Joe McKendry

We tend to think of our 19th-century forefathers thriving on farm-fresh produce and pasture-raised livestock, happily unaffected by the deceptive food-manufacturing practices of today. In this we are wrong. Milk offers a stunning case in point. By mid-century, the standard, profit-maximizing recipe was a pint of lukewarm water for every quart of milk—after the cream had been skimmed off. To whiten the bluish liquid, dairymen added plaster of paris and chalk, or a dollop of molasses for a creamy gold. To replace the skimmed-off layer of cream, they might add a final flourish of pureed calf brains.

Fakery and adulteration ran rampant in other products as well. “Honey” in many cases proved to be thickened, colored corn syrup, and “vanilla” extract a mixture of alcohol and brown food coloring. “Coffee” might be largely sawdust, or wheat, beans, beets, peas, and dandelion seeds, scorched black and ground to resemble the genuine article. Containers of “pepper,” “cinnamon,” or “nutmeg” were frequently laced with pulverized coconut shells, charred rope, or floor sweepings. “Flour” routinely contained crushed stone or gypsum as a cheap extender. Ground insects could be mixed into brown sugar, often without detection; their use was linked to an unpleasant condition known as “grocer’s itch.”

Adapted from The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, published by Penguin Press


This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Crushed Bugs, Calf Brains, and Other Wholesome Staples of the Past.”

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