Warnings not to eat anything your grandmother (or great grandmother or great-great grandmother) would not recognize as food have echoed around the web since Michael Pollan first promoted this rule of eating.
Pollan could have assigned a date to the moment when new and supposedly dangerous foods were introduced, foods he frequently identifies as industrially processed. But he didn’t.
So I thought it might be interesting to see what industrially processed foods my great grandmother had at her disposal. And it brought home a truism that I often discussed with students.
Although most of us have some idea about our grandmother’s lives, few of us have much sense of our great grandmother’s, and few yet of great-great grandmother’s. I, for one, know nothing about any of my great-great grandmothers.
Of my great grandmothers, I have no idea about two, and only the sketchiest of information about the other two. I do have a photograph of one of them. Here she is, the matriarch at the center.
This great grandmother married and started doing housekeeping in 1878. Of course, you can do the arithmetic. If you are in your 40s or 50s, she would have been the generation of your great-great grandmother, and if you are in your 20s, of your great-great-great grandmother, one reason why the grand-chat is so uninformative.
With seven children to raise, and seven other pregnancies, my great grandmother was probably grateful for anything that eased work in the kitchen.
But had my great grandmother been curious about food processing, she could have turned to a massive work by Edward H. Knight that was published just six years after her marriage. Mr. Knight was born in England. For reasons unknown, he made his way to the United States where he worked as an Examiner in the Patent Office. He was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur, not something given lightly. It was also said that his brain was unusually large, second only to that of the French scientist, Baron Cuvier, the kind of thing that nineteenth-century intellectuals took seriously.
It was Knight’s experience in the American Patent Office that made it possible to assemble the 1000 pages of the New Mechanical Dictionary. Food processing technologies take up only a small portion of the volume because so much was going on in railroads, steam engines, blast furnaces, telegraphs, weaponry, indeed across all industries.
The flood of inventions was international. Knight lists those of France, the AustroHungarian Empire, Germany, the Low Countries and many other nations as well as American inventions.
In food processing technologies, Knight devoted most attention to those having to do the grains, so important for bread, beer, and other foodstuffs, dairy, ice and sugar. It was still early in the industrialization of food processing. He has little or nothing on canning and bottling (except for wine), on meat, on fats and oils, and even where the grains are concerned, little on roller milling or on the mechanization of baking. All those were in the future.
But you can see the future coming. Inventors are busy on all the heavy, onerous tasks of grinding and of moving liquids around (like milk in creameries), on ways to reduce heat (condensing pans), on ways to preserve food (ice), on ways to package food for transport (barrels), all employing the power of steam (or particularly in the United States with its many rivers, water) to do the work.
So let’s see how this would have affected my great grandmother. She would still have bought bread baked locally. Only armies and other large concerns had big mechanized bakeries.
The bakery, though, may well have had a machine called a brake that worked the dough. Experiments with mechanical kneading went back to Antiquity. Steam gave more power than men or animals, did not tire, and did not drop sweat into the dough.
Millers were experimenting with all kinds of ways of making traditional stone mills more efficient. There were machines for dressing millstones (re-cutting grooves to keep them operating well) and improved hoppers to feed the grains into the grooves between the stones. Knight mentions the Hungarian roller mills that were to transform the industry in the next twenty years putting many local millers out of business and bringing down the price of flour but they were still not competitive when he was writing.
Even before wheat was milled it had to be cleaned of dirt and stones from the field and threshed. Lots on inventive activity went into these machines. In fact, one of the three full page plates (out of fifty) dedicated to food processing shows grain cleaners, sorters, and sievers.
Other machines fed flour into barrels and packed it down to reduce spoilage.
Barrels merited inventions for every part of the manufacture from cutting and shaping the wood to leveling the finished product.
My great grandmother undoubtedly had crackers in her pantry to give to the children as a quick snack. Even though bread was still baked in small batches, crackers were rolled, cut, and baked on flow through machines, originally invented early in the century for the British Navy. Industrial crackers by this date were international, a boon in the tropics since they stayed good much longer than bread, cooked rice, or pounded yam or taro.
My great grandmother and her family were teetotallers and so they would not have benefitted from the mechanization of brewing. Many others, workers longing for a pain-killing pickup at the end of the day and military men for example, would have been happy about it. Knight lists cleaners, crushers, dryers, and towers for used to sprout grains, dry them, and grind them into malt.
Even if they drank no beer, my great grandmother’s family knew about the local alcoholic product, perry made from pears as cider was made from apples. I listened wide-eyed as a child when she told me that perry makers shoveled snails into the press along with the pears. A teetotaller’s story?
And did they have carbonated drinks? They could have done as the techniques for carbonation had been around since the beginning of the century.
My great grandmother’s meat came from a local butcher who got it from a local slaughterhouse. In America, the meatpacking companies in the United States were beginning to take shape but it would be the end of the century before they were dominant. In Europe it would be much later.
Slaughterhouses sold bones for glue and other products. Inventors offered bone mills to make the task easier.
For dried beef, there was a shaver for dried beef, a machine that was a precursor to the bread slicer.
My great grandmother’s family, I suspect, consumed milk chiefly in the form of butter or cheese. Inventors offered coolers for bringing the temperature of the meat down below the body temperature of the cow, lactometers for measuring its density, and creamery apparatus for turning it into butter or cheese. Pasteurization and regular drinking of liquid milk was to come later.
Machines for harvesting natural ice were big business as the northeast of the United States shipped the precious commodity to Texas, Hawaii and India.
Knight also described dozens of competing machines for making artificial ice and dedicated one of his fifty full page plates to them. These would soon transform brewing, meat marketing, and the delivery of milk, vegetables and fruit to the cities.
The star food processing technology, the other that got one of the fifty full page plates was a “sugar house,” a factory for crushing and macerating sugar beets and for evaporating the juice to make sugar. This was the technique that allowed European countries to move away from cane sugar and slashed the need for slave or (by this time in most places) indentured labor to work the mills and refineries as the beet sugar techniques were quickly applied to cane sugar.
Over the course of her lifetime, my great grandmother would have seen the price of sugar and flour fall in absolute terms, enabling her to make white bread spread with jam an everyday affair and a cake quite possible for special occasions.
My grandmother and her brother and sisters would have experienced the falling prices and ingenious new techniques when they made trips to the sweet shop, which by the end of the nineteenth century were opening on every street corner in Britain, a phenomenon as dramatic as the spread of hamburger joints would be in the United States following World War II.
To end with a little color, think of the magic of sweets, brilliant colors, flavors of peppermint and licorice, lemon and caramel, gob stoppers and fizzes, and gums, too expensive for my great grandmother as a child, a treat for my grandmother, something to spend a penny on for my mother, and for me something I saved pocket money for to buy on the way home from school.