The Next Bite: The Watchdogs
A recipe for safer food
Crusading cookbook writers swing into action
By Deborah Blum
In 1884, Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln published her first cookbook, titled “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking.” The author, one of first instructors at the famed Boston Cooking School, was emphatic about the use of precise measurements and insisted that “chemical and physiological knowledge” was an essential part of the science of cookery.
A key concern: Recipe ingredients might be fake or tainted. Lincoln’s cookbook was notable for such repeated warnings to the reader. Baking materials like cream of tartar were “often adulterated” by harmful substances such as aluminum. Products like sausage often contained fillers including finely chipped wood. Lincoln warned, “If you like to know what you are eating, have your sausage meat prepared at home or by someone you trust.”
Her words are a reminder that, in today’s farm-to-table era, we tend to cast a far too romantic glow over 19th-century dining. We may imagine our ancestors ate only pasture-rased chickens and the freshest of produce. We may believe that foods of long ago contained no chemical additives or industrially made preservatives. But we would be wrong on both those counts.
By the mid-19th century, it was becoming obvious that too much food and drink in the United States was untrustworthy, dangerous, or both. In a period without any federal safety standards or oversight of food and drink, many manufacturers put all their emphasis on profit. Milk was routinely thinned with water and then recolored with plaster dust or chalk. Cinnamon contained brick dust, ground pepper was laced with charred rope, ground coffee mixed with crumbled burnt bone, flour was extended with gypsum, strawberry jam was made with corn syrup, dye, and grass seed. And preservatives — ranging from formaldehyde to the cleaning product borax — were used to both delay and disguise rot.
By the 1880s — when Mrs. Lincoln wrote her ground-breaking book — consumer advocates were starting to rally for safer American food. But they were stymied by better funded corporate interests in their push for safety regulations, leaving many Americans confused and fearful. The kind of information provided by the leaders of the Boston Cooking School, however, helped generate public enthusiasm for change.
It’s a moment that offers some intriguing lessons for Americans still wrestling with food safety issues. Some, such as questions about preservatives, would be familiar to Farmer and her colleagues. Others, from lab-grown meat to CRISPR-edited food crops, would undoubtedly surprise them. But the determination to be smarter about what we consume — that really hasn’t changed since the first publication of Mary Lincoln’s cookbook. Indeed, advances in the way we produce, distribute, and cook food often raise anew the challenge of keeping food safe.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston cookbook, which was reprinted 23 times in the 40 years that followed its publication, marked an early stand by the Boston Cooking School against the rampant food fakery and fraud of the 19th century.
Indeed, cooking schools and other organizations led by women would become vital in the fight for regulation. The crusading chief chemist of the US Department of Agriculture, the agency then responsible for American food safety, would describe them as among the most valuable assets in the fight for consumer protection. “The women of this country, through organized effort, in my opinion, can secure any good thing which they demand,” wrote Harvey Washington Wiley to the president of one women’s club.
Women of the time had limited options for wielding power or influence. The Constitution had yet to be amended to allow them the right to vote. And American universities were only grudgingly opening their doors to female students seeking graduate degrees — if at all. But by developing creative methods of education, such as science-focused cooking schools, they pushed against such barriers.
The Boston Cooking School’s faculty became expert in such quiet subversion. Lincoln’s warning about adulterated food was amplified by one of school’s most talented students, one who would become director in 1891, Fannie Merritt Farmer. The Boston-born Farmer would become the most famous cookbook author in the country. And in the final push for the 1906 Food and Drug Act, as the battle for food safety was really heating up, she would send out a pointed cookbook message of her own.
Farmer’s path to influence was not an easy one. Born in 1857, the youngest daughter of a printer and his wife, she suffered a sudden collapse at the age of 16. The family doctors diagnosed a “paralytic stroke,” although later experts would suspect a polio infection. For several years, she was unable to walk. Her mother nursed her; her father carried her from bed to chair. She was in her 20s before she began to hobble around the house; age 30 before she was independent enough to enroll as a student at the Boston Cooking School.
