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The early American table by Trudy Eden
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The early American table

by Trudy Eden

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Trudy Eden's The Early American Table: Food and Society in the New World (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008) is an enlightening, if fairly specialized, examination of how culinary culture, food security and contemporary understandings of the human body's operation shaped and were shaped by the experiences of English colonists in North America.

Eden's study tracks the gradual change in conception of the body as a humoral machine, in which one's personality, status and basic nature were controlled directly by food (and a number of other factors) to the conception of the mechanical body as scientific exploration led to a more complete understanding of the body's operations (the heart as pump, for example). By situating this paradigm shift as a bridge between English and American cultures during the early colonial period, Eden demonstrates the importance of the changing conceptions on how Americans (and the English) viewed their food its impact on their lives.

I was particularly taken with Eden's examination of the descriptions of American food supplies in many of the pro-colonization propaganda pieces written in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, which ran headlong into the wall of reality in Jamestown when the colonists refused to eat "American" food because they felt it would convert them into savages and sap their "Englishness." It was in part the Jamestown colonists' rejection of corn as a staple crop which served as a major factor in their troubled early years, Eden writes, jumping off arguments made earlier by Karen Ordahl Kupperman and others. Contrast that to New England, where the Pilgrim and early Puritan colonists quickly embraced local food items (for the most part) and generally had a less difficult time of it.

The latter portion of the book examines colonial food culture as seen through the writings of Cotton Mather and William Byrd II (whose meticulous recordkeeping makes a reconstruction of his rather bizarre eating habits possible), and ends by briefly mentioning slave diets and where they fit into the American ideal of a people secure in their food supply and generally well-provided for. At points these later sections feel haphazardly tossed into the structural mix, but this notwithstanding each section is worth reading in its own right.

A more comparative approach might have been useful; I would have liked more on not only the slave diets but also native perceptions of food culture (which of course differed wildly by region, with the southern tribes taking a much different approach than the tribes of the north woods). There is no mention at all of how French or Spanish colonial experiences differed from those of the English. But perhaps Eden's saving that for the next book.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2009/01/book-review-early-american-table.html ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 17, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0875803830, Hardcover)

An exploration in the history of biopolitics, The Early American Table offers a unique study of the ways in which English colonists in North America incorporated the "you are what you eat" philosophy into their conception of themselves and their proper place in society. Eden aptly demonstrates that ideas about the body ideas that may seem irrelevant or even laughable today not only guided day-to-day personal behavior but also influenced society and politics.


According to the 17th- and 18th-century understanding of the body, food affected the blood, bones, mind, and spirit in ways other social markers (e.g. clothes, manners, speech) did not because food was directly assimilated by the consumer. A plentiful, varied diet of high-quality refined foods created virtuous, refined individuals fit to govern society. In contrast, a more restricted diet of poor quality, coarse foods made an individual coarse, even beastly, and unfit to lead.


In the Old World, especially before 1600, poverty, legal restrictions, and the scarcity of land prohibited most individuals from purchasing or raising foods believed to produce refinement and virtue. Only the wealthy were able to enjoy such a diet. In turn, this elite diet marked their social status and reaffirmed their entitlement to power.


The English men and women who colonized North America throughout the colonial period held the idea that diet shaped character. After only a few decades of settlement, many of them enjoyed the unprecedented prosperity enabled by the fertile environment. Lower and middling families could set their tables with a greater variety and higher quality of food than their social counterparts in England. As a result, in contrast to England where an aristocrat s dinner was far different than a laborer s, in America, the differences between the diets of artisans and urban laborers, of plantation owners and small farmers, were not as great. In short, the American diet was a democratic diet that had social and political consequences.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:31 -0400)

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