Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living - Chapter I  by@henryfinck

Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living - Chapter I

MARK TWAIN swore by American food as he did by the American flag. When he got as far as Italy, on the trip which resulted in "A Tramp Abroad," he became discouraged, wrote a homesick panegyric on the good things he could not get in Europe, and made a list of viands to be ordered by the steamer preceding his, to await him on his return. Among these dishes were fried chicken Southern style, Saratoga potatoes, baked apples and cream, hot biscuits, buckwheat cakes with maple syrup, toast, oysters in various styles, softshell crabs, terrapin soup, wild turkey, cranberry sauce, canvasback duck, prairie hens, bacon and greens, catsup, green corn, hot corn-pone, stewed tomatoes and pumpkin pie. As he lived for years thereafter, it is not likely that he carried out his program.
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Henry T. Finck

Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living

Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living, by Henry Theophilus Finck is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter I : UNGASTRONOMIC AMERICA




MARK TWAIN swore by American food as he did by the American flag. When he got as far as Italy, on the trip which resulted in "A Tramp Abroad," he became discouraged, wrote a homesick panegyric on the good things he could not get in Europe, and made a list of viands to be ordered by the steamer preceding his, to await him on his return. Among these dishes were fried chicken Southern style, Saratoga potatoes, baked apples and cream, hot biscuits, buckwheat cakes with maple syrup, toast, oysters in various styles, softshell crabs, terrapin soup, wild turkey, cranberry sauce, canvasback duck, prairie hens, bacon and greens, catsup, green corn, hot corn-pone, stewed tomatoes and pumpkin pie. As he lived for years thereafter, it is not likely that he carried out his program.

These gastronomic specialties certainly are not to be sneered at; European epicures envy us most of them. It must be admitted, also, that American cookery has made considerable progress in the last decades, and that there has been an improvement in eating habits since Dickens, in "Martin Chuzzlewit" (1843), described the "violent bell ringing"; the "mad rush for the dining-room"; the "great heaps of indigestible matter" which "melted away as ice before the sun"; the "dyspeptic individuals" who "bolted their food in wedges, feeding not themselves, but broods of nightmares."

Such scenes still occur, but they are no longer typical. Nor, perhaps, would Emily Faithful have occasion to-day, as she had in 1884, to comment on the "joyless American face," due to chronic dyspepsia. We are still made unhappy, however, by the "indigestible hot bread" and "tough beefsteaks hardly warmed through" to which she referred, and by other gastronomic atrocities.

We must not overlook the fine cooking done in many American private families, hotels, clubs, and restaurants, and we have some good old Maryland, Virginia, New England, and San Franciscan traditions to boast of. Moreover, there are not a few who have reason to think that the culinary low-water mark is to be found on English steamships and in English inns. On the whole, however, what Pierre Blot wrote forty years ago is still true: "American cookery is worse than that of any other civilized nation." Our great national food expert and reformer, Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, put the matter in a nutshell when he said in a lecture before the General Federation of Women's Clubs, that "there is no country in the world where food is so plentiful, and no country in the world where it is so badly cooked, as right here in the United States."


One need not go to France or Austria for a humiliating contrast. In one of his books of travel Charles Dudley Warner declared that after leaving Philadelphia the tourist "will not find one good meal decently served" until he reaches Mexico. In a southwestern railway restaurant a miner once said to me he had not eaten such an abominable meal in all the years he had spent in the wilderness. To tell the unvarnished truth, he used a stronger word than abominable. One of the details I remember was that the tough steak had apparently been fried in the drippings from a tallow candle.

In the same part of the country a great change has been brought about by the culinary and executive genius of one man—Fred Harvey. He came to this country from England—score one for England!—when he was a boy of fourteen, with two pounds in his pocket. He got a job on a railway. There were no dining cars in those days and although in England he had not lived the life of a gourmet he was amazed by the wretchedness of the eating houses with their canned meats and vegetables, rancid bacon, oilclothed tables without napkins and incompetent service. Convinced that good eating-houses would advertise the railway and attract travel, he ventured to say so to the manager of the Santa Fé Railway, who, fortunately, not only approved the suggestion but gave him the opportunity to show what he could do. One historian relates that the manager "threw his arms around the youthful promoter and wept with joy." He had just dined at a railway station!

It was in the year 1876 that Harvey opened his first eating-house in Topeka. It made a sensation. Others soon were built along the line of the road from the Middle West to the Pacific Coast until, in 1912, there were a dozen large hotels, sixty-five railway restaurants and sixty dining-cars under the same management.



That Harvey was a born epicure is evident from the fact that when he opened the Montezuma Hotel in 1882, he would not allow, as the Kansas City "Star" tells us, any canned goods to go on the table. He sent a man to Guaymas and Hermosillo in Old Mexico to get fruit, green vegetables, shell fish and other kinds of food. A contract was made with the chief of a tribe of Yaqui Indians to supply the hostelry with green turtles and sea celery. These turtles, which were secured for $1.50 each, weighed two hundred pounds and were full of eggs. Mr. Harvey selected a little pool near the hotel where he fattened the turtles. A feature of the bill of fare every day was genuine green turtle soup and turtle steak. The sea celery used is a spicy weed which makes a fine salad.

