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Saturday, December 19, 2020

Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate (History)

                                          by Robert Dirks

Publisher : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (April 14, 2016)

Hardcover, 226 pages

Amazon Listing

“Italians believed that the higher prices they paid were justified because of the superior quality of their diet. In their opinion, they ate better than members of other nationalities, and generally speaking newcomers from Italy expressed very little interest in trying other people’s foods. This created the impression that Italians disliked foreign dishes. Wood circulated that they dreaded going to the hospital for medical help and that they avoided seeking employment outside of their own neighborhoods because of the unfamiliar foods they might have to eat. Regardless of whether this was true, it seems fair to say that no nationality other than the Chinese clung with greater tenacity to their native cuisine.”

This is an academic text, so don’t expect a narrative or natural flow to the text. A good deal of it for the first several chapters is dry calculation, flooded with numbers and statistics, which I’m sure proves the author’s point, but it is similar to reading a textbook - narrative be damned. It isn’t until the later chapters, where the author begins breaking down dietary habits among various immigrant groups of the late 19th and early 20th century that the book perks up.

On the positive, all of the sources are well documented and impressive. Additionally, scattered throughout the book are old school recipes culled from the cookbooks of the Gilded Age. There are twelve of them ranging from all across the United States. Most are based on the dietary habits of poor immigrants, or poor Americans in the southern USA. The book ends oddly. It just sort of stops when it runs out of information. Usually there is some sort of conclusion. It’s almost as if he had written one, and it was pulled by the publishers to cut down on costs.

For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst


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