on December 2, 2000
The author of this intriguing treatise examines the evolution of our national identity through the foods Americans have chosen to eat from colonial times to the present. Beginning with the first confluence of diverse European, Native American, and African cuisines in the New World, she shows how ethnic foods gradually transformed American eating habits even as the food itself was altered to meet the demands of an ever-changing nation; indeed, our sense of what it means to be an American has been inextricably linked over the centuries to our dietary habits and preferences. Along the way, the author reveals the fascinating history of many familiar food products and name brands that played surprisingly large roles in shaping our national identity. This well-written and informative volume provides a fresh and insightful perspective on American history.
on July 5, 2003
I picked up this book in hope of mitigating the intensity of reading back-to-back some very tenacious literature and historical fiction. It was a miscalculation. We Are What We Eat, though interesting in the premise, is nothing but a harangue of facts and data. Some cheese were 80 cents to $1.60 a pound. Some 60,000 people in the industry in 1910 produced some 50 million gallons of wine in California. Nationwide, consumers of inexpensive meals spend $29 million in small mom-and-pop restaurants and $23 billion in fast food chains. New Yorkers tend to patronize less on fast food because family values are emphasized more. The facts go on and on.
The book is a tantalizing (well, it really tires) treatise that examines the evolution and identity of our nation through the ethnically diverse food/cuisines Americans intake from colonial periods to the present. The account begins with the "first Americans", namely the first peoples on the continent: the Native Americans, European-Americans, and African Americans. The subgroups of the European Americans formed some of the major food manufacturers and grocery chains that influentially set the so-called American eating-habits (often too ashamed to be known as American cuisine). From there, the book is a tale of mixing and borrowing and intermingling within the recipes and tastes of different cultural groups, between entrepreneurship and connoisseurship.
The book certainly aims higher than it actually manages. While the author substantially focuses on the origins and thus the fortunes of the enterprising immigrant cooks and grocers, the book fails to discuss and pinpoint the crossing between food and culture. Such deficiency is especially salient in the chapter titled "Nouvelle Creole", in which the Asian influence of dining was mentioned in passing over two pages. The establishment of Benihana (which I do not consider an authentic Japanese restaurant) was mentioned and nothing specific from Chinese cooking was discussed at all. And what about Malaysian cuisine that shaped the dining industry in New York? And the Puerto Rican?
The bottomline of the book is really the acceptance or rejection of ethnic foods in America, instead of an objective, fine-balanced, and compendious account on the impact food has on the American culture. While the book discusses in gush details some of the major (especially the well-known ones from the East Coast) food products and brand names that shape the national identity, it completely ignores the minority cuisines and tastes. 2.5 stars.