Naturally, such delicacies could not be served at the ordinary railway restaurants; yet these, too, had their pleasant surprises, and were unspeakably superior to what the travelers had been obliged to put up with in pre-Harvey days. On ordering tea, for example, you would get a separate little Japanese pot with the steaming infusion freshly made for you. This was as far as Harvey could go in these places in carrying out the perfect host's maxim that every diner should feel as if the meal he eats had been specially prepared for him. But there were other details that betrayed special intelligence and thought. Thus, in stopping one day for supper in one of the Harvey restaurants in the sizzling Arizona desert, I was delighted to find the table loaded down with the sour things that one craves on hot days—diverse vegetable and meat salads.

One of the amusing details in connection with the Harvey organization was that it became known as a marriage agency, because the neat and well-trained waitresses got married one after another, some of them to wealthy ranchmen.

Of greater importance was the fact that the Harvey eating-houses served as schools to all the Southwest, bringing about a general reform. The rival railway systems, naturally, could not persevere in their barbarian ways.

Fred Harvey is no more, but his influence survives and his name is one to conjure with throughout the Pacific slope.

In the East, also, one comes across a good meal now and then in a dining-car or a railroad station. There is one, says Edward Hungerford, up in the northern part of New York State that has never yielded its supremacy to any circuit-riding café on wheels. When a certain high officer of the busy road that spreads itself apart at that junction goes up there, he orders the cook of his private car to shut up the kitchen. "Do you suppose that I would pass by that town," he says, "and the best square meal in the whole State?"

Those things, alas, are exceptional. Taken the country through, railway restaurants and diners are to this day even worse than the average hotels and boarding houses. Flavorless, unappetizing meats, insipid vegetables, doughy pies and soggy cakes are the rule at our eating places everywhere.

The most astonishing thing about this is that the average American enjoys a good meal, if he can get it, not a bit less than the average European, as I have observed hundreds of times in our own best eating houses and in foreign hotels and restaurants during ten trips to Europe. And that the capacity to enjoy a civilized meal is inherent not only in those who can cross the ocean and pay for Parisian dainties, but in the humblest tiller of the soil or railway employee, was amusingly made manifest to me many years ago in the wild and woolly West. I was brought up in the village of Aurora, Oregon, which was inhabited chiefly by members of a German colony, who differed in no-wise from millions of poor but honest men and women in the Fatherland. One of the most precious things they had brought from the old country was the skill to cook a savory meal—a meal that one could enjoy to the full without feeling the pangs of dyspeptic remorse for hours afterwards.

The Aurora hotel soon became far-famed; and when the first railway was built from San Francisco to Portland, the astute makers of the time-table somehow managed it so that most of the trains stopped at Aurora, though it is but twenty-eight miles from the terminal, Portland.

Nor was that all. The popularity of the Aurora cookery suggested the idea that it might be profitable to erect a restaurant tent in Salem during the annual State Fair. The result was astonishing. All the other eating-places were soon completely deserted; the Aurora tent had to be enlarged, and there was such a mad rush for seats at the tables that in a few days nearly every man and woman and boy and girl in the village had been drafted to serve as cooks or waiters.

It was plain German bourgeois cooking; but the sausages were made of honest pork and the hams had the appetizing flavor which the old-fashioned smokehouse gives them; the bread was soft yet baked thoroughly, the butter was fresh and fragrant and the pancakes melted in the mouth. As for the supreme effort of Aurora cookery—noodle soup made with the boiled chicken (not cold-storage chicken) served in the plate—the mere memory of it makes my mouth water, four decades after eating it.

In justice to Portland, which in those days was in a benighted condition fully warranting the action of the railway men in making Aurora their culinary terminus, let me hasten to add that at present, with its Chinook salmon and Columbia River smelt, its hard-shell crabs and razor clams, its delicious Willamette crawfish—rivaling the best French écrevisses—its fragrant mammoth strawberries, its juicy cherries, and its world-famed Hood River apples, it is hardly second to San Francisco as a gastronomic center. In Oregon, as in Washington and California, the epicure fares particularly well because the luxuries of life are as cheap as the staples and quite as abundant, if not more so.


Inasmuch as an American is quite as capable of enjoying a good meal as any one else, why is it that we are so conspicuously ungastronomic as a nation?

It is obvious that the cooks are largely to blame. It is so difficult to procure a good cook that most of us give up the search in despair and resignedly eat what is placed before us.

In Europe it is still comparatively easy to find a young woman or a man who, by domestic training, has learned to prepare a savory meal and is willing to take the trouble necessary to get satisfactory results. In the United States few of the helpers available have any domestic traditions to fall back on. As a rule, they frankly admit, on applying for a place, that they know only "plain cooking." As a matter of fact, few of them can even boil an egg or a potato without spoiling it. They are not interested in their work, as they would be if they were experts, and their main object is to get as much money as they can for as little work as possible. To be sure, a cook's hours are long, but many of them are spent in dawdling.

