The Chronicle Review

Moral Meals

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle Review

December 13, 2015

America, as everyone knows, is the land of the free and the brave and the well fed.

Yet for a people who have loudly broadcast both their independence and their national abundance, Americans have an unusually long history of dietary reformers trying to change what everyone else eats and drinks. From 19th-century teetotalers to tofu-and-brown-rice-eating hippies to contemporary weight-loss evangelists, reformers’ efforts have always been about more than health. In fact, the promise of life-changing transformation implicit — and sometimes explicit — in those reform efforts has been a major part of their appeal. Digging into the motives of diverse reformers, E. Melanie DuPuis’s Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice expands the discussion in both time and scope. By starting her examination in the late 18th century, DuPuis, a professor of environmental studies and science at Pace University, usefully pushes back the chronology of didactic food reform, revealing a long and complicated discourse around self-discipline, purity, and freedom.


Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice By E. Melanie DuPuis

(University of California Press)

Since the start of the nation, DuPuis argues, a fundamentally binary view has defined American attitudes toward food, with eaters giving moral meaning to their decisions about what is good to eat and what is not. The founding father of American dietary reform, she says, was the physician and civic leader Benjamin Rush, who infused his dietary beliefs with an Enlightenment conviction that true freedom required self-discipline. Seeing health as a proxy for virtue, Rush condemned alcohol, meat, and overeating as forms of sensual depravity and self-enslavement, saying that disciplined eating was a sign of moral and political fitness. This attitude, DuPuis believes, has defined American dietary reform ever since.

Mid-19th-century reformers gave Rush’s philosophies an inward-looking turn, especially those abolitionists who abstained from meat and alcohol because they believed that self-purification was the first step in purifying the world. DuPuis points to regional differences in 19th-century attitudes, saying that while Northern reformers teetotaled and turned vegetarian, wealthy Southerners embraced meat, alcohol, and rich foods all the more ardently because doing so was a way of rejecting Northern reform impulses, especially abolitionism. Her argument is weakened by the fact that neither vegetarian abolitionists nor wealthy planters were remotely demographically representative, but it’s clear nevertheless that tension between self-control and pleasure has been an important and consistent part of American attitudes toward eating.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dietary reformers were selectively adopting parts of both impulses, with elites eating sumptuous meals even as they pushed workers — unsuccessfully — to adopt thrifty, meatless diets. Savvy marketers, meanwhile, have long exploited the tension between self-control and pleasure by offering products, from remedies for dyspepsia to laxatives to probiotic yogurts, promising to let people eat what they want without consequence.

Like their predecessors, today’s dietary reformers can be romantic and navel-gazing. They are also fixated on the past itself, and many modern food reforms have been shaped by historical fantasies about pure food. For example, inspired by consumers’ hazy ideas about grass-fed cows, U.S. Department of Agriculture rules now require that any cow producing certified organic milk be pasture fed some of the time, even in those places where grazing cows damage the ground and stress local water resources, and even though dairy cows in the past were always fed silage part of the year. Romantic notions of pure food, DuPuis shows, can create unsustainable expectations.

To DuPuis these failings are inevitable because dietary reform is an inherently flawed undertaking, and the details of any reform movement have less to do with food than with reformers’ attempts to make others more like themselves. According to her, American dietary reform has been defined by "ingestive politics" — that is, a fixation with erecting boundaries between what is edible and inedible, safe and unsafe, clean and dirty, good and bad, and, ultimately, us and them.

Ingestive politics are not neutral, DuPuis emphasizes; they are a class-based politics of conversion in which middle-class reformers define good behavior in terms of their own habits. But DuPuis envisions a better kind of politics, one based on the messy, collaborative ferment of digestion, which succeeds in defiance of the idealization of cleanliness, perfection, and purity. She highlights the fact that bacteria colonize every human gut, encouraging people to see themselves as living ecosystems, and she envisions digestive politics as a similarly inclusive and heterogeneous process.

DuPuis is right that dietary reformers apply all sorts of ideological criteria in determining what is good to eat, but I sometimes wondered if food advice can be both more and less than the book suggests. In fact, Dangerous Digestion raises an important question, one with which food-studies scholars are just beginning to grapple: How much does biology matter? Eating is cultural, and DuPuis rightfully stresses that dietary reformers lump cultural ideas — including utterly specious ones, like eugenics — into their fights for food purity. Sometimes ideology distorts nutrition science, such as Progressive Era claims about the superiority of white flour. And yet, cultural though it is, eating is also biological, and this has not yet received adequate attention. At one point DuPuis grants that the standard American diet causes health problems and that modern advice to eat mostly plants is sound, but she insists that the efficacy of dietary advice is beside the point. Instead, her questions are cultural: Why the fixation on diet? Why diet’s entanglement with purity and self-discipline?

These are great questions, but I was not convinced that biology can be so easily cordoned off. Consider pure food reform. DuPuis’s breezy claim that purity-minded reform is a cultural project that has "not made Americans more healthy" struck me as strange. Sanitation is a dirty word in some scholarly quarters, but our modern-day celebration of good bacteria has flourished in part because bad bacteria so rarely hurt us anymore, in sharp distinction to our 19th-century forebears. By any measure, purity-minded food reform ­— which ushered in modern sanitary knowledge and sweeping pure-food legislation — contributed to declining death rates and rising life expectancy over the last century. Consider, too, the Mediterranean diet. DuPuis argues that its popularity results from misguided Eurocentrism. But does the diet’s appeal really begin and end with geography (and, implicitly, race)? What about measurable physical outcomes like changes in cholesterol? Whether or not people feel better and live longer when they follow particular advice seems extremely relevant when investigating its power, reach, and cultural meaning.

Parts of Dangerous Digestion can feel dated, like DuPuis’s presentation of the Mediterranean diet as a dominant modern food trend. (In these days of gluten freedom, a bowl of pasta primavera feels less like a Mediterranean super meal than a guilty pleasure to be slurped up with the shades drawn.) And to say, as DuPuis does, that health claims are not made about Asian or Latin American or other non-European cuisines also seems perplexingly out-of-date. Undergraduates, meanwhile, may struggle with terms like "ingestive subjectivity," "fermentive imaginaries," and "orthocratic politics," and they may sometimes lose the connection between, say, Benjamin Rush’s 18th-century philosophies and modern ideas about the human metabiome.

Still, the book’s scope is broad for a reason. Dangerous Digestion is provocative and frequently fascinating, and its expansive consideration of dietary reform contributes in important ways to recent scholarship on food advice.

Helen Zoe Veit is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University and author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).