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That Dinner Dish is Deep

By Gregg Sangillo

While reading old American cookbooks, Katharina Vester found political commentary and insights into gender roles.

While reading old American cookbooks, Katharina Vester found political commentary and insights into gender roles.

If you walk into a Whole Foods in Washington, D.C. for some organic escarole, you're doing something more than buying a thicker type of lettuce. That purchase reflects your socio-economic station in life. And those eating habits tell us a lot about ourselves and our country. American University historian Katharina Vester digs in, so to speak, on this topic in her new book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities.

It's not a simple "you are what you eat" decision that's left in the hands of consumers. In many ways, Vester says, food choices have been imposed on people. "It's not about how we construct identity with the way in which we eat, but how society expects us to eat if we want to hold certain positions in society," explains Vester, an assistant professor in the History Department. "A Taste of Power deals with how food advice was used to tell Americans how to behave."

Nationalism and Class

There's a lot to ponder while eating that quiche, and this is not just a byproduct of the recent "Foodie Revolution." Food has been inextricably linked to identity, class and social hierarchy since the early days of the American republic. And that includes how the United States forged a new nation in the aftermath of British rule. By preparing bland foods, early 19th century Americans differentiated themselves from their old colonial masters.

"They tried to avoid spices. This was a necessity because spices were connected to the British Empire, and they no longer had access to them," Vester says. "It was a cuisine that despised European indulgence and decadence. So cooking that bland food was a political decision."

As regional distinctions sharpened in the U.S., cooking also became a form of cultural resistance. In the early 19th century, American cooking was understood to be New England cooking.

"New England was basically asserting its dominance in the new nation. And so one form of resistance is when Southern cooks started to publish their own cookbooks and said, 'Well, this is Virginian cooking, and Virginian cooking is far more sophisticated and elegant than New England cooking,'" she says.

With its characteristic blandness, New Englanders claimed that their food was not limited to elites. But an early African-American abolitionist and cookbook author, Robert Roberts, reminded readers of how blacks were oppressed in servant roles. He devoted his cookbook to two black soon-to-be servants, whom he gave the biblical names David and Joseph (the latter figure was sold into slavery in Genesis).

"Roberts gave the message that their time will come, that there will be a point when young African-American men will no longer be in the service of white people," she says.

The Culinary Battle of the Sexes

In fact, early American cookbooks were filled with political commentary. Vester combed through a lot of these cookbooks, and she found fascinating insights into gender roles. For instance, Catharine Beecher—sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe—included a whole section in her cookbook detailing her opposition to women's suffrage. Yet Vester says that writing cookbooks was a backdoor way for women to get involved in the political process, and women often expressed their right to education in these texts.

"It's women's rights—not in a very feminist way, but they used the medium to participate in the public discourse about what the U.S. should be," she says.

Vester also shatters a few myths about life before the women's movement in the 1970s. Though it's often assumed that "women were always expected to cook," at various times in American history, men had an impulse to cook for themselves. By the late 19th century, the white male was feeling his masculinity threatened for a variety of reasons, including an influx of strong, blue-collar immigrants coming from Europe. This was circa the Spanish-American War and efforts to prove male courage.

As a result, men started to give and receive cooking advice. With women occupying the kitchen space, men took to campfire cooking and the outdoors. "It was expected for men to go into the wilderness for days, and to be able to prepare their own food," she says. "They had to learn to cook for themselves, to prove their masculinity."

Men were sometimes quite threatened by women cooks, with fears of a "femme fatale" poisoning dinner. Vester analyzed noir books, such as The Maltese Falcon, where detective Sam Spade feeds a woman before he has sex with her.

And Vester also has a chapter on the Playboy magazine's cooking column, which taught men to prepare "showy" and "potentially seductive" meals. "In the 1950s, when many men lived in cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs, there was this idea of a playboy living in an urban penthouse where they have parties every night. And these recipes feed this fantasy."

TV Cooking from the Man Cave

Even in the 21st century, there are plenty of gender stereotypes in the culinary world. In examining numerous TV cooking shows, Vester has found notable differences between how male and female chefs are presented.

The controversial cooking show host Paula Deen runs her own business empire, but she's usually portrayed as a kindly grandmother in her kitchen. It's very much a domestic setting, Vester says. Yet male hosts tend to be shown in a professional setting in their chef whites.

Guy Fieri's cooking show set drips with alpha-male stereotypes, she says. "He is basically in a man cave. So he has a drum set and a bar in the background. And he's never cooking for a family. He's always cooking for his buddies, or for a date."

There's Always Room for Dessert

For a deeply-researched, scholarly book, it's also clear that Vester had a terrific time writing it. She became fascinated by this subject when, as a woman who steered clear of the kitchen, relatives were inundating her with cookbooks. But it was the sociological themes in these cookbooks—and not the cooking—that really caught her attention.

Now, after conducting extensive food research, those old 19th century food recipes have sparked her newfound desire to cook. "It's a way to connect to the past through the senses," she says.

And through every turn in this process, she upended basic American assumptions. "Something like, 'Men like meat, and women like salad.' This was something that was culturally constructed," she says. "So I often had these moments of great surprise."