Harvey Levenstein noticed, while doing research for two books he wrote about American tourists in France, that Americans have a very different attitude toward food than do the French. While the French have what seemed to him, a normal and healthy relationship with food, Americans have a love/hate relationship with food. The very fact that we have a "relationship" with food rather than just eating and enjoying it seemed a bit off to Levenstein.
In his introduction, Levenstein says he hopes that by looking at the history of our food fears, we might lessen our anxieties and increase our pleasure when it comes to food. If only.
The book takes a chronological approach, starting with the early years of the 20th century. Each chapter deals with a food fear of the time, and you just know that if he had wanted to include more food fears, there would have been plenty of material for a much bigger book. But Levenstein wasn't out to write a comprehensive history, he wanted to show some representative food fears through the century and up to the current day.
Expecting to read about amusing food fears of a hundred years ago, I instead read about food fears that aren't much different from the ones we have today - fear of contaminated meat, fear of fat and cholesterol, fear of not getting enough vitamins. He doesn't stop with fears, though. He also writes about food myths, such as the miracle foods that promised to prolong our lives (yogurt, red wine, the Mediterranean Diet). We Americans expect food to either enable us to live forever or to kill us.
I don't know how Levenstein expected his book to allay our fears. The information we get about food changes from decade to decade, even day to day. Eat margarine instead of butter. No, don't! Eggs are the perfect food. No, wait! No need to worry about mad cows, we've got it under control.
He describes how Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a novel about the horrific slaughterhouses of the Midwest, published in 1906, could be written today with little change. In fact, he reminds us, Eric Schlosser did write a similar expose in his Fast Food Nation in 2001. Sinclair's book was the catalyst for more change than was Schlosser's, and the legislation that Congress felt obliged to pass in 1906 despite the agri-business opposition that already was entrenched, was fairly toothless. Levenstein goes on to describe how most people back then seemed to be more concerned about the price of beef than about whether it was contaminated or not. Similarly, in 2012 we are shocked by stories of "pink slime" but beef consumption hasn't budged.
Fear of Food is a short and fascinating book, sprinkled with photos of old ads and posters. It may not reduce your fear of food, but maybe you can find comfort in the fact that you are not alone. We are all afraid of food and have been for generations. Unless you are French, of course.