and leaves of plants and other vegetative products in 1918 even though the actual amounts needed for good nutrition were not known.

    Many vitamin-deficiency diseases were endemic to the nation prior to World War II, though their causes were unknown at the time. Pellagra, a vitamin [B.sub.3] deficiency, ravaged poor southern children for more than a century because it was not recognized that a diet based on cornmeal was vitamin-deficient. Pellagra was not stamped out until the 1940s, when better times allowed even poor southerners to broaden their diets. Even scurvy, long known to be kept at bay by the consumption of citrus fruits, was not recognized as a vitamin deficiency until 1928.

    The federal government still seems undecided on exactly what constitutes a proper diet, and most Americans still have little more than folk wisdom and the half-truths propagated by advertisements to guide their nutritional decisions. The continuing popularity of various high-sugar children's breakfast cereals, french fries, and at least one brand of commercial pizza--which was heavily advertised for a time and which contains almost 1,000 calories and 30 grams of fat per slice--suggests how little progress has been made in educating the public on the virtues of a healthy diet.

Some Factors in Food Choices

It was once suggested that there are two basic factors governing human diet: (1) humans eat what they can find from their environment; (2) given a choice, they eat what their ancestors ate. The underlying truth of these statements is irrefutable, yet they give little insight into the specific factors that have shaped our diets. Only those cultures living in the most miserly of environments actually consume everything available. There is always a selection process. Some items are preferred over others; some are consumed only out of necessity. If a society's situation improves and its food supply expands, consumption of preferred foods increases at the expense of less favored items. A society practices such selection without a thought or a backward look. A complete understanding of that selection process is obviously impossible, but some factors underlying it can be determined. Some of these factors are important to varying degrees in different contexts.

Environment and Technology

The related factors of environment and technology are obviously the two overarching factors controlling what anyone eats. A food cannot become a significant part of a society's diet if it cannot be produced within the physical constraints of the local environment. These physical constraints are sometimes altered by technology; for example, new strains of food crops can increase the physical range of food plants and animals, as can irrigation and other technological innovations that alter the environment. A society can also broaden its diet beyond what can be produced in the local environment if technology is adequate to transport food in an edible condition at a reasonable cost. Innovations in transportation and storage technologies have allowed for the distribution of food to ever larger areas. Within the American context, the development of the refrigerator railcar in the late nineteenth century and produce that could be mechanically harvested in the twentieth century reduced production costs to allow the economical shipment of perishables to more areas. Today Americans take for granted that tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, and iceberg lettuce will be sitting on their grocer's shelf every time they enter the store. Environment and technology thus are so immutably linked that they cannot be separated.


Inertia, or more simply, tradition, is an element in every diet. All people include some foods in their diets for no other reason than they have always done so. The traditional American breakfast of eggs, bacon or sausage, toast slathered with butter, and hash browns is a nutritionist's nightmare of cholesterol and other fats. Despite the availability of a variety of other foods that have been deemed acceptable for breakfast, this traditional meal continues, especially in the restaurant environment, where it is the best-selling meal during the morning hours. We may say that choosing to eat such a breakfast is easier than looking for alternatives, which is to say that we consume that meal and others because they make us comfortable in their continuity.

    Because we eat for many reasons other than fueling the body, the selection of foods, their times of consumption, and the combinations in which they are consumed reflect tradition as much as need and availability. This can most easily be seen in times of stress, when all of us tend to return to our own particular comfort foods. The military, for example, attempts to provide a "traditional" Thanksgiving meal to the troops in the field in order to raise morale (and probably also to effect a renewed identification with the culture they are protecting, even though many may not have taken part in that culture to the extent of eating this traditional meal in the homes they left behind). The corollary among travelers to other countries is the search for hamburgers, french fries, and pizza even if those foods are not frequently consumed by them when at home. The comfort provided by familiar foods somehow makes it easier for them to cope with sometimes overwhelmingly unfamiliar places. Conversely, foreign locals patronize expatriate American restaurants in the belief that the cachet of a Big Mac will somehow make them more akin to America and Americans. The concepts of inertia, or tradition, and comfort are immutably linked.


