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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made

THE SUBJECT IS FOOD

VIRGINIA L. CLOSE

NO MATTER how much the computer seems like a magic box in what it can do, there is one experience it cannot duplicate. That is the experience of going into the book stacks, wandering along the shelves, occasionally picking out a book and browsing through it -- scanning the table of contents, looking at the index, and perusing the text itself. Books that, seen through the online or catalog card listing, seem sterile and uninteresting become engrossing. For too many library users this experience will never occur. Hundreds of books have gone off to storage; moreover, for many people nothing but the computer will do in the search for knowledge.

Not long ago, while working along the shelves in the old 640s on Level 1, my attention fell on a small volume, Uncooked Foods & How to Use Them. A Treatise On How to Get the Highest Form Of Animal Energy From Food. The author, Eugene Christian, writes in the brief chapter on "Flesh Foods" that "in the form of meat there is nothing more nourishing than beefsteak a la Tartar . . . or Hamburger steak, uncooked, dried beef, jerked venison, etc. All of these are much to be preferred to the cooked article." 1 This idea of uncooked meat interested me enough to urge me on to look for books and articles of similar nature. I did not succeed in that very well for I did not find exactly what I wanted; moreover, in the process I became more immersed in vegetarianism than I really wanted to be.

Exploration went far enough to reveal the multiplicity of aspects the topic of food possesses. Any one of them could produce an interesting paper. Eugene Christian is, in his own right, an unusual person. Born in 1859, he worked for many years in the cigar business until ill health forced him to retire in 1897. When conventional medicine did not help him recover he turned, according to a biographical sketch, to "the study of food and physiological chemistry in an effort to cure himself. His studies and investigations in food chemistry resulted in a theory of curing diseases by the use of uncooked foods."2 His book Uncooked Foods & How To Use Them was his first successful work and the only one that the Library owns.

One does not have to go far in Baker to find an example of another consumer of raw meat -- Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose personal library forms the core of the Stefansson Collection in Special Collections. See, for example, Stefansson's The Fat of the Land, for which Dr. Eugene F. Du Bois wrote an "Introduction: The Physiological Side." In it he notes that "Vilhjalmur Stefansson states clearly the fact that men can remain in good health on a diet of meat alone. The evidence is ample and incontrovertible."3 There are other writings of Stefansson about diet, both books and articles. "The Encyclopedia Arctica," ([1947-1955]) which was compiled under his direction for the Navy's Office of Naval Research -- but which never appeared in published form -- contains a chapter on Arctic nutrition by Kaare Rodahl.

In his discussion of the food the Inuit ate, Stefansson noted that "unfrozen raw flesh . . . has in the mouth the feel of a raw oyster and slides down like an oyster--more readily in fact, for the oyster is likely to be a great deal larger and no more slithery than the piece of raw beef you cut off for yourself."4 Would the devotees of oysters on the half shell or steak tartare feel like kindred spirits? Robert W. Mattila has compiled A Chronological Bibliography of the Published Works of Vilhjulmur Stefansson (1879-1962), which will help an interested student track down similar writings.5

Vegetarianism, as a movement, goes back to the early nineteenth century. Anyone who wants to study some feature of it will find an abundance of material from its earliest days to the present and from several points of view, whether those be related to religion, animal rights, or some other aspect. Judith C. Dyer's Vegetarianism: An Annotated Bibliography 6 provides a good start for investigation.

If one wants to examine a literary connection in the research, there are several approaches. First of all, there are subjects that can be explored through the online system, and in journal indexes: Food habits in literature, Gastronomy in literature, Dinners and dining in literature, and Cookery in literature; or individuals like Calvin Trillin and Raymond Sokolov.7 Among the indexes is the MLA International Bibliography, searchable back to 1980 through the online system and available in the printed version as well; it provides access to the contents of both journals and monographs.

