The History That Shaped the Standard American Diet
Politics influences every aspect of modern life, even down to the food we eat. It is often an incongruous picture—from federal recommendations that promote eating more fruit and vegetables, next to the U.S. agricultural policies that overwhelmingly favor meat, dairy, and corn.
According to a new book, “Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice,” politics has been shaping our dietary advice all the way back to the Founding Fathers. Author E. Melanie DuPuis, professor and chair of environmental studies and science at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., shows how political philosophies from our past still influence American cuisine today.
DuPuis says that throughout American history, dietary advice often mirrored political trends.
“The way in which Americans think about freedom and order is through creating a world in which one side is pure and the other side is impure and putting a strong border between the two,” DuPuis said. “This idea of purity is in our politics today whether we are talking about immigration or creating safe food.”
As American ideas of politics and purity changed over time, so did our understanding of what constitutes a perfect diet. DuPuis’ examples include the abolitionists who ate vegetarian, early 20th century nutritionists who advocated for eugenics and racial purity, and contemporary struggles to contain food borne illness.
Epoch Times talked to DuPuis about how food links with politics, what forces helped shape the standard American diet, and why health professionals now point to foreign foodways to promote health.
Epoch Times: What inspired your book?
Melanie DuPuis: I previously wrote a book about the history of milk drinking, and American ideas of perfection using milk as a mirror for that.
I liked that approach, so I looked at different eras of American history to show how the dietary advice of that particular era was a mirror of a larger political situation during those time periods.
Epoch Times: The trend among health professionals today is to recommend foreign diets: France and the Mediterranean are prime examples, but the Paleo trend is big now too. How did this happen?
DuPuis: When nutritionists talk about a healthy diet they’re always talking about Greece or France, or in the case of Michael Pollen’s most recent work, to hunter gatherers in Africa.
The idea that we have to be hunter-gatherers, or go to France, or eat a Mediterranean diet in order to find vegetables is ignoring the traditional vegetable-intensive healthy diets in the United States.
The Southern diet is an amalgam of European and African American cuisine. Historically, this diet has been healthy—very vegetable intensive, particularly the Southern “country cooking” cuisine of meat and three vegetables. Well, the meat part of that cuisine has gotten bigger and bigger, and the veg often includes macaroni and cheese, but in a lot of Southern restaurants now you can eat a whole lot more vegetables.
Yet, in the mind of the American public, as reflected in the media, Southern and Soul food is Popeye’s fried chicken with a biscuit on the side. But in its more traditional form, the meat was just part of a combination of things that would turn up on the plate of a Southern eater.
The Southern diet was very much influenced by African slaves. They made significant contributions to Southern American foodways.
This is part of our dark history of political exclusion, where the contribution of African Americans and other ethnic cuisines becomes invisible in the call to return to tradition. Whose tradition? I don’t mention this in the book, but I tend to think that it’s our racism that makes us constipated, because we end up with this diet that has no roughage in it.
Epoch Times: So we pushed a lot of our roughage off our national plate when we excluded these other groups that we did not think were so pure?
DuPuis: Right, in favor of the Northern European diet of meat and milk. So we have to take fiber pills. Bad politics always have a bad effect on our bodies. An unhealthy political system is unhealthy for our own physical lives as well.
There are other diets in America that are healthier than the dairy and meat intensive diets we know as the standard American diet. Meat-eating became part of what it meant to be a true American, and those cultures that emphasized vegetables were represented as weaker peoples.
Roughage belongs to groups in the American society that have been historically stigmatized. Whether you’re talking about Mexicans, who used to be castigated as “beaners,” because they ate beans. Or the Chinese who were once excluded by nutritionists in the 1920s and 1930s because they thought of them as “leaf eaters” because they ate vegetables.
Epoch Times: How did we come to focus the standard American diet on meat and dairy?
DuPuis: The early nutritionists emerged after the Civil War, when Northern “Yankees” were seen as chosen by God to win the Civil War. The Yankee reformers came directly out of the Abolition movement, and they saw their mission to make the rest of America in their image, including their diet. By the 1920s, they were pointing to examples from around the world and show how all the cultures that had cows and drank milk tended to be the martial cultures—they conquered the rest of the world. These nutritionists said the leaf eaters had weak bodies and couldn’t compete, and concluded that milk makes us stronger and is therefore the right way to eat. When people were trying to come up with the perfect diet in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, they believed that milk was the perfect food.
The first nutritionists, like Ellen Swallow Richards, whose work was supported by former Abolitionist Edward Atkinson, didn’t think vegetables had any nutrition. Of course this was before vitamins, but even as the nutritional information about vegetables began to emerge in later nutritional studies, it tended to be ignored.
These nutritionists struggled with the working class about meat-eating, but mostly because they wanted the working class to buy cheaper cuts rather than ask for higher wages. Ironically, the struggle over wages at the turn of the 20th Century was often a struggle over meat-eating. The working class saw it as their American right to eat meat. Union leaders saw the Chinese as a threat because they ate less meat and therefore, they argued, could live on lower wages.
