July 4 in New York City, 1837

Frederick Marryat was an Englishman who traveled through America in the early 1800s. Like many nineteenth-century European travelers, he published a book about what he found here. He was in New York City for the Fourth of July celebrations in 1837, and this is what he reported seeing along Broadway.

On each side of the whole length of Broadway, were ranged booths and stands, similar to those at an English fair, and on which were displayed small plates of oysters, with a fork stuck in the board opposite to each plate; clams sweltering in the hot sun; pineapples, boiled hams, pies, puddings, barley-sugar, and many other indescribables.  But what was most remarkable, Broadway being three miles long, and the booths lining each side of it, in every booth there was a roast pig, large or small, as the centre attraction.  Six miles of roast pig! and that in New York city alone; and roast pig in every other city, town, hamlet, and village, in the Union.  What association can there be between roast pig and independence?  Let it not be supposed that there was any deficiency in the very necessary articles of potation on this auspicious day: no! the booths were loaded with porter, ale, cider, mead, brandy, wine, ginger-beer, pop, soda-water, whiskey, rum, punch, gin slings, cocktails, mint juleps, besides many other compounds, to name which nothing but the luxuriance of American-English could invent a word. Certainly the preparations in the refreshment way were most imposing, and gave you some idea of what had to be gone through on this auspicious day.

This really is an amazing list of foods. New York City was a major trading port, as evidenced by pineapple showing up in the booths. And look at that list of drinks! I’m not sure what he meant by “pop” (it may have been fizzy like soda pop, but it could mean something else too), but the list certainly points to the fact that Americans were a hard-drinking bunch of people in the years long before Prohibition.

From Frederick Marryat, A Diary in America With Remarks on Its Institutions (New York: Knopf, 1962), 58-59.

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A Brief History of Miracle Whip

Many years ago I did some research at the archives at Duke University, which houses the records for the J. Walter Thompson advertising company, the real-life company Mad Men is based on. I took away huge amounts of information, including a company history of Miracle Whip (JWT had the advertising account back in the 1950s). All the information here is from that history, from 1952.

Miracle Whip’s history is rooted in the mayonnaise business. Kraft, which invented Miracle Whip, got its start in the cheese business, and decided to start selling mayonnaise in 1926. Rather than starting from scratch they purchased four regional mayonnaise producers around the country, changed the name on the label, and eventually did well selling mayo.

Until the Depression hit in the 1930s. Even though almost no one does it today mayonnaise can be fairly easily made from scratch, and in those penny-pinching days many homemakers switched to making their own mayo instead of purchasing it. As a result sales of mayo, and almost everything else during the Depression, collapsed.

Kraft’s response to the situation was somewhat unusual. Rather than try to sell mayonnaise as cheaply as possible they put their money and attention into making a product that was slightly different from mayo, better than mayo (they hoped), and which could be sold for a slightly higher price. They might not sell as much of it but they could get more revenue per unit sold. At the same time they kept selling mayo with the knowledge that they might take a loss from it and that the new product would probably hurt their mayo sales more than their competitors’. On the other hand, they figured that once the Depression was over they would bounce back to mayo leadership, so they believed taking a loss on mayo was a short-term problem.

That Miracle Whip is different from mayonnaise can be seen quite plainly on the Miracle Whip label: it is a “salad dressing,” not a “mayonnaise.” The US government has strict requirements regarding just what makes mayonnaise mayonnaise, and Miracle Whip doesn’t meet those requirements. It may look like mayo, it might be sold alongside mayo, it might be used for the same purposes as mayo, but, in order to not violate US labeling laws, it is very clearly marked as a “salad dressing.”

To make the new product Kraft engineers created a machine to mix the ingredients together and make a standardized product at a high rate of production. The machine worked so well the engineers called it the “Miracle Whip” machine, not because it produced Miracle Whip but because it was so good at whipping the product. The product, then, took its name from the machine, because obviously the Miracle Whip machine produced Miracle Whip.

The product was launched in June, 1933, the worst year of the Depression. It may have been a terrible time to introduce a new product but Kraft backed the introduction with a months-long advertising campaign (in that market Kraft must have gotten some amazing deals on advertising space).

Miracle Whip was originally introduced in New England, but after eight weeks sales were high enough that the product, and promotions, went national. Within six months Miracle Whip was outselling all other brands of salad dressing and mayonnaise, and has continued doing so ever since then.

By the 1950s Miracle Whip had 60% of the market for salad dressings, and the Thompson report I read noted that its closest competitor, the Ann Page brand from A&P, only had 12% of the market.

Source: “The History of Miracle Whip,” November, 1952, File “Kraft Product Histories: Miracle Whip, Cheese Spreads, 1952-1953,” Information Center Records, Box 4 of 24, J Walter Thompson Company Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

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Book Review: Pandora’s Lunchbox, by Melanie Warner

Pandora’s Lunchbox is an in-depth look at the way processed foods have wormed their way into (for most of us) almost everything we put into our mouths. If it comes out of a package, it probably has an ingredient that has been, in some way, modified in a factory somewhere in the world. This book tells the story of some of those ingredients and some of those foods.

Warner spent two years covering the food industry for the New York Times and she takes an active role in the book, traveling to food shows, interviewing researchers, and writing about the foods she eats and the experiments she does on processed food. For several years she kept a collection of foods well past their expiration date, both in her pantry and in her refrigerator, occasionally opening a package and checking on the food’s slow deterioration. As may be guessed, even several years later most of the foods were still edible with almost no sign of age, but frozen chicken nuggets, which had been assembled like plywood in a factory, completely liquified within a few months.

