“Equitable, Convivial and Communal”
A Review of
Two New Books on Food and Agriculture.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud,
from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture.
Paperback: Island Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I remember reading, just a couple years ago, Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1916 list of food adulterations: “Bottled ketchup usually contains benzoate of soda… Japanese tea is colored with a cyanide of potassium and iron. Prepared mustard usually contains a large amount of added starch and is colored yellow with tumeric.” He continues on, adding to the lament that “I wonder whether in time the perfection of fabrication will not reach such a point that some fruits will be known to the great public only by the picture on the package or on the bottle.” Reading this, I was surprised to find that what I had understood as a particularly modern problem actually dated back at least to the turn of the last century, and the growth of industrialized processing and agriculture. Bee Wilson’s book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee makes it clear that food adulteration has a much longer history that I had suspected possible; so long as there has been food for sale, there seems to be adulterated food alongside.
Wilson narrates a history of adulteration in food that begins in the middle ages, through the industrial revolution, and encompassing everything on Bailey’s list: the ketchup, tea, mustard, wheat flour, jams, coffee and more, and then continues through the mess of additives, flavorings, and nutrient fortifications that still loom large over our processed food system. So as it turns out, the manufacture of food that is bad for us is not a new problem; Swindled puts our current food economy in a long history of food manipulation, and draws helpful parallels between early food adulterators – replacing some coffee bean with some chicory, for instance – with the contemporary swindlers – empty-caloried sweeteners for sugar or roaster chickens with whole new physiognomies. One of the foods discussed time and again is bread, and the reasons are obvious: “The modern supermarket loaf is almost completely anonymous…Effectively, this is food with no person behind it. By contrast, bread in the Middle Ages was personal. Bakers were obliged to indent the bread with their seal, so that if they did break the assize, it would be easy to track them down and hold them accountable…Bakers were obliged to sell bread by their own hand” (69-70).