N. Aselmeyer u. a. (Hrsg.): Geschichte des Nicht-Essens

Geschichte des Nicht-Essens. Verzicht, Vermeidung und Verweigerung in der Moderne

Aselmeyer, Norman; Settele, Veronika
Historische Zeitschrift / Beihefte (Neue Folge) 73
Anzahl Seiten
353 S.
€ 89,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alice Weinreb, Department of History, Loyola University Chicago

This is an ambitious anthology that sets itself two important goals. The first is to introduce a German readership to many of the methodologies and rewards of food studies as a field. In this, the book is quite successful. Readers would be hard-pressed not to recognize the interdisciplinary significance of food studies in and of itself. The second, more ambitious goal, is to define a new sub-field of focus for scholars: not-eating (das Nichtessen). The editors note the centrality of not-eating for the very category of food: as individuals and communities determine what is edible, they also exclude the inedible. More importantly the editors highlight the particular importance of not-eating for the history of the modern world; they cast not-eating as a “yardstick for social order,” hypothesizing that food avoidance is a key social code (p. 35). Choosing to not eat, in this context, can be seen as both rational and communicative. In a global foodscape increasingly defined by over-production and over-consumption, the ability or right to choose not to eat has become a powerful political, cultural, and economic form of expression. On the other hand, radical increases in global food production have not meant the end of mass hunger. One in eight Americans is classified as food insecure, and globally up to nine million people starve to death each year. In other words, not eating is a devastating and often deadly reality of the modern age.

Despite this theoretical framework, the collection itself focuses on voluntary food avoidance, emphasizing the middle class. It includes three essays on Germany and two on the US, with the remaining chapters discussing nations in Asia, Africa, and South America. While the geographic scope is quite wide, chronologically the collection is much more focused, with more than half of the essays discussing the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This underscores the collection’s interest in not-eating as emblematic of industrialization and globalization.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, states became increasingly interested in regulating their populations’ diets. State efforts to insure citizens are adequately fed (ranging from soup kitchens to school lunch programs) grew alongside new efforts to restrict or limit food intake (food regulation, rationing programs). In response, citizens began to see choosing not to eat as a way of supporting, rejecting, or criticizing the state. In one of my favorite essays, Maximilian Buschmann explores the history of the “first political hunger strike” in the United States, that of the anarchist Rebecca (Becky) Edelsohn (1892–1973). In this essay, the hunger strike, employed by actors as varied as Russian political prisoners, British suffragettes, Indian anti-colonial activists, and Irish independence fighters, emerges as a uniquely modern form of not-eating that speaks to the core issues raised by the volume’s introduction.

Race is addressed in several essays. Diana M. Natermann’s study of European eating habits in Congo and German East Africa argues that, for white settlers, refusing to eat native foods (and insisting on eating ‘European,’ largely imported foods) was central to maintaining white identity. In his study of mid-century Brazil, Sören Brinkmann traces the ways in which the Vargas regime embraced nutritional reform, arguing that diet rather than race was the explanation for the social problems attributed to the country’s poor. Maren Möhring’s essay on food reform in Germany notes the links between certain branches of ‘life reform’ and the far right, embodied in the figure of Richard Ungewitter (1869–1958), the influential vegetarian nudist and committed anti-Semite. And Julia Hauser’s excellent transnational study of vegetarianism in Europe and India notes that, despite striking similarities in the ways in which vegetarianism was constructed in these two spaces, the relationship to race and racism was a key difference; in India, meat-eating was linked with militarism and colonialism, making vegetarianism central to the anti-colonial and antiracist imaginary. In contrast, in Europe fantasies of bodily purity and strength easily merged with fantasies of racial superiority. Despite the wide range of essays addressing race, however, none of the articles explicitly grapples with the relationship between race and not-eating from a theoretical perspective.

Gender is less frequently thematized, but it does feature in a few essays, most notably in Christa Spreizer’s discussion of the German feminist philanthropist Hedwig Heyl’s advocacy for a rationally restrained approach toward food consumption, something that became associated with a class-bridging form of patriotism. Spreizer argues that Heyl (1850–1934) embodied a specifically female approach to nutrition as a component of modern identity, relying upon the fact that women, as ‘guardians of the family diet,’ often turn to diet as a platform of social reform. In contrast, Nina Mackert posits that calorie counting, a uniquely modern and industrial activity, structured class difference in late nineteenth century America. While initially ‘calorie counting’ seemed a vital skill for poorly educated workers to optimize their nutritional intake, several decades later, the middle class embraced calorie counting as central to good consumer habits. The self-imposed choice ‘not to eat’ became definitional to the middle class. Throughout, class consistently emerged as more significant than gender in conceptualizing the category of not-eating, a finding that the surprisingly unmentioned modern rise of Anorexia Nervosa seems to challenge.

Remaining chapters explore the role of the state in determining individual choices to not eat. These articles, like the volume overall, primarily focus on consumer behavior, especially shopping, as the key determinant of food access. Lutz Häfner’s study of food adulteration in late imperial Russia opens up the issue of when particular consumers do not have the option of not eating; in this case, the wealthy could afford food of high quality and hygienic standards. The poor, on the other hand, simply had to purchase whatever foods were available and affordable. The role of the state in maintaining quality was less significant in this case than the financial resources of individual segments of the population. This provides an interesting contrast to Cornelia Reiher’s discussion of Japanese postwar citizens’ movements to find pesticide-free foodstuffs. The farmers, young mothers, and pregnant women who rejected the undesired consequence of rapid agricultural modernization needed to create, produce, and distribute, as well as chose to consume, pesticide-free foods. Uwe Spiekermann argues that German scientists rather than the state were responsible for the fact that modern Germany consistently refused to standardize iodine supplements, so that all twentieth-century German states remained iodine-deficiency areas.

My main complaint is the fact that the individual articles engage with the theoretical framework of ‘not-eating’ to varying levels of success. While each author is careful to explicate how his or her case study indeed reveals a form of not eating, the concept or category itself is often peripheral to the argument of the essay. In other words, although all of the essays discuss examples of not eating, few of them actually make an argument about not eating. Nonetheless, this is a compelling and enjoyable collection that clearly illustrates the promises of food studies and makes a strong case for the importance of not eating for understanding the experience of modernity.