Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century

By Kyla Wazana Tompkins | Go to book overview

5
“What’s De Use Talking ‘Bout
Dem ‘Mendments?”
Trade Cards and Consumer Citizenship
at the End of the Nineteenth Century

The food reform movements that emerged during the antebellum period and that evolved to haunt the novels of post-Civil War writers such as Louisa May Alcott contained a remarkably prescient fear of the food culture that was to succeed them. By the Gilded Age, at the close of the nineteenth century, the bourgeois household seemed unable to resist the “rich, savory” foods to which Graham so objected. The tempted but generally abstemious approach to consumption of antebellum Anglo-America disappeared underneath an almost orgiastic flood of commodities.

I argued in the introduction that a truly materialist approach to the American culture of food would have to detach itself from the habit of fetishizing the consumer object that so often is found in cooking history, food studies, and “foodie literature” and, rather, understand the frameworks in which those objects are produced and eaten. In this chapter I take in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In this period there was no transformation of the middle-class kitchen as radical as the change from hearth to stove, although the working-class tenement kitchen, with its lack of distinction between cooking and eating spaces, became of increased interest to bourgeois progressives. More broadly, however, during this era all aspects of food production in the United States experienced the most radical changes since the beginning of agriculture in the Middle East, some ten thousand years earlier.1 By the turn of the twentieth century both demographics and technology were reshaping the way food was grown, consumed, and thought about. America’s population

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