The book’s chapters focus on particular foods, like breakfast cereals or cheese, but certain themes occur throughout the book. One issue Warner is concerned with is vitamins. Processed foods are heavily manipulated in the factory: they are heated, sometimes within a fraction of a second, to temperatures above 600 degrees; they are literally exploded with steam; they are crushed and mixed under tremendous pressure. All of this manipulating trashes the natural vitamins in the foods, so artificially-derived vitamins are put back into the food. But are those vitamins as effective as naturally occurring vitamins? Good question–the answer from twenty years ago is yes, of course, but the much more recent answer is, maybe not. The chemistry and biology of food and nutrition is much more complicated than we used to think it was, and artificially-derived vitamins don’t seem to be quite as good as vitamins that come straight from food in the first place. This points to another theme in the book: our ideas and knowledge about what makes “good” food are constantly changing, and the answers of today aren’t the same as the answers of yesterday.

Warner talks with food researchers who work for food companies throughout the book. There are no voices here from food reformers, and that isn’t the point of the book–this isn’t a Michael Pollan-style “we need to change” kind of book, but a book that focuses on how things are today (until the last chapter, which I’ll talk about below). Warner doesn’t just ask the researchers about the food, she also asks them about themselves, about why they became food researchers and what their relationship is to food. Their answers are quite illuminating, and three sets of ideas come through from almost everyone.

First, they like their jobs. Some of them are science geeks, some are food geeks, but they like the idea of manipulating one thing to make something else (and make no mistake about it, these people are not akin to chefs, they are, in fact, hard-core chemistry people, manipulating foods down to the molecular level on machines that cost millions of dollars).

Second, they feel that they’re doing something beneficial. They’re creating foods that are cheaper than the “real” equivalent and healthier than previous versions of the same processed food (i.e. they’re making a fake version of bacon that has more vitamins or more protein than previous versions of fake bacon). Of course, this implies that there was something wrong with the old version of the processed food, and while they never specifically admit it, they live in a world (that of technology) where the new version of X is always better than the old. They never seem to realize that this worldview also implies that the new version of X is also deficient.

Third, and this is where things get interesting, when Warner asks the researchers what they eat at home, they never mention processed foods. Most of them like to cook, and they often cook from scratch. This is not particularly unusual, especially for this group of people, who are highly educated with salaries that probably start near $100,000 per year and can climb well above that. But Warner often focuses on the fundamental disconnect that exists between their jobs (making processed foods) and their personal lives, where they eat foods from scratch. Software designers have a practice called “eating your own dog food,” where they use, exclusively for the task it’s intended, whatever software they’re developing just as soon as it can feasibly be used. In this way they learn, and fix, the problems with the software quickly. These people don’t seem to eat their own dog food. If they did, would the processed foods they make be different? Would they be healthier?

The last chapter of the book is a “where do we go from here?” kind of chapter. In some ways, that question is completely pointless. After reading through the previous 200 pages, which are full of jaw-dropping examples of the awful stuff that happens to processed food, by the time the average reader gets to this chapter he or she will have decided long before to avoid processed foods and stick to making everything from scratch, as much as possible.

This book is highly recommended.

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I wrote a book!

Barbecue: A History is now shipping from the publisher’s web site, which is at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442227545. Thanks for your support.

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Book Review: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Catching Fire is a well-written book with an interesting thesis but, after reading the book, I can’t quite completely believe the thesis.

Wrangham is a primatologist, and his years of studying monkeys surely contributed to his thesis, which is this: the control of fire, and the use of cooking, caused evolutionary changes in our ancestors that directly caused us to become human.

The evolutionary chain is this: about 3 million years ago were the australopithecines, who walked upright but mostly looked like apes. By about 2.3 million years ago some australopithecines had evolved into habilines, who had bigger brains than their ancestors and could make knives. Then, between about 1.9 and 1.8 million years ago, the habilines evolved into Homo erectus, who had smaller brains than we do but were fairly similar to us.

The traditional explanation of how our ancestors evolved into Homo erectus was that they began eating meat. Since they could not control fire, they would’ve eaten all of their meat raw. This change in diet would have led to an increase in calorie intake, which resulted in an evolutionary transformation, with bigger brains and slightly different bodies.

In the book, Wrangham argues that the meat eating hypothesis alone does not make sense since there were two transformations, when the habilines showed up and then later when Home erectus showed up. Wrangham believes that the first transformation was due to meat eating, but the second transformation was due to the control of fire, and cooking.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, and Wrangham provides lots of data to back up his idea. He looks at studies as varied as research on modern humans who are vegetarian, and archaeological evidence of knife making millions of years ago, and his own experiments in eating raw meat. Some primates that eat raw meat also mix in leaves, not to affect the taste of the meat but to get a better grip on the tough meat, as he himself learns with a mouthful of raw goat. Wrangham also does an excellent job describing the changes in our ancestors’ bodies that came from eating cooked food. Because cooked food is more processed than raw food our bodies can digest it easier, so our digestive systems became shorter than our ancestors.

Wrangham is a primatologist, not an anthropologist or archaeologist, which are the specialties that would more typically write a book like this, and the book is best when he is quoting from or responding to experts in the field. There are some sections of the book, however, where Wrangham writes about his own ideas while ignoring the experts, and in these sections it’s hard to judge Wrangham’s ideas. For example, Wrangham believes that the control of fire brought our ancestors out of the trees and permanently onto the ground. A fire that could be kept going continuously during the night, he writes, would scare away any predators, so sleeping on the ground became a safe option. It’s an interesting idea, but what have anthropologists written about this earlier? Wrangham doesn’t say.

Despite sections like this, Catching Fire is a worthwhile read, full of interesting facts and a thought-provoking thesis.

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