Schedule of Readings and Assignments

General rules

  • Regular bullet points listed under each day is what you need to READ BEFORE CLASS.
  • Readings are listed in a particular order that I think works best.
  • All work that isn’t directly linked to is in our Zotero library. See the syllabus home page for instructions on gaining access.
  • Submit all work via Learn (the discussion board) before midnight the day it’s listed. Don’t worry about a few minutes, but I expect to have them (and will start grading them) early the next morning.

Decoding the syllabus

1: Introductions

Jan 17 (MLK)

Jan 19

We’ll review the course aims, assignments, and general plan for the semester. We’ll also discuss the problematic concept of “natural food” as a way of considering some key issues we’ll be discussing throughout the semester.

You don’t need to read this before class, but we’ll be briefly discussing: Feeding the World Today and Tomorrow: The Importance of Food Science and Technology. If the website says you don’t have access, you can find a PDF of the article in our Zotero Library.

Jan 21

Many topics we cover in this course speak to (but do not answer) the complex question: What is a natural food? Does the application of technology to food make it less natural? We often see “natural” as descriptors of food in grocery stores and restaurant menus, but what does that mean? Can anything be natural anymore? Do we really want natural food, anyway?

  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox, xiii–xix; 1–20 (Weird Science). What does Warner think of food technology? What would she consider a natural food? Do you agree with her definition of “processed” foods?

  • Joseph LaPorte, What are natural foods?. This article discusses ways we should and should not define natural food, with a focus on the dangers of equating natural and healthy. This article is a great example of why thinking about definitions of natural food are important, especially in terms of how it affects thinking about ideas of health.

  • The Family Oracle of Health (1824), 62–64 (On Vegetable Diet); bottom 64–top 68 (What is the Natural Food of Man). Take a few minutes to skim the titles of the articles as you’re scrolling to get to the readings–it’s an eclectic mix! This is our first primary source, two very short letters to the editor from 1824 about what our natural diet should be. Writing style aside, the arguments sound like they could come from a diet book published last year.


  • What is a Natural Food. Is the idea of natural food essentially a moral judgement about how much technology should or should not be applied to food? Can any clear demarcation between
  • Warren Belasco, Appetite for Change, 111–131 (War of the Metaphors).

2: Improving Nature

As the U.S. industrialized and urbanized rapidly throughout the 19th century, many people got further away from their food and started buying a lot more of it. This week we look at how developments in urbanization, transportation, and food production touted how much they were improving nature. In the cases of meat extract and cereal, we see how a main goal was make it more digestible than the natural, raw product. Food ads from the turn of the century show how producers began to claim how they were both capturing and improving nature, a theme we still see today in every aisle of the grocery store. SLIDES for this week

Jan 24

  • Jennifer Wallach, How America Eats (Ch. 4: Technology and Taste), 89–105; skim 105–110. This chapter is a great overview of some technological innovations in food production and provides a useful preview of many topics that we will cover in much more depth to understand the social side of technological change. How would you characterize the overall tone of this chapter in terms of how technology is portrayed?


  • William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (Ch. 2: Rails and Water), 55–93.

Jan 26

  • Medical Adviser 17 (1824), “Dyspepsia” (258 – top of 260). Another very short primary source for today! What is dyspepsia and why was it of such concern in the early 19th century?

  • Lisa Haushofer, “Darby’s Fluid Meat, Digestion, and the British Imperial Food Supply”, 203–216. Why was fluid meat, which sounds kind of gross to our modern ears, so interesting in the middle of the 19th century? What was the key scientific debate between von Liebig and Pavy? How does it represent what’s happening in general with food and science at the time?

  • Stephen Darby, On Fluid Meat (1870). Read the first few pages and skim the rest (it’s really short) just to see Darby’s own explanation for why his “new” preparation of meat is so valuable.

Jan 28

  • John Harvey Kellogg, The Stomach (1896), 3–6 (the preface); 17–20 (The Chapter called “The Stomach”). Why is the stomach so important to Kellogg? How does this source give us important historical context for the advent of breakfast cereal?
  • Nicholas Bauch, A Geography of Digestion (Ch. 3: Flaked Cereal), 77–101 [both ONLINE and in Zotero as a PDF] This book chapter describes Kellogg’s discovery of how to make the flaked cereal that is ubiquitous today. The specific process of discovery isn’t the main point, though, but how Kellogg saw his process of preparing cereal as an improvement or enhancement of nature. Food and health had become corrupted through society and technology—we needed a return to a more “natural” diet. Come to class prepared to share what YOU thought were most interesting points from the chapter (I intend to cycle through the notecards, not just rely on volunteers!)