It is unfortunate that most of our hired cooks are Irish. There are and have been excellent cooks of this nation, but as a rule the Irish are not so interested in this art as the French, Germans, Italians and Swedes, and the results are deplorable, especially when, as is usually the case, the mistress is herself so ignorant that she cannot tell the cook why the food is wrong and how it could be improved.

The worst of it is that if the mistress of the house does know enough herself to teach the new cook some tricks, the latter is likely to leave because, on account of this newly acquired knowledge, she can get higher wages elsewhere! Which reminds me of what happened to my wife's grandmother. She once had a cook who was absolutely green, but who wanted the highest wages. When asked how she could demand so much when she admitted her ignorance, she retorted:

"Ah, Mrs. Black, the larnin' is the sevarest part of it."

It will not do, however, to put all the blame on the domestic helpers. Only one family in twelve, even in our wealthy country, can afford to hire a cook. In the other eleven families the women of the house are personally responsible for the meals. Why are these generally so unsatisfactory?

Visitors from abroad who have asked themselves this question, usually answer it by saying that Americans have idolized and spoiled their women and are now paying the penalty.

"The European," says one of them, "takes it as a matter of course that the woman he marries will be his home-maker and housekeeper, able and willing, if necessary, to do the careful cooking on which his health and his enjoyment of life depend so largely. In America the main object of the women seems to be to throw off all the responsibilities of housekeeping so that they may either gad about socially or engage in outside employment. The necessary meals are hastily cooked, marketing is done by telephone, the grocer and butcher are foolishly trusted as to the quality of the raw material, and the results are such as we see—monotonous, unwholesome, insipid meals, followed by indigestion."

There is no doubt some truth in this foreigner's observations, though he takes no account of the many thousands of American wives who work as hard to make their homes abodes of comfort, health and happiness as their husbands do to supply the necessary cash.

On the American men falls a large share of the blame for existing conditions. Completely absorbed in their private and particular business they labored too long under the delusion that their whole duty consisted in supplying the cash needed for housekeeping. Their indifference to the sources and the quality of the raw material of the food they ate, brought into existence a horde of adulterators and poisoners on a scale never before witnessed anywhere—and that is another important reason why we are not a gastronomic nation. With such sophisticated material the best cooks in the world could not prepare appetizing, wholesome meals; and when meals are not appetizing, men lose interest in them, bolting their food, and passing on to things that seem more important and agreeable.

Adulterators and spoilers of food have existed since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans and probably they flourished long before them; but never before had the far-famed "Yankee ingenuity" been brought to bear on the ignoble task of deceiving people as to what they were eating and drinking.

Of this ingenuity a striking illustration was given at Washington when the pure food agitators, headed by Dr. Wiley of the Department of Agriculture, gave an exhibit before Congress. On a table had been placed—along with other similarly fraudulent articles—a bottle of "honey." On the surface of it floated a bee. Now, the man who put that bee in the bottle had said to himself: "Nine persons out of ten will, on seeing it, conclude instantly that it got in accidentally and that it proves the honey to be genuine." But that bottle never contained any honey; it was filled with a sticky, sweet substance resembling honey in appearance, but instead of being made up of the products of the bee's beneficent floral industry, it contained ingredients some of which were injurious to health.


That bottle was a sample of thousands of adulterated or entirely spurious "foods" for which American men and women had been for a long time spending good money in the belief that they were getting what they paid for.

A quarter of a century ago the food poisoners and adulterators spread a net of fraud across the United States, the like of which the world had never seen; and for a long time the American public, with the meekness (up to a certain point!) for which it has become notorious, submitted to this abuse, eating the drugged food and suffering the daily pangs of indigestion, wondering vaguely what was the matter—why Europeans found us a nation of dyspeptics—and paying fortunes to doctors, and to vendors of patent medicines, without being able to avert the final general breakdown.

Then something occurred which made the worm turn on its tormentors—the "embalmed beef" incident.

Major-General Miles, backed up by other officers, declared positively that most of the canned beef supplied to our soldiers during the war with Spain was unfit for human food, and that he was convinced that the refrigerated beef supplied was highly deleterious because of the introduction of chemicals for preservative purposes. The court which investigated these charges, while admitting some of the alleged evils, indulged, many people thought, in whitewashing; so the public at last made up its mind that "something was rotten in the state of Denmark."

Particularly was it impressed by the statement that the food supplied to the army was "not different from that generally sold to the public." That admission made people ask themselves: "What, then, are we eating?"

The result was a general awakening and investigation, a countrywide search which revealed the shocking fact that the community was harboring thousands of seemingly respectable citizens who were piling up fortunes by plying the deadly trade of modern Borgias, slaughtering infants and invalids and making even the robust feel uncomfortable most of the time.

The chemicals used were formalin, boric and salicylic acid, fluo-sylicate of ammonium, aniline dyes, and a number of secret compounds that were sold to packers and dealers, enabling them to doctor spoiled meats and other foods in such a way as to deceive the purchaser and consumer into thinking them fresh and wholesome.

