Frederick Kaufman is the author of “A Short History of the American Stomach,” newly released from Harcourt. It’s a riot. As the jacket copy says, “with outraged wit and an incredible range of sources that includes everything from Cotton Mather’s diary to interviews with Amish black-market raw-milk dealers, Kaufman offers a highly selective, take-no-prisoners tour of American history by way of the American stomach.” NBCC intern and University of Memphis MFA student Andrew Sall recently talked with Kaufman about his work.
Q: You use the term “gastro-porn” in your book. Where did this phrase come from and what does it mean?
A: Alexander Cockburn first used the phrase, and it still floats around academic foodie-circles. I used the term in an essay for Harpers titled Debbie Does Salad. The article has a two-fold thesis. First, the way that the Food Network shoots their programs has many similarities with the way sex movies are filmed. I got in touch with a porn still photographer who understands all the technical aspects of porn movies to analyze the Food Network shot-by-shot. The Food Networks uses body-oriented, sensory-oriented ways of photographing images. You’ll see a hunk of beef shot up and down, back and forth in a way that appeals to the primal senses.
The larger thesis is that that the Food Network paved the way for news media with this visceral way of communicating through film. The news networks are also gut-dependent in that they employ images to evoke sensorial reactions.
Q: Do you think that the kind overindulgence we see on the Food Network is healthy?
A: I’m not interested in whether it’s healthy or not. I’m just trying described what mechanisms are at work. I think it goes without saying that America is in period of cultural collapse, and this sort of programming is symptomatic of a deeper illness. More guys watch Rachael Ray than girls. You can go to a bar and find a ball game on one television screen, and Rachel on the other. Guys want the satisfaction of seeing a lovely lady cook for them without any emotional attachment.
You’re laughing, and I laugh about it too because it’s a reaction to uncomfortable feelings. Freud said that there is humor when we would normally experience negative emotions. I hope that when people read my book they’ll see the humor, and they’ll be entertained, but at the same time be able to connect the larger implications.
Q: I thought the book was funny…
A: Thanks. That’s good to hear.
Q: There are some colorful characters in American Stomach to keep it interesting. You talked to Barbra Nitke, the porn still photographer and there was also Dale Boone, the 400-pound competitive eating champion among others. As a journalist, when you approach someone who seems, well, unusual, how do you get them to open up?
A: Well, an endless number of books have been written about interviewing. It’s a complicated thing I could talk about for hours. There are a many intricate theories and techniques regarding each situation. But here’s the best advice I can give: Be normal, be human. The key to it is research, getting to know as much you can about the subject. When you meet your subjects for the first time you need to understand who they are to the greatest possible extent. Then it’s a matter of just being human.
Q: You wrote a number of articles about food, even dog food, prior to this book. Do you share this food obsession with the people in your writing?
A: No. I’m not a foodie. I’m more of an anti-foodie. I’m not obsessed with eating, even though my wife is an incredible cook. I’m like Ben Franklin who said that he never remembered what his last meal was. But maybe like Franklin I’m in denial.
My fascination is with how the body controls us in ways that we’re not aware of. I’m interested in how our autonomic nerve system governs our decisions. A great deal of this connects to the stomach.
Q: So you have some things in common with Ben Franklin…
A: I don’t think that Franklin and I are blood cousins. Maybe spiritual cousins.
Q: I ask because he’s an important figure in your book. You wrote that Franklin was “the first to merge American diet, culture, scientific culture, and capitalism.” Could you explain this?
A: You want me to take all of these facets and draw a singular line through American history. That’s too much, but here’s what I’ll say about Franklin: he was a great historical figure, a great literary figure, and it turns out if you read his biography, a culinary figure as well.
People forget that he was a very wealthy man. He understood the workings of money on a macro level. Food, like money, is fungible. You use money the same way you would use, say, a ham sandwich. You use it and then it’s gone through a process of digestion and excretion. Franklin discovered that great expenditures increase power, hence the eating competitions of present day.
Q: I’d like to talk about your work at Harper’s because it’s a very unique magazine in terms of style and subject matter. What draws you to it as a publication?
A: Harper’s is a great magazine. My next article is an eight-thousand word piece about human waste. I don’t know a lot of other publications that would take on this kind of subject. Harper’s is where you can try to expand the paradigms of literary genres; it lets writers try to do things that are phenomenal. It’s also a very hard place to write. My Debbie Does Salad piece went through twenty-seven re-writes.
Q: Just to clarify, you mean re-writing it from start to finish 27 times?
A: Yes. Twenty-Seven re-writes. Harper’s can be an extraordinarily intense environment. But this is why they produce some amazing work.
Q: How did you break in? What advice do you have for people who want to get started?
A: One thing I always tell my students is this: don’t be afraid to hit the home run. After I graduated from college I started off writing crappy articles in terrible publications. I spent five years in New York just suffering. But at the same time I was learning, I was always reading and improving. Then, finally, I pitched an idea to the New York Times Magazine and they published it. Right after that I got my first book deal.
I wouldn’t wish those first five years out of college on anyone, but every writer has to suffer. Just don’t be afraid to hit the home run.
—Interview by Andrew Sall
Editor’s note: American Stomach has a companion site that’s a goldmine of food-related stuff: Want the latest food news? Interested in serving pre-salted caterpillars at your next dinner party? You may want to bookmark Kaufman’s blog.