Monday, October 27, 2014

Devil in the Details

Underwood Deviled Ham: 1899.
"An honest New England product put
up under the nicest, cleanest conditions."
Mark Bittman is famous for his remark that you shouldn't eat foods your grandmother wouldn't recognize. Unlike Bittman, I think that unrealistic nostalgia is the only reason why anyone would believe that food was better or safer 100 or even 200 years ago. The basic inventions that enabled canning are around 200 years old. The food industry back then poisoned a lot of people while they were figuring out what they had to do -- like make sure the contents of the cans wouldn't rot or produce botulism toxin.

Plenty of experiments with food additives in the past were much worse than what we find now, both in canned and other processed foods. Well-meaning food producers even poisoned kids by overdosing them with vitamin supplements, according to Bee Wilson's book Swindled, which I wrote about last week. If you read Swindled, you'll see that modern people who believe that impure and unhealthful food is a new phenomenon are victims of what Language Log calls "the recency illusion."

In this post I'll focus on one particular canned food that came on the market in 1870: Underwood Deviled Ham, which I mentioned in a recent discussion of Halloween foods. Evidently, the product was recognized as food in the days of our several-times-great grandmothers. It's exactly the type of food that I think modern purists are rejecting. (I'll skip the fact that my grandmother, being traditionally Jewish, shunned pork, and just talk about the product. Mark Bittman is every bit as Jewish as I am, and we both eat pork now, but that's beside the point.)

Consumer worries about food safety and purity seem to have been around throughout the life of this product -- over 140 years -- as reflected in the way Underwood promoted Deviled Ham and other similar canned goods. Facsimiles of Underwood's numerous print ads are easy to find on the web -- I think the Devil Logo attracts collectors of ads. It's interesting just to follow the development of the Devil logo, now the oldest trademark in continuous use, as well as to examine the types of persuasive arguments the ads included.

Underwood ads appeared in women's magazines and other publications for much of the 20th century. Like the one at the top of the page, they frequently emphasized that the contents of the can are clean, safe, and pure -- which shows how they expected the public to think of canned meat. Clearly, over 100 years ago people were just as worried about additives and dangerous foods as they are today.

1906. The emphasis is on pure ingredients:
"FIT FOR THE GODS...Made only of the finest sugar-cured
ham and the choicest of spices: always the same"
Along with the clean new-England kitchen where Deviled Ham was canned, both the ingredients and the cooking method received a great deal of emphasis. So did the "delicious taste." Words like this: "ham seasoned with salt and sugar and hickory smoke; boiled en casserole to imprison the good ham taste; ground fine, with mustard and 42 spices, which is the famous Underwood Deviled Dressing." One ad even stated that the product required no changes as a result of the first Pure Food and Drug laws:

1908: "Honestly Made and Truthfully Labelled for 85 years ...
The recently enacted Pure Food Laws have made no change in
passed with highest praise by every State Board of Health that
examined them and by the U.S.Government."

These ads all promote purity,
for example, the "clean,
sunlit, New England kitchen"
where Underwood products are

1914. "You don't have to be good at
guessing games, to guess what makes
Underwood Deviled Ham the Big Taste
for "partynics" and picnics of every kind!

No date, but appears to be a very early ad: "There is not one particle
of coloring matter nor preservative in Underwood's goods.

Deviled Tongue was another Underwood product at one time. In the ad on the left, during World War I:
"Conservation today is the world's crying need. In order to save lives, we are saving not only coal, sugar, wheat, fats -- but also many essential forms of meats. Every American  housewife  can serve Underwood Deviled Tongue with a clear conscience, knowing that she is thereby helping  to save those 'essential' meats for our soldiers and Allies overseas."
Underwood ads from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and onward emphasized a variety of reasons why one would love their canned meat products, but I'm focused on the attitudes of approximately a century ago, so I'm not going to reproduce any here.

On Underwood ham labels now, in 2014, the list of ingredients is "Ham (Cured with Water, Salt, Brown Sugar, Sodium Nitrite) and Seasoning (Mustard Flour, Spices, Turmeric)." I wonder if the old ads conveniently left out the nitrite and other additives traditionally used to cure the ham. I bet they did! And I'd love to know how much their 19th century canning plant resembled a "clean, sunlit, New England kitchen." 


~~louise~~ said...

What a timely post Mae. I can still remember my father's reaction each and every time my mother bought canned foods. He was much older than her and probably lived through those horrid times and foods.

I wonder if we have really come that far though sometimes. You would think by the 21st century, we would have less food recalls.

I have never seen any of these ads although, I have quite a few Underwood books in my collection.

Thank you so much for sharing, Mae...

BTW, I will be doing a quick post for Cookbook Wenesday but I won't have the logo ready:) Next week because I am going to continue it for the rest of the year at least...

Geri Saucier said...

I love the old ads for deviled ham. That was a sandwich my mother used to pack in my lunches:)