To realize the full extent of this nefarious traffic one has to go back to the newspaper reports of the investigations and food tests, especially in the year 1899, after the "embalmed beef" inquiry. I have before me clippings that would fill fifty pages with gruesome details; but a mere peep into this culinary chamber of horrors must suffice.

"The use of antiseptics as preservatives is becoming alarmingly great," declared Prof. A. S. Mitchell, analytical chemist of the Wisconsin Dairy and Food Commission, before the Senatorial Committee on Pure Food Investigation. Among the preservatives he named was a liquid called "freezene," which he said, was almost pure formic-aldehyde, the substance that several chemists at the military inquiry had claimed to have found in the beef furnished the army. It acts disastrously upon the tissues of the stomach, but was often put into the milk and butter supplied to families. Butchers employed freely, especially in "Hamburger steaks," sulphite of soda, which not merely arrests digestion, but is, as another Government expert remarked, practically the same he had used as a medical student to preserve corpses, and later to disinfect houses where smallpox patients had lived.

The New York "Herald" of June 4, 1899, contained a page and a half of exposures, with these headlines:


One of the samples of what was sold as "tea" was "composed of refuse of many kinds—hair, mouldy leaves from everything that grows but the tea plant." Another sample contained "dust, seed-pods, foreign woody stems, and unidentified refuse."

To cite one more of the two-score analyses made by the "Herald's" expert (James C. Duff, consulting chemist to the New York Produce Exchange): "The sample of American macaroni contains artificial yellow coloring matter, egg-yolk color, composed of flour and the coloring matter. This coloring matter has as its base chrome colors—substances very poisonous. The genuine Italian macaroni contains nothing injurious to health."

"Reports from analysts in other cities show that 92 per cent. of the allspice examined is adulterated, 50 per cent. of cinnamon, 60 per cent. of ginger, 100 per cent. of mustard, and 70 per cent. of pepper.... It is a matter of record that the demand for the materials for adulteration has called into existence a branch of manufacturing industry having for its sole object the production of articles known as 'spice mixtures' or 'pepper dust.' They are sold by the barrel as 'P. D. ginger,' 'P. D. pepper,' or 'P. D. cloves.' These manufacturers openly advertise themselves as 'assorters and renovators of merchandise....'"

The New York "Tribune" printed a report of an address made by a representative of the Benchmen's Association of Retail Butchers who said, regarding the upper West Side: "Decayed meats are chemically treated to counteract odor and outer discoloration and are hawked on the street corners on Saturday nights. The shoppers of that locality are after something cheap,and here they get it. Resulting illness is ascribed to a mysterious Providence or anything rather than the 'nice tender broilers, two for a quarter,' that they had for Sunday's dinner. The police say the matter is one for the Health Department, and the Health Department refers your complaints to its inspectors. These are paid from $1,200 to $1,400 a year, and to my positive knowledge not one of them has entered our shops for the last seven years. For all the Health Department knows, we might have been selling spoiled meat all that time."

A Philadelphian investigator of adulterated food, H. Wharton Amberling, wrote: "There has been adulteration for ages. It is born of the same parentage as robbery, perjury, arson and murder. It has grown in enormity because the law has not dealt with it as it has with other crimes. The rapid progress of chemistry has attained most grateful accomplishments, but the leprous hand of adulteration is using it to fill our blood with the poison of disease and death."

"It is estimated," said the New York "Evening Post," "that the people of the United States spend no less than five billion dollars a year for food and that nine-tenths of this money is paid for articles of food which are more or less adulterated. All food adulterations are not injurious, though a great majority of them, probably nine-tenths, are so, in greater or less degree.... The art of adulterating food has been carried to a very fine point by American ingenuity and has proved immensely profitable to those who practise it, while it has undoubtedly worked great damage to the general health.... It is a wise man who knows what he is eating nowadays."


A matter for the Health Department

A report of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station called attention to the fact that eighty-nine samples of tea were all found pure as a result of the federal law of 1897, which established a board of seven experts to enforce the statute and forbade importation of the adulterated article.

The American products were on the other hand in a woeful condition. Sixty-three samples of fruit jelly examined showed adulteration in two-thirds of the cases by starch, glucose, aniline dyes, and salicylic acid. Pure jellies cost 25 cents a pound while these artificial jellies cost but five cents. Out of 40 samples of marmalades and jams only three were pure. Examination of nineteen samples of sausages and oysters showed "embalming" by boric acid.


Miss Alice Lakey, chairman of the food investigating committee of the Food Consumers' League, made a collection, as the New York "Sun" reported, of squares of flannel, a dozen of them, in brilliant hues of green, red, pink, and other colors—all colored with the coal tar dyes that came out of eatables and drinkables, she explained, adding: "It's a wonder that our insides are not dyed all the colors of the rainbow.

"One of the meanest forms of adulteration I know," she further remarked, "is the blackberry brandy, because that is bought for invalids, aged and delicate persons, who hope to get a little strength and appetite from it. Out of 600 samples examined, 460 contained no trace of blackberries. They were made of crude spirits colored with coal tar dyes.

