Trusting the Grocer

By Benjamin R. Cohen

A word for the grocer, because before the recipe is the ingredient. To get the ingredient, you either grow it yourself or buy it at a store. Most of us buy it at a store. The grocer is the supplier.

At the supermarket, today’s worries over a reliable supply chain are often about availability and consistency. We are but consumers relying on others—producers—to meet our consumer needs. We expect producers to stock those shelves, whoever they are. It’s when the shelves are bare that we start to wonder, where does it all come from anyway? We think more about those bumper stickers asking us to know our farmer to know our food. But this is the exception, because the shelves are often fairly stocked. People benefit from and are beholden to a grocery infrastructure a century in the making.[1]

That infrastructure didn’t exist in the west in the nineteenth century. The worries over supplies then were not so much about consistency. Western customers had less expectation about what would always be on the shelves, what would always be in stock. They were more about worried over whether those supplies were what the grocer said they were.

It was the era of adulteration. Before the homemaker or housekeeper could buy supplies to cook the meals, she (often a she) had to trust that the grocer was selling her the real deal (I wrote a whole book about this, Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food, 2019/2022).

The era of adulteration was a period in western history when customers fretted over the honesty of their food’s identity. Adulterated meant contaminated, corrupted, or otherwise misrepresented food. Was that sugar cut with sand, was that milk watered down, was that butter really butter or some factory upstart called margarine — things like that. One way to get a sense of the prominence of the worries is that the reigning economic paradigm at the time was caveat emptor—buyer beware. Most North Americans had not yet established a regulatory infrastructure based on the premise that your food shouldn’t make you sick.

Distrusting the grocer, from “The Use of Adulteration,” Punch (August 4, 1855). Image in the Public Domain.

Granted, adulteration has always been with us, from biblical times to today: we always worry if our food is what the seller tells us it is. But the so-named ‘era of adulteration’ came about in large part because of a relatively quick transition in western supply chains across the second half of the nineteenth century. It came about because customs—the root word inside customer—were disrupted. The age-old ways people had come to trust food from the market were thrown into disarray.

Grocers in the west stood at the balance between customer and supplier, managing a store counter that had quite a lot of power. That might seem odd, since our grocery stores today don’t seem to have actual grocers. But that’s because most of us are comfortable with our self-service grocery stores, so much so that the term “self-service” rarely factors into the description. Before innovations at the Piggly Wiggly and A&P early in the twentieth century, grocery stores were grocers’ markets, and goods were delivered across a counter by the grocer himself.[2] The storekeeper stocked wares behind him and out of reach of the rabble so that groceries came to customers like prescription drugs from a drugstore counter. “Know your grocer know your food” may have been a carriage bumper sticker, for all I know.

The grocer at work, from the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co., c. 1870–1900. Chromolithographed trade card. Printed by R. Ganton, Litho, London. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

The word itself, grocer, descended from storekeepers in the Middle Ages who sold products in gross. For centuries, they were known as Spicers or Pepperers before their dealings in gross weights brought them the name Grosser (in the nineteenth century, French grocers were still called épicers, or spicers) The English spelling evolved by the time grocers were part of a food system that included not just the general or dry goods stores of rural livelihood, but public markets, butcheries, bakeries, and other specialty shops of the urban streets. The public market was, as the name would suggest, a public space. Grocers’ markets more often operated as private shops subject to their own self-decided operations. As rancor grew over customers’ fear they were being swindled, grocers professionalized to develop standards of practice and décor. They published manuals. They printed trade papers. They held conferences. One of their biggest challenges was to garner the faith of their customers. One reason their customers didn’t trust them was that oft-leveled accusation of adulteration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, whatever success they had in those efforts was eclipsed anyway with the new self-service markets. A century later, we take it for granted so much that our worries are whether the supply truck will deliver the goods from across the country or across the ocean every single day or not. Today’s equivalent worries over food identity may concern the source, the process, and the supplier, but, in a hyper-consumer capitalist culture, until there’s a global pandemic or a boat stuck in a canal, they are less about availability.

I admit I think of this history every time I go to the supermarket; every time I go to the farmer’s market; every time I remember Mr. Hooper or the grocer down the block from my childhood, Mr. Gordon, a last vestige, even then, of the neighborhood grocer. It isn’t nostalgia to appreciate the grocer — it’s historical indebtedness. A word for the grocer is a word of appreciation for an often-invisible agent in the middle of supply and demand.

 

[1] Given the problems of supermarket redlining (and the related food apartheid) and prevalence of food insecurity, I’m nodding here to an idealized gentrified western model, to be sure, and one that isn’t ideal in the same way to everyone.

[2] Susan Spellman’s (2016) Cornering the Market is a good source for more grocer history. Shane Hamilton’s (2018) Supermarket USA gives it a good scope of international relations.

