Past Food Nation


Food writing may be the last available outlet for ecstasy in America. Perhaps that’s why we love it so much, consume it so ravenously. Transcendentalism long ago gave way to irony, the wide-open spaces of the West have shriveled into national parks, but a sense of joyful abundance—a legacy from the earliest New World explorers—remains central to writing about food.

This fat and satisfying anthology, deftly edited by Molly O’Neill, makes it clear that Americans have always been hard-core gluttons, lusting after ever newer and more exotic fare. As early as 1821, New York merchant John Pintard was preoccupied with procuring farm-fresh peas and asparagus. (“Vegetables can only be tasted in perfection, gathered the same day,” he raves to his daughter, sounding a little like Alice Waters.) And our fresh-local-and-seasonal “revolution” descends directly from the ingredient worship of proto-foodies like Henry David Thoreau (who writes rapturously about bread and watermelons) and Henry Ward Beecher (who has a near-religious experience brought on by a barrel of Spitzenberg apples).

Despite some excellent contemporary selections and the expected midcentury classics—M.F.K. Fisher considering the oyster—the great revelation here is early American food writing. We have one of the first recipes for ice cream, created (of course!) by the freakishly polymath Thomas Jefferson, and a few pages later Walt Whitman describes serving ice cream to hopelessly wounded boys in a Civil War military hospital. Lydia Maria Child, author of The Frugal Housewife (1830), explains how to make a chowder, then Herman Melville writes famously about one in Moby-Dick: “Queequeg seeing his favorite fishy food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we dispatched it with great expedition”—requesting “chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper.” This intense appetite for more—more soup, more land, more happiness—is as American as, yes, apple pie.