Book Review
Which Foods Aren’t Disgusting? On Carla Cevasco’s <em>Violent Appetites</em>

Which Foods Aren’t Disgusting? On Carla Cevasco’s Violent Appetites

Rachel Herrmann

It has been a privilege to read Violent Appetites, the latest installment of a debate about hangriness that unfolded at Nursing Clio in 2017. At that time, Carla Cevasco and I agreed about the importance of recovering the myriad meanings of hunger in the eighteenth century and disagreed over who experienced “hangriness” – the sensation of feeling simultaneously hungry and angry. I argued that eighteenth-century people did not experience this sense of being hungry and angry, and Cevasco thought it important to pursue “the connection between a hot temper and an empty stomach,” drawing on examples of colonists who raged when faced with food shortages. Neither of us cited evidence of people of Indigenous descent who experienced hangriness in the past, and in her new book, Cevasco explains why.

Cover of Violent Appetites, featuring a plain black background and red and white lettering.
Courtesy Yale University Press.

Violent Appetites argues that, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Native Americans in what is currently Canada, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island possessed expansive hunger knowledges that allowed them to view hunger “as an inevitable part of a cycle of seasonal subsistence” (24). To deal with the hungry season, Wabanaki, Haudenosaunee, and other Indigenous peoples “mobilized reciprocal relationships to acquire and share food, and they developed nimble and adaptable ways of managing scarcity” that included foraging for wild foods, fasting, and feasting (24). They lived in relationship to and took responsibility for other plants, animals, and humans in the northeast. By the end of the eighteenth century, colonists’ enduring “myths of settler precarity,” their tendencies to deem Native American foodways disgusting, and their denial of “the ability of Native people to provide for themselves” justified the seizure of Indigenous lands (14, 105). In sum, Cevasco revisits our earlier debate to conclude that there seems to be little evidence of Native Americans who experienced hangriness because Indigenous hunger knowledges were much more expansive that non-Indigenous hunger knowledges.

At the same time, Cevasco’s chapters on hunger cultures and knowledges, fasting and feasting, disgust, cannibalism, and provisioning and resistance also accomplish much more than providing an answer to questions about hangriness. Among the contributions of Violent Appetites are its theorization of hunger cultures and its expansion of what scholars understand about Indigenous feasting practices and food sovereignty. Cevasco also points readers to two more pressing queries: why European sources were so adept at eliding Indigenous hunger knowledges, and whether non-Native historians can or should recover them. In dealing with this “archival conundrum,” Cevasco draws on “frameworks from scholarship by Native scholars and others” while consulting a wide array of sources, including captivity narratives, devotional texts, diaries, litanies, letters, medical and scientific texts, missionary journals, prayer books, provincial and military records, recipe books, and sermons (19).

Violent Appetites continues the task of historicizing English, French, and Indigenous hunger because so doing helps readers to understand how people who lacked food defined food. The book does this through its theorization of hunger culture – “the way that different cultures conceptualize and experience hunger” – and hunger knowledges, a category of hunger culture that includes peoples’ strategies for responding to and surviving hunger (8). These knowledges encompassed understanding what to eat and how to prepare, preserve, and produce it. Indigenous hunger knowledges “included foraging for wild foods, implementing medical and bodily practices, and using humor as a psychological coping mechanism” (24). Cevasco works adeptly with French-Wabanaki dictionaries to explore the various phrases that constituted hunger language: hunger that lasted for a set number of days, constantly eating, crying from hunger, or feeling hunger for meat and fish but not for maize. Cevasco also draws on the explosion in Native American stories about the cannibal monster, whom Europeans called the windigo and Algonquian peoples called the Chenoo, to conclude that Native Americans probably resorted to survival cannibalism less often than Europeans. In this respect she builds on work that shows how Indigenous cannibal tales drew boundaries around acceptable patterns of consumption after colonization.[1]

French experience was the next most extensive in this triad of English, French, and Indigenous hunger knowledges, and arose from famines in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These knowledges were informed by elite and medical sources that cast hunger “as a problem facing the poor,” which conferred few practical strategies on the colonists who invaded the Americas (37). English colonists, who were likelier “to experience disgust at encountering new foods,” largely “met scarcity as an unfamiliar adversary,” and were constantly surprised by the occurrence of hunger and ignorant about the landscape and its wild foods (90, 33). These choices to go without food were often unintentional.

