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.

Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

The Circus Origins of Pink Lemonade

By Betsy Golden Kellem

Few things whip up an appetite quite like the playground of cotton candy, popcorn, fried food and sweet drinks that accompanies a circus. Pink lemonade in particular has long been associated with the circus, which does not simply claim to enjoy the beverage, but to have invented it: and in a business that relies so heavily on oral tradition (in industry parlance, “cutting up jackpots”), there are two tales about how the drink was therein first created.

Black and white ad, reading 'Iced lemonade, cool and refreshing'. There is a picture of a glass, lemons, and tools for making lemonade.
Iced Lemonade, published, Currier and Ives, 1879. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The first comes from Henry E. Allott, whose New York Times obituary (1912) bills him as the “Inventor of Pink Lemonade,” and attributes his creation to a stroke of luck: one day, mixing a batch of plain yellow lemonade, Allott claimed to have knocked a pile of red cinnamon candy into the tub by mistake. “The resulting rose-tinted mixture sold so surprisingly well,” relates the Times, “that he continued to dispense his chance discovery.” 

George Conklin begged to differ. A career showman and lion tamer, Conklin included the creation myth of pink lemonade in his 1921 memoir The Ways of the Circus, crediting his brother Pete with an equally happy accident on the Mabie circus. Conklin stated that one day in 1857, with concession sales going swimmingly, Pete found that he was out of water and there were no nearby natural sources from which he could refill his beverage stock. Racing frantically through the show lot, Pete found the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson in the middle of laundry day, wringing out a pair of her pink tights. “Without giving any explanation or stopping to answer her questions,” Conklin explained, “Pete grabbed the tub of pink water and ran.” Sales of what Pete billed as strawberry lemonade went gangbusters, and “from then on no first-class circus was without pink lemonade.”

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado.
Modern concession stand at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 2015. Image Credit: Library of Congress.

 

And, look… everyone likes lemonade. Lemonade is refreshing and tart and has the whiff of summer indulgence to it. Not everything that was sold as lemonade in the nineteenth century was what you and I and the Federal Trade Commission would regard as lemonade, though: it was common practice, inside the circus and beyond, to serve a form of lemonade that had more citrus in name than composition. 

Some vendors truly did make a point of ensuring the purity of their lemon beverages. Others simply took anything that would make a vaguely tart-sweet combo and floated a lemon slice on top: one 1867 vendor, selling to incoming immigrants to the United States, was said to have offered a dingy mix of molasses, vinegar and water with a few sad lemon rinds floating on top. The standard circus recipe, relayed by Conklin, long involved water, tartaric acid (a fruit-based acidulant compound that lends a sour flavor, and from which cream of tartar is derived), a pinch of red aniline dye (a coal tar derivative now largely used to tint wood stain), and slices of re-usable “floater” lemons for appearance’s sake. (And before you gasp in horror, a modern combination of high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based red #40 and “natural flavors” may not be too far off.) 

That said, as long as the drinks were cold and the show was good, no one much needed to pretend that pink lemonade came from anything organic: one writer in 1872 concluded that only “a possible purchaser with hereditary proclivities to insanity may be deluded into the idea that strawberries enter into the composition of the potable.” 


About


Betsy Golden Kellem is a scholar of the unusual. A historian and media attorney, she has written for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post and Slate, and serves on the board of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She blogs at Drinks With Dead People, and is at work on a book about remarkable performing women.

Food Identity Standards and Recipes as Legislation

By Clare Gordon Bettencourt 

In 1933, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) organized an exhibit that came to be known as the Chamber of Horrors. The horrors on display were examples of packaging intended to deceive consumers. The FDA organized the exhibit to call attention to the pervasiveness of dishonest dealings in the food marketplace, a marketplace that the FDA was ostensibly in charge of regulating. Despite the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking sensation The Jungle (and decades of organizing by grassroots campaigners), the FDA argued that the law offered inadequate regulatory power. 

Five years later, after another watershed public health crisis captured public attention, regulators repealed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and replaced it with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. As a part of this overhaul, lawmakers looked to recipes as a new way to regulate food purity. 

In the process of evaluating why the Pure Food and Drug Act had failed, some believed that the 1906 law had been too negative by focusing on regulating adulteration rather than defining purity. The Consumers’ Guide newsletter of July 1938 explained:  “it named certain practices as taboo, but did not list the affirmative requirements of honesty and safety in the merchandising of food and drug products.”[1] One way the framers of the new law sought to balance the carrot with the stick was through a new form of legislative “recipes” called the food identity standard provision. 

The provision states: 

‘Whenever in the judgement of the Secretary such action will promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers he shall promulgate regulations fixing and establishing for any food under its common or usual name so far as practicable, a reasonable definition and standard of identity, a reasonable standard of quality and/or reasonable standards or fill of container.’[2]

In short, this provision grants the FDA commissioner the power to create a grade of quality, standardize packaging fill, or establish a recipe (of sorts) for a commonly recognized food. With this new power, the FDA began writing standards detailing the permitted ingredients and production methods. In the first years, the FDA wrote standards for canned fruits and vegetables, jam, and a variety of egg and milk foods. 

The earliest food standards followed a format similar to a recipe a home cook might have used at the time. A good example of this is the canned pea standard enacted in 1940:

Pea standard published in the US Code of Federal Regulations, 1940

Though the standard contains some technical language like the scientific names for the acceptable pea varieties, and the option to include ingredients like dextrose and artificial coloring that home cooks may not have had in their pantries, for the most part the ingredients and method of this standard would have likely made sense to a home cook in 1940; it aligned with common home-canning practices.

 

“Don’t let pretty labels on cans mislead you, but learn the difference between grades and the relative economy of buying larger instead of small cans. The Pure Food Law requires packers to state exact quantity and quality of canned products, so take advantage of this information and buy only after thorough inspection of labels.” US Office for Emergency Management, 1942 Image Courtesy the Library of Congress.

The recipe format is significant because it suggests a radical and somewhat romantic belief that national food regulations could be based on home cookery. The standardization process also suggests that one single standard could be established that would align with the expectations of consumers across backgrounds, regions, and socioeconomic categories. Despite the innovation of detailing exactly what made a food “pure”, the recipe format operated under the assumption that industrial food production and home food production were analogous. While this approach was possible for foods like canned peas, new processed foods that did not exist outside of industrial preparations (like pasteurized prepared cheese food product), particularly in the postwar period, would go on to test how standards were written, and whether a recipe format continued to be applicable. Since the implementation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the FDA has created more than 300 standards of identity. While the recipe format has changed since 1938, the process demonstrates the centrality of recipes to state-level notions of purity, identity, and integrity. 

 

[1] Agricultural Adjustment Administration, “Consumers’ Guide”, Volume V Number 6, July 1938

[2] 34 Stat. 768 (1938) http://constitution.org/uslaw/sal/052_statutes_at_large.pdf