Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jennifer Jensen Wallach's "Well Met"

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas who specializes in African-American history and United States food history. She is the author of Closer to the Truth than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow (2008), Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen (2010), and the co-editor of Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas (2011). She is also the author of How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture (2012) and is the series editor of the University of Arkansas Press Series on Food and Foodways. In collaboration with Lindsey R. Swindall, she is also at work on two edited food history collections titled American Appetites: A Documentary Reader and High and Low on the Hog: African-American Foodways from Slavery to Obama. In 2010 History News Network named her a “Top Young Historian.”

Wallach applied the “Page 99 Test” to How America Eats and reported the following:
I would rather that readers ignore the old adage and judge my book by its playful and artfully designed cover rather than on the basis of page 99. Out of curiosity, I applied the test to a number of the novels on my bookshelves, and they all passed handily. Each page 99 captured something of the author’s style and essence as a thinker and writer. However, the same practice is more haphazard when applied to works of non-fiction. Novelists have creative control over how they shape the fictional worlds their characters inhabit while historians, like myself, owe fidelity to the real word. Sometimes that obligation to an externally existing historical reality makes for dull reading. For example, look at this passage from page 99 of How America Eats:
Refrigeration technology became increasingly more effective decade by decade, but the necessary equipment and infrastructure remained expensive. Just as improvements in wheat milling were too costly for small millers to install, refrigeration equipment too was affordable only to major meat packers. By 1890, four companies packed 89 percent of the country’s beef. Year by year, the American food supply was controlled by fewer and fewer corporations.
If the entire book read like that I would certainly crush my editors’ hopes that I have written a book that will prove enticing to hard to please undergraduate readers, to the discerning “general reader,” and to the historical community. The book surveys United States food history from the time of European contact through the present. I investigate how Americans have used food practices as a way to perform religious, gendered, racial, and political identities. All of these categories are subsumed under the larger question of what it means to be an “American.” A partial answer is manifested in how inhabitants of the United States have chosen to fill their stomachs. Technology is an important theme because many have taken pride in the country’s industrial prowess and technological innovation. As a result, Americans have generally shown a preference for inexpensive, industrially produced food over developing an artisan food culture. In order to show how this came about, I had to write about the technology that made this choice possible, even if that discussion does not make for riveting reading.

The discussion on page 99 is necessary and important but not representative of more nuanced and interpretive passages elsewhere in the book. My favorite chapter, “Food Habits and Racial Thinking,” examines the paradoxical fact that European American eaters have been willing to embrace the foods of members of various racial and ethnic groups but generally reluctant to bestow first class citizenship on the creators of these cuisines. That observation is more in keeping with my expertise and my approach to the subject than the rather technical contents of page 99.
Learn more about How America Eats at the Rowman & Littlefield website.

--Marshal Zeringue