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Five years later, after another watershed public health crisis captured public attention, regulators repealed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and replaced it with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.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

The Fire and the Furnace: Making Recipes Work

By Thijs Hagendijk

While working on the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis (1678), the principle book on seventeenth-century glass, I came a across a peculiar remark. The author of the book, the German alchemist and glassmaker Johann Kunckel (1630-1703) composed a commentary on a series of Italian glaze recipes, and somewhere along he dropped the following line: “reproducing this glaze requires as much Art as inventing it” (p. 193). I was struck by this remark and have been thinking about it ever since. What is it that Kunckel tried to tell us here? What does it tell us about recipes, these miraculously concise pieces of text? And how do these written instructions fit into workshop practices? After all, when reproducing a recipe becomes an investment that equals its invention from scratch – why bother with books at all?

That people bothered is in fact beyond dispute. Recipe research from the past years has come up with ample reasons why people engaged with practical texts. People were working on their reputation, tried to organize experiential knowledge, or were concerned about the epistemic status of their crafts. And indeed, all these elements instantly return in Kunckel’s Ars Vitraria Experimentalis. Kunckel is particularly keen on stressing that everything in his book has been vetted through experience. His book reads as an attempt to apply for a good position at the Brandenburg court, and he openly runs down his main competitor, Friedrich Geißler, who worked on a similar book project. “Lieber Herr Geißler, I am sorry that you are so utterly unfortunate in your judgments and comments” (p. 188). In the end, however, we should not forget that the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis was born out of practice. It finds its basis in the workshop, amidst the radiant heat of furnaces, brightly glowing glass, skilled labor and the stinging smell of smoke.

Back to the glaze recipes. While the Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri (1576-1614) originally conceived the glass recipes some seventy years earlier, Kunckel now presented a German translation of these recipes, lavishly annotated with his comments. In an attempt to better understand how this concoction of recipes and commentaries would fit into actual workshop practices, I teamed up with Márcia Vilargiues (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa) and Sven Dupré (Utrecht University) to rework a couple of recipes. We gathered and prepared the ingredients and spent days around furnaces trying to reproduce the recipes.

Figure 1. One of the wood-fired furnaces we used to reproduce the glaze recipes. Note that the fire is stoked from the sides. Location: Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo, Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

We dragged wood, stoked furnaces and patiently waited for the heat to come. We tried to control the smoke and played games guessing temperatures from different shades of bright orange. Showers at the end of the day invariably turned my white bathtub into a deep brown. During these days, our main occupation was fire. Ingredients for the glaze, their quantities and the order in which they had to be combined became mere side issues.

Figure 2. The furnace opening was closed with bricks to keep in the heat. Bricks were only temporarily removed to move samples.

It was in this smoky atmosphere that we began to see a fundamental characteristic of Kunckel’s commentary. The focus of commentaries, annotations and marginalia in practical texts had traditionally been the testing, correcting and improving of recipes, but Kunckel took a slightly different approach. He started to dress up Neri’s recipes in his commentary and added new and previously unarticulated layers to the original recipes. What layers? Well, think for instance about the role of fire. While Neri straightforwardly communicated ingredients, ratios and the different steps in his glaze recipes, nothing prepared us for the important task that fire management turned out to be, which went far beyond sending some wood up in flames. Kunckel, on the contrary, emphasizes this very issue in his commentary, and repeatedly argues that “the Fire is the principle thing to observe” (p. 194).

Figure 3. To work efficiently, we reproduced several recipes at once.

Indeed, while working with different furnaces, we learned that furnaces are more than simple and inert providers of heat. Instead, wood-fired furnaces become a tool by which the quality of the glass is shaped in addition to the ingredients and the quantities prescribed by the recipe. Temperature, atmosphere and position in the furnace are all partly responsible for the end result. In the end, reworking the same recipe in three different furnaces left us with three sets of glazes in different qualities. See how Kunckel cleverly shifted the perspective in Neri’s recipes? Kunckel made his readers aware of the circumstances they had to navigate when putting a recipe into practice, something for which Neri left them unprepared.

Figure 4. Two samples of the red roischiero glaze.

Making processes can be understood as processes of growth, the anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us. And this stance on making has significant consequences for how we understand the position of texts in these processes. Makers stand in an ecological relation with their environment, their materials, tools, and the forces they work with. To make a glaze means that the molten glass, the furnace, the smoke, etc. act in correspondence with an observant and anticipating glassmaker. Crucially important here is that ideas, designs or written instructions cannot simply be imposed onto reality. Recipes need to become part of it instead. To make something means to adapt and respond to the local and unique joining and intertwining of forces, materials and elements – and written instructions form just one strand in this creative process. Seen in this light, Kunckel’s remark was not so much a pessimistic note on the possibly superfluous nature of glaze recipes, but rather a reminder that reading and reproducing a recipe is an all-encompassing effort to make the recipe work in the unique constellation of the individual workshop. Reproducing a recipe is reinventing the wheel.


