Saturday, January 17, 2009

Book Review: "The Early American Table"

Trudy Eden's The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008) is an enlightening, if fairly specialized, examination of how culinary culture, food security and contemporary understandings of the human body's operation shaped and were shaped by the experiences of English colonists in North America.

Eden's study tracks the gradual change in conception of the body as a humoral machine, in which one's personality, status and basic nature were controlled directly by food (and a number of other factors) to the conception of the mechanical body as scientific exploration led to a more complete understanding of the body's operations (the heart as pump, for example). By situating this paradigm shift as a bridge between English and American cultures during the early colonial period, Eden demonstrates the importance of the changing conceptions on how Americans (and the English) viewed their food its impact on their lives.

I was particularly taken with Eden's examination of the descriptions of American food supplies in many of the pro-colonization propaganda pieces written in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, which ran headlong into the wall of reality in Jamestown when the colonists refused to eat "American" food because they felt it would convert them into savages and sap their "Englishness." It was in part the Jamestown colonists' rejection of corn as a staple crop which served as a major factor in their troubled early years, Eden writes, jumping off arguments made earlier by Karen Ordahl Kupperman and others. Contrast that to New England, where the Pilgrim and early Puritan colonists quickly embraced local food items (for the most part) and generally had a less difficult time of it.

The latter portion of the book examines colonial food culture as seen through the writings of Cotton Mather and William Byrd II (whose meticulous recordkeeping makes a reconstruction of his rather bizarre eating habits possible), and ends by briefly mentioning slave diets and where they fit into the American ideal of a people secure in their food supply and generally well-provided for. At points these later sections feel haphazardly tossed into the structural mix, but this notwithstanding each section is worth reading in its own right.

A more comparative approach might have been useful; I would have liked more on not only the slave diets but also native perceptions of food culture (which of course differed wildly by region, with the southern tribes taking a much different approach than the tribes of the north woods). There is no mention at all of how French or Spanish colonial experiences differed from those of the English. But perhaps Eden's saving that for the next book.

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