A Tale of Chiles, a Servant, and a Travelling Medical Scholar in Early Modern China

By Brian Dott

Fig. 1. A few of the many varieties of chiles available at a market in Kunming, Yunnan, China. (Image Credit: Dott, 2017)

 

Fascinated by early modern Chinese cultural history, I research popular religion, especially pilgrimage, and the culinary and medical uses of chile peppers.  Eating Sichuan food, I wondered “how did the Chinese begin to consume such a spicy, introduced plant?”  All the myriad varieties of the chile pepper originated in the Americas.  They probably reached China in the 1570s.  The earliest known Chinese source dates to 1591 (Gao Lian, Zunsheng bajian [Eight discourses on nurturing life]).  While past and present Chinese use chiles most for culinary flavoring, Chinese adoption and adaption of this American pod did not take off until the chile was classified medically and some of its empirical effects within the human body observed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there is no clear distinction between things taken into the body as sustenance and as medicine – everything taken in affects health.  Indeed, one medical text talking about chiles informs the reader: “To make medicine, chop finely, mix with pork fat and fry to make a dish” (Xu Wenbi, Xinbian shoushi chuanzhen [New compilation of the transmitted truths on longevity], 1771).  Furthermore, the earliest text to explicitly mention using chiles to flavor food is best described as a medical text (Shiwu bencao [Pharmacopeia of edible items], 1621).

As Carla Nappi has explored in her series of posts, Translating Recipes, some recipes read as stories or conversations.  Sharing medical recipes allows modern readers to listen in on narratives from the past.  A key author for my exploration is Zhao Xuemin (1719-1805).  Zhao was a medical practitioner and author who worked to update Chinese medical knowledge by including newly introduced ingredients (such as the chile pepper) and knowledge from less well-known practitioners.  He traveled extensively to consult with local experts, and incorporated materials from their manuscripts into his own work.  Indeed, less than a hundred years after his most famous work was completed, more than half of the works he cited were no longer extant (Bencao gangmu shiyi [Correction of omissions in the Systematic pharmacopeia]).

Chiles as Treatment for Malaria

Chiles were used as both a treatment for people who had contracted malaria and as a prophylactic to prevent infection.  A local history from Guangdong stated that “All [varieties of chiles] can remove water-borne malaria and disperse rheumatism.  . . .  In Guangxi malaria is even more prevalent.  One cannot go a single day without [them]” (Enping county gazetteer, 1766).  Zhao Xuemin recounts the following story about chiles and malaria:

Because [the chile’s] property is hot [it can act as a] dispersant by entering the heart and spleen meridians.  It can also disperse water damp.  In guihai (1743), I was in Lin’an [near Hangzhou], in the 6th month a young servant drank cold water and slept on the cold, damp ground, by autumn they had developed malaria.  [They took] myriad medicines without result.  In early winter, by chance [they] ate some chile paste.  They found this very palatable, and needed it with every meal.  In addition they also used [chiles] in a medicinal broth with meals.  Before long the malaria was cured. (Zhao Xuemin, Bencao gangmu shiyi, j. 8, 73b)

Zhao gives a scene setting – place and time.  He introduces the patient, including an emphasis on class, which indirectly provides an explanation for the poor choice of sleeping place.  Zhao also provides us with his explanation for how the infection occurred – conditions involving cold and water.  The heating and damp expelling characteristics of the chile are the traits Zhao sees as important for effecting this cure.  That the servant ate chile paste by chance means that it was probably commonly used, even in a region where the elite culinary traditions rejected strong flavors.  Here, we may be seeing class differences, as the lower classes in China tended to adopt the chile long before the elites.  Chiles could be homegrown, did not have to be purchased in a market, and helped make a starch-based diet tastier. 

The fact that the servant found the chile paste to be “palatable” reflects an understanding in TCM that an individual’s body can instill a craving for things it needs.  Furthermore, while that need and craving exist, strong or even unpleasant tastes and smells become bland or “palatable.”  Zhao is refreshingly candid that older cures (presumably including some of his own) had no effect.  We can also see the importance he placed on empirical knowledge – not just relying on systems and traditional classifications.  It appears that once he noticed an improvement in the patient’s condition, after the chance introduction of chile paste into their diet, Zhao introduced another form of chiles—medicinal broth – into the treatment regimen.  To modern readers, Zhao is frustratingly vague about the recipes for these treatments.  At one level, such details were probably not necessary for his intended audience – exact ingredients in the paste probably did not matter, as long as chiles were present, and everyone knew how to brew a medicinal broth.  More importantly, the anecdotal aspect of the description created an informal tone that may have made this treatment more believable to past readers than any mere list of ingredients.

 

For further reading (and recipes), see  Brian Dott, The Chile Pepper in China: A Cultural Biography, Columbia University Press, 2020.

