Burdick on Tompkins, 'Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century'

Kyla Wazana Tompkins
John Burdick

Kyla Wazana Tompkins. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Illustrations. xiii + 275 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-7002-3; $24.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8147-7003-0.

Reviewed by John Burdick (State University of New York at Buffalo) Published on H-Ethnic (May, 2014) Commissioned by Amy J. Johnson

Even while food studies has firmly entrenched itself as a significant and rigorous field of academic inquiry within the past two decades, the majority of the works emerging under this broad umbrella of scholarship tend to fall into one of three basic and fairly limiting categories: single commodity histories; explorations of individual ethnic foodways; and (often problematically universalist and racially and class- biased) works of food politics. While some scholars of food and culture, such as Psyche Williams-Forson, Doris Witt, Anita Mannur, Jeffery Pilcher, Robert Ku, and Tanachai Mark Padoongpatt, among many others, are doing important and innovative work, few truly embrace the complex nuances and multidisciplinarity that the study of food not only allows but also in many ways demands. In particular, many works in these three limited categories of inquiry have shied away from exploring food through discursive cultural analysis and have failed to address the ways by which “food” as a product of cultural and social representation is implicated in the complex and hierarchal process of racialization, especially when consumed across cultural, racial, and ethnic identities.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s recent text, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth 19th Century, explores the linkages between food, literary, and visual culture, both literary and visual, to examine how the act of eating and ingestion have been utilized to articulate and alter racial and gendered positionalities and biopolitical subjecthood in the United States during the nineteenth century. This text is one of the most theoretically groundbreaking and important “food studies” texts to date. Tompkins pushes beyond these three limiting categories of food-related scholarship, categories whichthat she credits to ”unconscious investments” in food as a commodity, by exploring eating as a social, political, cultural, and perhaps most importantly, a bodily act (p. 2). In theorizing on the relationship between “food and flesh,” Tompkins calls for a radical turn in the study of food towards what she labels “critical eating studies” (p. 3). She posits an analytical exploration of the charged cultural act of food ingestion and the ways by which that act of ingestion is represented, and in this case racialized, in the larger cultural and political discourse and socioeconomic matters of the long nineteenth century (3). By taking as its subject not the materiality of food, but rather the convergences between bodily consumption and embodied racial and gendered representations in the emerging commodity culture during this period, Tompkins’s text does not offers a history not of commodities but rather of one eating.

Tompkins’s turn towards critical eating studies allows her to examine the trope at the center of this text--the racialized body as edible. She does this in five separate but related case studies by drawing on an array of both familiar and more obscure archival materials and literary analytical sites: the colonial hearth, dietetic reform, familiar key literary works, and chromolithographic trade cards. Tompkins uses these case studies to examine sites where black and Asian bodies are represented as consumable and to show how this identification functions within the violent logic of white supremacy. Clearly influenced by bell hooks’s seminal essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992)[1] and important work done by scholars of African American foodways, such as Doris Witt (Black Hunger: Soul Food and America [2004]) and Psyche Williams-Forson (Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power [2006]), Tompkins makes the strong and important case that these cultural, social, and literary representations of racialized bodies as consumable, ranging from the racial encounters that occurred during the shift from colonial hearth to kitchen stoves to the racial desires of Sylvester Graham’s dietetic project to Hepzibah Pyncheon’s purchasing and consumption of a Jim Crow gingerbread cookie in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables (1851), function to strengthen the logic of white supremacy by building upon and being entrenched in the coercive violence and erotic sexual desire associated with the black body.[1]

As such, tThis text explores not only explores the process of racial minoritization as performed through eating but, crucially also the history of whiteness. Tompkins makes a complex and nuanced argument that details the ways by which the very nature of whiteness is predicated on the representation and rendering of racialized bodies as consumable. This argument makes significant theoretical interventions regarding the prevailing logic of white supremacy in the emerging commodity culture of the antebellum and post antebellum eras, specifically by articulating the ways in which eating enacts race onto the body. However, as the book’s title suggests, this process of racialization through representations of eating is not unilateral. Tompkins examines how the black actors and representations of black bodies push back or, as she writes, “do not go down smoothly” by actively resisting the “capitalist logic of racism and slavery” (p. 8). Tompkins’s interventions here are not unidirectional, illustrating the complex means through which racialized bodies push back against white supremacy and their perceived bodily consumability.

