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.