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How the Quest for Food Shaped America

by James E. McWilliams

Pub Date: July 30th, 2005
ISBN: 0-231-12992-0
Publisher: Columbia Univ.

A new history of American eating guaranteed to tempt all foodies.

Why don’t Americans eat blood pudding? Who created pumpkin pie, popcorn and rum, and how did such tasty treats come to be staples of the national cuisine? McWilliams (History/Texas State Univ.) details the history of cooking and eating from the early colonies through the Revolutionary War. Colonists, he shows, spurned Native American agriculture and tried to reestablish English gardens in Massachusetts. They did, however, adopt Indian corn; the son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor even traveled to London to argue its benefits before the Royal Society. In the Chesapeake Bay area, colonists wanted to fix fancy food that could be served at elegant and impressive dinner parties. Not content merely to regale us with culinary curiosities, the author constantly connects cooking and eating to other political and social matters. An infusion of British cookbooks in the early and middle 18th century, for example, helped instill a sense of belonging in a diverse and disparate group of colonists. Reverse logic prevailed during and after the Revolution, when Americans championed simpler fare. Their tables mirrored their politics; plain eating was a concrete rejection of European cuisine and European society, which Americans perceived as luxurious and effete. McWilliams tells a story of change and adaptation. Newcomers to the colonies brought culinary expectations with them, but eating inevitably evolved as Americans settled in their new home. The author earns points for inclusiveness by attending to the ways in which Native American, African-American and European-American cooking interacted to create a new cuisine. Meanwhile, an inconsistent tone—academic jargon like the anthropological term “foodways” butts heads with self-consciously casual lingo (“This discovery is more than a neat connection”)—is this delightful book’s only flaw.

Delicious from start to finish, with only a very few lumps along the way.