This article uses the concept of “anti-intellectualism” to explain surprising overlaps in rhetoric between American food activists and the manufacturers they criticize. It shows anti-intellectual elements in the language of, in turn: Sylvester Graham, an influential lecturer during the 1830s; the Natural Food Company, maker of Shredded Wheat and an advocate for “natural food” in the early 1900s; and Michael Pollan, a leading figure in contemporary American food politics. These activists and manufacturers have spoken in an anti-intellectual style about nature and food, arguing that certain forms of knowledge and evidence are more natural than others. Each has favored similar ways of understanding nature, rejecting professionalized expertise for tradition, intuition, and the wisdom of more “natural” peoples. While disagreeing on the proper structure of food production and distribution, activists and manufacturers have both sought authority to tell people how to live by evoking similar visions of the American past. This shared ideal romanticizes a time in which women did more work at home, immigrants and indigenous people were even more marginalized, and custom and tradition more fully guided people’s food choices. With different politics and intentions, manufacturers and activists belong to the same lineage of food discourse and have both furthered an American tradition of anti-intellectualism.
Anti-Intellectualism and Natural Food: The Shared Language of Industry and Activists in America since 1830
Michael S. Kideckel (also published under “Mookie Kideckel”) is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University. His dissertation, Fresh from the Factory: Breakfast Cereal, Natural Food, and the Marketing of Reform, 1890–1920, uses the breakfast cereal industry’s advocacy of “natural food” as a case study to explain the industrial roots of American ideas about nature. In addition to his dissertation research, Michael has taught in Columbia’s history department and Undergraduate Writing Program. He has also helped research and develop content for public history projects, including exhibitions at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Museum of Food and Drink, and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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Michael S. Kideckel; Anti-Intellectualism and Natural Food: The Shared Language of Industry and Activists in America since 1830. Gastronomica 1 February 2018; 18 (1): 44–54. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2018.18.1.44
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