by Jennifer Scerra
Advertising during the early part of the 1900s often includes the phrase “pure” or “pure food” as in “Knox Pure Gelatine,” or the “Carqué Pure Food Company.” We still see the vestiges of this language today in things like “pure vanilla extract,” or perhaps “C & H Pure Cane Sugar.” But believe it or not, it does not compare to the scale of its use 100 years ago.
So, what was the obsession in the early 1900s with pure foods? And what did that phrase really mean to people living at that time?
When companies included “pure foods” in their advertising in the early 1900s, they were playing to a very real fear that American consumers had about eating contaminated, adulterated, fraudulent, and possibly unsafe foods. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act (and often afterwards also) the food industry was run on the principal of caveat emptor; “Let the Buyer Beware.” This meant that it was the consumer’s responsibility to make sure they were buying what they thought they were. It is a system that worked well enough for an agrarian society, but was rapidly showing its flaws during the Industrial Age. Industrialization meant that food was produced further from home and gave producers more tools and incentives to make their products cheaply. And since neither foods nor medicines were required to reveal their ingredients, they both might be dyed, perfumed, augmented, and preserved in ways that were difficult to identify and even wholly unsafe.
Perhaps you were lucky (unlucky?) enough to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in high school. If so, you may recall how the book graphically described the terrible conditions under which the meat packing industry was being run in 1905. Earlier food safety disasters like the Swill Milk Scandal in New York had left children dead, and consumers both sick and wary, but it didn’t result in much change in oversite until public outcry and Teddy Roosevelt finally compelled congress to act in 1906. It was a start—the Pure Food and Drug Act required that foods being transported over state lines be unadulterated and labeled correctly and founded the entity that would eventually become the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But laws have been strengthened considerably over the years, and consumers in the early 1900s were by no means immediately convinced that this fixed the problem. “Due to the political influence exerted by powerful commercial interests, there has developed some laxity in enforcing the Pure Food Law,” wrote food entrepreneur Otto Carqué.
Of course, wherever there is a person with a problem there is also an opportunity to sell them something. And most people in the early 1900s were eager to buy healthful, nutritional foods they could trust. Many companies built their reputation and their marketing plans on contrasting themselves with those problematic adulterated foods—labeling themselves as “pure foods.”
The language of “Pure Foods” was pervasive. The Southern California Retail Grocer’s Association hosted an annual “Pure Foods Show,” an exposition with decorated booths and competitions, where vendors competed for the Herald Pure Food Cup and families brought their babies for beauty contests.
Pure foods diets were recommended especially to families with young children.
Even the presidential election of 1912 carried the flavor of pure foods when it was suggested that candidate Woodrow Wilson take Dr. Harvey Wiley, a food reform champion, as his vice president and campaign using the slogan “Pure Democracy and Pure Food.”
Given the unsavory alternatives (swill, adulteration, coal tar dyes…) it was no wonder that the promise of purity was a marketing success. But what did a cautious, concerned Angelino actually eat to try and avoid contaminated foods? It is possible they might have shopped at the Carqué Pure Foods Company, a Los Angeles retailer who specialized in “Natural Foods: The Safe Way to Health.” Besides selling nuts, dates, and whole grains, Otto Carque, the founder, also published books and pamphlets with recipes and advice on eating healthfully.
Carque shared dozens of recipes in his publications—recipes for dinners, desserts, sandwiches, and baked goods. There are lots of fruits utilized, lots of vegetables, and a truly surprising amount of nut butter. Truly.
There are fruit salads with almond butter dressing, vegetable salads with peanut butter dressing, chewy fruit snacks made of fig paste and almond butter, mashed carrots with nut cream sauce, baked potatoes topped with “Carque’s Gem Peanut Butter” and celery salt, an egg salad sandwich served on peanut-buttered bread. It goes on from there. It’s a nut lover’s dream.
So, I did what any sensible person would do looking at this pamphlet of recipes: I made something called Spagetti Relish [sic]. With peanut butter.
Spagetti Relish:—Drop 1 cup of Carque’s Whole Wheat Spaghetti into boiling water. Cook until tender. Drain off water, add 1 cup of milk, 1 T. Carque’s Peanut Butter and serve very hot with grated cheese.
Notes on the recipe:
I am going to lead with the conclusion and say that this is not a great dish as written. The sauce is milky and bland. But, I think there is a good seed of a recipe here, which could be coaxed into something both simple and tasty. I used grated parmesan which was surprisingly nice together with the peanut butter. Most of my family added more peanut butter and more cheese. If I was to try it again, I think I would make something like cacio e pepe, spaghetti with parmesan, butter, and pepper, but with a little peanut butter mixed in as well. So, good try Mrs. Carqué! Maybe your roasted eggplant stuffed with nut butter is better.
Kid 1: “I want more peanut butter. I like it, but it needs more peanut butter.”
Kid 2: *Spits it out* “Pleh!”
Adult 1: “It’s good. I like it. I would eat it.”
Adult 2: “The cheesy bites are the best bites.”
Adult 3: “It’s fine. Tastes vintage.”
So that’s it! Do you have a recipe or dish that makes you feel super clean when you eat it? Tell us about it. And if you want to feel the opposite of clean, the Homestead’s fiction book club will be reading and discussing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on Wednesday, October 21, 2020 as part of our series on Literature of the Progressive Era. We’d love to have you join us there!