Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat
University of Chicago Press, 2012
232 pp., $25.00
Don't Eat That!
Levenstein's book is much more than a believe-it-or-not catalogue of human folly, of what Charles Mackay famously termed Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The author offers readers a brief but invaluable primer on how to interpret claims that they might encounter: always, he suggests,
look at those propounding those fears and ask "what's in it for them?" … "[T]hem" of course includes the usual suspects: food companies trying to promote and profit from food fears. However it also includes thousands of other people with career interests in scaring us … [including] scientists hoping to keep the research grants flowing by discovering connections between diet and health; it also involves well meaning people working for other public and nonprofit agencies who try to prove their usefulness by warning about dangerous eating habits.
Throughout the book, we see interest-group politics at work, often using the cover of disinterested public health campaigns. The campaign against tainted beef owed much to the activism of major meat enterprises hoping to suppress poorer and less regulated rivals. Fears of the Demon Milk ended when the dairy industry organized publicity campaigns to promote the image of milk as a source of health and vigor.
Social problems are the subject of a great deal of work by social scientists. Recognizing that problems are neither universal nor self-evident, scholars try to understand the means by which they are constructed and presented to the public, through a process akin to marketing. Ordinary people have neither the time nor the strength to be equally concerned about all potential dangers all the time, so they have to be persuaded that one particular danger is eminently worthy of concern, while others are not. Imagine a lay person walking past the various market stalls of a bazaar, while the different merchants cry out, "Look at this problem! It's out to get your children!" "No, look at this one—it's much more threatening!" And so on. To understand any problem, then—whether food-related or not—we need to understand several different parts of the story: the sellers (the advocates, moral entrepreneurs, and true believers pushing the theory); the buyers or consumers (the general public); and the means and rhetoric by which problems are marketed, usually through the mass media.
Fear of Food suggests many different leads on each of these components, although it does not treat each exhaustively. Levenstein is undoubtedly best on the entrepreneurs and the theories they present, but he is less interested, perhaps, in why they win credibility in any particular era. After all, people come up with ridiculous theories all the time, but only a few achieve the national prestige and acceptance of the examples he offers here, such as the omnipotent vitamin. Why? Were these particular theories uniquely well packaged and convincingly sold to a mainstream public? Or was there something about them that appealed to the tastes and interests of consumers at particular times? Did these fads hit when conditions were uniquely ripe in ways that they would not have been a decade or so earlier or later?
Personally, I would pay more attention to the interests and enthusiasms of the lay public, the consumers of these dietary problems, whose concerns and obsessions shift enormously over time. Some years ago, Ruth Clifford Engs published an intriguing account of Clean Living Movements through American history, those eras of fanatical concern about healthy food, bodily purity, sexual reform, and (usually) avoidance of alcohol and intoxicants, themes that are usually closely linked to religious revivalism. One such wave swept the country from 1830 through 1860, another in the early 20th century, and yet another began in the mid 1970s. Each in turn left its residue in terms of religious movements, and also of food products. The 19th-century movement, for instance, bequeathed such famous names as Kellogg of the cereal and Graham of the crackers.
In other words, America's ambiguous attitudes toward food (healthful but at the same time potentially lethal) are intimately bound up with its spiritual and moral concerns. Only by appreciating that cultural dimension can we understand what scientific claims will strike ordinary consumers of news as credible and (dare I say) palatable at any given time. It's much more than just America's "Puritan streak."
That one criticism apart, Fear of Food is a delicious book.
1.Ruth Clifford Engs, Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform (Praeger, 2000).
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne).
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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