Thijs Hagendijk is a lecturer at Utrecht University. Earlier this year, he defended his dissertation on reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting and metalworking. He works on the intersection of technical art history and the history of chemistry, and is interested in performative methods, such as reworking, re-enacting and reproducing historical techniques, materials and processes.

*You can read more about this project in Thijs’ recent article in Ambix.

Recipes for Mud Pies

By Lisa Smith

Beginning a mud pie.

By the end of February, I had set up nearly all of this month’s posts to publish. But not this one. It’s been less than a month, but it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, I was preoccupied with the community that came from the UK strike. Since then, though, a pandemic has been declared — and it’s increasingly clear that virtual community is  more important than ever.

Today’s post had not yet been set, as I was planning to cross-publish something.  But things had gotten on top of me before I could do it… like (virtually) coming back from strike to move all of my teaching for the last week online because our university had more-or-less closed.  

I’ve been working from home all week, with a tiny co-worker keeping me company. Being at home with her has meant enforced time out in my day to play and to breathe fresh air. On today’s menu: making mud pies.

My mud pie.

Throughout our playtime, the child narrated how to make a mud pie.

Take some dirt from this pile, then add leaves, twigs, and plant scraps. Tap it into your pail. Turn it upside down for serving.

Another variation included the fancy pies (see below) that could be served in their dishes.

What the child didn’t say, though, is that making mud pies is a fundamentally sociable activity. What is the point of making them if you don’t have someone to share them with?

The Recipes Project  had already been taking stock of our future direction by looking at our blog stats and audience. We had been wondering what they could tell us about our wider community and what you might like to see from us. Over the past week, we’ve also been thinking a lot about the sudden changes in our (and our contributors’) work and personal lives. And virtual communities have become even more important than ever! 

As ever, we’re delighted to hear from you and would love it if you let us know in the comments what you would like to see from us in the future, whether content, community building, or events…  Please join us in making mud pies — or, thinking about what we want to see from our wonderful community of readers and contributors.

A fancy mud pie offering.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice—Famine Prevention and Common Knowledge in Edo Japan

By Joshua Schlachet

If you’ve browsed The Recipes Project in the past several weeks, you may have raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar black and white squiggles that decorate the top of our page (written, by the way, in a cursive form of premodern Japanese). As my October editorial duties slowly draw to a close, I couldn’t let the month go by without spoiling the mystery of this little recipe collection…of sorts…as economical in its prose as in its outlook.

Consisting of a single broadsheet (what you see above is the whole thing), Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice (Daikenyaku meshi no takiyō), was likely produced around the time of Japan’s Great Tenpō Famine in the 1830s as a no-nonsense guide to help households squeeze a little more out of their staple grains. Rice prices could fluctuate wildly from season to season in time of scarcity, and to the extent that ordinary people could afford to eat (usually brown) rice at all, cutting it with cheaper vegetables and coarse grains became a strategy for survival.

Very Frugal Ways of Cooking Rice. Photo courtesy of the Waseda University Library Digital Collection of Historical Japanese Books.

Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice was one of many vernacular publications—meant to help regular folks combat famine conditions—that circulated through the vibrant marketplace for commercial print during Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868). If it wasn’t given away for free, it was available for cheap, meaning a family could likely recoup what little they spent on the pamphlet itself in as little as a single meal. This was no small claim for those in need, and economizing became both a key premise in enduring food shortages and a central feature of every recipe listed here. 

What are the Very Frugal Ways to Cook Rice? The guide “instructs” readers on how to prepare rice seasoned and combined with a variety of inexpensive beans, roots, grains, and leaves, similar to the contemporary Japanese dish takikomi gohan. Each recipe indicates the proper proportions (five parts rice to four parts barley, for example) and basic directions for foods like barley, sweet potato, tofu lees, fava beans, millet, daikon radish, carrots, cow peas, red beans, as well as two kinds of “very economical” porridge that could stretch rice even further. Based on which ingredient one mixed in, a household could save a hefty thirty to eighty mon (a common denomination of copper coinage) on ten portions, a significant sum worth as much as $10 to $25 in today’s currency.

Contemporary image of Japanese mixed, seasoned rice (takikomi gohan). Photo courtesy of Ajinomoto Park.

Yet one thing continues to bug me about these very frugal recipes: why go through the trouble to teach people what they already knew? The directions themselves are so simple and intuitive as to border on obvious: cook beans, mix with rice; cut potatoes into chunks, mix with rice; boil leaves, season, mix. What’s more, families likely prepared such dishes in their homes already, making Very Frugal Ways redundant knowledge that didn’t bear repeating. Barring anything earth shattering within the recipes themselves, communicating frugality was itself the point. In a society where rice was not only the staple food but the basic unit of taxation and exchange, where running out signaled destitution, economizing as a lesson was worth reproducing the same old recipes, even if everyone already knew what was on the menu.