Eating the American Dream: Food, Ethnicity,
and Assimilation in American Literary Realism
Stephanie's book project, Eating the American Dream, argues that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century ideas about consumption were intertwined with conceptions of U.S. citizenship. The literary realist movement, which enjoyed popularity in the U.S. during the fin de siècle, provided fertile ground for authors to explore themes at the intersection of literary and culinary consumption and national belonging and exclusion. As a result, writers responded to and helped shape what it meant to be an American citizen by engaging with culinary themes in their work, often using food to depict immigrant characters. William Dean Howells promotes realism as both democratic and “nutritious” while simultaneously relying on culinary stereotypes to depict immigrants and biracial characters in his fiction. Stephen Crane invites readers to sympathize with urban immigrant populations by breaking down traditional sensory hierarchies yet also uses food imagery to negatively characterize the Irish. Sarah Orne Jewett destabilizes whiteness by exploring the racialized origins of culinary knowledge as it travels from the Caribbean to New England. James Weldon Johnson employs Southern cuisine to disrupt realism’s fetishization of racial authenticity. Finally, Willa Cather depicts immigrant foodways in the Midwest as meaningfully diverse in the face of nationally pervasive assertions of ethnic and culinary purity. By examining culinary themes within these works, this project provides a more comprehensive look at how national identity was constituted at the century’s turn.