"Did you ever hear the story," she continued, "of the kind-hearted New York woman who invited a company of Italian girls who worked in a candy factory to a Christmas party? She had an entertainment and Christmas tree for them, and among other things was a box of fine chocolate creams for each one. When they went away every child left her box of candy on the chair behind her.

"'Why, aren't you going to take your chocolates?' said the surprised hostess.

"'Oh, no,' they said in chorus; 'we make those!'"

That tells the whole story. The slaughter of the innocents and the ruining of health of children by means of adulterated and poisoned candies was for decades a national crime that would have justified thousands of lynchings, if anything ever does justify such summary meting out of punishment.

Dr. Shepard, State chemist of South Dakota, framed a series of menus, on the plan of those published by the women's magazines, to assist housewives in catering for families. Here are three, which show how any family in the United States might have reasonably taken forty doses of chemical preservatives and coal tar dyes in one day:


Sausages containing coal tar dye and borax

Baker's Bread containing alum

Butter containing coal tar dye

Canned Cherries containing coal tar dye and salicylic acid

Pancakes containing alum

Syrup containing sodium sulphate


Tomato Soup with coal tar dye and benzoic acid

Cabbage and Corned Beef with saltpeter

Corn Scallops with sulphurous acid and formaldehyde

Canned Peas with salicylic acid

Catsup with coal tar dye and benzoic acid

Vinegar with coal tar dye

Mince Pie with boracic acid

Pickles with copperas, sodium sulphate and salicylic acid

Lemon Ice Cream with methyl alcohol


Bread and Butter with alum and coal tar dye

Canned Beef with borax

Canned Peaches with sodium sulphite, coal tar dye and salicylic acid

Pickles with copperas, sodium sulphate and formaldehyde

Catsup with coal tar dye and benzoic acid

Lemon Cake with alum

Baked Pork and Beans with formaldehyde

Vinegar, coal tar dye

Currant Jelly, coal tar dye and salicylic acid

Cheese, coal tar dye

Physicians sometimes prescribe such chemicals, when they are indicated, in very small doses. The Food Commissioner of North Dakota, Dr. Ladd, reported in a bulletin that he found from five to fifteen grains of boric acid to every pound of ham, dried beef, etc., examined; while in hamburger steaks, sausages, etc., the amount ranged from twenty to fifty grains a pound. The maximum dose of boric acid prescribed by a physician is said not to exceed ten grains daily.


Napoleon Bonaparte said that "soldiers march and fight on their stomachs." If our soldiers, fed on "embalmed" beef and other chemically treated food, had had much marching and fighting to do, Spain might have won. As it was, the American soldiers who were killed or invalided during that war, were martyrs to a nobler cause than that of humiliating poor Spain. It was their sufferings that, as already intimated, led to the national revolt against the wholesale poisoners and adulterators for commercial profit.

As a matter of course, the parties accused showed fight. One of the earliest battles was fought over borax, and it was in this battle that Dr. Wiley first came before the general public prominently. During the months from December, 1902, to July 1, 1903, he made a series of experiments on twelve young men in Washington as to the influence on the health of food containing boric acid or borax. Some of the conclusions reached were thus summed up briefly:

When boric acid or its equivalent in borax is taken in food in quantities not exceeding a half gram daily, no immediate effects are observed; after a time there occur occasional loss of appetite, a feeling of fullness in the head, gastric discomfort, and general ill-feeling. Only the more sensitive persons develop symptoms from the amounts named. When the drug is given in larger and increasing doses, these symptoms in accentuated form develop more rapidly; most common is persistent headache with slight clouding of the mental processes. The quantity of boric acid required to produce definite symptoms varies greatly with different individuals. In some, one to two grams daily produce decided distress; in others, three grams cause little if any discomfort. Conclusions regarding the use of less than half a gram daily were not reached, but from the effect of the larger quantities taken for a short time, it is reasonable to infer that smaller doses during an extended period would also prove injurious. The results in general indicate that it is not advisable to use borax in articles of food intended for common and continuous use. When placed in foods used only occasionally and in small amounts, the quantity of the contained preservative should be stated plainly, that the consumer may know what he is eating.

One of the most interesting facts, and one known to few, in connection with these experiments, is that Dr. Wiley actually began them with a bias in favor of borax. He did not believe, he said, that borax was a harmful preservative, but he was going to find out. This statement aroused my suspicion. Knowing how much "graft" and "politics" there are apt to be in such investigations, I made up my mind that Dr. Wiley was a fraud and that he would undoubtedly give a verdict in favor of borax. While in this frame of mind I wrote the following editorial for the New York "Evening Post" (April 8, 1903):

