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a rich and fertile land

21 december 2017

Like all books with exhaustive ambitions, Bruce Kraig's Rich and Fertile Land ends up being somewhat exhausting. But it contains a genuine wealth of information, and is strewn with intriguing facts and anecdotes. Although it's a popular book, handsomely produced (heavy slick paper, attractive plates, sewn-in ribbon bookmark), I think you could use it as a textbook in a food-history course, or even a course in general American history, if you wanted a thematic hook.

"A history of food in America" in America is Kraig's subtitle. The book is an entry in the "Foods and Nations" series from Reaktion. As with Vu Hong Lien's Rice and Baguette in the same series, I think A Rich and Fertile Land takes too long a view. We start in the Pleistocene, with the forces of glaciation and drainage that shaped the American soil. From the Pleistocene, we move through the whole history of human settlement of the Americas, from paleo-Indians across the Bering-Strait region to airline immigrants of the 21st century. Kraig has many themes, but consistent across all of them is the notion of diverse peoples having a go at the ecology of America, in the course of trying to feed themselves.

Of course, that ecology is vastly diverse. The United States, even excluding Alaska and Hawaii (and Kraig doesn't), offers a continental collection of culinary conditions. Natives set the basic parameters. The domestication of corn was foundational. Corn fed Indians, and it continues to be the quintessential American agribusiness crop. We must grow other things somewhere in this country, and I have occasionally seen cotton and milo growing here in Texas, but on a trip across America by interstate, you might get the impression that we are fueled entirely by corn – and in fact, when you stop for gas on that interstate, you are likely to be putting a healthy percentage of corn ethanol into your gas tank.

Corn won't nourish you on its own, apparently. Kraig subscribes to the common wisdom that beans and squash are necessary complements to a corn-based diet. They certainly make symbiotic partners in the classic three-crop planting scheme, the beans fixing nitrogen and climbing up the cornstalks while the squash splay themselves below and add essential vitamins. But Native Americans, like the colonists who joined and decimated them starting in the 16th century, hardly depended on the classic three crops alone. They gathered nuts, hunted small mammals and birds, fished, and collected invertebrates like oysters and snails. America may not have been Eden, but it bore true bounties. Indians exploited them, perhaps not always sustainably (the failure of southwestern cultures like the Hohokam, possibly due to problems in water management, is monitory). Euro-Americans pushed that exploitation beyond "natural" limits and continue to do so today.

Much of the midriff of A Rich and Fertile Land is taken up with lists of foods, separated by disquisitions on technology and cultural history. In this, it resembles Kraig's Hot Dog for the Reaktion Edible series, a much shorter list-driven book. Some repetition inevitably ensues. Americans have eaten lots of different things, regionally as well as diachronically, but we keep coming back to corn, wheat, beef, and dairy, with native or adapted trimmings.

We learn what people ate here and there, now and then; we learn about the ecology of grasses, the industrial uses of metals, the labile class structures of American democracy. If you're into American history you will know many of these things, and if you are into food you may not want to know many of them. But at times both food and culture align to create interesting chapters.

Kraig discusses at some length two enormous cheeses that played a part in the gestation of the American party politics. One was made in 1801, for Thomas Jefferson, in Cheshire, Massachusetts. It weighed 135 pounds, and traveled to Washington via sleigh and sail in time for New Year's, 1802. The other was made in 1835, for Andrew Jackson, in upstate New York, and traveled by barge on the Erie Canal and by ship the rest of the way to arrive at the White House on New Year's Day in 1836. This latter cheese weighed 1,400 pounds, and ended up sitting in the vestibule of the White House till Washington's Birthday in February 1837. The whole episode is very difficult to fathom. When finally cut, the Jackson Cheese was apparently horribly rank. You have to think that a year-and-a-half old cheese aged through a DC summer would make a breathtaking impact. The story goes that the Executive Mansion had to be aired out well into the Van Buren administration. Perhaps the whole thing was just a metaphor. It certainly served as an handy emblem of corruption for Jackson's political enemies (139-42).

Kraig does a good, though necessarily very general, job of chronicling the transition from family farming to agribusiness. American foodways changed both less and more than you might think. We eat out more in 2017 than in 1917 or 1817, of course; we cook less and factory processing provides numerous shortcuts. But menus can be surprisingly similar. Cornbread, pancakes, barbecue, beefsteaks, and even Native-inspired succotash have played major roles right along. But the industrial and economic processes that bring Aunt Jemima's pancake and Jiffy corn-muffin mixes to your pantry would be unrecognizable to the farmers who grew the raw material in the infancies of those brands.

As Kraig nears the present, the globalization of food, via immigration and import-export, becomes a major theme. Part of the problem with writing about "American food" as a whole emerges at this juncture. As Kraig notes, American food is inextricable from cultural hybridity. "American as apple pie" has been complemented with American as bean burritos, American as pepperoni pizza, American as General Tso's Chicken, American as sushi or sriracha. It is indeed a rich and fertile land, not just in foodstuffs but in culinary ideas, and (despite those who'd insist that we are a fragmented, low-trust society) a nation of great intercultural goodwill.

Kraig, Bruce. A Rich and Fertile Land: A history of food in America. London: Reaktion, 2017.