A crusading chemist once asked his fellow Englishmen, “Who but a maniac would choose to season his victuals with poison?” This was at a time — 1820 — when food was so adulterated that only a willed suspension of disbelief made it consumable: water in the milk, sand in the sugar, sweepings in the tea, of course, but weapons-grade additives, too, such as lead to sweeten ropy wine, copper to brighten greens, Prussian blue toxins to make baby’s bonbons the merrier. Food writer Bee Wilson brings a feisty, learned hand to this history of food swindles while coaxing dark comedy from a greed so biblically powerful it could kill. The adulterer’s cabinet was full of ingenious horrors to bamboozle the public, and the quick-buck schemes are terrible and fascinating. Squaring the frauds with their greater economic and political contexts is where Wilson hits an artful stride. It is bracing to witness her social conscience as she explains how the shift from agricultural to industrial society dimmed our familiarity with traditional foods, how swindling sunders the trust of citizens, why the poor are disproportionately affected by swindles, and how the thievery is abetted by governments loath to intervene in the free market, for the laissez-faire state is on the lookout only when its revenues are jeopardized. Lest we feel distant from the wily 19th-century grocer, Wilson makes it gin clear that watering down, coloring up, bulking out, and plain poisoning are still with us, as are dyes, flavorings, and fortifiers — pettifogging, in a word, the same old deceit now legalized.
About the Author
Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.