Epoch Times: Nutritionists don’t push meat and dairy so much anymore, but I notice how the emphasis on purity and perfection still remains.
DuPuis: People are always coming up with these right ways to eat. But what it all comes down to is that we should eat a balanced diet. We should have some protein, some vegetables. But people point to a perfect diet, point to a particular culture, and say we have to become them. When in fact there are lots of different cultures that have historically had a really good balanced diet. We don’t have to go and glorify the French or the Mediterranean.
I heard a nutritionist on one of these morning news shows on TV talk about the Mediterranean diet as the Holy Grail diet. Everyone is always looking for a Holy Grail, but there is none. There are lots of cultures that have lots of good diets, especially their traditional diets before they became Americanized where the meat part of the diet became larger and larger. If you look at those cuisines before they were influenced by the Yankee nutritionists you will see a much smaller portion of meat on the plate.
Epoch Times: So the model diets, the French or Mediterranean or whatever, these are just places that have managed to preserve the traditional diet a bit better. That’s why it succeeds.
DuPuis: Yes. Michael Pollen says, “Eat what your great grandmother ate,” and in some cases that’s really a good idea. But I think there are other people coming into this conversation and asking “whose great-grandmother?”
When Michael Pollen talks about bad nutrition in his PBS special, “In Defense of Food,” the people represented in the pictures tend to be African American or Latino. African Americans are struggling with greater dietary disease, but I don’t think the solution is for them to eat a Mediterranean diet. They had grandmothers, too.
A lot of African Americans are now seeing that you should eat the source of cuisine that we have historically eaten and been responsible for. West African cuisine is so much a part of American southern food. African agriculture is so much a part of the history of agriculture in the low countries of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, where landowners were mostly absentee and the slaves grew both the cash crops and most of their own food. African slaves were the true agriculturalists there–they are a major part of American agricultural history.
African Americans who are thinking about food are looking at how to regain the identity–their American agrarian history–that’s been taken away from them. African American agrarian identity is different from the Jeffersonian agrarian identity so common in American popular culture. African American agrarian history is one of dispossession, losing the right to own land.
That is, I think, a big part of the African American food movement and urban agriculture.
Epoch Times: Is this just about reaching back to what our ancestors were doing?
DuPuis: Mostly, but not because there is something essential about what your ancestors did, but because there are a lot of really great traditions back there, and we don’t have to go overseas to find them. It’s worth paying attention to those traditions. The people who are rediscovering American foodways right now have a lot of good things to say about how to eat healthier.
Epoch Times: You suggest that contemporary American politics can learn from our new understanding of gut bacteria in our digestive system—the microbiome. In this new paradigm, bacteria is not the enemy like we believed in the past, but something we live with in mutual collaboration. How can this idea be applied to politics?
DuPuis: Our ideas about our health, diet, bodies, and politics have always been very closely intertwined. That’s why that if we’re going to think about new kinds of politics we have to think about new ways of how to think about our bodies, as well, and our relationship between our bodies and the world.
I start the book with an episode from the Cold War where Winston Churchill describes the allied powers of the world as a body tied together and fighting against this outside enemy. This idea that the world is this body that must reject germs is politically problematic, and it turns out that in these new metabiome studies that in fact our bodies do not have this strong border between us and the outside world.
It’s a different way of looking at our relationship with the world as a collaboration between us and other species. In fact, we couldn’t live without these other species that live inside us.
Now, we could not have created the modern world we have today without sanitation. There are certainly bacteria we don’t want in hospitals. We want doctors to wash their hands in between helping women give birth. One of the ways in which hospitals ended up killing more people than curing them was because they didn’t have sanitation regimes.
So we became very enamored of sanitation. But I think we took this sanitation metaphor too far in terms of thinking that it would solve all of our problems.
I thought, maybe there is a new way of looking at politics as well—thinking more in terms of collaboration and inclusivity, because our old way of creating borders between purity and danger has become a problem. I talk about the politics of ferment, where fermentation becomes a different way of how to think about political problems.
Epoch Times: There are attempts now to legislate what we eat—limiting soda sizes, for example. Our current lens of purity now attacks the dietary habits that previous generations helped create. People who resist this change complain that such laws restrict our freedom, so where do we draw the line?
DuPuis: Nutritionists say that the way to become healthy is through self control. And some say that governments should legislate self control. Others believe in a more soft-government approach of education. Sometimes this works—cigarette smoking has dropped, for example—and sometimes it doesn’t. But thinking about nutrition as self control makes the usual distinction between the controlled and the uncontrolled. So if you’re thin, you are in control and orderly, a good citizen. We know if you’re a bad citizen by just by looking at your body. Bad citizens must then become targets of legislation or education. Either way, they are no longer equals.
But researchers find that this is a really problematic way to think about obesity. Instead of treating bad eating as a sign of bad citizenship, we should discover who we are through discovering our good, healthy cuisines, all of them.