Dr. Wiley, of the Department of Agriculture, seems to require a long time to decide whether his "brigade of poison eaters," as the Washington wits have dubbed his free boarders, are really eating poison or only harmless food preservatives unjustly suspected of being injurious. It needed no elaborate experiments to prove that drugged food may be eaten without serious harm. Many of us are probably eating more or less of drugged food all the time without actually having to be taken to the hospital; but many others do suffer in health, vitality and capacity for work from eating it. In regard to salicylic acid and formaldehyde, Dr. Wiley himself wrote in "Leslie's Weekly" two years ago that there is no doubt of the pernicious influence of these preservatives in some cases. He also said, truly, that "the public supervision should look after the weak and diseased digestive systems rather than the strong and vigorous." Why, nevertheless, he chose to make his Washington experiments on the strongest young men he could find is a mystery he has not explained. In the "Lancet" of Nov. 30, 1901, an account was given of a series of experiments with boric acid made by Dr. Rinehart, in which the symptoms of poisoning disappeared as soon as the use of the drug was given up. Further evidence is furnished in the "Münchener Medicinische Wochenschrift" of Jan. 26. Dr. G. Merkel, of Nuremberg, experimented with boric acid on eleven patients, seven of whom promptly showed disturbance of the gastro-intestinal tract. The inevitable inference from such facts is either that the use of boric acid as a preservative of food should be prohibited by law, or, at least, that the law should require mention of its use on the label of canned goods, and in butter, cream, milk and meat, in order that those whose digestion is not as robust as that of Dr. Wiley's select boarders may take warning



The fact that these remarks were widely copied showed that many other editors shared my suspicions. Then came Dr. Wiley's verdict, which proclaimed him the honest, bold, incorruptible champion of truth who was soon to become respected, admired, and idolized by the whole American public, with the exception of those who had commercial reasons for disliking him.

Perhaps I may be pardoned for inserting here a reference to an amusing incident that occurred during this controversy. Another article of mine, in which I had spoken disrespectfully of borax, resulted the following day in a visit to the office of the "Evening Post" by a man who wanted to see the "borax editor." He was shown to my room, and promptly proceeded to inform me that I was entirely mistaken in thinking borax harmful. I replied that I considered borax one of the most useful things in the world, the greatest of "dirt-chasers," indispensable on the wash stand and in the wash house; but as for internal use, I had had days of discomfort which made me look on it with feelings of genuine alarm.

"I'll tell you what I'll do!" retorted the man, who represented one of the large borax companies. "I am willing to take a glass of water, put in a tablespoonful of borax and drink it right before you." "That's nothing," I replied; "I wouldn't hesitate to do the same thing. Borax is not a deadly drug like arsenic or strychnine, it is a chemical which, taken into the stomach in small doses day after day, week after week, and month after month, acts as a cumulative poison, gradually weakening even the strongest stomach; and, inasmuch as the stomach is the source of most diseases, thus paving the way for all sorts of troubles."


Until about three decades ago it was customary the world over to cure meats with condimental substances, particularly salt, vinegar, sugar, and wood smoke. These not only preserved the meats but developed their inherent flavors, while adding others that were equally relished by consumers, thus enabling them to enjoy their meals without disagreeable and depressing after-effects.


The old-fashioned way

All at once, like a devastating avalanche, the wholesale use of non-condimental chemicals tumbled upon the country. Why the avalanche grew so fast may be gathered from a few lines on page 37 of the second edition of Dr. Wiley's admirable book, just referred to in a footnote; lines which deserve to be printed in italics, and which every reader should engrave on his memory:

The chemicals employed are those known as germicides. In the quantities used they neither impart a taste nor odor to a preserved meat, but by their germicidal properties prevent the development of organic ferments and thus make the preservation of meat far more certain and very much less expensive. By the use of some chemicals the salting, sugaring, and smoking of preserved meat may be done with very much less care, in a very much shorter time, and at a very greatly reduced expense. For this reason the practice has gained a great vogue, not as a means of benefiting the consumers, but rather as a means of enriching the packer and dealer. Chemical preservatives are also highly objectionable because they keep meats apparently fresh, while in reality changes of the most dangerous character may be going on. They thus prevent the display of the red light danger signal.

Concerning this last point the London "Lancet" has used another and equally forcible simile:

It is by no means certain that preservatives in small quantities can prevent decomposition. They do stop putrefaction and thus destroy the signs by which decomposition is made evident to the senses. Their effect resembles that of tying down the safety valve of a steam engine. The advocates of food preservatives seem always to ignore, or to be ignorant of, the opportunity afforded and advantage taken of their use for dirty and fraudulent practices.

These remarks are of the utmost importance, for they call attention to the fact that even if the chemical, non-condimental preservatives were not slow poisons, it would be necessary to forbid their use because they enable unscrupulous persons to make foods of the most nauseating substances. Let me quote another expert, who states the case vividly:

Milk, eggs and fish are three foods especially which become extremely dangerous when decomposition sets in. The chemicals placed in them by dealers destroy the offensive taste and odor, thus robbing nature of her means of protecting us from danger. Many little children killed from eating ice cream and bakery products never would have tasted them if the smell and taste of the rotten eggs and putrid milk had not been hidden by the chemicals. The vilest, most malodorous factory refuse may be made pleasant to the sight, taste and smell through the magical effects of benzoate of soda, saccharin and coal tar dye. The coal tar dye gives a clear, translucent appearance to the product; the saccharin sweetens it and benzoate of soda embalms it so it will keep for a decade without spoiling. These disguised putrid foods are additionally dangerous in hot weather.


