Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century


Winner of the 2013 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize presented by the American Studies Association

Winner of the 2013 Association for the Study of Food and Society Book Award

Part of the American Literatures Initiative Series

The act of eating is both erotic and violent, as one wholly consumes the object being eaten. At the same time, eating performs a kind of vulnerability to the world, revealing a fundamental interdependence between the eater and that which exists outside her body. Racial Indigestion explores the links between food, visual and literary culture in the nineteenth-century United States to reveal how eating produces political subjects by justifying the social discourses that create bodily meaning.

Combing through a visually stunning and rare archive of children's literature, architectural history, domestic manuals, dietetic tracts, novels and advertising, Racial Indigestion tells the story of the consolidation of nationalist mythologies of whiteness via the erotic politics of consumption. Less a history of commodities than a history of eating itself, the book seeks to understand how eating became a political act, linked to appetite, vice, virtue, race and class inequality and, finally, the queer pleasures and pitfalls of a burgeoning commodity culture. In so doing, Racial Indigestion sheds light on contemporary "foodie" culture's vexed relationship to nativism, nationalism and race privilege.


In 1900, the Thomas Edison Company produced a silent gag film called The Gator and the Pickaninny, depicting a theatrical scene in which a black child is fishing on a water shore. An alligator crawls up behind him and eats the child up; soon after, a man runs up, cuts open the alligator, and pulls the child out whole. Celebration ensues. On one level, this film does not stray far from the features we can expect from the American popular entertainment of the era, with its broad racist humor— signaled by the very term “pickaninny”—and its vaudevillian gag and dance routines. However, if we approach the film on another level, asking about the eating motif around which the film turns, it presents us with a puzzle: how does a film of a black child being eaten become legible to audiences in the early twentieth century? More than solely an insight into racist images in the period, this idea—of the edible and delicious black subject— reveals something larger about the relationship between eating and racial identity, between bodies inscribed with the marks of race and food.

Through readings of material culture—novels, chapbooks, poetry, cookbooks, and visual culture—this book examines the social and symbolic practices through which eating and food cultures inform the production of racial difference and other forms of political inequality. This is not, however, entirely a project about food. Rather, in Racial Indigestion I contribute to the growing field of food studies by examining eating; I uncover and analyze cultural texts and moments during which acts of eating cultivate political subjects by fusing the social with the biological, by imaginatively shaping the matter we experience as body and self. In five separate case studies, I examine images of mouths and bodies, of eaters and the eaten, to produce a story about the consolidation of racist ideologies in the intimate workings of the body politic as refracted through . . .

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