Today, cookbooks are enjoying great popularity; many are not simply collections of recipes but are a kind of literature with which a reader can pass an enjoyable evening. In I99I, in an article titled "Prose, Not Recipes, Now Sells Food Books," Florence Fabricant observed that "in the latest food books and cookbooks, recipes are becoming secondary, sometimes even nonexistent. In these works, explaining why people eat what they eat and how delicious it can be, the prose is paramount. Even the most traditional cookbooks are devoting space to the how come, not just the how to."8 Among the names that come to mind as authors of this literature is that of M.F.K. Fisher. Molly O'Neill observes in Mrs. Fisher's obituary that "while other food writers limited their writing to the particulars of individual dishes or expositions of the details of cuisine, Mrs. Fisher used food as a cultural metaphor."9

The Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College is a center for the study of the history of women in America and among its resources are cookbooks, but, as one writer explained, "there are other cookbook collections, but the special thing there is that you can approach it in the context of women's history."10 M.F.K. Fisher donated her papers to the Schlesinger collection.11 As noted above, the MLA bibliography can be used online or in printed text. A search will find articles like Marilyn R. Chandler's "Food and Eating in Light in August" (about Faulkner), which appears in Notes on Mississippi Writers. 12 They are not an expansion of cookbook literature but relate food to the creativeness of the author under discussion. Authors with many books to their credit have written about food; Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine was published in 1873, not long after its author Alexandre Dumas died, but as the introduction to an abridged English version notes, it has had "a continuing influence on culinary and gastronomic literature and practice."13 And M.F.K. Fisher herself translated Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's classic Physiologie de gout (Paris: 1824) as The Physiology of Taste; Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy (New York: Heritage Press, 1949). Clifton Fadiman, in his introduction to Fisher's The Art of Eating, described the translation as "perfection," and added that "her own original work gives her a claim to an even nobler eminence. Of all writers on food now using our English tongue she seems to me to approach most nearly, in range, depth, and perception, the altitude of Brillat-Savarin himself."14

Students can derive many ideas from a recent issue of Mosaic. It is devoted to the subject of "Diet and Discourse: Eating, Drinking and Literature," and its eleven articles run from "Port and Claret: The Politics of Wine in Trollope's Barsetshire Novels," to "Stuffing the Verdant Goose: Culinary Esthetics in Don Juan," to "Anorexia as a Lived Trope: Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market.'" The editor, Evelyn J. Hinz, provides an introduction, "Diet Consciousness and Current Literary Trends," while the final contribution is a selective bibliography of "food in Literature." 15 In the Handbook of American Popular Culture, edited by M. Thomas Inge, is a chapter on "Foodways," written by Charles Camp. He touches on several aspects: Nutrition and Health, History and Geography, Social Sciences, discussing reference works, providing an historic outline, and describing research sources such as journals, libraries, and the like and concluding with a bibliography. 16

Students can, if they wish, confine studies largely to the American scene and use Charles Camp's article as a point of departure. Camp writes:

Few subjects occupy a larger place in the American consciousness than food. In both a literal and figurative sense, food serves to define individual and group identities; culturally acquired and nurtured matters of taste demark ethnic, regional, racial, and spiritual differences among Americans that otherwise might lack concrete expression. Indeed, within the maze of identities that characterizes contemporary American society, food offers one of the oldest and most evocative systems of cultural identification. 17

He continues:

As might be expected for an area of expression that has only recently found public acceptance, scholars have been reluctant to devote much energy to the study of food in American culture. Folklorists, anthropologists, and nutritionists have not often explored the behavioral aspects of food preparation and use, but some investigations of American foodways have yielded interesting information. To some extent, the multidisciplinary study of American foodways has been hindered by a lack of agreement on the basic unit of study. Nutritionists have been chiefly interested in foods and their nutritional properties. Anthropologists have focused on the role of food in the everyday life of primitive peoples and have occasionally studied the employment of food as a symbol in industrial cultures. Folklorists have studied the beliefs and customary practices related to food, but have recently begun to consider in a more consciously ethnographic fashion the relationship of food to other aspects of life in traditional communities.18

Topics that are so much a part of today's scene that they might seem not useful or unnecessary to investigate could prove to have many, and important, ramifications, for example the development of frozen foods and better preservation methods that now allow fruits and vegetables to be a part of our year-round diet and not delicacies to be savored only at holiday times. Or, as another example, fast foods, which, to a degree, have changed family life; their availability interacts with other factors such as the need of working parents to conserve time and labor. Perhaps the following books may give background and impetus to the interested student:

