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Food in the Gilded Age

What Ordinary Americans Ate

Robert Dirks

The Gilded Age is renowned for a variety of reasons, including its culture of conspicuous consumption among the newly rich. In the domain of food, conspicuous consumption manifested itself in appetites for expensive dishes and lavish dinner parties. These received ample publicity at the time, resulting later on in well-developed historical depictions of upper-class eating habits.

This book delves into the eating habits of people of lesser means. Concerning the African American community, the working class, the impoverished, immigrants, and others our historical representations have been relatively superficial. The author changes that by turning to the late nineteenth century’s infant science of nutrition for a look at eating and drinking through the lens of the earliest food consumption studies conducted in the United States. These were undertaken by scientists, mostly chemists, who left their laboratories to observe food consumption in kitchens, dining rooms, and various institutional settings. Their insistence on careful measurement resulted in a substantial body of detailed reports on the eating habits of ordinary people. This work sheds new light on what most Americans were cooking and eating during the Gilded Age.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 226Size: 6 x 9
978-1-4422-4513-6 • Hardback • April 2016 • $38.00 • (£24.95)
978-1-4422-4514-3 • eBook • April 2016 • $36.00 • (£24.95)
Robert Dirks is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He has conducted research in areas of both food habits and nutrition worldwide. His publications include papers in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Current Anthropology, American Anthropologist, World Cultures, Journal of Nutrition, and Annual Review of Nutrition. His book, Come & Get It! McDonaldization and the Disappearance of Local Food from a Central Illinois Community, traces a changing food culture from frontier days to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
This excellent microhistory looks at foods and cooking circa 1870-1900. The narrative travels to various parts of the U.S., including New Mexico and Appalachia, from big cities and small towns. A variety of immigrant groups are profiled, along with the differences between classes (the middle-class favored simple home cooking; the lower class was felled every year by the ‘pellagra season’ and other problems stemming from the seasonality of produce). Photos add interest, and there are historical recipes, including Indian puddings and chow-chow. Not only a good reference on the time period, this work will also be of general interest to history buffs and foodies.

Dirks has written a book that encapsulates a significant portion of his lifes research into the food habits of humble folk living in the United States during the Gilded Age. Here, Dirks focuses on the diets of plebeian peoples, including African Americans, individuals living in Appalachia, immigrants, and other populations often ignored by Gilded Age historians. This is the first book to illustrate the findings of novel research by 19th-century scientists, who delved into the burgeoning discipline of nutrition by conducting field studies to examine food preparation and consumption. The results of these studies will shatter several myths that 21st-century readers may have about their ancestors food consumption habits, and will further demonstrate the striking similarities between past and current diet and nutrition trends. While scholars will appreciate the extensive references, all readers will enjoy the time period photographs, along with primary source recipes for dishes ranging from roasted possum to prune pie. This title will be a strong addition to both academic and large public library collections.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.

Food in the Gilded Age closely examines cultural and social dietary continuities and discontinuities by region and class, considers and contrasts dietary changes by economic and social group, and inspects such varied places as university dining halls, backwoods farmers' tables, and local studies on dietary history. College-level students of culinary history, anthropology and sociology alike will find Food in the Gilded Age is filled with specific insights on the Gilded Age's diet, habits, and influences on food consumption patterns.
Donovan's Bookshelf

Food in the Gilded Age is an important contribution to what has until recently been a severely understudied area of history. The author’s impressive attention to regional diversity, along with his knowledge of food science, provide a much-needed addition to our knowledge of the material life of the period.
Robert D. Johnston, University of Illinois at Chicago, author of The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon

Food in the Gilded Age: What Ordinary Americans Ate should be at hand, open to relevant chapters, to be consulted and deeply considered by anyone interested in America’s food history-including professional food historians. From African-American farm workers in the south to Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants living in cities we learn how people made do in dire poverty as the same time that the small upper and middle classes ate so copiously. This very well researched, engagingly written study of what foods people of all social levels ate and what that means in real food values at a critical time, a turning point, in American history is the best book of its kind in recent years.
Bruce Kraig, co-editor, Food City: The Encyclopedia of Chicago Food and Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America

In this fascinating and very readable book, Robert Dirks mines nutritional field studies and surveys for accounts of eating habits in the latter part of the 1800s, then places those details within larger historical and social contexts, giving a rare glimpse into the foods consumed on an everyday basis by Americans across the country.
Lucy M. Long, PhD, Director, Center for Food and Culture, Bowling Green, OH

Primarily focuses on the eating habits of the impoverished and underprivileged in an age known for the excesses of the rich

A comparative perspective that extends across regions, landscapes, economic classes, cultural categories, gender lines, historic periods, etc.

Descriptions of diet and nutrition based on daily food inventories conducted in ordinary kitchens.

• Commended, 2016 Sophie Coe Prize - Best Essay in Culinary History
• Winner, Choice Outstanding Academic Title (2016)