3: Unnatural Trust

As cities grew, so did the amount of food that city-dwellers had to purchase. But it was a major shift for people to buy food that came in an opaque can or box. A technology like canning—that seems obviously useful and safe now—was viewed with a lot of skepticism. As a result, the idea of a name brand that consumers (think Campbell’s, Borden, Kellogg, Heinz, etc) could trust regardless of the product became central to food production and marketing.

Jan 31

  • Ann Vileisis, Kitchen Literacy, 96–125 (chap. 5: “A new longing for nature”). This reading Takes a broad view in describing our changing relationship to nature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a little repetition with stuff we saw last week, but just enough that it’s a useful reminder of some key points. Last week we looked at technology improving nature, but today we read about how urban dwellers were interested in getting back to the “real” thing, and in particular how that affected the role of “nature” in early 20th century advertising. Appeals to nature were, as we’ve discussed, a way of gaining consumers’ trust. They didn’t need to worry about the details of the production process if they could be convinced that the food was natural, in spite of the rapidly-evolving technology used to produce it. As before, come to class prepared to discuss what you found most insightful or interesting or wrong.

Feb 2

  • Anna Zeide, Canned, 1–9; 10–30. Things to think about before class: What are the key points in the early history of canning (exact names and dates are not important for us)? How did canners respond to the idea of government regulation? How did canners try to convince consumers that canned good were safe and trustworthy? What does the rise of canned goods represent in the history of food, technology, and society?
  • Anna Zeide, “Marion Harland, Tastemaker”, 167–179. This short chapter reviews a little history of canning from the other reading for today, but is especially good at illustrating how consumer attitudes toward canning shifted in the early 20th century. We also see the importance of what we might call an early food celebrity in helping to influence consumer opinion.
  • SLIDES of Borden ads

Feb 4

NO CLASS and NOTHING TO READ TODAY! Originally, we had Gabriella M. Petrick, “‘Purity as Life: H.J. Heinz, religious sentiment, and the beginning of the industrial diet”, 37–57.

4: Pure Food

As food production and many food products themselves became hidden from consumers, unscrupulous manufacturers would cut almost any corner to lower their costs by using various fillers and misleading consumers as to what was inside the box. In addition, the growth of food chemistry meant that many new chemicals could be added to food to enhance shelf-life and stability. This week we see, as a result of rapid technological change, the debates about the necessity (or not) of government to regulate food manufacturers to ensure purity and honesty.

Feb 7

  • Deborah Blum, The Poison Squad (Chs. 2 and 4), 29–46; 65–79. These two chapters describe the kinds of adulteration that were common in the late 1800s, as well as the extent to which food adulteration was seen as a serious threat to not only food purity, but food safety. It also starts to outline (and we’ll see more on Wednesday) the complex political battles that are behind the push to create the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906. The chief protagonist in these chapters is Harvey Wiley, who is not introduced in the chapters we’re reading for today, but has been mentioned in several previous readings as a crusader for more federal regulation of the burgeoning food industry in the later 19th-century.

SKIM for flavor

We won’t spend a lot of time on these, but it’s important to note how concern about food adulteration had a long history even by the 1880s and 90s as we’re focused on this week.

Feb 9

  • Deborah Blum, The Poison Squad (Chs. 7 and 8), 119–152. As for Monday, these two chapters from Blum’s book go by quickly. I think they do a nice job of describing the context of Sinclair writing The Jungle and the political issues it sparked. As you read, be thinking about how this more elaborate description of Sinclair, Wiley, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act adds a lot more depth to how it is often summarized (as we’ve read). That’s what we’ll focus on in class. There are a billion different people mentioned here and specific aren’t important for us–just get a general idea of what the issues are.
  • Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 97–105; 140–46 (chapters 9 and 14). Even before this week, we’ve seen plenty of references to The Jungle. These few pages give you a more concrete impression of the book itself. The selections also give you a stronger flavor of how the book was primarily about the working conditions and social life of immigrants around the turn of the century, rather than food purity or safety.

