Every Halloween in our house, we read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow aloud by the light of a jack-o-lantern. My favorite section of the story is the description of the food at the party Ichabod Crane attends to celebrate the harvest with intentions of courting the young lady of the house:
Ichabod was a kind and thankful creature, whose spirits rose with eating as some men’s do with drink. He could not help rolling his large eyes round him on the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea table in the sumptuous time of autumn. Such heaped-up platters of cakes and crullers of various kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives! And then there were apple pies and peach pies and pumpkin pies, besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and, moreover, delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces, not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens; together with bowls of milk and cream, with the motherly teapot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst. Ichabod chuckled with the possibility that he might one day be lord of all this scene of almost unimaginable luxury and splendor. Then, he thought, how soon he’d turn his back upon the old schoolhouse and snap his fingers in the face of every niggardly patron!
With Halloween fast approaching and the marketer’s bounty of harvest flavored wares flooding the world, I can’t help but often think about this passage. But the most interesting thing is how much this passage tells us about American History.
Ichabod Crane, although a fictional character, was based on the world around Washington Irving, which included a number of treatises and books by a man named Cotton Mather. Ichabod, in fact, loves to read Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft and the book is mentioned many times throughout the story. The truth is that Cotton Mather was considered a very smart man and a large number of people were dedicated to his ideals for living outlined in his numerous writings.
Cotton Mather, it also seems, was one of the original founding fathers of diet books.
A Short History of the American Stomach by Frederick Kaufman is a wonderful entry point into the world of food and eating habits in the United States. It’s a short, quick read that I finished in just a few days and was totally engrossed in the details of why we eat how we eat.
Starting off with pornography and The Food Network, Kaufman talks about our current fetishizing of food. As a blogger than takes photos of food as part of my job, I couldn’t help but think just how damn spot on that theory is. Imagine, if you will, a photo of an apple. It’s standing alone on a white background, the light gently and seductively reflecting off it’s shiny skin. It’s been lightly sprayed with water to give it a sense of freshness and you’re next to salivating at a great photo of a simple food. Kaufman goes into specific detail about The Food Network and its stars, sitting down to watch some programs with a pornography photographer to dissect shots—and it’s completely convincing.
From the start, Kaufman asks for your attention and gets it by presenting unconventional ideas about food, taking American ideas and innovations and applying them directly to our eating habits. After all, didn’t America make the pornography industry what it is today?
After a contemporary idea of food, Kaufman looks at our historical beginnings and touches on Washington Irving and Cotton Mather, as well as many other food revolutionaries of Puritan and Revolutionary times. While I don’t want to ruin it for you, fasting and binging, what seems to be a yo-yo of our modern diet-obsessed after a Big Mac times, isn’t modern.
If you have interest in food, how we eat, and the effect it has on our American psyche and politics, I recommend picking up this book.
photo credits: Photo 1, Photo 2