The book made one thing clear: food fears in the past were almost always fears of the unknown. Before the 19th century research by Pasteur and others, microorganisms caused the most mysterious and frightening effects of food preparation and consumption. Accidental poisoning was another source of disaster and fear, especially lead poisoning, copper-kettle poisoning, and poisoning from dangerous colorants used to improve the look of foods.
I was fascinated by the way people tried to deal with the evidence of these unseen agents in past times, and how terrifying these processes could be. Although the level of detail about food regulation in the medieval and early modern periods is somewhat excessive, the book offers a very fascinating portrait of how people tried to avoid food poisoning and food-borne disease.
A few examples of fear and awe towards effects of microorganisms before science explained them:
- Contagious diseases that humans could catch from animals quickly, like anthrax, were very frightening. Often no one had any solutions except maybe supernatural explanations like witchcraft.
- Slow contagion from diseases like TB (which cows definitely suffer from and transmit) were even more baffling, and often led to disfunction such as the belief that milk prevented TB.
- Catastrophic diseases from spoiled crops, like ergotism in rye bread, were especially alarming. People realized that rye flour could harbor the cause of the disease, but their reactions were often dysfunctional.
- Above all, many efforts to recognize the causes of contaminated food were partially correct, but often led to difficulty. Especially, farmers were always reluctant to discard potentially dangerous animals or crops. Many people who could afford it attempted to keep all food prep and much of the production under their control. For example, there were milk sheds where cattle lived in cities because people liked to buy milk directly from the cow or goat. Of course this resulted in hygiene disasters in dealing with animal waste inside cities.
- Even beneficial organisms like the yeasts and lactobacillus that work on bread, beer, and wine, were the subject of much superstition, fear, and ineffective beliefs and practices.
In the 19th century, scientists discovered quite a few important facts about nutrients, poisons, and microbiology. However, new inventions like canning and preserving methods or addition of nitrates to salted meats caused new problems. Botulism and other spoilage were a new experience when the invention of canning was applied without full understanding of sterile conditions -- thus new fears! Many new additives were tried, some with bad consequences, especially the addition of verdigris, a copper salt, to make canned foods like peas or pickles look "naturally" green. More fear!
Of course we have our own irrational reactions to new dangers, as well as scientific efforts to understand and curb them -- the book's title refers to the panic over Mad Cow Disease that took place shortly before its publication. We also have our own problems with the state of science in knowing what's good for us: eggs, for example. Harmful or beneficial? Clearly, however, people today have access to much better information for understanding the foods they eat, and regulation of dangerous substances, food processing, and agricultural practices is hopefully based on better science.
One reason I chose to read this book is that its author is French and much of the information in it is about France. (Though there's an interesting discussion of Chicago and the famous book The Jungle.) I've mentioned before that I try to find books that reflect a French point of view on food: so many Americans write about French food, which is fine but not complete.
This post will be shared as a final contribution to Tamara's blog event called Paris in July, which is wrapping up this week. I'm also sharing with Beth Fish's weekend cooking blog event. This review is the work of Mae at maefood dot blogspot dot com. If you are reading it elsewhere, it's been stolen.
Copyright © 2019 by Mae E. Sander.