Feb 11


5: Pure and Modern Milk

This week we’re learning to read quickly and extract the main point from a food book. The main topic is how the production and distribution and consumption of milk changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as cities grew in size (both demographically and physically), pushing dairy farms farther from cities and also needing to scale up. We’ll see how a lot of what we take for granted with milk—as a natural, wholesome, and safe food—has a surprisingly contested history behind it. The story behind milk perfectly illustrates the themes of the last few weeks in terms of how technology was employed to make “pure” food by improving nature.

Feb 14

  • Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk (Intro, Chs. 1 and 2), 3–35; 36–66.

Feb 16

  • Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk (Ch. 3), 67–97.

Feb 18


6: Industrializing Food

Continuing with the same theme as milk, this week we look at how farms became more like factories in the early 20th century. For Monday, we look not at a specific industry as we have been, but focus on the changing nature of farming itself, and the development of the modern food system (including not just processes, but also attitudes toward it). The main point of the Johnstone reading is in contrasting urban and rural values as farm life changes dramatically with new technology and increasing urbanization. For Wednesday we look at the drive to industrialize animals to scale up production and lower costs. This week also continues our exploration of our changing relationship to nature driven (in part) by food production.

Feb 21

  • Deborah Fitzgerald, Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture, 10–32. Available as a PDF in Zotero and ONLINE. This chapter describes diversity of farming in the U.S. before 1920 and how the logic of the urban factory came to transform the idea of farming and food production. It’s a little dry, but excellent background for the Johnstone article (from 1940).
  • Paul H. Johnstone, Old Ideals Versus New Ideas in Farm Life (1940), 111–112; 116–119; 144–152; 157–167. (NOTE: within the pages specified, always read from one section heading to another.) This is another primary source—an article from 1940 that describes how farms and farm life were changing rapidly in the early 20th century. You’ll notice a lot of overlap what Fitzgerald describes, and take special note of the tensions between urban and rural values, and changing attitudes toward ownership, business, and labor around 1920.

Feb 23

Two options for today’s discussion. Whichever you choose, I expect that your work will show up both in today’s discussion AND in the essay assignment for the week, due on Friday as usual. Either read ONE of these fairly carefully and come to class ready to share what you learned—particularly the big picture takeaways. OR, skim both and be prepared to comment on key similarities and differences.

  • William Boyd, “Making Meat: Science, Technology, and American Poultry Production”, 631–664.
  • Mark Finlay, “Hogs, antibiotics, and the industrial environments of postwar agriculture”, 237–254.

Feb 25


7: Cold War Cooking

This week brings us two somewhat paradoxical and concurrent trends: the development of refrigeration to have fresher food and frozen foods that were anything but fresh, but very convenient. You might think given the ubiquity of both of these now, that it was an inevitable development of technology. But we’ll look at how contested the growth of these were and how they refigured the American kitchen.

Feb 28

  • Susanne Freidberg, Fresh (Intro and Ch. 1), 1–48.

Mar 2

I don’t expect you to read 50+ pages for one day of class, but we’re going to talk about all assigned pages as preparation for your READING QUIZ (formerly book review) on Friday (same thing as Monday). You’ll have time to read more while preparing for the quiz. This book is MUCH less dense than the milk book, so it’s a pretty quick read and we can cover it in a single day. And to practice reading quickly is part of reason for the exercise!

  • Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven, 3–27 (read quickly to get a sense of the different convenience foods coming onto the market; details are not important, but you should have a sense of what the new questions and concerns of consumers are).
  • Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven, 41–84.

Mar 4


8: Sweetness and Risk

This week is about how technology in food creates new concerns and debates about risk. We’ve already seen in the pure food week how food could be risky from a health standpoint when left purely to capitalist markets. But this week we look at the intersection of scientific understandings of risk versus public perception of them.

Mar 7

  • Carolyn Thomas Peña, Empty Pleasure (Ch. 1), 13–38. This chapter focuses how ideas of sweetness change over the first half of the 20th century, and how it was influenced by debates about natural versus artificial foods. Note how familiar issues of purity, nutrition, motherhood, wartime rationing, etc, play a significant role in shaping that artificial/natural food divide. Also note the emerging issue of risk that we will see develop more on Wednesday.

