Rachel Laudan

My Great Grandmother’s Industrially Processed Food

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.

Mary Ann PIckerill

My great grandmother (her husband to her right behind her) and her surviving children, taken around 1905 in Hereford, England when she had been married nearly 30 years.

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.

 

Knight's Mechanical Dictionary

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.A dough brake that works by passing the dough back and forth through a series of rollers.

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.

K Flour Packer_0001Even 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.

K Grain Cleaners

Other machines fed flour into barrels and packed it down to reduce spoilage.

K Flour Packer

Barrels merited inventions for every part of the manufacture from cutting and shaping the wood to leveling the finished product.

K Barrel-Head Jointing and Doweling MachineMy 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.

K Cracker Machine_0001

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.

The malt tower built by Brüder, Noback and Fritz in Prague with kilns for drying the sprouted grain laid out on the upper flour and mechanical ways of turning it.

The malt tower built by Brüder, Noback and Fritz in Prague with kilns for drying the sprouted grain laid out on the upper flour and mechanical ways of turning it.

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?

Gr Gr power cider press

And did they have carbonated drinks?  They could have done as the techniques for carbonation had been around since the beginning of the century.

K Carbonation Machine

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.

Gr Gr bone mill

For dried beef, there was a shaver for dried beef, a machine that was a precursor to the bread slicer.

Gr Gr beef shaver_0001

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.

Gr Gr Milk cooler

Machines for harvesting natural ice were big business as the northeast of the United States shipped the precious commodity to Texas, Hawaii and India.

An ice screw for moving ice from a pond up into the ice house

An ice screw for moving ice from a pond up into the ice house

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.

Three of the thirty three machines for making ice promoted by inventors and companies in the United States and most European companies.  Two here are French, one American.

Three of the thirty three machines for making ice promoted by inventors and companies in the United States and most European companies. Two here are French, one American.

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.

A sugar house built by the French Cinq Lilles company capable of turning 80 million kilos of beets into sugar during a three-month season.  Similar sugar houses for cane sugar were built worldwide by the company

A sugar house built by the French Cinq Lilles company capable of turning 80 million kilos of beets into sugar during a three-month season. Similar sugar houses for cane sugar were built worldwide by the company

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.

Differently patterned rollers stamp out sheets of candy.  These will then be put in the slicing machine to be cut into strips or blocks.

Differently patterned rollers stamp out sheets of candy. These will then be put in the slicing machine to be cut into strips or blocks.

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.

Traditional Sweet Ship in Haworth, England.

Traditional Sweet Shop in Haworth, Yorkshire, England. www.geograph.org

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17 thoughts on “My Great Grandmother’s Industrially Processed Food

  1. waltzingaustralia

    Great reminder that people have been processing food for a really long time. Millennia, in many cases (for example, bacon and ham, invented by the early Celts). Interesting that the book didn’t mention canning, which was actually invented in 1809 — to help Napoleon’s army eat better.

    As for Pollan, I found so many inaccuracies (for example, the statement that we didn’t feed corn to livestock until the 1950s — more like the 1650s) that I had to stop reading his book.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Couldn’t agree more. Processing goes back millennia. I have been told the author discusses canning in other editions. Yes, it’s amazing what Pollan gets away with.

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  3. Jonell Galloway

    If I were your great grandmother and had seven children and had had seven other pregnancies, I would certainly welcome any invention that lightened the burden.

  4. Gary Gillman

    Excellent and salutary corrective to a kind of romance about food which can get out of hand. I’m not sure for example that there is really a distinction between food product and food. Is ordinary cheese a food product of milk…? It is in my view, involving numerous steps of dewatering, salting, pressing or other compaction, etc. Butter too really.

    The mention in Knight’s book of roller mill technology for grinding of grains struck a chord in that a visit to a charming stone mill in an Ontario town, a tourist attraction, was an eye-opener for me when the guide explained the stones inevitably resulted in small bits of them entering the flour. Generations of peoples’ teeth were worn away “needlessly” as a result of this by-product of a process which yet – in its day – was a massive stimulus to public nutrition and indeed the growth of civilization and progess. There was a trade-off of course of some public health against much larger benefits of feeding large numbers better and assisting growth of families and quality of living. Yet of all the products associated with natural living which has more cachet to this day than stone-ground bread…?

    As always one needs to take the best of the old and new technology, and a good rule too I think is not to rely on any one food group too much, try to spread the risk so to speak.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Gary. I don’t think I have a clear notion of the difference between food product (not a term I usually use) and food. I try to reserve food for something that is edible, farm product for raw materials. This would make butter and cheese foods, raw milk simultaneously a food and a farm product, the milk in supermarkets a food.

      Yes, and that stone ground flour was quite a bit more expensive too.

  5. Gary Gillman

    I agree Rachel, and would add I feel process cheese is food too, not a “food product”. Canned soup is food, not a food product, and so on. The difference between the various forms of cheese, or raw milk at one end and process cheese on the other, is one of degree IMO. Same thing for raw pork, cooked pork – cooking is a process, too, cured pork, canned ham, Spam. At least that’s my view.

    Gary

  6. Lex Corvus

    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.

    For what it’s worth, there is a significant positive correlation between brain size and intelligence. (See, for example, this study.) Twenty-first century intellectuals don’t take such things seriously for political reasons, not for scientific ones.

  7. Christopher Lord

    There is a big difference between a machine like an automatic meat shaver and some of the processes used in modern food science, such as reconstituting neural fluids and other slimy byproducts into lean, “finely textured beef.”

    Defining “processed food” as “a machine was used” is disingenuous at best.

  8. bob

    the point: .
    you:
    .

    We’re free to eat as much crisco and velveeta as we want? got it.

    See you in diabetes.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      No, sorry, I’m afraid you missed the point. The point is that turning animals and plants into food, something we can actually put in our mouths, is tedious, laborious work. People have been trying to reduce that work using machinery and non-human sources of power for as long as we have records. By my great grandmother’s day, fossil fuels were allowing more powerful machinery. No need to demonize processing. No need either to demonize crisco or velveeta, which had an important role in their day. Current health problems are the result of relatively new abundance, not processing.

      1. waltzingaustralia

        Plus you don’t get diabetes from Velveeta. Not appealing perhaps to true cheese fanciers, but a wholesome food product with no ingredients that should cause health issues. As for Crisco, not so great for your veins, but again, no connection to diabetes.


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