Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The development of human food


The preparation of food is of two kinds—public and private. The public consists in the ordinary modes of converting minerals and gases into vegetables, and vegetables into animals with milk, cream, cheese, flesh meat, and marrow-bones. The private modes are the chemical and mechanical conversion of materials by artificial as opposed to natural processes, and they are kept private as far as possible, because the public is strong in the belief that natural food is wholesome, and artificial food unwholesome. This may or may not be.

Scents and flavours are notoriously artificial, as well as wines; and the public, in these cases, blinks the matter, because the natural quantities are insufficient to supply the demand, and the great mass of the public must either accept the artificial or go without.

Natural food, either vegetable or animal, is subject to decomposition. To preserve it from decomposition four methods are used. It is charged with antiseptics, as salt or sugar; or it is dried; or it is hermetically sealed in metal cases, to exclude the air; or it is kept in antiseptic gases which exclude oxygen. When decomposition has commenced, it ceases to be food in law, and is denounced as poisonous to human beings, though given to animals to feed on, which animals, in some cases, are used for human food when slaughtered, making the poison second-hand.

Diseased animals are also denounced, but it does not follow that disease always destroys the utility of the food, for the artificial liver complaint of Strasbourg geese is even held to produce a luxury. How far chemists might or do deal with diseased or decomposed vegetables or flesh we do not know, and they would be the last persons to tell us, because it would prejudice the sale; but we do know that decomposing flesh may, by the use of charcoal, be freed from its putrid odour; and yet, in the case of game, the odour of decomposition is carefully sought, and is thought to heighten the flavour.

The process of decomposition, in the case of fish, is arrested by ice, which robs it of its flavour, and in Russia provisions of all kinds are frozen to preserve them. It is clear that the chemical conditions of food vary, for while venison, hares, partridges, grouse, as also some cheese, &c., are held to be most relishing and nutritious in a state of partial decomposition—beef, mutton, veal, pork, and fish are detestable on the slightest approach of putridity, though there is an incipient decomposition, making the two former tender, which renders them better for digestion.

If chemistry can make the putrid fish of Billingsgate and the putrid flesh of Newgate and Leadenhall Markets wholesome, by neutralising the poisonous qualities, it seems desirable that it should be a lawful process. It is possible that such damaged provisions might be chemically decomposed and the putridity or disease got rid of, and if so, there would certainly be a desirability of making the process common.

There is much talk of the adulteration of food; if by adulteration we mean deterioration, that clearly is a thing to be denounced as a cheating process of selling one thing for another fraudulently. But the mixing or changing food with the knowledge of the customer, substituting the artificial for the natural, may occasionally be beneficial.

Amongst the most nutritive articles of our food are milk, cream, butter, and cheese. There is scarcely any limit to the demand for them, and any process which can increase their quantity without diminishing their quality is desirable. Genuine milk is so desirable that at one time a practice obtained of driving cows to Londoners’ doors, and milking them then and there. But this by no means pi'oved anything more than that the fluid came direct from the cow. The fact that cabbage leaves and pump water in any quantity were made to pass through a living machine, by no means constituted the chemical substance called milk—the juices of rich grass transmuted.

Cream is a very delicious food, yet it is only the fatty substance of the cow with a peculiar flavour superadded. If our chemists can take the whole fat of the cow after slaughter, and add to it an artificial flavour, and thus convert it into an artificial cream, it will surely be a great gain. There is little doubt that a large amount of London butter is manufactured artificially, but the objection is, that it is a very bad and unpleasant imitation of natural butter.

The present writer was riding behind an engine on a railway a short time back, when there stole on him a strong odour of red herring.

“Why, guard! is the driver cooking his breakfast at the fire-box door?”

“No, sir! that is where it comes from,” pointing to a huge factory on the left of the road.

“What are they doing there?”

“Melting down fat.”

“For the candle-makers?”

“No, sir; for Dutch butter!”

“What fat is it?”

“Oh! they pretend it’s all ‘flares;’ but they put in old grease of any kind—old railway grease and bone-fat!”

“But why for Dutch butter?”

“Because they can’t make it into butter here, as Dr. Letheby and Dr. Hassall would be down upon them. So they send the fat over to Holland ready melted, and make it into butter there, and send it back here, when nobody can say anything against it. But, sir, I’m told that they use arsenic in purifying the fat, and if they don’t get it all out before they make butter of it, all the worse for the poor who eat it.”

If the English manufacturers produce edible and nourishing fat from waste and other material, and Dutch chemists so flavour it that it tastes like butter, and the effect on digestion is the same, there is no apparent harm in the process.

But it would be well, nevertheless, that it should pass through the crucible of English chemists before passing into the stomachs of the English poor.

W. Bridges Adams.