Thursday, December 19, 2019

Benjamin R. Cohen's "Pure Adulteration"

Benjamin R. Cohen is associate professor at Lafayette College. He is the author of Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside and coeditor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement.

Cohen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, and reported the following:
This page is the heart of the great butter v. margarine debate. It was 1886 because, yes, margarine was a problem as long ago as the 1880s. The pro-butter folks were dairy types. They were agrarians stoking fears of margarine to defend their industry. On the other side, pro-margarine folks saw their product as a difference in degree, not kind. To quote the Illinois congressman chairing the congressional hearings that come up on page 99, the pro-margarine faction said don’t worry so much, margarine is fine, you won’t get sick, it’s simply “the result of a combination of beef and pork fats, butter, cream, and milk with coloring matter…which is similar to that universally used by farmers and dairies engaged in the manufacture of butter for the coloring of that product.” Chicago was the main meatpacking center, which was thus also the main beef and pork fat center, which was the main way to make margarine, which was why the congressman was so defensive. Margarine was cheaper too, so its supporters also claimed to care about the poor. That’s what they’re getting to on this page.

I’d say the Page 99 Test is fair enough. It lands readers in the middle of fights over health, class, and nature. You’d be dropped into a comment about all the places banning meat from the USA. You’d also find out that the original name for margarine was beurre economique. And you might be encouraged to flip the page and hear more about cheating, deception, and corruption as key terms in the debate. I bet, though, that readers would want to back up two pages to roll into this one knowing it was hashing out “the war on oleomargarine.”

The book deals with the difficulty of knowing the difference between natural and artificial, real and fake, pure and adulterated. Those are big categories. Pure Adulteration anchors them with reference to arguments over food identity. Page 99 is in the middle of the first of three large case studies—margarine, cottonseed oil (fake olive oil and lard), and glucose (fake sugar)—that each get at the presumed real/fake contrasts. Those new products were contentious because they were manufactured rather than harvested, a process that some people thought went too far. The story the book tells is who gets to decide how far is too far and how the answer to that changed over the second half of the nineteenth century.
Learn more about Pure Adulteration at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue