June 11th, 2010

_We Are What We Eat_, Donna Gabaccia, non-review

I bought this late in 1998 from Third Place Books -- I bought it hardcover the year it was published by Harvard University Press. It is still in print; HUP even bothered to create a kindle format. I have not read the entire book, but I'm posting a non-review anyway, just to warn you not to waste your time and money.

The problems start early, and they don't let up. Gabaccia seems to have some limited awareness that what was grown in any given area changed over time, and how it was grown changed as well. It is less obvious that she has any kind of coherent understanding of the complex dance of what is worth growing based on how you can preserve and transport it, and how that influences local diets and economies. That's unfortunate, because you can't actually make much sense of her topic without that understanding. But I would forgive even that big problem, because everyone else seems to suffer from it as well.

Smaller problems appear early as well: "Africans and Englishmen alike incorporated maple syrup, beans, turkeys, berries, and other local foodstuffs into their traditional meals," -- that's a really unfortunate word, "Englishmen". And utterly inappropriate in every way. But you know, I'd have let that one slide, because she at least understands how big a deal the garbanzo was in Spanish cuisine; she even got that the rise of sheepherding for wool for a textile industry put a lot of pressure on the diets of those with less power. That's pretty awesome.

It gets a little more worrisome when she produces this sentence, on p 21. "As natives devoted ever more time to corn cultivation, they abandoned their seasonal migrations, and they too began to eat more of the corn they raised and stored." While not technically inaccurate, it misses the actual reason the native Americans in question quit traveling around. But on p 22, we slide further downhill: the fur trade "also quickly introduced them to a European food they enjoyed more than many others -- alcohol." I'm not sure "enjoyed" is an appropriate verb here. The whole treatment of alcohol and native Americans is rife with unfortunate to horrifying word choice and phrasing.

She sure wouldn't be the first (or last) person to do that, however.

Things start getting really odd around p 32, when she starts comparing Up Country Scotch-Irish (again, apparently only men in her terminology, but I know better) to Native Americans. They hunted and ate corn. They drank heavily. They cooked and ate from a single pot, "without benefit of individual eating utensils". Oooh, I can almost hear her emoting. How uncivilized. Thank some editor for the phrase "gone native" not actually appearing in the text, perhaps.

A paragraph or so later, her language falls apart: what she calls pork in one sentence, is "salted hog meat" in the next, and she waffles between the two and variations for a while after. I know there are some rules about not being really repetitive in word choice, but there's a lot to be said for uniform terminology: it doesn't need to be pork, then hog meat, then salted pork, then salted hog meat, then pig meat, then something else. You can pick one. Ideally, "salt pork". That is, after all, what she is talking about, whether she knows it or not.

On p 37, however, I encountered this sentence: "Peoples who had been incorporated into the American nation through force and conquest -- notably white rural southerners after the Civil War, Indian tribes throughout the country, African-American slaves, and Hispanics of the West and Southwest -- were often too poor to enjoy canned or imported foods, and often too suspicious of outsiders to want to try."

There are so many things wrong with that sentence, it's hard to know where to begin. Maybe I'll just stick to something cheap and sarcastic: because white _urban_ southerners after the Civil War had so much choice about whether they stayed in the Union or not? I don't _care_ if Gabaccia was working at UNC Charlotte at the time. Her publisher was _Harvard_. Someone should have caught that. Not to mention the oddity that in this sentence she uses Indians when she was otherwise relatively consistent (only relatively) about using native American. She quotes without question a Louisiana historian from third quarter of the twentieth century, Joe Gray Taylor, that the average slave had "more and better food to eat than the sharecroppers, black and white, of the post-Civil War Era."

I had to sit back at this point and ask myself, how much more should I put up with? Because I've left out a lot of factually problematic assertions, in favor of focusing on factually problematic assertions that also display insidious and disturbing bias.

So I sampled. And I found problems on every page I landed on. I like reading about food history, but I expect a reasonable thesis, good research and clear, concise writing. Gabaccia's thesis is a little murky, but not unreasonable: cultural groups make decisions about what to eat within a larger context determined only partly by what is available and/or affordable. Foods only become identified with a particular group when either the group is next to/within a culturally separate group and/or the food travels outside the group. It's not Jewish food when only Jewish people eat it in a Jewish place. It becomes "Jewish" when non-Jews adopt it and think of it as coming from a Jewish context, or Jews are surrounded by non-Jews and the food distinguishes them, or whatever. In America, there's a whole lot of this kind of thing going on, and in fact, almost all of our culinary traditions are the result of this kind of adoption, mixing, modification, etc. Murky, but not unreasonable. The research is bad -- she just found a bunch of mediocre sources and pasted the pieces together without a lot of skepticism; source bias creeps through, right down to weird word choice and grammar at times. Which means the language isn't particularly great, either.

Food history from this time frame suffers from this problem -- I had related issues with Shepherd's book about food preserving, _Pickled, Potted and Canned_, which I haven't finished and have issues with, but which is way better than this one, and with _Eat My Words_, the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned hack job I railed against earlier this year. And none of those were as horrifying as _Peppers, Crackling, and Knots of Wool Cookbook_, which couldn't be saved even by being a cookbook with history wedged in. In the ensuing decade-ish (_Eat My Words_ is more recent, and when I bought Shepherd's book, I knew it had problems), I've gotten better at not buying bad books.

I am so happy about that. Which is good, because I'm sure not happy about this book.