Saturday, May 17, 2008

Big country, big mouth

kw: book reviews, food, united states, history

Where else but in America can a guy named Kobayashi win a prize for eating 54 hot dogs (including buns) in something like twelve minutes? In A Short History of the American Stomach, Frederick Kaufman contends that the history of the USA is a history of unlimited appetite. Written in the brisk, racetrack style of a pulp space opera, the book starts with a couple of food records (a half-ton taco), a quick survey of the reasons we don't really use the recipes in our many cookbooks (a quick search in Amazon got almost 77,000 hits), leaps back to the early 1500s, and fast-forwards through the American obsession with EATS.

The earliest European explorers, finding a mostly unpeopled continent and plenty of game, began eating their way across the continent. Continuing into colonial times (portly Ben Franklin is his generation's exemplar), this gustatory enterprise continued until about the time of the Great War, when we finally had something else worth thinking about. With minor interruptions for WW2 and VietNam, the national diet has continued to increase, until now one of the biggest business segments is dieting to stave off (seldom reduce) the effects of an average intake of 3000 Calories daily.

Something the author doesn't mention, but should have: where else would you find millions watching a TV show titled "The Biggest Loser"? I am not sure the show is having the desired effect. True, a few lucky folks with massive support from the show's producers manage to lose about half their body weight, but the effort and suffering needed to do so are all to evident. I expect most folks to turn from the remote to the fridge, concluding life is meant for more enjoyment than that.

A chapter on the unusual fast-and-feast habits of the Puritans shows that both food and anti-food fads didn't originate in "this" generation (pick a group born since 1920 or so...). Until it was proved that the brain is the locus of thought, the gut was the pick of folklorists for centuries. It seems the belly does have a large nerve center, and emotions are more bodily-based. That's why Biblical writers like Paul talk about compassion arising from the bowels, even using the term "bowels of mercy".

Kaufman doesn't go too far into the Why of the American appetite. Perhaps that is because it is so obvious: as the richest society to arise on earth, we eat everything in sight simply because we can.

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