Not by Bread-and-Marg Alone

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has intervened to curb the excesses of his city’s biggest citizens. Has he decided to collect a sales tax on Stock Exchange turnover? Has he slapped a luxury tax on Park Avenue penthouses? The answers to these questions are “nope” and “nope.” The good mayor has in his sights, rather, those waxed-paper tankards of fizzy, super-sweet refreshment beloved not merely by New Yorkers but by all Americans. Bloomberg intends to ban sugary drinks larger than sixteen ounces from city eateries, and his plan has stirred the citizenry’s ire. A backlash that spans class and political divisions has rippled through the Big Apple. Millionaires and minimum-wage earners, liberals and conservatives alike decry what they consider inordinate government meddling in people’s dietary choices. Bloomberg nonetheless insists that such measures are needed to halt the city’s rising obesity rate. “The idea here is you tend to eat all the food in the container in front of you,” he said in a recent interview. “If it’s a bigger container, you eat more.” And eating more, he maintains, translates into ever-expanding waistlines.

Not surprisingly, industry titans have balked at the idea of limiting soft drink consumption. Senior executives of Coca-Cola claim that the attempt to ban sales of super-sized sodas unfairly targets their products and does nothing to address obesity. “[Customers] can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase,” a company spokesman said. Critics of the proposal have aligned themselves with Big-Bevra mouthpieces, denouncing Bloomberg’s initiative as emblematic of nanny state officiousness and as susceptible to mission creep. It’s a slippery slope from Pepsi to pastrami, after all. Who’s to say that, once the super-sized soda ban takes effect, Brooklyn pizza or Coney Island hotdogs won’t be next?

Many critics of the soda ban find less troubling the idea of Bloomberg’s paternalism than they do its possible effects. They worry that the initiative might further burden New York’s most straitened citizens. Jen Doll writes in the Atlantic Wire that proscriptions of this sort “widen the divide between the rich, who can find a way around them, and the poor, who perhaps cannot.” What’s more, “a class of people whom [Bloomberg] judged unable to make the proper decision for themselves is now being told what to do, by someone who knows better.” A repeat offender, the mayor tried in 2010 to prohibit payment for soda using Electronic Benefit Transfer and other state assistance.

For all of his zeal in such matters, however, Bloomberg merely presents the most recent notable instance of what has been a longstanding tradition among the economic elite: the assumption that given a choice, poor people will always make the wrong one. A look at the early days of the processed food industry suggests that the unhealthy choices supposedly made by economically disadvantaged people are often forced.

Sometime in the 1860s the enterprising French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès made an important discovery. He took a pound of beef tallow soaked beforehand in a solution of 15 percent common salt and 1 percent sulfate of soda, slowly rendered it at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, poured in gastric juices of a pig, and sprinkled it with biphosphate of lime. This curdled mixture he spun in a centrifuge before adding a splash of cream. The resulting opalescent, jelly-like substance tasted much like butter.

This substance not only won Mège-Mouriès a prize offered by Emperor Napoleon III, who desperately sought a cheap, long-lasting, and easy-to-produce substitute for butter to feed the poor and his antsy army; it also secured him a place in history as the father of oleomargarine, which he patented in 1869. Two years later he sold the patent. Not long after a German pharmacist, who adapted the Frenchman’s formula, commenced its industrial production by establishing the Benedict Klein Margarinewerke.

Oleomargarine’s initial foray into the marketplace went anything but smoothly. Dairy farmers hated the stuff, and officials in the United States, Canada, and Australasia placed bans on the artificial coloring that made it resemble butter. This they hoped would render it less appealing to consumers. Such interference came to nothing; people grew to love the product, particularly those in pinched circumstances. In his 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell notes the “half-eaten bits of bread and margarine” strewn about the lodging-house bedroom of his narrator, a downwardly mobile advertising copywriter turned bookstore clerk. And social reformer Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s 1911 study on unemployment quotes the diary of a “casual worker” (a man employed only intermittently):

Tuesday, July 12.—Earned a shilling at wharf for working three hours. Breakfast—bacon and bread; dinner—bacon and bread; tea—margarine and bread.

Wednesday, July 13.—Went out at 5.30 A.M.; walked round to several different jobs…. Breakfast—margarine and bread; dinner—dripping and bread; tea—kipper and bread, and not much of that.

Until the worker-diarist brings in a steady income, “the family will continue to live almost entirely on bread and margarine,” Rowntree remarks. Known as “bread and scrape,” the meal presents a study in contrasts. Whereas the bread is “good and home-made, and always the same,” the “scrape” consists merely of drippings, butter or margarine and sugar. No matter the substance, those living on it could count on only a meager amount.

A taste for simple, skimpy fare became something of a distinctive feature of laboring Britons. “The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food automatically,” Orwell complains in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). “The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year.” What’s worse, “plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk—even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters.”

A cursory glance at the reams of sociological reports and reform pamphlets dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth would lead you to think that a preference for, say, tinned milk over clotted cream runs deep in the working-class character, as it reflects an improvement from what laborers were used to consuming in decades past. Popular literature of the time serves to reinforce this impression. Who can forget the watered-down gruel ladled out in miserly portion to Oliver Twist? Much better that he should sip hygienically evaporated milk. Touted as a boon, processed food didn’t so much supplement as supplant the already nutritious diet most working-class people enjoyed. They hankered not for tinned peas, but for fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat.

Before the brief golden age of working-class nutrition came the “Hungry Forties,” so called because a potato blight compounded the damage wrought by the 1815 Importation Act, otherwise known as the “Corn Laws,” which imposed tariffs designed to protect cereal producers in Great Britain and Ireland. The act effectively fixed the price of wheat, and did so at a level not at all favorable to laborers’ bottom lines. Its repeal came in 1846, after agitation against it nearly became revolt. Food prices decreased, and access to greater quantities of nutritionally dense food expanded. Together with a rapidly developing railway network, these changes in food availability ensured that urban laborers could buy not only affordable grain but reasonably priced produce and meat as well.

With better nutrition didn’t necessarily come a better standard of living. Urban dwellers continued to contend with overcrowding, dangerous work conditions, inadequate health care, questionable water supplies, and a host of other infrastructural problems. Yet as Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham maintain in their fascinating three-part study “An Unsuitable and Degraded Diet?” (2008), many working-class Victorian families survived on limited income without succumbing to starvation or malnutrition. “While today’s consumers would regard the mid-Victorian ‘poverty-diet’ as unappetising,” they write, “detailed analysis of typical menus demonstrates its high nutritional value.” Some workers spent half their weekly wage on food and ate only basic staples, but others enjoyed a rich and varied seasonal diet of fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables that even middle-class folks today might find appealing.

The menu of one Mrs. Ball stands as a prime example. Saddled with a drunken husband, six children, and an income that you could only regard as paltry, this inventive housewife managed to prepare regularly “fourpenny-worth of lean beef and onion and carrots,” which she boiled and served with “suet dumplings.” A talent for healthy cooking extends beyond this single case. Lancashire women used vegetables freely in their menu, and even destitute East Enders dined on vegetables, fruit, and rabbit meat—all of which they produced in their small backyards. (Clayton and Rowbotham liken the green thumbs of the East Enders to the “dacha component” of the postwar Soviet diet, which, they feel, official records fail to accurately represent.)

Much thought and foresight went into the preparation of meals. A more or less fixed menu rotated around a main course of pork or mutton. Saturday meant payday for most workers, which meant also a trip to market for a joint to last the week. The most lavish meals generally came on Sunday. Depending on income, housewives either boiled or roasted their recently purchased bit of meat (fuel often proved dear, so its price determined the cooking method). This they served with potatoes, carrots, and perhaps a piquant onion sauce. Monday’s dinner saw a reduced portion of the same meat served cold and accompanied by pickled vegetables. These offerings appeared again on Tuesday, disguised as a curry. On Wednesday whatever scraps remained enjoyed one last hurrah as a steamed pudding. Friday featured fish. Saturday’s meal might see pork or beefsteak, a reward for having endured the austerities of the work week.

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