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By Abigail Carroll. Basic Books. 344 pages. $27.99
Thursday, September 19, 2013
“If Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism ‘We are what we eat’ is true, then it must also hold true that we are how we eat.”
That passage from Abigail Carroll’s “Three Squares” describes the essence of her comprehensive account of how we Americans developed our eating culture — what we eat, when we eat, how we eat.
While Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism is an apt precis of the book’s theme, it does not reveal the great detail included in this history of how and why American eating habits have evolved since the early 17th century.
When English colonists landed on this continent in 1607, European culture began a prolonged encounter with an indigenous culture very different from what the newcomers had left behind. An obvious difference was food.
When Mohawks captured a minister in Deerfield, Mass., in 1704, his major complaints focused on the food he was given to eat and the fact that the party did not stop, build a fire and prepare a large midday meal (dinner). The Mohawks’ eating habits were typical of indigenous Americans. They ate when they were hungry, not at a set time. They ate dried meat, nuts, berries and vegetables.
From the beginning of European colonization of America, eating habits set the Colonists apart from their indigenous neighbors. Breakfast in the morning (often after a couple of hours of work) was followed by dinner at midday and a lighter supper before bedtime. It was this routine that reminded the settlers they had progressed beyond the hunter-gatherer existence of their neighbors. The routine made them civilized.
It didn’t matter that they ate the same or similar food as the tribal Americans. Set meal times consisting of cooked food were the marks of their cultural heritage and their superiority.
Early Colonists often dined on food like pease porridge (a stew pot concoction the main ingredient of which was peas) or some other sort of stew. Later came puddings and pies (still used here by some Americans with strong ties to their cultural heritage).
Blood pudding, haggis and other delicacies were joined by meat pies that provided a means of serving meat and preserving the otherwise spoilable leftovers for the next day.
By the late 18th century, English Colonists’ meals had evolved into a collection of meats (joints, fowl, fish) with vegetables relegated to second-class status, and the afternoon social gathering of tea and a small repast was added to the eating menu.
Changes in the American diet and the rituals of eating were then changed by the invention of the stove (which replaced the large hearth) and then the change from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.
Meal times became more rigidly regulated in order to improve efficient operation of mills and factories, and dinner was moved to the evening.
An evening dinner, a distinctly American convention at the time, allowed the family to enjoy a relaxing meal together, and that precipitated other societal changes.
Snacking served a practical function. In the Victorian era and the first part of the 20th century, it passed out of favor in order to emphasize the importance of the evening meal. Now snacking has returned to acceptability, but for how long?
Carroll’s account of the development of American dietary choices and eating patterns is an enjoyable historical journey. She explains how our eating habits evolved, and why. She introduces stories about certain foods that once were common, and explains why our ancestors ate them.
Some foods, meat pies are an example, were developed so that Sunday’s meals could be cooked on Saturday, allowing the women to obey the Puritan ban on labor on the Sabbath. Others were developed to emphasize the difference between social classes.
When Antonio utters the line, “What’s past is prologue” in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” he reminds Sebastian — and us — that events of the past often establish the direction of events to come.
At the end of this entertaining history lesson, Carroll invites us to imagine the future of daily American repasts based on how we have arrived at our current customs. It is an opportunity to speculate how our past food traditions have provided a prologue for the future — a final exam of sorts.
However you approach this story of our heritage, it is one course you will enjoy.
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