The great outcry raised by all these startling revelations concerning the unscrupulous methods of the food poisoners resulted in the passage, in 1906, of the epoch-making Food and Drugs Act, which gave the United States a most elaborate and minute set of laws for the protection of the public and the punishment of offenders. The result was an immediate and decided improvement in many departments, especially that of canned fruits, concerning which Dr. Wiley wrote in 1911 that "the time is now rapidly approaching when all such goods will be free of any imitation or adulteration, and this will add greatly to their value in the markets of the country."

In many other directions, however, the drugging of foods with slow poisons continued. The snake was only scotched, not killed.

"If you took all the food in New York City to-day and put it in a big tent down in Texas, I would throw away 40 per cent. of it," said Gaston G. Netter of the Geneva White Cross Society (which is the International Pure Food Association), in October, 1911. "The people here in New York City are being hourly poisoned by food labeled as absolutely pure. I buy it and test it every day and I know. I saw some sardines marked 'pure sardines in olive oil.' They were a disintegrated mass of decayed, poisonous fish, and the oil had never known an olive. A large percentage of the vinegar used for preserving such things as prunes is an acidulated preparation fatal to the lining of the stomach."

The vinegar sold by many grocers in defiance of the law is made with acetic acid, which is prepared by the destructive distillation of wood. So little of this is needed that the adulterator can make a gallon of "vinegar" at a cost of two cents, or a barrel for a dollar. This, sold in bottles, yields a profit of over $20 a barrel. Sometimes a trace of malic acid or concentrated apple juice is added to give a reaction which may fool the analyst. It is this poisonous stuff that is used in American homes to dress salads and is put into bottles of chow chow, chili sauce, and the pickles so dear to school children.

Concerning the cheap candies that are still dearer to the children, Harry P. Cassidy in an address before the wholesale candy dealers (reported in the New York "Sun" of March 10, 1912), said:

"We have found burnt umber in candy which is sold and guaranteed as pure to the small shopkeepers. We have found stearin in it which melts only at a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the temperature of the human body is only 98.6 degrees. We have found furniture glue and dangerous ether flavoring matter and paraffin and shellac and many other injurious substances which the members of this association handle."

Another speaker at this meeting, Prof. Charles La Wall, spoke of lampblack as being used to color so-called licorice and of marshmallows that had been blued with ultramarine, just as bluing is used in washing clothes. Poisonous sulphuric acid may be contained in molasses, glucose, shredded cocoanut and many other things. "As candies are often composed chiefly of these four products, a child in buying a penny's worth of candy may get four doses in one of the deadly sulphites such as the cleaner uses in whitening our straw hats."

America is specially noted, as Rutledge Rutherford remarks in the "National Food Magazine" (1912), for two things—its chemicalized food and its infantile mortality. According to the estimate of the New York food expert, Alfred W. McCann, three million persons in the United States were made ill by adulterated foods in 1911.

That was five years after the passing of the Pure Food Law. The trouble with that law is that it is not interstate. A dishonest man in one State can do all the food "doping" he pleases as long as he does not sell any of it in another State. Most of the States now have laws of their own on this matter, but often they leave much to be desired.

What is worse, these laws are not enforced; or, if the criminals are brought to bay, the punishment is so mild that it does not prevent a repetition of the offense. "If a grocer knew that a can of tomatoes or a can of sardines sold by him could be taken to the corner and analyzed and if found bad that he would be prosecuted, the pure food law would be a real thing," says Gaston G. Netter, who asserts that if New York City would bring about such a reform—at a cost of perhaps $150,000 a year—it would "do away with half the medical clinics."

Fines alone will not suffice to bring about a reform. We can hardly follow the example of the Turks who, if a baker gives false weight or adulterates his bread, cut off one of his ears and nail it to the door post. But we could follow the example of the wise municipal officials who compelled the Munich brewers to make honest beer, out of malt and hops alone. At first, fines were imposed for using other materials, and these fines were made larger and larger; but the brewers found they could pay the highest fines and still save money by using chemicals. Then the lawmakers changed their tactics; the "man highest up" was threatened with imprisonment. The millionaire brewers had a pardonable aversion to jail—and from that time on Munich beer became the best in the world. Ere long, whole trainloads of it began to be sent daily in all directions—to North Germany and Russia, to Paris and London, to Vienna, and to the cities of Italy. The brewers had been compelled, at pistol's point, to acknowledge the truth that, after all, in the long run, honesty is the best policy.

Some of the largest American manufacturing firms have followed this policy voluntarily, though the prices they have to pay for good fresh material places them at a great disadvantage to the adulterators who buy any rotten old thing and "renovate" it, or else make the article entirely of chemicals.

