I just published a review in Books and Culture on the odd sounding topic of the Fear of Food, which is in fact the title of an excellent new book by Harvey Levenstein. Levenstein is a distinguished historian of food and eating, author of such books as Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. In Fear of Food, he looks at the various waves of concern or outright panic that have swept this country over the past century or so. Some seem very rational to us – the saturated fats issue of the 1970s onwards – but earlier panics over “autointoxication” and dangerous milk now look distinctly batty. Only time will tell how durable our present worries may appear in future decades.
My main criticism of the book – and it certainly is nothing devastating – is that Levenstein understates the cultural and specifically religious undercurrents involved in these panics. Through American history, religious revivals have often been tied up with diet related issues – food reform, temperance, and “clean living” generally – and those spiritual dimensions have helped generate an audience receptive to wild claims about different types of Demon Food.
On a related matter, another worthwhile recent book is Lizzie Collingham’s disturbing The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. The title is self-explanatory. For all we might say about the strategy or tactics of this or any war, international conflicts usually come down to the simple issue of which side can best supply the basic needs of its own people, while denying those basic resources to enemies. In the Second World War, the Allies triumphed in the struggle for resources – above all, food, but also oil – and therefore they won the war itself. So also, incidentally, was the First World War. Although Americans often forget this, the Allied naval blockade might have caused a million or more hunger-related deaths in Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1916 and 1918.
What makes the Second World War example so uniquely gruesome is the deliberate decision of certain powers, chiefly the German Nazis and the Japanese, to use starvation as a weapon to eliminate millions of enemies. Hard though it might be to imagine anything worse than the Holocaust, the Nazis actually planned murder on an even vaster scale once Europe had been swept clean of Jews. Had they won the war, the Germans were quite coolly planning to eliminate forty million Slavs and other East Europeans, chiefly by starvation. German settlers could then sweep across the empty lands of Belarus and Ukraine. By 1960 or so, a new and supposedly ethnically pure German society would have emerged on the vast graveyard that was Eastern Europe. It’s hard to find words to portray the horror of this vision.
Reading Levenstein and Collingham, a question comes to mind: what topic could possibly be of more central concern to historians of any age than food? And how do historians dare discuss any era without writing from the belly up?