Mar 9

Mar 11

NO CLASS! Finish your review and get started on your spring break!

9: Mar 14, 16, 18: SPRING BREAK

10: Mar 21, 23, 25: MORE BREAK, SORT OF.

No class this week! But you do have a (post) midterm, due midnight on Friday. This is our way of solidifying the first-half material and getting back into the course after a much-needed break.

11: Risky Ingredients

Continuing the theme of risk from before break, this week we look at the modern state of food additives and the intersection of food safety and food technology. What would Harvey Wiley think of all this stuff in our food?

Mar 28

A few fun readings to get back in gear for the second half. There are lots of details in the chapters that you can skim, but read carefully enough to get the big picture. Why and what does it mean that so many things are going in our food? Does it really matter? How does this change the way we should even think about food? We also start to learn about federal regulation of food additives, which we focus on for Wednesday.

  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox (Ch. 6: Better living through chemistry), 97–123 .
  • Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed (Ch. 4: Enrichment Blend), 29–44.

Mar 30

  • Wendee Nicole, “Secret Ingredients”, Environmental Health Perspectives 121.6 (2013): A126–A133. This article is about food additives and the sketchy regulations (and the uses of science) that govern them and their safety. For class:

Apr 1


12: Environmental Food

It was only about 60 years ago that we really started to think about the environmental implications of the incredibly rapid rise of food technology and production. This week we learn about how the so-called Green Revolution ushered in a new intensity to industrialized agriculture that was entirely reliant on chemical inputs. We also learn about Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring addressed some of the safety and environmental issues raised by new industrial agriculture. Carson of the few people in history that we can point to as almost single-handedly changing the way we think about the environment (and helped crystalize the field of ecology).

Apr 4

Less reading, more watching! Please watch/read in order listed so everything makes sense. Today is all about thinking through competing perspectives on technology applied to food production generally.

  • VIDEO: The Green Revolution: Waging A War Against Hunger. This 10-minute video presents a solid introduction to the Green Revolution, but you’ll notice it presents a quite rosy view of it—especially the way it mentions some significant downsides, but then abruptly dismisses them as “necessary”.

  • VIDEO: Green Revolution. A different take on the same topic. Obviously there’s a little overlap with the other video, but you’ll see it’s a really different way of presenting the “facts”. This isn’t the most energetic presentation, but it’s very clear and concise.

  • SKIM: R. Douglas Hurt, The Green Revolution in the Global South: Science, Politics, and Unintended Consequences (2020), 179–195 (Ch. 7). This chapter is a conclusion of a book that looks at some of the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution in a global context. NEVERMIND THE DETAILS, but skim carefully enough to get a sense of how the Green Revolution played out a bit differently than scientists expected.

Apr 6

Apr 8

NO CLASS! But you still have one last reading you should do before completing the executive summary.

  • Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma (Ch. 2: The Farm), 32–56.

13: Standardizing Organic

Isn’t it weird that at least culturally speaking we have two fundamental categories of food—organic and non-organic? What does that say about our food system and our expectations for food? Our discussion about organic food isn’t as directly about technology as some of our other topics, but I contend that we can’t talk productively about organic practices, definitions, labeling, certification, etc, unless we think about the issue in the context of the various ways in which technology and food have a very complicated relationship (that we have been trying to untangle a bit in this course).

Apr 11

  • Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma (Ch. 9: Big Organic), 134–184.

Apr 13

  • Laura B. DeLind, “Transforming Organic Agriculture into Industrial Organic Products: Reconsidering National Organic Standards,” 198–208. This article can get a bit technical at times, but it constantly makes excellent and concise points about the pros and cons of national organic standards.

Apr 15


14: Explaining / Shaping Food

Apr 18

Apr 20

Apr 22

NO CLASS! Nothing due, either.

15: Wrapping up

Apr 25

  • One LAST meeting: Please come!
  • Tips for your final essay
  • Last questions review
  • Course wrap-up/review/big points

Apr 27+

NO CLASS ANYMORE: Congrats and THANK YOU! We’re done, apart from the final reflections. As always, please be in touch with questions or concerns!

May 13