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

Food preferences and impact constitute an important part of social history. They have on the whole received insufficient attention, because of the taint of the old pots and pans antiquarianism--how they lived and ate. Food has not even been studied as widely as costume, which may suggest some particular difficulties either in sources or, more probably, in relating food history to other major themes in social or cultural treatments. The present study, rich in detail, advances our understanding of food history in recent decades in the United States. A sequel to the author's previous book on food history between 1880 and 1930 (Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet [New York, 1988]), Paradox of Plenty takes the nutrition story up to the early 1990s.

The information level of this new book is extremely impressive. It's a book that should be read not only by food historians, but by social historians generally interested in key patterns of American life during the past sixty years. The book's principal emphases involve the evolution of major nutritional concerns, ranging from periodic attention to hunger to the growing anxieties about overeating and chemical additives. An important second theme focuses on shifts in eating patterns, in terms of types of foreign foods that won popularity or shifts in restaurant use. Major sources range from private and governmental nutritional surveys, to business histories of food processing and restaurant firms, to cookbooks. But all sorts of additional data figure in at points, from the persistence of Italian-American food preferences during the 1930s, when according to the author other groups were homogenizing around a more standard diet, to the point--1961--at which cholesterol dangers began to figure into the American consciousness, to the growing slenderness of Playboy bunnies as representations of body ideals in a society increasingly worried about overeating.

Inevitably, some aspects of food use are either not covered or incompletely treated. Anorexia nervosa is not mentioned, and despite some interesting references there is little on obesity. Diets of subgroups in the United States emerge only sporadically, and there is no treatment of racial minorities save as they figure in more general issues of hunger. Food fads are covered, like the natural foods movement, but with no particular sense of how many people became seriously involved. Despite some interesting comments on social class factors, this is not food history (so to speak) from the bottom up. Nor is it anthropometric history. There are no systematic data on nutrition or actual food costs or use, save as mirrored in nutritional reports or other often impressionistic materials. This is not a hardcore food impact study in this sense.

Periodization is fairly predictable. Several chapters deal with diverse patterns during the Depression, when new diet worries and greater standardization (including Duncan Hines' restaurant guides) accompanied the more obvious issues of outright malnutrition. Americans' discomfort with rationing (contrasted with greater British stoicism) highlights World War II treatment. The period 1945-1950 receives short shrift, save in some brief remarks about the era of plenty and about housewifery; the author found no dramatic conceptual handles for this span. The renewed concerns about malnutrition plus the drumbeat of attacks on chemical pollution and, above all, jeremiads against overeating organize chapters on the final general period up to the present. The author sees renewed social divisions around types of foods consumed, highlighted through new yuppie gourmandise, and of course new gender issues about food preparation as additional targets for the final quarter-century of this coverage.

While a welcome if incomplete compendium, the book does not move the history of food into the social history mainstream. The main conclusions are interesting but not too far reaching. The connections with major developments are valid but often predictable. There is no theoretical model, no challenging subsurface argument to compel more than empirical interest or to move food history even further and more definitively away from the pots and pans around which it once congealed.

Peter N. Stearns Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Stearns, Peter N.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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