Elias on Bégin, 'Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food'

Camille Bégin
Megan Elias

Camille Bégin. Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food. Studies in Sensory History Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 240 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08170-5; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04025-2.

Reviewed by Megan Elias (Boston University) Published on H-FedHist (April, 2018) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51275

In the field of food studies, scholars and teachers habitually experience the need to connect the thought with the tasted, bringing together our intellectual and sensory understandings. Camille Bégin contributes a new approach to this dynamic in Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food. The book, which won the award for best book of 2016 from the Association for the Study of Food and Society, applies the insights and methodologies of sensory history to taste and to a particular moment in American history. Bégin provides a model for understanding that our historical and culinary terminologies are grounded in our senses.

Sensory historians attend to information our archival sources record about sensory experiences in the past. While others might skim over references to odorous city streets, sensory historians parse the smells for what they tell us about the composition of the world at any particular time. The shift from the smell of open-air fish markets to the smell of exhaust after all reflects significant social changes.

Bégin argues that by revealing not only what sensory experiences of and around taste people claim to have had but also how they recorded those experiences, we can learn about how national identity is constructed. She applies this approach to material written for the America Eats project, part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) during the Great Depression. This archive of American foodways, though not published at the time, has been written about in several books since and is now beautifully archived on the What America Ate site developed by Michigan State University.

While others have used the America Eats archive as a record of what people ate at a particular time in American history, Bégin argues that the project created what she terms a “sensory economy”—a set of norms and terminology. Writers and editors collaborated consciously and unconsciously to include and exclude sensory experiences from the public record. Sensory realities of those deemed recent immigrants—which strangely included Italian Americans—and for the most part African Americans resulted in a guide to the nation that left out large swaths of sensory terrain. Bégin focuses attention on the America Eats archive but also includes material from other federal projects designed to collect data about foodways. Because the chief administrator of the America Eats project explicitly requested writers to record sensory experiences in as much detail as possible, the archive is fertile territory for Bégin’s approach. Official dictates about what to record and what to leave out are also clear indicators of who was thought to belong to the sensory nation and who was left out.

Bégin finds that because of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, black food came into being as a sensory category in this era. As African American southerners moved into new areas, their food lost its regional association. The collection of tastes, textures, and smells that denoted southernness now spoke of a common experience of racial identity. For African American migrants, this connection to others through a shared sensory history could be a point of pride as well as a foundation for entrepreneurial activity.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery Bégin makes is that taste experiences of the Southwest were collected because of a larger project to develop the area for domestic tourism. Here Bégin’s research complements John Nieto-Philips’s arguments in The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s (2008) in which he chronicles Anglo and Latino cultural conflict and negotiations over the meanings of New Mexican heritage. 

Bégin argues that FWP writers chose to “celebrate tradition and taste” (p. 158), which had the result of inventing traditions by enshrining certain meals (and not others) as not only traditional but also expressive of a community’s identity or local sensory economy. They also created works for armchair culinary tourism that supported this project of inventing traditions. This work was clearly part of America’s experience of the drive to nationalism that marked the 1930s in global politics.

Because the scope of Bégin’s book is limited to what small impact we can imagine the FWP writers had on larger ideas of a sensory nation, Taste of the Nation is most useful—and it is very useful—as a model for ways to apply sensory history in the realm of food studies. It offers theoretical ways of bridging ideas and flavors, the work that seems often unfinished in food studies.

Citation: Megan Elias. Review of Bégin, Camille, Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51275

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.