Levenstein, Harvey A. Revolution at the Tahle: The Transformation of the American Diet. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). The concern in this book is "why and how . . . [people] . . . change or do not change their food habits. (p. vii) . . . It is easy to ascribe most changes in food habits merely to different material conditions of life and to increased availability (or unavailability) of certain foodstuffs.... Clearly, there is and always has been much more involved--considerations of class, status, religion, and, let us not forget, the physiology of taste. However, the modern world has also brought us another dimension, something which I find particularly fascinating: deliberate attempts to change the food habits of large numbers of people for secular purposes. Whether because of a desire to improve the lot of the poor, the health of the middle class, or the state of their own balance sheets, the past one hundred-odd years has seen an increasing number of people and forces trying to change popular eating habits." (p. viii)

Levenstein, Harvey A. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. The preceding book dealt with the years 1880 to 1930; this one is devoted to the decades through the 19805. The major theme is "the changeability of ideas about food and health." (p.vii) Many of the themes in the earlier volume come up again in this one.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, [1984]). In his introduction (p. xiv), the author notes that his book "explains the nature of our foods, what they are made of and where they came from, how they are transformed by cooking, when and why particular culinary habits took hold. Chemistry and biology figure prominently in this approach, but science is by no means the whole story. History, anthropology, and etymology also contribute to our understanding of food and cooking."

Root, Waverley Lewis. Eating in America: A History. By Waverley Root & Richard de Rochemont. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976). The authors note that "Americana admired French food, but for everyday use they preferred meals in 'the forms to which they are accustomed.' " (p. 11) They note that "the foods they found in America were unknown to England. A new and independent cuisine could have been built upon them. The colonists did not choose to do so. They turned their backs on most of the new foods, often refusing to eat them until after Europe had accepted them and reimported them to the land of their origin." (p. 10) The book goes on to consider a prime reason for this -- "The power of the forms to which one has been accustomed!" (p. 10) -- as it follows the history of eating in America.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History. New, fully rev. and updated ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1989, C1988). The author says in the preface to the 1973 edition that the book's "purpose is to examine the forces which have shaped the nature of man's diet throughout the course of thirty thousand years, and to show . . . something of the way in which the pursuit of more and better food has helped to direct -- sometimes decisively, more often subtly--the movement of history itself. To demonstrate, in effect, that in some senses at least food is history." ([p. 7])


1. 5th ed, rev. and enl. (New York: The Health-Culture Company, [1904]), p. 87.

2. The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. [Permanent series] (New York: James T. White cdeg.c Company, 1898-1984), 24:425.

3. Enlarged edition of Not by Bread Alone (New York: The Macmillan Company, 956), p. xxxv.

4. Not by Bread Alone, p. 98.

5. Comprising Books, Articles, Reviews, and Introductions to Other Works, with an Alphahetical Index (Hanover: Dartmouth College Libraries, The Stefansson Collection, [1978])

6. (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1982).

7. "Calvin Trillin's books on American food . . . are worthy of special note . . . simply because among those writers whose work reaches a general readership, Trillin has the most to say about the relationship between American food and culture." From Charles Camp, in Handbook of American Popular Culture, ed. M. Thomas Inge. 2d ed., rev. & em. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 1:483. Since 1972 Sokolov's contributions about food, culture, and history have appeared in Natural History.

8. The New York Times, 15 May 1991, sec. C, p. 1.

9. The New York Times, 24 June 1992, sec. A, p. 18.

10. Laura Shapiro, quoted in Elizabeth Riely, "At the Nation's Table," The New York Times, 10 August 1988, sec. C, p. 3.

11. Riely, "Nation's Table," p. 3.

12.18, no. 2 (1986):91 - 101.

13. Dictionary of Cuisine, edited, abridged, and translated by Louis Colman ([New York]: Simon and Schuster, 1958), p. 2.

14. M.EK. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, The Art of Eating(New York: The World Publishing Company [1954]), p. ix. This work is a one-volume collection of five of her previously-published books, including Consider the Oyster and How to Cook a Wolf

15. 24, Nos. 3-4 (Summer/Fall, 199l) 1-263.

16. 2d ed., rev. and enl. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 1:[475]-496.

17. Handbook of American Popular Culture, 1:[475].

18. Handbook of American Popular Culture, 1:476.