Food for Thought: Frederick Kaufman's Odyssey


Kaufman prepares to treat his stomach at New York's Oyster Bar.
When English professor Frederick Kaufman was a college freshman, he wrote an essay about The Odyssey. He called it an analysis of the hero and the stomach — the food decisions that Ulysses made on his epic journey.

"My professor wrote, 'Brilliant — but demented'," said Kaufman, who loved the critique. "I think that got me going," he said.

Ever since that paper, Kaufman, 47, has been fascinated by the role the stomach plays in people's lives. He has continued to analyze and write about it, seldom taking a bite of a meal without thinking of its cultural and historical ingredients.

"People are surprised when they see there's a history of the stomach," he said. "They haven't perceived its centrality. It's not that it's overestimated or underestimated, it's not estimated."

His newest book, A Short History of the American Stomach — Kaufman's third — is about America's fickle, maybe insane, relationship with food. Feast or famine is the approach in this country, but it isn't a modern invention. Americans have been patterning this behavior since the Mayflower.

The book is full of factoids about American food culture. Ben Franklin was the country's first foodie. Paul Bunyan, Dale Boone (descended from Daniel) and Mark Twain were champion eaters, he says in the book. Twain, for example, began each day with a dozen eggs. But the Puritans are responsible for the purge. Vomiting was considered not only medicinal, but spiritually beneficial as well.

Among his other findings: Competitive eating. Kaufman describes Eric Booker's 2006 record for downing the most matzoh balls (21 in five minutes), but he links such overeating efforts to past American exploits in mass consumption. Food orgies possibly evolved from the early settlers' ability to eat almost anything to survive — deer fetus, pancakes fried in bear grease, broiled horse intestines.

"A lot of people think the book is funny, but it's very serious when you think about our gut reactions," he said. "Some scientists believe the stomach has an older, prehistoric brain that gives us our gut reactions — an immediate distaste for something."

Food markets. Markets have changed over time. "People think there are a lot of choices today, but there were even more choices in the 19th century," Kaufman said. "In the 1800s, you could go to the food market in New York City and buy panther steak."

Kaufman grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a screenwriter, his mother an anthropologist. He graduated from Yale in 1982, immediately moving to New York City to work as a freelance writer.

In 1999, he earned a doctorate in English from The Graduate Center and joined the staff at the College of Staten Island. Today he is a tenured associate professor, who also teaches at the CUNY Journalism School.

Realizing that he had a unique perspective about the role food plays in life, Kaufman began writing about it, completing dozens of articles about food, including dog food.

Interest in his current book began when an editor at Harper's suggested that he write something about the Food Network. That became a widely read and notorious piece —"Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography" — which is adapted in his book (released earlier this year by Harcourt).

In spite of his incredible research on the subject, Kaufman said he is not a foodie and has a wide range of tastes.

"My fascination is with how the body controls us in ways that we're not aware of," he said. "I'm interested in how our autonomic nerve system governs our decisions. A great deal of this connects to the stomach."