Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Revolution In Eating

How The Quest For Food Shaped America

We had heard the author, James E. McWilliams, interviewed on NPR about the various first Thanksgivings in America. He made a few interesting points, such as the Englishmen's perception that male Indians did not do much work, because the English regarded hunting and fishing as sports, with extra food as a benefit, not farming in any real sense. Relatedly, their focus on farming as the tending of smaller discrete plots of bounded land, they could not see that the Indian method of farming involved managing the entire landscape. The native methods of planting and harvesting were simply different.

I don't want to get into an entire commentary on the Red Man Living In Harmony With Nature myth here. It was another method, having both advantages and disadvantages for survival and prosperity.

The Europeans generally regarded hunting and fishing as temporary or supplementary methods for obtaining food until the time of the next frontier, nearer the period of the Revolution. Domesticated animals and crops in rows were the thing. Hunting for food didn't become more respectable until later.

Well, it sounded interesting, and he had a book, so I was given it for Christmas.

Let's give McWilliams credit for being thorough. The book is 300 pages long, but could have been done in fifty. It would, in fact, be an excellent fifty-page book, full of interesting ideas.
Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut actively swapped cattle and fish oil among themselves [in the mid 18th C].
Fine. Good to know.
New York and Pennsylvania sent each other 15,204 pounds of ginger, 21,944 barrels of pork and beef, 22,987 bushels of peas, 403 tons of butter, 9,835 bushels of malt, 1,432,477 pounds of brown sugar, and 183,189 bushels of salt.
Less gripping, somehow. I suppose if I needed a reference book on this material...

Fans of David Hackett Fischer (I am one) will see Albion's Seed lurking in the background throughout the book. Get that instead. The most indispensable book on colonial American history.

McWilliams describes the foodways of the American regions: West Indies, New England, Virginia, South Carolina, and Middle Colonies, shaowing how the dominant economy of each (in order, sugar; mixed farming for self-sufficiency; tobacco; rice; wheat and mixed farming) shaped what they ate. He finishes with the history of alcohol in the colonies, the fascination with British goods just before the revolution, and interregional trade. There. That's about 25% of the book for you.

I also caught in the introduction an example of my observation that experts are not wrong randomly, but are likely to be 180 degrees wrong. He sees the move toward organic food, slow food, local food, and the suspicion of genetically modified food as growing, emerging trends among Americans that signal some lasting change. I doubt that strongly. If you are a professor in Austin it may look that way, but that's a rather circumscribed view of the republic.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I liked "Albion's Seed," too, which I was given for Christmas year before last, but I got bogged down. The only section I found myself able to read from start to finish was the one about the culture I clearly came from, which was the Border Country Scots-English who settled the South.