There is an established body of scholarship that casts deliberate fasting as bodily control, and Cevasco adds to this scholarship in her discussion of Native American “expertise at fasting” in the context of seasonal hunger knowledges through both her analysis of Christian Native peoples who undertook days of repentance and fasting, and her treatment of Anglican, Calvinist, and Catholic fasting (57).[2] Violent Appetites carefully analyzes these fasts, acknowledging that Europeans disagreed about what constituted true abstention. Some fasting Catholics ate beans, fish, fruit, grains, and vegetables, while Calvinists were likelier to abstain from eating completely while granting exemptions from fasting to children and nursing, pregnant, or sick people. One of Cevasco’s most novel contributions is to flip this paradigm of fasting and to interpret feasting as bodily control, too. Rightly pointing out that Puritan observers failed to see parallels “between Indigenous war preparation and English fast days on the eve of war,” Cevasco persuasively shows that gendered Wabanaki gorging practices required community, spiritual responsibility, and preparation, and were also more tactically and nutritionally strategic in war (72).

These observations lead into Cevasco’s important discussion of Indigenous food sovereignty, which depended on the men who hunted, but also on the women who grew, foraged, and prepared food – even if colonists elided this fact. Colonists attacked Native American food sovereignty by “destroying food stores, forcing Native people off of their homelands, damming rivers and polluting waterways, and distributing government rations of colonial foods such as flour, beef, and sugar.” Colonists disrupted “the transmission of hunger knowledges between the generations” through cultural genocide, making attacks on food sovereignty into attacks on labor and livelihoods that have resulted in food insecurity and health problems in Indigenous communities today (175).

A colorized photograph of a fishing weir, a wooden fence build in water to trap fish.
Wabanaki often fished by building a weir, or sihtomuhkakon, a wooden fence that trapped fish at low tide. By the time this photo was taken, however, Maine had imposed fishing restrictions on the Wabanaki. (Fishing weir, Bar Harbor, Maine, 1903. Courtesy Maine Memory Network.)

Violent Appetites does essential work in connecting hunger to disgust by examining the moments when Indigenous peoples – but more often, colonists – ate what they deemed disgusting to avoid starving. Cevasco shows how, in the early seventeenth century when colonization accelerated, Europeans came to require language to describe disgust. Europeans were disgusted by Native American foods and food sovereignty, but also depended on Indigenous foods to survive. Cevasco usefully argues that disgust was informed not only by nationality but also by age, demonstrating that children whom the Wabanaki took captive were less likely to reject food that was unfamiliar. The non-Native adults who expressed revulsion or vomited from ingesting unfamiliar foods rarely learned to accept and take pleasure in new foods. Over time, as colonists learned how to provide for themselves and started to seek more land, they learned to dismiss Native American foodways as disgusting as part of this longer and more pervasive process of delegitimizing Native American land use and food sovereignty.

It was interesting that in the array of examples of disgusted people that Cevasco marshals, the majority of these incidents arose from disgust over four-legged-animal proteins – some fermented fish, but mostly fermented and rotting dog, bear, and hog meat, with a lone appearance by molding cornmeal cakes. Recent scholarship has underscored the water as well as the land that formed this Wabanaki borderland/homeland, and the labor of women who gathered wild water plants to ensure their communities’ food sovereignty.[3] In future work, I wish to push Cevasco and other authors to think about whether (or why) plant matter, water plants, and water animals provoked less disgust.[4] If, as Thomas Wickman suggests, Native Americans depended more on water for sustenance than their European counterparts, it is worth considering the extent to which an absence of European disgust over water plants and animals reflects a deliberate withholding of this knowledge from colonial observers. As Cevasco says, it is sometimes not our place as settler academics to ask for this knowledge – but it is important to demonstrate just how many strategies and foods non-Natives wrote out of history.[5]

I hope that this final question conveys my enthusiasm for this book and my interest in reading more about disgust. Violent Appetites does crucial work in expanding what scholars know about hunger in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and is worth adding to your to-read list.

  1. Gregory Smithers, “Rituals of Consumption: Cannibalism and Native American Oral Traditions in Southeastern North America,” in To Feast on Us as Their Prey: Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic, ed. Rachel B. Herrmann (University of Arkansas Press, 2019), 19–35.
  2. The classics are Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy feast and holy fast : the religious significance of food to medieval women (University of California Press, 1987); Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (Penguin, 1989).
  3. Christopher L. Pastore, Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (Harvard University Press, 2014); Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (Yale University Press, 2015).
  4. In the interest of full disclosure, Cevasco is editing a special issue on disgust for Global Food History, a journal for which I am co-editor. Thomas Wickman, “Our Best Places: Gender, Food Sovereignty, and Miantonomi’s Kin on the Connecticut River,” Early American Studies 19, no. 2 (Spring 2021): 215–63, esp. 234.
  5. Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Featured image caption: Two Penobscot women and three girls harvest potatoes on Indian Island near Old Town, Maine, c. 1909. (Courtesy Maine Memory Network)

Rachel B. Herrmann is a Lecturer in Early Modern American History at the University of Southampton. She is revising her first book, No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the Revolutionary Atlantic, which is under contract with Cornell University Press.