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Eat a Variety of Foods, Vote Whig: America's un-American Dietary Guidelines Perin Gürel

On April 10, 2008, as the race for the Democratic and Republican nominations heated up, two quintessentially American institutions, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) quietly put out a call for a different set of nominees: applicants to form the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. By mid-August, Obama and McCain had secured their place in their own race, but the secretaries at the USDA and HHS were still sifting through the applicants for the other big leadership position. When I called USDA headquarters on August 20th, I was told to check the website regularly for updates and the pending press release. Yet, an Americanist with a predilection for biopolitics cannot but make a few predictions.

The last dietary guidelines released in 2005 were hailed in the media as a refreshing break from the usually timid recommendations. The suggested limits on added sugars and trans-fats constituted a bold variation from the past guidelines, which have been issued every five years since 1980 without stepping on a single lobbying toe. Yet, somewhat like the American presidential race, more can be understood about the guidelines, and the culture that obsessively produces and refuses to live by them, by studying elements that have remained unchanged for 20 years: Since the publication of the very first USDA dietary guidelines, Americans have been urged to "eat a variety of foods." In 1980, the recommendation to consume a varied diet ranked number one in a list of seven main guidelines, followed closely by "maintain ideal weight." "Eat a variety foods" has, in fact, remained at the top of the list since then, and is also upheld by the ubiquitous food-guide pyramid. The 2005 edition, accordingly, included a new and improved version of the tenet; the recommendation to "consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages" ranked as the first "key recommendation" among many – a strange emphasis for an overweight nation that doesn't appear to have a problem with eating more of anything.

Eating a range of different foods may initially seem to be quintessentially American – the modern supermarket is packed with a plethora of foods, from mangos to Doritos, packaged and marketed in an equally mesmerizing number of ways. The promise of a varied diet was even used to lure prospective European settlers to the new continent before the United States even existed. In 1616, Captain John Smith, in an appeal to settlers, declared with appetizing zeal the gastronomic possibilities of the New World. "Heer nature and liberty afford us that freely, which in England we want, or it costeth us dearly," explained the legendary captain, before going on to catalogue the delicacies bursting out of North American soil: "turnips, parsnips, carrats, cabige, and such the like." However, the reality of food in the Colonies, punctuated by periodic draughts and epitomized by Smith's own "he who does not work shall not eat" policy, was much starker. Richard Frethorne, an indentured English servant, even begged for food in a 1623 letter to his family, complaining "since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas and loblollie (that is water gruel)." So much for a varied American diet.

In fact, for many new Americans, the authentic American diet had to be anything but varied; democracy was discursively aligned with the repetitive consumption of bland and monotonous foods and a diversified diet came to represent royalist decadence. Benjamin Franklin, for one, was all for Richard Frethorne's limited diet. Franklin, possibly the first famous American "flexitarian," not only limited his own nutritional choices to the exclusion of animal flesh, he also aimed to prove that consistency in food choice was conducive to a long, healthy life. In his 1771 Autobiography, Franklin cites an old nun who, like the indentured servant, lived "on Water-gruel only." The nun's longevity and apparent health proved to the ever-scientific Franklin that one need not eat a luxuriously varied diet. Franklin's own unexciting and phytonutrient-poor meals consisted of boiled potatoes or rice, "a Bisket or a Slice of Bread, a Handful of Raisins or a Tart from the Pastry Cook's, and a Glass of Water."

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, water-gruel-bland remained the authentic American way, and having a taste for different foods was posited as a form of un-Americanism, a mark of elitist dissipation. Described by food historians as "gastronomic know-nothingism," this nativist suspicion of diversity in meals also made its way into the young republic's politics. Thomas Jefferson, the first presidential gourmet, was attacked for his "effete" predilection for French cuisine and was accused of ignoring "his native victuals" by consuming unusual foods. During the 1840 presidential campaign, the Whigs accused President Martin Van Buren of a similarly aristocratic palate, and charged him with treacherously indulging in "strawberries, raspberries, celery and cauliflower." In what came to be called the 1840 "The Gold Spoon Oration," Pennsylvania Whig Charles Ogle boasted that, as a comparison, their own salt-of-the-earth candidate William Henry Harrison lived merely on "raw beef, without salt." Van Buren lost the election by a few thousand votes, prompting historians to suggest that his un-American, antioxidant-rich diet might have indeed cost him re-election. Perhaps Senator Obama should have rethought that question to Iowans in a 2007 campaign stop, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" The New York Times noted "a lack of reaction from the crowd." Ar-u-whaa? Obama fans should be glad the response wasn't worse.

Dietary variety never quite caught on in the United States, despite a steady rise in available choices since the Industrial Revolution. Until the mid-twentieth century, laymen and scientists continued to view fruits and vegetables as frivolous, unhealthy and anti-democratic. Immigrants, for example, were gastronomically Americanized by social workers, who urged them to give up their "multifood dishes," which included a plethora of mixed vegetables. Multiple food dishes, such as stews, were considered anti-assimilationist: native-born whites believed the mixture of assorted foods to cause indigestion, just as immigrants holding onto their foodways were thought to resist "melting" into the big, bland melting pot. "Americanization through Homemaking," an actual home economics course for Mexican-American girls in California, declared war on traditional Mexican sauces. The newly minted American homemakers were told to forgo lycopene-rich tomatoes and heart-healthy nuts, and cook up real American sauces, consisting of the monochrome mixture of flour, butter and milk.

Late 20th and early 21st century dietetics, advocating a varied diet colored by fruits and vegetables, seems to have caught up with Captain John Smith's ideal of North America. Yet, the American public remains reluctant. Time will show whether the un-American recommendation to "eat a variety of foods" will seep its way into the national gastronomic unconscious, but many don't see cause for optimism. Mark Furstenberg, the famous chef hired to develop whole-grain breads for Legal Seafoods, was recently quoted as saying "We have failed in this country to change people's appetites for anythingÉPeople have established appetites. Eating is very personal." And political, too, we might add.

Perin Gürel is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

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