Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears

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Contemporary concerns about food such as those stemming from mad cow disease, salmonella, and other potential food-related dangers are hardly new-humans have long been wary of what they eat. Beyond the fundamental fear of hunger, societies have sought to protect themselves from rotten, impure, or unhealthy food. From the markets of medieval Europe to the slaughterhouses of twentieth-century Chicago, Madeleine Ferrières traces the origins of present-day behavior toward what we eat as she explores the panics, myths, and ever-shifting attitudes regarding food and its safety. She demonstrates that food fears have been inspired not only by safety concerns but also by cultural, political, and religious prejudices.

Flour from human bones and pâté from dead cats are just two of the more unappetizing recipes that have scared consumers away from certain foods. Ferrières considers the roots of these and other rumors, illuminating how societies have assessed and attempted to regulate the risks of eating. She documents the bizarre and commonsensical attempts by European towns to ensure the quality of beef and pork, ranging from tighter controls on butchers to prohibiting Jews and menstruating women from handling meat. Examining the spread of Hungarian cattle disease, which ravaged the livestock of seventeenth-century Europe, Ferrières recounts the development of safety methods that became the Western model for fighting animal diseases.

Ferrières discusses a wealth of crucial and curious food-related incidents, trends, and beliefs, including European explorers' shocked responses to the foodways of the New World; how some foods deemed unsafe for the rich were seen as perfectly suitable for the poor; the potato's negative reputation; the fierce legal battles between seventeenth-century French bread bakers and innkeepers; the role of the medical profession in food regulation; and how modern consumerism changed the way we eat. Drawing on history, folklore, agriculture, and anthropology, Ferrières tells us how our decisions about what not to eat reflect who we are.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Modern History - Priscilla Ferguson

Its scholarly foundation is solid and extensive... She has read well and has chosen her texts... with care.

Times Literary Supplement - John Postgate

A study that has fascinating contemporary echoes... It is a dense but rewarding book.

Globe and Mail - Ingebord Boyens

Scholarly, densely written but fascinating.

Nature - W.F. Bynum
Sticks to a rich and well-exploited range of historical sources... Ferrieres argues convincingly.
American Historical Review - David F. Smith

An original and useful book.

The Historian - Richard Pillsbury

Truly groundbreaking.

Nature - W. F. Bynum

Sticks to a rich and well-exploited range of historical sources... Ferrieres argues convincingly.


Well composed and excellently translated... a delightful excursion... Recommended.


Ferrieres' accomplishment provides a historical foundation for anyone interested in development of public policy regarding what we eat.

Journal of Modern History
Its scholarly foundation is solid and extensive... She has read well and has chosen her texts... with care.

— Priscilla Ferguson

Times Literary Supplement
A study that has fascinating contemporary echoes... It is a dense but rewarding book.

— John Postgate


Well composed and excellently translated... a delightful excursion... Recommended.

Globe and Mail

Scholarly, densely written but fascinating.

— Ingebord Boyens

Sticks to a rich and well-exploited range of historical sources... Ferrieres argues convincingly.

— W. F. Bynum

American Historical Review
An original and useful book.

— David F. Smith

The Historian
Truly groundbreaking.

— Richard Pillsbury

Globe & Mail
Scholarly, densely written but fascinating.

— Ingebord Boyens

Le Monde

Ferrières cuts across historiographic heritages with intelligence and uncommon pertinence.

Kirkus Reviews
An impressively researched addition to the Arts and Traditions of the Table series. French historian Ferrieres (Social History/Univ. of Avignon) has dug deep and wide in her exploration of anxieties about food: agricultural statistics, medical and veterinary journals, public health records, royal decrees, city and town ordinances and cookery manuals. Human fears about food, she notes, fall into two categories: concern about quantity and worry over quality. Her focus here is on the latter. Although she discusses Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, she gives the United States relatively short shrift, for Ferrieres's emphasis is on European, especially French, history. Her research turns up some fascinating facts, such as that in 14th-century Europe, horror of leprosy led to the erroneous belief that one could get it by consuming "leprous pork"; later, cabbage, cheese, beer and gamay grapes were also suspect. One bizarre tale involves a lawsuit in 1668 between Paris bakers and innkeepers in which bakery bread was alleged to be unhealthy because it was made with yeast; to settle the question, doctors weighed in, as did public prosecutors, judges, police and even parliament. European reactions-suspicion, aversion, phobia-of unfamiliar foods encountered in the New World are explored, as are some wild food rumors; e.g., English porter is made stronger than European beers by the addition of a skinned dog to the vat. She shows how food fears changed as industrialization distanced the consumer from the producer, examines the gap between scientific knowledge and political power in response to food risks and looks at the role of individual responsibility forfood safety. A densely written, scholarly work, not especially accessible but filled with choice nuggets of food lore, culinary information and social history.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Madeleine Ferrières is professor of social history at the University of Avignon.Jody Gladding is a published poet and the translator of several works, including French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Series Editor's PrefacePreface to the American EditionIntroduction1. Forbidden Meats2. Political Meat3. The Birth of the Consumer4. The Vigilant Consumer5. The Phobia of New Plants6. Bread on Trial7. Silent Fears8. The Pate and the Garden9. Hungarian Cattle Disease10. From the Epizootic to the Epidemic11. The Politics of Precaution12. The Dangers of Imperfect Metals12. Health Conflicts14. Bourgeois Serenity15. English Cattle Disease16. The Poisoners of ChicagoConclusionNotesBibliographyIndex

Columbia University Press

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