Unfamiliarity also affects the acceptability of food items. Most people are reluctant to try unfamiliar foods, often citing individual tastes as an excuse. But since a small, safe taste would often quickly settle the matter, the consumer may actually be in fear of these items. How many children are exhorted to taste a new food (which they have decided is bad on sight) and even after a taste continue to protest? In my case, I detested abalone, a sea snail that has now virtually disappeared from fish markets and seafood restaurants. When I was a child, my family would journey to the Mendocino coast on the dates of exceptionally low tides to pry these ugly and unappetizing creatures from the tidal rocks. Older and wiser, I have come to covet this now expensive food; the last whole one I saw, in a fish market several years ago, was priced at $70, and it was a small specimen. Recently fish farmers have created the technology for producing these snails in pens, but they remain expensive--as well as ugly. One wonders if the public will lose its taste for this exotic dish as it becomes increasingly accessible, losing its mystique.

    Acquiring a taste for a certain food thus is actually a process of transforming an unfamiliar flavor into a familiar one. Some classic foods for which Americans must first acquire a taste include coffee, asparagus, and scotch whiskey. Few Americans actually like the flavor of coffee at their first introduction. In fact, many must add large quantities of adulterants--sugar, cream, and, more recently, assorted spices--to make this drink tolerable; yet this beverage has become the nation's most identifiable national drink. One must wonder how many of those millions of consumers like the drink and how many consume it because of social convention or to obtain a cheap caffeine fix.

    An extension of this thought is that societies universally reject foods that disgust them in some way. Our society feels disgust for insects and snakes--for virtually any crawling or squiggling creature--and for almost anything else that appears strange. This disgust has little to do with the actual taste of the item. Rattlesnake meat, for example, is almost universally reviled--some vomit when they discover what they have just consumed--yet many who try it actually find it agreeable.


In his pace-setting study of food in the 1960s, Fred Simoons demonstrated that the history of most food avoidances is far more complex than it appears. His critical examination of the Western European rejection of horse flesh, for example, indicated that Americans' disdain for this food generally does not relate to an association with a famous horse such as Trigger or a beloved horse in one's everyday life (overfamiliarity) but rather is specifically attributable to an A.D. 732 decree by Pope Gregory III that Christians should not eat horse. The pope's reason for this decree did not relate to the horse as an animal at all; rather it stemmed from the church's desire to control the heathen in Germany and northern Europe who consumed horse as a part of their pre-Christian ritual. Believing that some northern European Christians had incorporated ancient heathen beliefs into their Roman Catholic rituals, church leaders hoped to either stop the practice or be able to identify the malefactors. This strategy did not work, and horse is still consumed--without religious connotations--in those same portions of northern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries. Indeed, the large-scale exportation of horse meat for human consumption in Europe is becoming a cause celebre for increasing numbers of animal rights activists. The continuing modern American avoidance of horse meat probably stems less from the medieval ban than it does from a general drift away from the consumption of animals not a part of the American mainstream, including the nontraditional squirrel, rabbit, and buffalo. Indeed, the attempt to introduce buffalo flesh into the American diet because of its reputed positive qualities is an interesting example of Americans' general resistance to consuming the unfamiliar even if it is better for them.

Social Status

Social status is also an important factor in food selection. Virtually all food has some association in this regard. Some believe that by consuming high-status foods, they are able to raise their social standing. Filet mignon, beluga caviar, and lobster carry high-status social cachets in our society. Red beans and rice, chicken necks, and catfish are often presumed to be consumed by people of low status. As my mother said derisively when my father, having read about catfish in the South, decided to catch some in the Sacramento River for the dinner table, "I hope you don't expect me to cook those things. Only Okies eat catfish."

    Traditional societies controlled the consumption of high-status foods by forbidding their consumption by those deemed unworthy for reasons of gender, age, and family or clan. Thus pregnant women might be prohibited from eating pork because of the humanoid look of the pig fetus, and the bear clan might be restricted from eating that animal because of its association with the clan's heritage. Our society uses price as a controlling factor, and high-status items often carry higher prices than their mere "quality" or cost of production warrant. The theoretical egalitarianism of American life is reflected in the nation's use of economics to control food prohibitions based on class: Anyone in the society can indulge in such foods if he or she is willing to make the financial sacrifice. Among those who are willing (and able) to pay is the young swain who wants to impress his date on prom night. A familiar sight during the American prom season is the startled look on a young man's face when he is presented with the whole lobster he ordered to demonstrate his worldliness. He has no idea which part to eat, much less how to attack this strange crustacean stretched across his plate, His concern soon turns to panic as he wonders how to salvage at least a bit of dignity. All this happens while the waiter, with a bit of a smirk, is tying the obligatory bib around the lad's neck and offering him a strange fork.

