The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the highway is sentenced to death but he who distributes a slow poison to the whole community escapes unpunished. Frederick Accum, 1820
We abandon the classical period and enter a new era that can only be described as a gothic horror. The dark shadows that cloud the classical food culture began to gather somewhere in the mid-seventeen hundred when enlightenment thinking and notions of progress “lit-up” the minds of Europe’s greatest thinkers.
The gothic horror is a genre that concerns itself primarily with the supernatural, unexplained events and things that go bump in the night. Quite the antithesis of Cartesian rationalism that sweeps away our fear of the hocus-pocus or the inexplicable force of nature. Yet, the fallacy of rationalism is the belief that the light of reason lights up the full spectrum of our knowledge. The light of reason can be compared to a beam of light shining in the darkness of our knowledge. We shine the light in one direction and it lights up but a small vector of our understanding. The spiders, the spooks and all the ne’er-do-wells, who detest the light, scuttle five degrees to the left and into the darkness where they can operate unobserved, out of sight and practice their odious deeds at a pace and at a time of their own choosing.
The gothic horror with its ghoulish imagery, lends itself to examining cases of Victorian food adulteration which began to emerge as food, traditionally made on the kitchen hearth, spread into factories and refineries. It is a genre that best illustrates the dastardly deeds and nefarious dabblings of the newly emerging tradesmen who practiced their trade, for the very first time in human history, in cavernous factories along speeding production lines. No one outside the factory gates really knew what went into the bubbling pot but as Frederick Accum’s 1820 “Treatise on Culinary Poisons” set out to show the pot contained macabre, though intriguing and colourful sounding poisons such as Prussian blue, verdigris, gamboge, Venetian Red, Chinese Yellow, nux vomica, red lead, alum and borax.
Unlike cyanide which kills instantly or deadly night-shade which kills within a matter of twenty-four hours following a frenzied dance of death, neither Prussian Blue, nor red lead, nor verdigris kill the victim that quickly. Rather, they kill slowly, over a period of time, wearing the physiology of the individual down bit by bit and gifting the consumer of adulterated foods aches and pains, shredded nerves, chronic fatigue and a slow but certain decline.
It may take a few years for the poison to take effect but regular consumption of such adulterated food will eventually result in the Grim Reaper knocking at the door to claim his poisoned wretch.
The autopsy will prove inconclusive – was it the poison that killed or the wracking cough? Was it the fever or the verdigris? Was it the incessant headaches that caused the final blow or the mercury? Hard to tell.
Not unsurprisingly, this period of food adulteration looms large in the memory of many to this day. Emaciated children with curly hair, flushed cheeks and glazed eyes slowly poisoned to death by the very treats that should make them glow with joy. The mother unable to care for her children and weak from the effects of regular alum consumption. The pater familias slowly fading away and unable to go out and earn a living as a result of his daily cup of tea tinted a startling blue and green.
Dancing a grim minuet alongside food adulteration was yet another Victorian curse: malnutrition. Rickets, scurvy, pellagra ravaged the urban poor. The mother wasting away was not just dying a slow death from consuming alum in her daily loaf – she was also wasting away because the white, chalk-like bread she relied on no longer contained essential B vitamins found in traditional whole grain bread. The sickly, pale and emaciated child was not just dying from the effects of lead poisoning – they were wasting away because their diet was devoid of vitamin C, vitamin E or essential B vitamins found in natural foods. The pater familias was not just unwell from the effects of Prussian blue – his legs were bent and deformed from child-hood rickets.
The learned German professor Accum whose treatise on culinary poisons was an instant best seller received neither adulation, nor glory, nor dizzying awards for his findings.
The spiders, the ghouls and the ne’er-do-wells who inhabited the damp, darkened corridor in which Accum shone his nineteenth century torch turned the full fury of their indignation upon him for revealing their trade secrets and chased him out of town. Literally.
He fled London in 1821. Never to return. The vile creatures were free to practice their ill-begotten trade for a further fifty years.
The nature of food during the Gothic Horror
The light of reason, which coincided with the discovery of fossil fuels, allowed mankind to pressure nature into working at the speed of light as opposed to the speed of a plodding donkey. These twin discoveries meant it was no longer necessary to work in partnership with nature to develop foods that suited our needs.
Mankind could master nature … and once nature is mastered it is considered subservient and worthy of neither worship nor respect.
Little wonder then that the gothic horror genre is closely linked to yet another trend emerging at the same time as the enlightenment: romanticism, the defence of nature and the belief that nature is sublimely beautiful and the font of all our creative talent. It is the natural world that sustains our imagination and gives rise to a “feeling” of either well-being (or dread) – feelings that can not be explained by fact alone but one which nonetheless acts as a significant tidal-pull on our overall well being.
The early romantic writers – Byron, Von Humboldt, Coleridge, Mary Shelly, Goethe – espoused the view that nature is vulnerable to the abuse and rape of mankind intent on forcing reason upon its vulnerable fragility. Thus we see the “super”natural and the natural as complementary, intertwined bedfellows clinging to one another as they resist reason and reason’s forceful attempts to penetrate their inner-most secrets.
The intricate, beautiful and skilled designs woven by the oral thread of food know-how were loosened forcing the patterns to unravel and our food culture to become confused.
The food eaten still derived from nature – but as more and more people abandoned home-cooking and became ever more dependant on food prepared by a faceless industrialist we begin to witness the rot begin to set in.