There she began think of food as far more than a grocery list for cooking dinner. She learned to think of it as a focal point for scientific study. The school’s students were taught about new microbial discoveries and about how to apply “germ theory” to cleaning principles. They studied the chemistry of food and the latest research into the principles of nutrition.
Farmer called the book that would make her famous simply “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook.” Like Lincoln, she demanded precise measuring of ingredients (both women were the first to insist on leveling a teaspoon of soda or salt) and a laboratory-like devotion to the subject.
Farmer’s publisher, Little Brown, was dubious about scholarly lessons embedded in a cookbook. The company eventually agreed to print the book but only if the author herself paid for the first print run. Within a year, Farmer’s 1896 opus had been reprinted three times; within a decade it had sold close to 400,000 copies (and by the mid-20th century that number would top 2 million). Little Brown’s hesitation worked to Farmer’s advantage. She agreed to pay for publishing the book only if she retained control of the rights. By her death in 1914, thanks to her cookbook income, she held stock in businesses that ranged from railroad companies to chocolate factories.
By the turn of the 20th century, Farmer was a wealthy woman. She could write as she chose, and she wanted to write a book that mattered, one that might be more than household cookery. Farmer still believed deeply in the importance of nutrition, both in contributing to diseases and in helping to treat them. It was with that in mind that she chose the working title for her next book project: “Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent.”
Farmer devoted an entire section of her new book on food for invalids to the “unappetizing and unhealthful pollution” of commercial milk. This supposedly “pure” food, she wrote, was still filthy, still too often thinned with water, full of chalk and food dyes mixed to give it that creamy tinge, “so that the product may look as though it were of the best quality” when it was, in reality, lacking nutrition at best and poisonous at worst.
She joined those advocating for pasteurization of milk, which had been shown in Europe to reduce the incidence of disease. “The pathogenic germs in milk are often causes of typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and cholera,” she warned. It was true that pasteurization was increasingly employed in some of America’s larger cities, such as New York.
The American dairy industry had resisted efforts to impose the expense of pasteurization requirements (and would do so well into the 1930s). Dairymen continued to prefer the far cheaper solution offered by chemical preservatives. As Farmer informed her readers: “Milk sours so quickly during warm weather that preservatives have often been resorted to to overcome this bacterial action. . . Among these have been found borax, boracic acid, salicylic acid, benzoic acid, potassium chromate, and carbonate of soda.”
The dangers of food preservatives had been dramatically highlighted by the work of Harvey Wiley at the USDA. Just two years earlier, Wiley had launched a study of their effects, using young government employees as volunteer test subjects. The volunteers in his studies had fallen so rapidly ill that the nation’s newspapers had nicknamed them “The Poison Squad.” Farmer’s cookbook underlined a point that Wiley kept trying to make to food manufacturers. They were scaring their own customers: “It is almost universally believed by the great majority of people that added preservatives are always injurious and in many instances poisonous,” she wrote.
Wiley continued his Poison Squad research through 1904, the year Farmer’s cookbook was published. They were both right that the American public had become increasingly fearful that their food and drugs — unregulated and unlabeled — were causing them harm. Rising public anger, continued scandals — notably writer Upton Sinclair’s expose of truly horrible meat-processing practices — would eventually bring about the country’s first major consumer protection law, the Food and Drug Act of 1906.
The worst of preservatives, such as borax and formaldehyde, were promptly removed, and the right of the government to set safety standards was established. Many Americans credited Wiley for that success; the 1906 act was widely referred to as Dr. Wiley’s Law. But he would instead describe himself as more the leader of a fearless army. “Now let the food adulterer quail, for we have women on our side,” boasted Paul Pierce, editor of the progressive magazine What to Eat. “With a million women in our ranks, fighting for such a cause, we will fear no foe that man and the might of millions in money might bring.”
Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury
Design and development Elaina Natario
Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce
Audience engagement Heather Ciras
Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens