Gut issues

Matthew Price is a journalist and critic in New York.

A recent Weight Watchers ad poses the following question: “If diets work, why do we need a new one every 5 minutes?” Granted, this is part of a campaign meant to entice you into giving Weight Watchers a whirl, but the copywriter is onto something. Americans will try just about anything to lose a few pounds. Awhile back, it was the ubiquitous, anti-carbohydrate Atkins diet that promised to work miracles. Then came the trendy South Beach diet. And let’s not forget those late-night commercials hawking slimming supplements and their extravagant claims: “Eat all you want and still lose weight!” (Fat chance.) As Frederick Kaufman argues in this pungent if overly spiced morsel of a book, diet fads are nothing new: They’ve been with us since the Puritans. Indeed, dieting is as all-American as the turkeys we devour on Thanksgiving.

Witty and polemical, “A Short History of the American Stomach” is more a miscellany of Kaufman’s food journalism, much of it first published in Harper’s, than a seamless narrative. Kaufman interprets U.S. history through the American gut, leading us on a tour of the food fads and diet gurus of yesteryear, including the fiery Puritan minister Cotton Mather (“the first bona fide food nut in American history”) and a 19th century cook-writer named Lydia Maria Child -- no relation to another beloved culinary Child -- who was “a cross between Susan Sontag and Suzanne Somers.”

It’s good to get a historical perspective on these matters, though Kaufman is perhaps a little reductive in his approach. Still, he makes some valuable points about how the stomach influences the ways Americans view themselves. “Our understanding of virtue and vice, success and failure, has long been expressed in the language of appetite, consumption, and digestion,” he writes. Our appetites may drive us, but so does our need to control them. For a Puritan like Mather, the stomach was an organ that needed to be tamed and purified. “He that would have a Clear Head,” Mather proclaimed, “must have a Clean Stomach.” He was fanatical on this issue and concocted schemes involving vomiting and fasting to keep stomach and mind in good working order.


Such attitudes aren’t just a thing of the past. In fact, Kaufman argues, the views of the organic food movement aren’t much different from Mather’s. He reports on a “subversive” group of New Yorkers who swear by unpasteurized milk, which is not only “totally forbidden” but just might give you tuberculosis. Such raw-food devotees, he writes, are “postmodern Puritans” intent on “banishing all traces of pollution from their digestive tracts and every last antibiotic from all the world’s food supply.” Kaufman, however, is suspicious: There’s just too much danger lurking in all that so-called purity.

But Puritanism is only half of Kaufman’s story. If anything, “A Short History of the American Stomach” is a history of extremes. In Kaufman’s version, there isn’t a lot of middle ground. When we’re not furiously trying to shed pounds, we’re gorging ourselves. In one of his more amusing sections, he looks at the phenomenon of extreme eating. “Professional gurgitators,” those champion hot-dog eaters you read about every summer, come from a fine, if bloated, lineage; extreme eating is a classic American folk tradition. This voraciousness, frowned on in polite company, symbolizes the bounty of fish, flesh and fowl that the settlers consumed as they settled America. Kaufman evokes those colorful backwoods characters “who devoured alligators and rattlesnakes and blood.” The American appetite is perhaps key to our westward expansion, “for America was a vast digestive force that understood the entire continent -- if not the world -- as its manifest dinner.”

I found myself chuckling at this bit of overwrought whimsy even as I decided he was taking his argument too far. Kaufman is a clever phrasemaker -- he calls cannibalism “an unsavory yet practical energy bar for desperate parties of lost miners and wagoners” -- but he has a way of making his points over and over again, which doesn’t sharpen his polemic so much as blunt its force. And his cleverness can work against him. He watches the Food Network with a veteran of the porn industry who points out the similarities between “Iron Chef” and skinflicks. When this chapter was first published in Harper’s as “Debbie Does Salad,” Kaufman earned himself some notoriety, but the episode comes off now as a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism.

Kaufman’s insistence that we need to look to history to explain the food trends of our own time is doubtless correct, and I welcome his skepticism about the pure-food movement. Organic isn’t the answer to everything. Nor is banning genetically modified foodstuffs. One of Kaufman’s most fascinating chapters concerns a plan to restock Chesapeake Bay with a species of Chinese oyster that had been altered by scientists. The goal was to save the bay’s famed oystermen from obsolescence, but there was an uproar about invasive species and Frankenfood.

Kaufman, however, reminds us that we’ve been tampering with our food for hundreds of years. “Long ago,” he writes, food “lost its innocence, and ever since it has been restructured, revamped, reconfigured, and reconstituted.” We’ve made better berries and bigger beef cattle, and we’ve brought in outsider oysters when needed. Consider this curious twist: Around 1830, Long Island’s famed Bluepoints rapidly died off, but this didn’t stop resourceful watermen, who restocked their grounds with oysters from . . . Chesapeake Bay.