Benjamin R. Cohen

 

On his book Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Cover Interview of March 25, 2020

A close-up

Most of the chapters begin with a story about a con man or a point of confusion and mistrust in the world of nineteenth century foods. The first chapter introduces a man known as the “greatest swindler of the age,” the second chapter begins with a guy I met who I’m still not sure was a huckster or not, the fourth starts with my own childhood confusion over food identity, the sixth opens with another con man, and the seventh has a story about a dairyman’s sleight of hand trying to trick judges at an agricultural fair. I’d thus encourage readers to jump into the opening of a chapter, any one.

If you really want to press me, I’ll admit that the core three chapters on the geography of adulteration took the most work and may offer the best examples of threading environment, culture, and industrialization together. I couldn’t say they are my favorites, because I like each chapter, but I will say the networks of new foods those chapters draw out—margarine, cottonseed oil, glucose—and the maps and commodity flows I was able to create with a team of students and digital humanities colleagues make it clear to readers that easy answers about adulteration and resistance to new foods (“it was just dubious businessmen!”; “it was because of stubborn resistance!”; “it was inevitable!”) are not compelling or helpful.