The American Plate: A Culinary History In 100 Bites, by Libby H. O’Connell, read by Tanya Eby
It is singularly unfortunate that there should be so much in the way of bad social history being written by people who have no business calling themselves historians . Had the author been more restrained in making dubious claims and advocacy, and less interested in combining the worst elements of decadent moral corruption from the left and elitist snobbery on the right, this could have been a great book. To be sure, there is still a lot about this book that can be enjoyed by those who are fond of both good food and have an interest in the history that is tied up in those foods, but this book has so much missed opportunity that it is hard to appreciate it for what it is because one can so easily conceive of how it could be so much more enjoyable and so much less offensive. The author seems dedicated to causing offense, bragging about her supposed greater understanding of history than many, entering clumsily into social and cultural politics relating to immigration, feminism, and sexuality, and then showing a class snobbery that condescendingly looks at the food enjoyed throughout American history by common people while praising the passing fads of wealthy eaters for foods as diverse as eel and mixed greens.
The contents of this book are straightforward enough, being made up of slightly more than 100 bites (sometimes multiple foods are discussed in the same “bite,” and the book contains an epilogue that adds chili con carne, superfoods and fad diets, for example. The bites are divided by historical period, starting with supposedly indigenous foods, and then moving on to foods born out of the Columbian exchange, the colonial period, the early American republic, the period from the War of 1812 to the Civil War, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Guilded Age, the Progressive Era, the interwar period, World War II and its aftermath, and a couple more divisions before 2000, while the epilogue makes some tentative comments about food in the contemporary era. The author mixes food from high culture as well as low culture (tv dinners, microwave popcorn, scrapple, peach cobbler, wonder bread, and McDonald’s, along with southern fried chicken) as she seeks to pinpoint where food became popular and uses the food and a description of how it is made and who makes it as an entrée into matters of usually unwelcome and uninformed social commentary.
There are a few aspects that make this book more unpleasant than it would be normally. For example, some of the foods, like ginger and carrot soup, appear not to be culturally important at all, but appear to be mentioned simply so that the author can drone on about political points like the AIDS disease, just as the discussion of quiche appears to be focused mainly on gender politics and the one on granola, to give another example, is done in order to demonstrate the author’s adoption of the hippie aesthetic in her own life. The author’s praise of Thomas Jefferson, given his problematic personal life, and her inability to distinguish between concerns over illegal immigration and the longstanding American pattern of legal immigration that goes back all the way to the first peoples, who were themselves immigrants to this land when they crossed by land or sea mean that so much time and space that could have been spent to talk about food instead is spent listening to an uninformed writer beclowning herself. The book is good enough to show that America’s culinary history is worthy of serious historical investigation, and bad enough to demonstrate that this investigation should be undertaken by someone who is neither a cultural elitist or supporter of our present societal decadence, a tall order given the roster of most contemporary social historians.
 See, for example: