Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Katharina Vester's "A Taste of Power"

Katharina Vester is Assistant Professor of History at American University in Washington, DC, where she teaches in the American Studies program.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities introduces one of my favorite examples in the book--Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The 1930s hard-boiled detective novel may not be a text one expects to find in a monograph exploring the identity-producing significance of food. But I use The Falcon to show how the food prepared here reflects the changes in conceptualizing ideal masculinity between the Wars, namely as opposite to an empowered femininity that is imagined as emasculating and potentially deadly (the femme fatale). Only by preparing their own (manly) food could men, as many texts at this time claimed, avoid corruption of their masculinity. The food women cooked for men was potentially dangerous as it was not only dainty, but also thought to be fraught with manipulative emotion. A real guy, therefore, had to cook for himself to stay safe. Much can be learned, I claim, by watching Sam Spade making liverwurst sandwiches.

In many ways, this example is paradigmatic for A Taste of Power. It shows how ideas about food encase ideas about gender and identity in general. Page 99 is at the core of the part in the book that discusses gender and specifically masculinity, as the link between masculinity and food has been traditionally underexplored. In the other two parts of the book I look at early attempts at creating a national identity by imagining an American cuisine shortly after the American Revolution. The final part discusses sexuality and especially homosexuality and the representation of food in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

I enjoyed pulling together the most diverse materials dealing with food--from still lifes to YouTube cooking shows—to make my analysis. When read against each other, these sources present a novel entryway into the understanding of social structure in the past. Some of these texts are long forgotten and unknown today, some of them iconic and famous, but they all show how the representation of food is always also a representation of how identity is conceptualized and power is structured in society.
Learn more about A Taste of Power at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue