I’m looking at a book. It’s the kind of book you’d pick up in an antique store, take home, and treasure — not just because of it’s yellowed pages and delicate binding, but because of it’s utterly fascinating content. It’s called Graded Lessons in Physiology and Hygiene, and it’s a textbook used in the Texas schools in 1908.
I’ve been thumbing through the book for weeks, marveling at just how much common sense knowledge we’ve lost when it comes to food and health. Before people began putting their trust in the government, diet dictocrats, and food manufacturers to tell them what to eat, they actually experienced an acute connection with their food that enabled them to make wise judgments about what is and is not healthful based merely on accumulated personal observations.
Graded Lessons was written by a physician, Dr. William Khron, and his wisdom is striking considering that he was probably trained at the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when there were no real ways to monitor internal bodily functions.
For example, he knew that “excessive amounts of sugar cause the liver to be overworked and a bilious attack results” (page 37).
He knew that excessive starch should be avoided and that vegetable oils were not healthy. “The cereals, as oats, corn, and rice, are chiefly starch. Rice contains about ninety percent starch. Corn contains more fat than the other grains, but all vegetable fat is hard to digest, and is of little value as food” (page 34).
But perhaps the most astonishing and affirming thing about Khron’s textbook is how ardent he is in defending Real Food — and how dominant his view was in the culture write large. He wrote the textbook just at the time when margarine was undercutting butter and beginning to rapidly increase its market share, and only three years before vegetable shortening would do the same thing to lard.
Check out this choice quotation on what he calls “adulterated foods”:
“Many of our foods are sometimes spoiled by persons who manufacture or sell them, putting into them cheaper substances that are dangerous to health. Such persons seem to care little for the purity of foods, but are chiefly interested in making the most money possible out of them. So common has this adulteration become that in most of the states the law-making power has passed pure food bills to prevent the sale of such adulterated articles. These laws are most worthy and should be strictly enforced, for what is money-making by a few individuals compared with the health of the people of an entire city or state, which may be greatly endangered by the use of these impure or adulterated foods” (page 38)?
Notice how riled up he is, how his view clearly dominates the political landscape, and how he loathes the idea that people should make money adulterating foods at the expense of a society’s health. Is it just me, or do you wish our own food climate were so inhospitable to fake foods?
He goes on to list some adulterated foods — foods he warned about back in 1908, but which are sadly accepted as commonplace today:
“Sugar, syrup, and candy are sometimes made from corn by a peculiar process, by means of which the starch of the corn is changed into glucose, and a kind of sugar not so sweet or healthful as sugar made from sugar-cane or sugar beets. This sugar is quite apt to ferment, or sour, and decay within the bowels, thus causing disease. Some candies are colored with poisonous matter” (page 39).
“Butter is sometimes made entirely from … cotton-seed oil, to which coloring matter is added to make it look like pure, yellow butter made of rich cream. This product is called butterine, or oleomargarine. It can be sold for about half of what good butter would bring…. In the United States there is a law against the sale of butterine that is not stamped to show plainly to the person buying it that it is not genuine butter, but an imitation. Such laws are right in protecting the people against false or counterfeit foods, and in preventing people from being imposed upon” (page 39).
“Baking powder is impure, being adulterated by the addition of alum. Baking powder containing alum may be injurious” (page 40).
“You know how homemade jams and preserves taste. They are wholesome foods. When made from the pure juices of fruits and pure sugar they are expensive. On this account much jam sold at a low price is made from a brittle, glue-like substance called gelatine, to which acids are added, besides some unhealthful coloring matter to make them look like the pure jams made at home from currants, strawberries, grapes, and other fruits” (page 40).
Did you recognize these everyday foods? Corn syrup. Artificial colorings. Margarine. Baking Powder made with alum. Jelly.
Isn’t it amazing that these were once so demonized for being adulterated imitations of the real thing? In fact, in 1938 the widespread abuse of these foods caused the United States congress to actually pass the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which required that the word “imitation” appear on any food that was an imitation.
This law was in effect until 1973 when the food industry finally succeeded in getting the law tossed out.
Perhaps you’re old enough to remember buying American cheese back when it was called “imitation cheese” instead of a “cheese food product.” Maybe you remember seeing margarine labeled as “imitation butter” or jelly labeled as “imitation jam.”
Not any more.
Now an entire array of fake food products fills our grocery stores. To quote Joel Salatin’s expression of pure poetry, most foods sold these days are “irradiated, amalgamated, prostituted, reconstituted, adulterated, modified, and artificially-flavored, extruded, bar-coded, un-pronounceable things.”
I want to return to an age when our dominate culture understands food the way it did a mere 100 years ago. And I share Salatin’s optimism when he says, “I do think that the world we currently live in is a veritable blip, an abnormality cyst, in the continuum of human history. Chances are in the distant if not near future our food system will be more decentralized, localized, and in-home prepared than it is right now. And that looks a lot more like the food system of 1800 than the one of 2009.”
May it be!
This post is participating in today’s Fight Back Fridays blog carnival, hosted right here at Food Renegade. If you want to check out other articles, stories, news, and recipes relating to Real Food, go check it out.