Perceived Properties

The perceived properties of foods are an inherent element of all food consumption. From Neanderthal to modern suburbanite, perceptions rather than actual knowledge have determined the foods we eat. Many foods are eaten because we believe they impart desired qualities to us. How many children in America, a society that generally does not consume organ meats, have virtually been force-fed fried liver because it was "good for them"? How many came to eat canned spinach during the 1930s and 1940s after watching Popeye cartoons, which extolled the strength-giving qualities of this food? Similarly, we eat a host of other foods because we believe that their consumption will enhance our lives--carrots to see better, lettuce for its vitamins, and beef to make us strong. How different are these beliefs from those of other peoples who consumed deer to make them swift, bear to make them strong, or even the heart of the enemy killed in battle to make them brave?

    It is fashionable to deride these supposedly primitive beliefs; yet a popular book in the 1980s proclaimed, "Real men don't eat quiche." Although the trendy admonition was certainly made tongue-in-cheek, no doubt some men stopped consuming this then chic restaurant entree in fear that they would be perceived to be deficient in manliness. Quiche has largely become passe today and less frequently appears on menus; nutritionally, this is probably a positive development, although the high cholesterol of some forms of this dish had little to do with its demise. Nevertheless, refusing to eat it was for a time and within certain social groups a de facto symbol of American manhood. Consumption of specific foods is tied to concern about how we are perceived by our peer group.

Fealty or Group Membership

Fealty or group association is another important factor in the evolution of food preferences and avoidances. As previously suggested, many in our society consume high-status foods as one method of being perceived as a member of a particular group; in actuality, this concept is much broader than status. It has been argued that one of the most important elements in pork avoidance among Muslims was the pig's association with urbanites, who were generally perceived as dirty and uncivilized by the nomadic tribes of the Middle East. It has been suggested that Muslims traditionally consumed camel to demonstrate their association with their group and avoided alcohol and pork to demonstrate their faith. Similar behaviors associated with food and group identity are common in American society and include going out to get a beer with the boys after work.

    The prescribed menus for most holidays also play an important role in demonstrating group membership. All-American turkey is preferred at Thanksgiving (a nationalistic holiday), but ham is preferred at Easter (a preference that clearly delineates Easter as a Christian holiday, as pork is banned from the Jewish diet). Holiday meals are an important way for individuals to demonstrate their cultural identity with a group. In contemporary America, Thanksgiving turkey with (corn)bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce is de rigueur. We believe that by consuming these items we are affirming our ancestral roots and celebrating national honor and familial solidarity. We try to include as many Americans as possible in this ceremonial meal, whatever the cost. The military provides even troops in battle with the proper holiday foods (as duly shown on the 6 P.M. evening news) and local communities reach out to often-underfunded urban soup kitchens to provide the nation's most downtrodden with the proper celebratory meal (also featured on TV news). The fact that we are unsure of what the pilgrims ate during that November feast and that the Thanksgiving celebration and accompanying meal actually represent a gross commercialization of an event memorialized by a society searching for a common identity that never existed is immaterial. Thanksgiving has become a Christmas-like holiday in that it involves cards and family visits, but it is open to all regardless of religion or ethnic heritage. And as with Christmas, it is becoming increasingly difficult for most Americans to achieve the idealized Thanksgiving feast depicted by Norman Rockwell on his Saturday Evening Post cover many decades ago. Families are widely scattered across the country, grandparents no longer live just down the street, and this kind of repast is difficult to prepare for the average 3.22-member American household.

    It is not my goal to debunk the classic Thanksgiving holiday but rather to suggest that the concept of consuming selected foods to obtain their perceived qualities has not disappeared from modern society. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to national holidays. We demonstrate membership in a group every time we provide food for others, whether it be shown by participating in a church social or inviting people to our homes to break bread. What we serve speaks of our community ties with those to whom we serve it. No member of a midwestern church would dare arrive at a church supper with a plate of mussels or escargot or for that matter red beans and rice. Those things would not fit that group's perception of the continuity and temporality of its community, and by bringing such foods, you would be sending a message that you do not acknowledge your membership in and acceptance of the rules of the group.

    I have attended the annual church homecoming of a small rural Baptist church in central Georgia for more than twenty-five years as a guest of an old friend. The progression of food offered by the members at this special time well reflected the community's evolving self-image as it changed from an isolated, declining, poverty-ridden cotton community with little future to a community with a growing base of exurban Atlantans. The fare at this annual event has changed as the community has changed. Early on, the tables were dominated by classic southern cuisine done to its finest turn. Modernity began creeping in as the first retired returnees from the city tried to demonstrate their worldliness. The arrival of increasing numbers of trailers on the back lots of farms and the beginnings of renovation of the stock of Victorian farmhouses brought more change in the 1970s and 1980s. More and more Southern Living dishes began appearing, and the traditional dishes became more and more modernized. Today, the most traditional dishes are most likely to be brought by the community's newest residents, reveling in their return to "their" roots; the most modern are provided by the housewives who never left and who are happy to be freed from the shackles of traditionalism, which held them fast to a limited diet most of their lives.

