More recently I finished Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, which picks up where Revolution at the Table leaves off and continues up to the present day. This book was written first, but revised after the other was written.
Of course I did learn some history from these books, a large part of both was devoted to how ideas of nutrition evolved over time. The first nutritionists around the 1890s tried to get the poor to eat cheaper food so that they would have more money for other things, since Malthusian theory prohibited wage increases. Then around the turn of the century, the “new” nutritionists tried to spread the theory of food as being made up of fat, protein, and carbohydrates and the interchangeability of e.g. one carbohydrate for another. The “newer” nutritionists around the 1920s became concerned with people’s eating enough of the newly discovered vitamins. And finally the “negative nutrition” starting in the 1960s told people not to eat certain foods deemed to be unhealthy. I was surprised by how recently most of what I consider current nutritional knowledge was acquired, much of it within the last 20 years.
Taken together, both books disappointed me. While this one covered many aspects I felt were lacking from the first volume, Levenstein’s books seem more concerned describing the “what” than the “why” of American’s eating habits. Events seem to just have happened, without much justification or cause. Government agencies and corporations leap into existence. The masses start to feel a certain way for some inexplicable reason. Good history should explain the logical flow of ideas, technologies, movements, businesses, fads, and so forth, many of which were lacking in these books.
Levenstein is definitely not a scientists or “nutritionist” (whatever that means) but he is certainly a thorough historian. While I can excuse the books’ omission of technological and scientific aspects, his history is less compelling for its lack of causal relations. His academic objectivity also got on my nerves. He takes pains to represent both sides of every issue, often dismissing both in the process. One of my main motivations for reading these books was to shed light on the processes that have led to the current state of food in America and its disconformity with my understanding of nutrition. Levenstein’s lack of an angle left my ideas slightly battered, but with nothing to supplant them.