Critical Book Review: How America Eats: A Social History of US Food and Culture by Jennifer Jensen Wallach
1. Author’s Research Question and Thesis
Jennifer’s book presents a new way of understanding the history of America. The author argues that food forms the most important part of human life yet it is ignored when it comes to research. This has given the author the justification to focus on food habits. She argues that understanding food habits is also a new perception of presenting dominant features of American history. According to the author, the way people cooked, consumed, and accepted and rejected certain foods tells a story about their identities. The book also communicates more about the changes that have occurred in America; the gradual change from the traditional means of cooking to the current system where people depend on restaurants and food stores.
2. The author’s “Sociological Imagination.”
The author presents the society as an entity that can be understood from a different perspective. The one adopted is that of food habits. Through food habits, people can understand the details of who was involved in the shaping of the society and when. From the book, one can relate to the role of slaves in the history of Americans. One can explain the role they played in shaping the society. The slaves worked for the Europeans; the Europeans had certain food habits, but the technique of preparing the food may have been influenced by the techniques that the slaves used. The author also recognizes the role of other issues such as the technology, industrial revolution, historical events such as the practice of conquests and culture. Even though the author uses food habits to explain American history, she incorporates other important features that influence the development of a society.
3. Summary of the Book
In the introduction, the author has described the importance of food habits. She then describes how such food habits can make people understand the history of America. The discussions about food habits reveal a chronological presentation of the changes in America. These changes reflect the difference between an outsider and American, distinguishes ethnic groups, describes the qualities of a politician, and differentiates a woman from a man based on food habit related roles. The author also explains to his readers how the book is organized from chapter one to the last.
One who understands American history would know that industrial revolution is an important aspect of its change in America. The author has discussed where the food habits originated. She then brings in what happened over the years from the European invasion, American conquests, industrial revolution, to a change in the society that recognized the role of women in the kitchen. In this case, one would understand that during the industrial revolution; women were still confined to kitchen matters and their duty in that section was well-recognized and appreciated. It also highlights the beginning of change concerning gender roles. There is also the role of racial thinking in determining the food habits, and finally the politics of food.
In the origins of the food styles, the author notes that it is a mix of Native American and English habits. This already suggests that America was originally composed of certain natives. The reader is notified that there are new settlers who came to America. The first chapter also describes how the food styles changed. Originally, the natives dominated, but after the coming of the Europeans, things began to change. It is indicated that the Europeans only adopted the Native American food styles when their survival was at stake. Some common features that shaped American food habits are such as the slaves, the conquest, industrial revolution, and racial way of thinking. There is a discussion on the influence of slaves in food habits. Since Americans had slaves, most of their foods were prepared by them. The conquest era also influenced eating habits. After the formation of a new nation, conquests brought in new ideas that played a part in changing the food habits. The fourth chapter discusses the effect of the industrial revolution on food habits. This is where new technology is discussed and its influence on food habits. It is also where the choice of conventionally made food over traditional foods started.
4. Empirical and Anecdotal Evidence to Support Their Thesis
The thesis in this book is that food habits help in understanding American history. By describing how the English food habits became dominant in America, the author already provides information about the conquest of America. It describes how Americans came to develop what they have today. An example is in page 15. The author notes that the Europeans were fearful of losing their cultural superiority if they ate the same foods as the Native Americans. Since they had the power, they influenced the food habits of the regions they conquered.
Another example is the knowledge of the attitude that the English held regarding Native Americans. The author notes that the English considered them uncivilized. The book also notes that the conquerors of North America were pilgrims. It reveals the kind of interaction that these two groups had. The Pilgrims never adopted any foods unless it was important to them. This explains the acceptance and continuation of hunting and cultivation techniques that the pilgrims found necessary for their survival, and the social factors that influences adoption of a technique of food eating habit.
5. How the Book Relates To Experiences in Life
The book describes what food habits have been adopted over time and the influences in such foods. Food habits distinguish ethnic or racial groups. Currently, there are different cuisines in America. There are Chinese, Spanish, and other restaurants. These eating practices are influencing the kind of foods that will be accepted in America in the future; those that will define American eating habits. A good example is pizza. Pizza has Spanish origin, but it is now a common food in America.
I have also lived among the black community. One impressive cultural practice is family gatherings. The African Americans value the practice of families coming together. My family liked this practice and has since held get-together parties involving several members of the family. If this practice can be emulated by other people, it can influence a section of people living in a specific area; hence can define their cultural practice.
6. How the Book Has Changed the Way You Perceive the Issues It Addressed
This book has presented a new social framework of understanding history. It is therefore, true that the study of food can provide the “unexpected lens for examining history” (p. XII). I knew that food and food habits are sources of cultural identity, but I could not imagine the extent of information it can reveal about a nation. Studying the food habits of a nation reveals more than the food cultures of that country. It reveals their passion, personalities, assumptions, background knowledge, and their beliefs. I now have an open mind regarding the importance of food habits in the society. It has widened my perception regarding food habits knowledge to include more than importance in tourism and distinction of ethnic or racial groups.
7. Possible Changes to Public Policy the Author Might Endorse
The author of this book can advocate interventions that let people consume what is readily available, and familiar to the people. From the description about history, the author reveals the social way of adopting new food habits. Some of the people were forced into adopting new ways of eating because they had been forced out of their lands. This is especially during the conquest era. So many ethnic groups interacted and in the process; they naturally adopted each other’s food habits. Native Americans, for example, had no option except to accept the English cuisine which was thought to be superior.
There are policies advocating healthy functional foods. Programs implemented to accomplish such missions introduce unfamiliar foods that the people reject. The author of this book would not advocate forceful introduction of new foods. He would advocate a liberal way of interaction, for example, a Chef from New York visiting China and coming up with a new and interesting food pleases most people.
Wallach, Jennifer. Jensen. How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture. Boston, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Print.