‘Dwale’: A Medieval Sleeping Drug in a Seventeenth-Century Receipt Book

Elizabeth K. Hunter

As part of my research into early modern sleep disorders, I have been examining the wide variety of sleep remedies available in England at the time.  Browsing through the manuscript receipt collections at the Wellcome Library in London, I came across one with this unsettling title:

To make a drinke to cause a man to sleepe till hee bee ript

Take 3 spoonfull of the gall of a barrow swine and for a woman of a gelt swine and 3 spoonefull of hemlocke the iuyce and 3 spoonefull of henbane and 3 spoonefull of the wilde nep [bryony] and 3 spoonefull of lettice and 3 spoonefull of popy and 3 spoonefull of eysell [vinegar] and medle them all together and boyle them a little and cloe them in a glasse well stoped and put therein 3 spoonefull to a pottle [half a gallon] of good wine and medle it well together till it bee used and lett him that shalbe cut sitt against a good fire and make him to drinke thereof untill hee bee asleepe and then mayst thou surely carve him and when thou sure hast donne thy cure and wouldest haue him to awake take vinegar and salt and wash his temples therewith and his wound and hee shall awake imeadiately. [Wellcome MS 373, fo. 99r-v]

Figure 1. A patient about to undergo a surgical operation, early 1700s. A man approaches with a cup containing a fortifying or anaesthetic drink. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Rather different from the milk thistle possets and linen-wrapped compresses of rose water and poppy seeds I was used to, this was clearly not a remedy for sleeplessness, but a powerful drug intended to ‘knock’ a patient out who was about to undergo surgery.  It was written down by a woman called Jane Jackson in a book of recipes for physic and surgery she compiled in 1642.

Although the name of the drug does not appear anywhere in the source, upon further investigation I discovered that this is dwale, a recipe that had been in circulation in England since the twelfth century.  The Middle English word dwale (pronounced dwahluh), is derived from Old Norse dwol, dvalar, dvali meaning ‘sleep’ or trance’.  Well known in the medieval period, it is mentioned in famous works of literature, such as The Canterbury Tales and the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman.

Dwale was still known about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as can be seen from publications from the time.  Thomas Lupton included it in his book of secrets A Thousand Notable Things (1579) – ‘This I had also out of an olde wrytten booke’, he wrote.[1]  More suggestive of use in actual practice is Thomas Bonham’s inclusion of it in his collection of recipes for surgeons, published in 1630, where the ingredients are in Latin.[2]  It is likely that Jane Jackson copied it down from a similar publication.

Figure 2. Illustration of four poisonous plants – (clockwise from top left) hemlock, henbane, autumn crocus and wild lettuce. All except crocus were ingredients in English sleep medicine. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

What is striking about dwale is the potentially deadly mixture of poisonous plants with gall and wine.  It is based on ingredients associated with sleep since ancient times – henbane, wild lettuce and the white opium poppy.[3]  The anaesthetist Anthony J. Carter has hypothesised that, at one point, it may also have contained another ‘sleepy’ herb, mandrake.  At some point Bryony, a plant native to England that bears some resemblance to mandrake, has been substituted.[4]

 

While wild lettuce and white poppy were sometimes included in bed-time drinks and possets, henbane and mandrake were considered highly dangerous, and it is very rare to find a sleep recipe that recommends using them in anything other than topical medicine.  Jackson’s version of the recipe also contains the poison hemlock, and Linda Voigts and Robert Hudson found a number of fifteenth-century recipes for dwale that included the even more lethal plant morel (deadly nightshade).[5]  All these plants were considered useful in sleep medicine because they were believed to cool the humours, reducing the temperature in the brain.  Used excessively, however, they could be too effective, causing the body to fall into a lethargy from which the patient would never recover.

The inclusion of dwale in seventeenth-century sources demonstrates the continuity between medieval and early modern sleep medicine, and provides further evidence of the use of poisons in surgical anaesthetics around the world.  We will never know whether Jane Jackson ever attempted to use it to help a patient undergoing surgery, but her interest in copying it down is an indication of the ambitious nature of domestic medicine in relation to surgery (as has been written about by Seth LeJacq).  It is also further evidence of the importance of knowledge of handling poisons in early modern medicine, as discussed on this blog (here and here).  This was particularly important in sleep medicine, in which the ‘coldness’ of the traditional ingredients could be fatal.

FURTHER READING

If you would like to read more about the use of poisons in early modern sleep medicine, see my article “To Cause Sleepe Safe and Shure”  published in Social History of Medicine.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Award “Midnight Vapours: Sleep Disorders in Early Modern England, 1550-1700” [Grant No. 109069/Z/15/Z]



[1] Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things, of Sundry Sortes (London, 1579), p. 79.

[2] Thomas Bonham, A Chyrugians Closet (London, 1630), pp. 244-245.

[3] Ioanna A. Ramoutsaki, Helen Askitopoulou, Eleni Konsolaki, ‘Pain Relief and Sedation in Roman and Byzantine Texts: Mandragoras Officinarum, Hyoscyamos Niger and Atropa Belladona,’ International Congress Series: The History of Anesthesia, 1242 (2002), 43-50.

[4] Anthony J. Carter, ‘Dwale: An Anaesthetic from Old England,’ British Medical Journal, 319 (1999), 1623-1626, at p. 1624.

[5] Linda E. Voigts and Robert P. Hudson, ‘A Drynke Ϸat Men Callen Dwale to Make a Man to Slepe Whyle Men Keerven Hem: A Surgical Anesthetic from Late Medieval England,’ in Sheila Campbell and David Klausner (eds), Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), pp. 34-56.

“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php