by Larissa Zimberoff
In Harvey Levenstein’s new book, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat, we spend a great deal of time wallowing in the early 1900’s. As a Jewish girl from Los Angeles, I felt like I was being followed down the grocery aisle by my mother. Scratch that, my grandmother.
When I read the title of the book, I had high hopes. I anticipated getting a better understanding of my own food issues. To put it plainly: I’m a picky eater. I avoid bread (bad, bad, evil carbs), I don’t eat processed foods (most of the time), I try to buy organic and, when possible, I eat local. Did this book explain any of my “issues” to me? No. Well, mostly no.
Levenstein, a professor emeritus of history, sets forth in his preface to “uncover the forces that have lead to Americans inability to enjoy eating.” He goes on to say that he will regard his book as a success “if he can help lessen even a few people’s anxieties and increase the pleasure they get from eating.”
Throughout the ten chapters of Levenstein’s book we explore the history of the American diet, from milk mandates to the invention of Betty Crocker. The chapters range in topic from the war on flies (leading to an abundance of packaging still in use today), swill milk (resulting in the creation of the Dairy Council and a shift in production from many to few), germ warfare, the life prolonging yogurt craze (eat yogurt and you’ll stay young!), beef scares (both contamination of the product and its effect on our hearts), vitamania (the discovery of missing nutrients, which led to manufacturers fortifying food) and fear of fat, aka lipophobia.
This history of our food chain was fascinating and compelling but I also wanted to be reading about my generation of eaters, or rather I had hoped the thread of historical food production would be brought all the way up to present day. Instead, much of this book is rooted in the past. Levenstein, content to do historical research, leans heavily on quotes from early issues of The New York Times and he fails to carry the topics forward to 2012. Why couldn’t the talk of swill milk in 1903 be connected to the low-fat craze of the 80s, when we got skim milk, to today, where everyone drinks an entirely different non-Jersey product: almond, hemp, coconut, rice and soy milk?
An example of the disconnect between past and present is the discussion of beef in the 1800s. Levenstein writes that cows were “fed the foul-tasting mash that was a by-product of brewing beer, giving their meat an unpleasant taste.” Well, flash forward to today and you read stories of chefs like Mario Batali, who gives the barley mash from the brewery at his Eataly establishment to heritage meat suppliers (who use it as feed), and then buys back that very meat to sell. It seems clear to me that our concept of food requires an evolving mindset. We are bombarded by media who tell us one week that meat is bad and the next that it’s good. How do we go about staying informed and still enjoy what we put in our mouths?
Fear of Food helped inform me of some major historical why’s, which I am thankful for, but perhaps in his next book Levenstein can tie all the strings together into a more compelling present day argument for why Americans worry about what they eat. Me, I’m still a little fearful.
Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is currently working towards her MFA at The New School. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Untapped Cities and The Rumpus.