Secondary Source Readings: A Revolution in Eating

One of the sources I reviewed this week was A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America by James E. McWilliams, published in 2005 by Columbia University press. I suppose you could say that the two of us have a bit of a complicated history.

In 2009 I wrote my undergraduate thesis, a pretty terrible paper on the development of an American culinary identity during the late 18th century. I say pretty terrible, but it had potential. I was both happy and desperately saddened when, years later, I picked up McWilliams’ work only to read the paper I had hoped to write if I had had the time and resources. My great idea had already been thought. And yet, this is the very book that prompted me to return to school. The more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with him and thought that there needed to be additional and more varied research on this topic. Plus, he clearly lacks a comprehensive understanding of how butter is made. If that’s not reason enough to take issue with this work, then I don’t know what is…

In this book, he argues that food acted as an indicator if identity during the 18th century and, more importantly, during the early years of the new republic. Early food choices were based on necessity, regional differences, lack of choice, and an unconscious need for identity. The plainness of “American” food, he claims, was an act of identity-making, a rejection of British-influenced foods. Corn became an American standard, as did domestically brewed beer. This, essentially, became the root of an American culinary identity.

I find this work slightly problematic. He uses a very casual tone which is perfectly fine, but he fails to provide footnotes to back up his airy claims. He provides endnotes, but they are associated with a particular page as opposed to a specific sentence. He also doesn’t approach the idea of whether or not taste preference played a role in his purported transitions, and, I believe, doesn’t give enough credit to other global influences. He is almost Turner-esque in his portrait of American settlers developing a diet of frontier necessity, while I believe there is more credit due to the vast trade networks already in place by the early 18th century.

However—he has pointed me to some important resources that I need to consult concerning the politics of American identity-making, ideologies of the AWI, and also potential primary sources that could help in my research.


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3 Responses to Secondary Source Readings: A Revolution in Eating

  1. kj

    Your discussion of this book makes me think about how difficult it is for historians to write history for public rather than academic consumption. We want to see the bigger scholarly conversation and the sources that provide the evidence. But when I read for pleasure rather than as the historical researcher, I want a story unmarred by evidence of the effort that goes into research and writing. Is there a happy medium? One that shares the ideas of historical practice but is also easily accessible to a casual reader? And to push farther — how does writing for this audience shape our practice? We think telling a good story isn’t enough, but how do we make our practice into a good story??
    Just curious how public historians think about these questions.

    • saraevenson

      I definitely agree that there are different needs for different audiences…but I also fear a diluting of scholarly rigor to make works of history more appealing to general audiences. I found McWilliams’ notes hard to follow, but I have been indoctrinated with footnote/endnote citation models for year. Coming from a public history background, I always tried my best to develop programs that embodied and to interpret the best history possible. That is, to avoid apocryphal histories that may be used as a great hook for getting people interested. The actual history that can be documented is just as, if not more, interesting! I was concerned with McWilliam’s blithe vignettes that peppered the book, as I mentioned in my post. His depiction of butter making was uncited, yet incorrect, almost a Colonial Revival interpretation. As someone who has churned butter, I just *know* that isn’t how it works. While this was a great story, for me it called his other scholarship into question. A more accurate story would have been just as engaging and would have respected the historical content of the act.

  2. Melanie Kiechle

    I think you’re joking, but not understanding how to make butter in the 18C is a really big deal–that’s the kind of grounded, material culture of labor that is necessary in a consideration of changes in cooking, both to ask if they happened and what enabled these styles. Could you use McWilliams in a different way, to point you to places where doing more work and blending analytical reading with the actual making of food (and food history) provides additional insight?
    This is not your time period, but I think you would both benefit from and enjoy reading Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s More Work for Mother, which is a history of changes in household technology. One of her points is that cooking never gets easier–even with the microwave!–but that changes in how people cook and the tools they use have a strong impact on what people cook and, by extension, what they eat.

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