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What We Eat During a Plague

Such comfort foods, according to the dominant paradigm of Anglo-American food culture, are almost invariably bad for us — balms for the soul but never what the body needs, at least not nutritionally. But there’s a paradox therein: In medieval Europe, as in many of the world’s food cultures today, comfort and health were inseparable; pleasure and familiarity were among the guideposts to maintaining the body’s equilibrium, a notion that persisted in popular thought even as medical science transformed over the centuries.

When Spanish invaders brought a catastrophic outbreak of smallpox and measles to the Americas in the 16th century, for instance, some colonizers blamed the unfathomable crisis that ensued not on disease, but on the same unfamiliar meats and wines introduced from Europe that they claimed would “civilize” native populations (deaths among their own kind, meanwhile, were attributed to local ingredients like corn and chilies). To the Spaniards, eating unfamiliar foods could either transform you or kill you. By the end of the 18th century, the Enlightenment idea that all bodies — at least all white male bodies — were fundamentally the same made humoral medicine seem largely outdated, yet outside a small medical elite, food remained a principal tool for treating disease. In the antebellum South, says Carolyn Roberts, a Yale historian focused on medicine and the slave trade, enslaved Black healers remained a first line of defense against disease in their communities, combining food-based medical knowledge with local botanicals to blend healing traditions from Africa and the Americas, even after hospitals became more common. In his “An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it Appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the Year 1793,” the physician Benjamin Rush, a proponent of modern medicine, nevertheless prescribes “lemonade, tamarind, jelly, and raw apple water, toast and water … and camomile tea,” along with mercury-based treatments, during the early stages of the illness and, as healing progressed, a course of “rich broths, the flesh of poultry, oysters, thick gruel, mush and milk and chocolate.” Recommended diets during the 1918 influenza pandemic were practically identical, including meat broths and citrus juices to stave off fever and oatmeal, potato soups, custards and toast as the patient recovered. Even the folk adage to “feed a cold, starve a fever” contains vestiges of that humoral sensibility.

But what did change was the way that many Europeans and Americans related to their bodies outside of illness. The same Enlightenment ideals that yielded political revolutions and, on the flip side, justified colonialism on the basis of European superiority as a supposed biological imperative, later remade how the aristocracy dined: Coursed meals, where every diner ate the same thing at the same time, replaced vast banquets, where everyone chose the food that best suited his or her constitution. Later, in the 19th century, breakthroughs in chemistry and the discovery of germs as a vector for disease broke humans down into agglomerations of fats and proteins. “You no longer had a right to have views on what your body required: what is required is a scientific fact,” says Rebecca Earle, a food historian at the University of Warwick. “And your appetite is just a problem as far as nutritional science is concerned.”

That same authoritative attitude persisted in the 20th century in the form of diet culture, which still treats having the “wrong” body as a sign of moral sickness. In the early days of the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic, the assimilationist wing of the gay community relied on a similar philosophy, recalls the Oakland-based food writer John Birdsall, the argument being that, if you eat well then that will stave off the infection. Hedonism, the wider culture insisted, had brought this plague down upon gay people; austerity, in the form of fatless macrobiotic diets and then-nascent American vegetarianism, could prevent it.

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