Time and Place

"Everything has its time and place" is a consistent theme in the American self-conception and certainly plays a role in the nation's foodways. The how, the why, and the where of consumption all play important roles in determining whether a food is acceptable. Certain foods are perceived to be proper at specified times. A proper American does not drink a cola and have a slice of pizza as the first meal of the day--if we overlook the penchant of teenagers to prove they can break any of society's rules at will. For many years it was virtually impossible to successfully order a soft drink in a restaurant during the breakfast period--the fountain machinery typically was not even cleaned and set up for the day. Even today McDonald's serves breakfast only until 10:30 A.M. even though customers might be standing in line to order it. Nor can one buy a hamburger before that time. We are told that there is no demand for breakfast at McDonald's after 10:30; yet breakfast items account for 58 percent of total sales of one of the nation's larger family restaurant chains and 67 percent of another.

    The issue of drinking alcohol is especially intriguing in our society because there are so many rules about its consumption. Age distinctions are most prominent, but time considerations are also important. Interestingly, our society considers drinking a martini the first thing in the morning to be a sign that the consumer may be an alcohol abuser but accepts the consumption of the same amount of alcohol in tomato juice, called a Bloody Mary. The history of American attitudes about alcohol consumption is an interesting one; the nation has moved from unrestricted consumption to full prohibition and back to controlled consumption. Further complicating the history, of alcohol prohibition in America is the fact that some of its supporters acted out of self-interest. Henry Ford financially supported the prohibition movement because he was trying to ensure the presence of a sober workforce at his factories. In much of the South today, control of alcohol sales is often supported by a coalition of religious leaders and bootleggers.

    We have particular ideas about the acceptability of foods in terms of when they are consumed. Dessert must be consumed after a regular meal, seemingly must be explained to other diners if consumed otherwise, and is generally considered inappropriate for breakfast. But doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, and other sweet bakery items, containing essentially the same ingredients as traditional dessert items, are acceptable breakfast foods. Indeed, these items are acceptable at almost any time of the day or night either alone or in conjunction with a beverage.

Body and Soul Food

Ultimately what we eat and when we eat are the result of a complex set of decisions, most of which take place subconsciously. It has been suggested that one of the basic elements in the decision process is the goal of survival, yet this ultimately plays a surprisingly small role in either personal habits or the evolution of our national cuisine. One rarely eats solely to fill the stomach.

    Obviously all food fuels the body; some foods are consumed only for that reason, and others are consumed because they elicit a desired emotional response. Almost half of the entire nation's consumption of pumpkin pie takes place during a single week each year. Its consumption is based on a set of beliefs and traditions that may or may not have validity, but whether or not these beliefs are based in reality, it is clear that the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie eaters are feeding their souls, not just fueling their bodies. One's special birthday cake similarly brings memories of an idealized childhood. My own childhood birthday cake, for example, was an applesauce cake baked in an angel food cake pan; it was heavy as a rock, created from a recipe that was repeatedly altered by a doting mother. My wife, who came on the scene after my mother's death, spent years trying to recreate this childhood memory until a favorite aunt pointed out that my mother utilized several recipes, that she never copied a recipe without altering it, and that there actually never had been a single "Dick's applesauce cake." But I still dream of that cake, which apparently never existed.

Some Final Thoughts

Food is about memories, traditions, and history. An exploration of the geography and development of American regional and national cuisines thus must include the contextual evolution of our entire dining experience--from the accessibility of the ingredients to their means of preparation to the ways and times of consumption. Understanding the evolution of our contemporary diet thus must begin with an exploration of the nation's first eating habits and its early "geography of food." A comparison of our past and present food geographies will help us understand the evolution of our foodways. The American culture and diet is undergoing rapid homogenization; yet even a hurried trip through south Houston or Seattle or Harlem suggests that definitive regional differences still exist in the nation's food preferences and consumption modes. Still, many traditional, regional cultures have disintegrated, and have been replaced with new ones. In the next chapter, a baseline of traditional foodways will be established so that we may better understand today's dynamically changing culture.

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