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Happy New Year! It’s time for resolutions about being a better person, and, for a lot of us, the most obvious route to that goal seems to be eating better. As E. Melanie DuPuis writes, in the United States, diet has always been a route to self-perfection.

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According to DuPuis, in the nation’s earliest days, improving your life by eating right went hand-in-hand with rebellion against the fixed hierarchies of Europe. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, publicized advice for healthy living, including eating mostly vegetables, avoiding hard liquor, and getting plenty of exercise.

“To early republicans like Rush, the United States, as a land free of aristocratic authority, seemed like the place God intended for his Kingdom on Earth, and a heavenly diet seemed to fulfil part of that promise,” DuPuis writes.

In a nation built on oppression as much as freedom, this belief took some weird forms. Rush, who was an early abolitionist, also thought that African-Americans’ dark skin was an illness that they could cure by associating with whites of good character.

A new burst of dietary self-improvement came with The Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century. Rebelling against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, preachers and activists demanded a commitment to social and personal moral reform. DuPuis writes that this was a particularly persuasive idea in boomtowns like Rochester, New York, where middle-class strivers could find fortune one day and lose it the next. It’s no coincidence, she writes, that the city was home not just to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fredrick Douglass, but also to the early health food fanatic Sylvester Graham.

New religions also embraced dietary reform. Holy revelations to Joseph Smith and Ellen G. White led the Mormon and Seventh Day Adventist church to adopt strict rules about food, including prohibitions on alcohol.

Meanwhile, abolitionism became linked with vegetarianism. High meat consumption among the middle class led to widespread indigestion and constipation, “with enema bags and mercury pills a daily form of relief for many,” DuPuis writes. That created a widespread metaphor in which “slavery was like an impassible bolus bringing sickness to the national system.”

After the Civil War, new “scientific” theories linked dietary self-control with white, masculine, upward mobility. Meanwhile, nutrition professionals criticized the working class for eating too much, and for buying expensive cuts of meat. Nutritionist W.O. Atwater argued for greater efficiency in feeding workers. “The steam-engine gets its power from fuel,” he wrote. “The body does the same.”

In the early twentieth century, attitudes shifted as a growing movement of white workers demanded meat, while plant-based diets became associated with “half-civilized” Chinese workers. Soon, reformers were calling for immigrants to adopt meat- and milk-heavy “American” diets as a way to improve themselves and assimilate.

Today, whether we try a high-protein diet or New Age-y clean eating, we’re continuing in the very American tradition of self-perfection.


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Gastronomica, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 34-44
University of California Press