"In four years," said Alfred W. McCann (in March, 1912), "the Government has caught nearly fifty wholesale adulterators in the act of shipping bogus vinegar from one State into another. In every instance the Government won its case, but in every instance petty fines were inflicted by the courts and the same offenders were caught again and again.... Small fines have no deterrent effect on food frauds. The game is too profitable to suffer extinction under any other influence than jail sentences, and jail sentences have not been imposed in a single case brought by the Government against food or drug adulterators."

Food and drug adulterators are wealthy men, but they are not stingy. They gladly share their sordid earnings with the politicians who protect them. "Why do the States delay in enacting uniform laws patterned after the excellent national laws?" asks Mr. McCann; and his answer tells the plain truth: "Each State has some powerful pet food industry to protect and some weak legislators willing to do the bidding of the fakers."

Every reader of this book perused in the newspapers the story of the disgraceful conspiracy in Washington against Dr. Wiley, and remembers vividly the nationwide outburst of indignation which came to the rescue of the courageous chemist and made him a national hero. He remained for the time being, but his enemies were not punished, although the President promised to reform the Department of Agriculture. His failure to do so is one of the principal reasons why he was not re-elected. Dr. Wiley, seeing that his efforts to secure the enforcement of the Pure Food Laws were useless, at last resigned, and in "Good Housekeeping" for October, 1912, he gave some of the reasons for this step.

The Remsen Board was created for the express purpose of reviewing his decisions against food manipulators. It never missed a chance to reverse them, to the huge delight of certain manufacturers and dealers. Although the Moss investigating committee unanimously pronounced the Remsen Board as wholly without authority, its decisions were followed by officials of the Government; important matters referred to it were held in abeyance. For instance, an exhaustive report of the experiments made in the Bureau of Chemistry, which showed, in Dr. Wiley's opinion, "the injuriousness of copper sulphate when added to foods, has been hibernating in the Department of Archives for the past four years and its use permitted in the interim."

The opposition to Dr. Wiley's decisions brought about "practical paralysis in all matters pertaining to the addition of benzoic acid, sulphurous acid, saccharine, sulphate of copper, and alum to food products. As it was the addition of these bodies which constituted 95 per cent. of the total adulteration practised, it is easy to see that, so far as adulteration was concerned, the food law became practically a dead letter."

The physicians of the country, who, better than others, know the danger of using drugs indiscriminately, sided with Dr. Wiley. At a meeting in Pittsburg of the American Medical Association, representing 25,000 physicians and surgeons, that body "in spite of the decision of the referee board, pledged itself uncompromisingly against benzoate of soda and all other chemical forms of food preservatives."

How bitterly the war against Dr. Wiley and pure-food legislation was carried on, not only at Washington but in various States with aid from Washington, is illustrated by the following extract from a letter written to Dr. Wiley by the Health Commissioner of Indiana:

It is not necessary to recall to you the tremendous difficulties under which the State labored when it endeavored to prevent the overthrow of its pure food law because of the activities of the Department of Agriculture in behalf of the firms who were seeking that end; how we were refused the assistance of yourself and your chemists; how we had to compel the getting of testimony by an order of the court of the District of Columbia, and how, on the other hand, employees of the Government known to be in sympathy with the firms bringing suit against us were sent to Indianapolis to testify against the State at the expense of the Department of Agriculture.

Another illustration of the war on the Pure Food Laws was given in the New York "Globe" of Oct. 24, 1912, by Alfred W. McCann. After pointing out that "there has been no let-up in attempts to deceive," and that "food ideals depend absolutely on the integrity and zeal of a few so-called fanatics like Dr. Wiley, who are thus far responsible for all the advance we have made," he goes on to say:

In the State of Pennsylvania one of the most active pure food workers, who has contributed energy and zeal to the cause of the people, H. P. Cassidy, special agent of the Pennsylvania Dairy and Food Department, after ten years of remarkable service has been removed from office by the same kind of pressure which finally disposed of Dr. Wiley.

Charges were made a few days ago against Mr. Cassidy, whose activity had resulted in more than 8,000 arrests for food adulterations in the City of Philadelphia alone. He demanded a hearing before the governor. The hearing was granted. The charges fell to pieces and Mr. Cassidy, like Dr. Wiley, was vindicated. Two days later the Pennsylvania authorities notified him that, although he was found guiltless, harmonious relations between him and his chiefs had been strained, and therefore for the good of the service it was decided that he should be dismissed.

If the pure food movement were making the kind of progress which it is thought to be making, such backward steps would not be tolerated by the people, for the dismissal from office of such a man as Cassidy will serve as a warning to other pure food officials not to be too zealous in the discharge of their duties.

The direct result of Cassidy's dismissal will show itself in the State of Pennsylvania by a long line of cowardice in applying the law. I make this prophecy and guarantee its fulfilment.

It is needless to dwell further on these disgraceful efforts to thwart the Pure Food Laws. Dr. Wiley did not exaggerate when in summing up the situation he printed the following, in italics:

No further blot upon the administration of law can, in my opinion, be found in the history of the United States than this effort of the United States Government to paralyze, belittle, and destroy a law passed in the interests of the people of the country.

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Finck, Henry Theophilus. 2021. Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Health and Good Living). Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

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