Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Two New Books on Food and Agriculture [Vol. 3, #24]

“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
Bee Wilson.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture.
Darrin Nordahl.
Paperback: Island Press, 2009.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

SWINDLED - Bee WilsonI 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.

PUBLIC PRODUCE - Darrin NordahlWilson 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).

Wilson has also gathered together quite a cast of characters tracking down food swindlers throughout this history. The early 1800s’ Frederick Accum, “a man who loved his food” to Victorian Arthur Hassel Hill, subjecting food to the microscope and always after pure mustard; Harvey Washington Wiley’s Poison Squad, eating a regimented “preservative-enriched” diet to Upton Sinclair’s publication of The Jungle (“there would be meat that had tumbled on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had trampled and spit”). It is easy enough, then, to see how the food adulterations of the 1800’s and early 1900’s turn into the additives of the New Food of the 1950’s and 60’s:

“[The FDA] simply requested that ‘safe and suitable’ ingredients should be used, at the manufacturer’s discretion… ‘Safe and suitable’ was an all-encompassing category that could include countless substances that would once have counted as adulterants” (233).

And similarly, “the most interesting aspect of the explosion in slimming foods in the postwar years was the way that ersatz foods effortlessly transformed themselves into consumer desirables. They violated one of the most fundamental properties of food – which is to nourish – but did so with such swagger that you might think they were saving the human race” (247).

Swindled tells the story of how our food economy has ended up where it is, reading it as a history in which adulteration and swindling is not a new phenomenon, such as current “organic” and “free-range” products that might disclose more than they reveal. A refrain that Wilson comes to repeatedly, though, is that “we need a knowledge of food – real trustworthy knowledge, rather than empty information. Of all the approaches to fighting swindling we have seen, the best has been that which fights fake food with a sound appreciation of the real thing” (324).

It is on this point that many exciting ideas are currently being proposed and acted out, as often as not, in the midst of urban spaces such as the London of Accum or the Chicago of Sinclair. Several books have been written recently imagining the density and diversity of our cities as ideal locations to introduce small-scale, dense, diversified agriculture, such as Richard Reynold’s On Guerrilla Gardening or Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates. Darrin Nordahl’s Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture is the newest is this vein and, while perhaps lacking the focus of aforementioned books, it is another simple yet important approach in introducing edible landscapes to “public” (common) spaces.

The directive is straightforward: “this is a critical examination of all the plants in all the public spaces within the city: fruit trees and shrubs along streets and in medians; orchards in parks; herbs and vegetables in planters located on plazas and sidewalks in our commercial areas; and roof-top agriculture, to name a few” (9). Recognizing that often, the city itself is the largest property owner in an area, Nordahl encourages a re-examination of any city property, favoring edibles (for free or for profit, in various cases) over strictly ornamentals, and especially over monocultured lawns, much as Fritz Haeg would encourage homeowners to rip out the front lawn and replace it with a garden.

Although this idea is worth pursuing, and Nordahl does well in some areas, such as food justice and access, or the example of Chicago’s green roof and aviary on City Hall and olive oil production from the landscaping of UC Davis, much of Public Produce is spent summarizing arguments from Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, which, while these writers are incredibly useful, it seems to have left less room to really dig into many case studies, or provide any specific directives, such as a book like Gaia’s Garden by permaculurist Toby Hemenway. Certainly, every bit of public land in a city ought be under consideration for the best use, including food production; Public Produce just often tries to cover too much ground to get into much depth with any one subject, and so may be best read alongside some of these other books that go deeper into the content.

Perhaps one more fruitful direction would be exploring the distinction Wendell Berry frequently makes between the “public” and a “community,” in which food and health are central to the wealth of the community; as such, the health of the community is foremost, and common places, as well as food production and purity, are in the best interest of the entire community. Public Produce and Swindled both underscore the importance of food to the health of our communities, and point in a direction, as Nordahl writes, “when such requirements are met, public space becomes equitable, convivial, and communal…Nothing is more communal than diverse individuals coming together around food, and perhaps the time has come to consider public space as the community dinner table” (43).

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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