The fifth chapter examines the theatrical racial impersonation of chromolithographic trade cards and stands out as particularly significant. In arguably the central chapter of this work, Tompkins explores archival materials that have received scant attention, even including several wonderful reproductions of these advertisements, and draws into question the very racialized and nation- building nature of archival analysis. Here, she also merges her examination of eating with over two decades of scholarship on blackface, African American performance, and visual culture studies. In doing so, she examines the images of immigrant and black bodies both eating and being eaten, specifically addressing comedic tropes, blackface performance, and white spectatorship as seen in this emergent form of advertising. Thus, she brings to light the important place of commodity culture, in particular food-related commodity culture, on the process of racialization during the nineteenth century.

Racial Indigestion is not solely about racialization through food and eating; it also illustrates the very nature through which normative notions of the body, be they racialized or gendered, are constructed through the cultural and bodily act of ingestion. While Tompkins’s explorations of the racialized bodies as edible trope make crucial contributions to the understanding of race in nineteenth -century culture and literature, perhaps the most important and innovative assertions of the text are her interventions in the fields of queer and bodily theory. Tompkins makes these interventions through a theorization of the mouth, which she frames as a transient boundary where the self and other, the internal and external, the subject and object, and food and the body, are traversed. By tracing the complex cultural, erotic, and sexual history of the mouth and focusing on both white and black mouths as they laugh, speak, and most importantly eat, she examines how the mouth operates as a site of bodily and oral pleasure to theorize on how this bodily orifice functions as an entry point for normative and non-normative notions of desire.

By extrapolation, she also examines biopolitical subjecthood and how it has been regulated through the reform movements and racial discourse of the long nineteenth century. However, she takes this analysis into innovative and productive new directions by using the mouth to examine the ways by which these political and cultural discourses are ephemerally enacted upon the body. Therefore, Tompkins’s theorizations on the mouth work fruitfully to challenge notions of the “free liberal self,” which is very much part of nineteenth- century commodity culture, by theoretically negotiating the tensions between the bodily self and the cultural/material other as the act of ingestion literally brings the cultural and material other into the muscle, tissues, and gut that make up the body (p. 3). This utilization of the mouth is a highly theoretical and immensely important intervention, effectively merging the field of food studies not only with critical race theory but also with queer and bodily theory. This new framework of critical eating studies can be employed by food studies scholars and queer theorists alike to address the obvious yet largely unexplored implications of food on constructions of normative and non-normative bodies throughout U.S. history.

By operating within, across, and beyond disciplinary bounds and theoretical planes, Tompkins’s work is a stellar example of the promise of food- related scholarship. In offering a turn toward critical eating studies, Racial Indigestion pushes the study of food in new and exciting directions, most notably, towards a cultural, social, and most productively bodily examination of eating. My only superfluous concern with the text is that because of its highly theoretical nature, it might strike those not versed in critical race theory or literary theory, potentially even by many currently working in food studies, as a bit difficult to follow. However, this will not be a deterrent to most and this text should have appeal not only within food studies but also to literary theorists and historians of the nineteenth century; scholars of race, ephemera, and popular culture; and literary, visual, affect, gender, and queer theorists. In addition, even while writing specifically about the nineteenth century, Tompkins’s work has great contemporary relevance as her assertions and articulations on the nature of race and racialized consumption question the nature of current “foodie” discourse, which in many respects is laden with racial tensions, including colorblind universalist, nativist, and nationalist rhetoric. All in all, this a beautifully written and radically innovative theoretical exploration that will hopefully force food studies scholars to think beyond those three afore mentioned limiting categories and push them to reimagine many of their assumptions about the role of food and eating in the production of our racial and gendered subjecthoods.


[1]. bell hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” fromin Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Cambridge: South End Press, 1992),. p. 21-40.; Williams-Forson, Psyche. Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food and Power. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Witt, Doris. Black Hunger: Soul Food and America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. 

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=37042

Citation: John Burdick. Review of Tompkins, Kyla Wazana, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. H-Ethnic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37042

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