History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 November 2006

On Adulteration

We don't have a blogger today, so I thought I'd offer this delicious little nugget from Food in History by Reay Tannahill. The pages on food adulteration have haunted me since I read them.

"China tea was green, and fake varieties were often produced from thorn leaves by drying them and then colouring them with verdigris, which was, of course, poisonous. But with the introduction of black Indian tea. . . The usual thing was for merchants simply to buy up used tea leaves from hotels, coffee houses and the servants of the rich, stiffen them with a gum solution and re-tint them with black lead."

And also. . . "that pickles owed their appetizing green colour to copper; that many table wines gained their 'nutty' flavour from bitter almonds, which contain prussic acid; that the rainbow hues of London's boiled sweets were produced by the highly poisonous salts of copper and lead; that most commercial bread was loaded with alum; and that the rich orange rind of Gloucester cheese came from ordinary red lead."

Mmmm. Tasty. At least all that lead would keep your complexion nice and pale!


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Jeez. It's a wonder anyone survived. Thanks for that, Vicki, tho at the moment I'm not exactly sure why. And I've never known what "alum" is. Anybody?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Great question, Pam. I was wondering the same thing, so. . . Hello, Wikipedia!

Alum is a salt (aluminum potassium sulfate). It doesn't seem to be poisonous, though I doubt it would be good for you in large doses. In its solid form, it is that "natural deodorant" rock thing you see in catalogs, etc. It's astringent and can be used as a preservative in pickling.

All of which MUST add up to a less-than-tasty loaf of bread. Yuck.

4:47 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh my gosh. After reading about turn of the century meat processing plants, I was thinking the vegetarians of the day were spared from many food-adulterated illnesses, and now I am not so sure....ugh. I had no idea it was that bad, even after being forced to take a course as an undergrad called "The Meat We Eat" where we learned a lot about what not to add to food...

...that textbook, by the way, was the only book I ever MADE a book cover for.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Hey, I didn't even mention my favorite case. A London company was found to have been selling what they said was parmesan cheese but was actually grated umbrella handles. This was in 1969! I'm sure there were things going on in the old days that nobody knows about or wants to know about.

7:33 PM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

This was awesome. Thanks for sharing!

8:57 AM  
Blogger Sandy Blair said...

Great post. Pam's "It's a wonder anyone survived" is right. The levels of exposure to toxin to those creating these adulterated products must have been horreedous as well. And the umbrella handles...Ack!

1:03 PM  

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