Food, Technology, and Society

Fall 2019 • HIST 412
info | readings


This syllabus is a living document and changes frequently, depending on what’s going on in the course. If you print it out, you’ll need to keep your paper version up to date with the online version. I will always announce important changes in class.

Required Readings

There are no required books for the course. All readings that aren’t already online (and some that are) will be available through the class Zotero library. This will be discussed in class, but for reference, please see the instructions for connecting. The URL for the group library is


Aug 22

Today we’ll review the syllabus, course aims, assignments, and general plan for the semester. We’ll also figure out how to customize the course to best suit participants’ interests.

Aug 24

The point of this coupling of readings is to canvas the broad spectrum of visions of food production–one a global lab-driven research effort, and the other centered on the idyllic agrarian yeoman. Some discussion questions for class: What’s the difference between food grown in the ground and food produced in the lab? Does all food boil down to chemistry? Is the food production system described by Warner antithetical to Jefferson’s vision, or evidence of its success?

  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox, xiii-xix; 1-20 (Weird Science). This is a super quick read. Until we have more time to go over Zotero, the PDF is here.
  • Lisi Krall, “Thomas Jefferson’s Agrarian Vision and the Changing Nature of Property,” 131–33; 144-48. Available at JSTOR. The read middle section if you’re interested in political economy. This reading also provides an important background to McWilliams for next week.
  • Introduction to Zotero.

Land and Capital

Aug 29

  • James, E. McWilliams, Revolution in Eating, 240-64; 274-5. (A culinary declaration of independence). The PDF is in the Zotero library, or you can read it online here. Skip the section “Defining American Food,” (265-73). On the whole, no need to labor over the details; focus on the forest, not the trees.
  • William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, 23-54 (Dreaming the Metropolis). Although this reading is not specifically about food production, it introduces how we can understand westward expansion as systematic conversion of land to capital, as introduced by Krall.

Aug 31

  • William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, 55-93 (Rails and Water)
  • Discussion of review assignment due in 1 week (see below).

Technology and Taste

Sep 5

  • Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table, 30-43 (Giant Food Processors).
  • Jennifer Wallach, How America Eats, 89-110 (Technology and Taste).
  • Skim this fun piece on canning. Note: some of the embedded media sometimes doesn’t work for me, but don’t worry if you encounter similar issues.

Sep 7

  • Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table, 121-136 (Best for Babies, 1880-1930).
  • Amy Bentley, “Inventing Baby Food: Gerber and the Discourse of Infancy in the United States,” 92-109.


Sep 12

  • Ann Vileisis, Kitchen Literacy, 96-125; 126-159.

Sep 14

Sep 19

  • Wilbur O. Atwater, “The Chemistry of Food and Nutrition: The Composition of Our Bodies and Our Food,” Century Illustrated Magazine 34 (May 1887): 59-74. Our goal is to understand the overall flavor of this article that is representative of Atwater’s work so often referenced in our readings of late. Skim but don’t totally skip the science details. What’s the point of all the science detail? Where does metaphor play a role?
  • I highly recommend that you complete a first draft of your report before class. I won’t collect them, but it will help you ask questions and prepare a much better report (due Thursday).

Sep 21

  • Charlotte Bitelkoff, Eating Right in America, 13-44 (Scientific Moralization and the Beginning of Modern Dietary Reform). Here we can go beyond Atwater’s “scientific” analysis of food and consider the links between diet and morality. A few key points to consider: What does “morality” mean in this chapter? Why is it so important (per the reformers) to have the proper diet? How is the proper diet related to the supposedly universal calorie?

Critical Distances

Sep 26

  • PRIMARY (1906): Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (chapters 9 and 14).
  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox, 21-37.

Sep 28

  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation 13-28.

Convenience Food

Oct 3

  • Michael Moss, Salt, Sugar, Fat, 45-67 (Convenience with a Capital C).
  • Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty, 101-118 (The Golden Age of Food Processing: Miracle Whip über Alles).

Oct 5


Oct 10

  • Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change, 29-42 (Radical Consumerism); 111-131 (War of the Metaphors).

Oct 12

Oct 17 and 19

Oct 24

  • Katherine J. Parkin, Food is Love, 30-78. Of course we’ll go over the main ideas covered in these two chapters, but you should also think about how your ad research confirms or complicates Parkin’s claims about advertising.

Oct 26

The Tale of Two Fruits

Oct 31

Read one of the following and be prepared to share highlights with the class

  • John Soluri, “Accounting for Taste: Export Bananas, Mass Markets, and Panama Disease,” 386–410.
  • Jeffrey Charles, “Searching for Gold in Guacamole: California Growers Market the Avocado, 1910-1994,” 131-150.

Nov 2

  • Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma, 32-56 (The Farm).
  • PRIMARY (1940): Selections from Paul Johnstone, “Old Ideals versus New Ideas in Farm Life.” The beginning of this article will review some of what we talked about the first few weeks of class, but it’s interesting to see these ideas in print in the 1940s, describing the changing nature of farming in the US. It’s enlightening to skim the entire article, but focus especially on 111-114; bottom of 115-127; 139-167. Start and stop reading at major section headings on the pages specified; rarely will you read all of the first or last page in the given range. Pay particular attention to the changing ideas about farm labor, which is our focus for next week.

Working on the Farm

Nov 7

  • Gottlieb and Joshi, Food Justice, 13-30; SKIM 30-38. In Zotero and also online.
  • Margaret Gray, Labor and the Locavore, 1-12 (Introduction); 15-26 (Chapter 1); SKiM through 40 (Agrarianism and Hudson Valley Agriculture).

Nov 9

  • Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, 149-166; 169-190.
  • Christopher Leonard, Meat Racket, 1-13; 47-62; 17-46. (these are quick reads!)
  • Preview: Memphis Meats and The Meat of the Future.
  • More data for reference: “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 267-284.

Big Organic

Nov 14

Nov 16

  • McKay Jenkins, Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the America, 1-46 (Prologue; Are GMOs Safe?).
  • McKay Jenkins, Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the America, 47-76 (The Long, Paved Road to Industrial Food).

Local Food

Nov 21

  • Born and Purcell, “Avoiding the Local Trap,” 195–207.
  • C. Clare Hinrichs, “The Practice and Politics of Food System Localization,” 33–45.
  • IN CLASS: website analysis instructions.

Nov 23

Global Fortification

Nov 28

  • Marion Nestle, Food Politics, 295-314 (Fortification and Marketing).
  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox, 97-123 (Better Living through Chemistry).
  • Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed, skim 13-28; 29-44.

Nov 30

  • Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism, 215-236 (The Food Quality Paradigm).

Dec 5

Dec 7