There is Death in the Pot

In the world of food chemistry and economic botany, we can hardly encounter a more colorful character than German entrepreneur and experimenter Friedrich Accum, who worked in London during nearly three decades at the beginning of the 19th century.

Setting the stage – Accum arrived in London in 1793 (age 24) where he trained as an Apothecary. His training led to a two-year stint as assistant to Humphrey Davey, and subsequent engagement in experimental and industrial work. Following significant involvement in the emerging gaslight business (early lighting using off-gases from the coke industry), Accum turned his attention to the chemistry of food additives and adulteration, publishing (in 1820) his critical book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons.

In the Treatise, Accum covered a range of issues impacting plant-based and animal-sourced foods, documenting methods of simple trickery, such as bulking-up of coffee with cheap fillers, to use of dangerous coloring additives and preservatives. A copy of his very limited first edition in the Huntington rare book collection bears the sensational cover ornament, a spider web, framed in reptiles, recounting the Biblical words “there is death in the pot.

Front cover of Accum’s Treatise

Accum exposed and condemned the use of Fishberry (the dried fruit of Anamirta cocculus, which apothecaries called Cocculus Indicus) as an added stimulant in beer. Pickles also received attention, as Accum reminds us, customers prefer their gherkins and beans retain a “fine lively green color.” The biological rub, of course, is that chlorophyll breaks down when heated or chemically treated, a denaturing that continues over time.

When cooked, Peas easily and quickly lose their lively green color

Lacking today’s food-safe dyes, 18th and 19th century cooks regularly used copper to confer green color. Whisking or cooking acetic acid in copper vessels generates verdigris, a cupric acetate or copper carbonate that can produce handsome green color. In denouncing these practices, Accum refers to instructions on page 203 of John Perkins’ 1796 Every Woman her own House-Keeper* regarding gherkins…. “To every gallon of pickle allow one nutmeg cut in quarters, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of whole pepper, and a large race of ginger sliced; boil the vinegar in a bell metal (bronze) or copper pot, pour it boiling hot on your cucumbers, and cover them.”

Though Accum and others knew copper to be toxic when ingested, the readily-apparent effects remained contested for decades. Search the web for an article published in Scientific American, 17 April 1869: “Are Utensils of Copper Injurious for Culinary Purposes?” The article sites a German author who claimed copper is non-toxic, but counters with numerous reports of death from edibles such as green bonbons and boiled cabbage.

In addition to use of copper for pipes and pots, the element can be introduced to the food stream through agriculture, since copper sulfate combined with lime yields Bordeaux mixture, an early fungicide both for grapes and potatoes.

For details on Accum’s life, check Wikipedia, which provides general info and direction to written biographies. Note Accum’s father, who was born as Markus Herz, adopted the name Christian Accum at his conversion to Christianity. Note also, as a sorrowful indicator of the times, Accum’s wife Mary Ann gave birth to 8 children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.

*completing the book title: or, THE LADIES’ LIBRARY. CONTAINING THE CHEAPEST AND MOST EXTENSIVE SYSTEM of COOKERY – Ever offered to the Public. WITH RECEIPTS FOR ABOVE ONE THOUSAND NECESSARY AND ELEGANT DISHES; Many of them Original, from the Manuscripts of the late Mr, Perkins, Cook to Earl Gower, Sir Matthew Lamb, and Lord Viscount Melbourn. RULES for MARKETING, AND TO CHOOSE PROVISIONS, WITH NECESSARY TABLES. Trussing and Carving — Directions for Roasting, Boiling, Broiling, Frying, and Baking, Flesh, Fish.and Fowls; Potting, Collaring, Pickling, Preserving, and Confectionary ; including MADE DISHES, FRICASSEES, RAGOUTS, SOUPS., GRAVIES, STEWS, PIES, PUDDINGS, TARTS, CUSTARDS, JELLIES, CHEESECAKES, &c. Instructions for Decorating, and properly Setting out a Table. PREPARATION OF MADE WINES; BREWING ALE AND BEER. The Culinary and Medical Properties and Uses of all Fruits and Vegetables and Remarks on Culinary Poisons. Lists of everything in Season for each Month. Variety of Bills of Fare, with a proper arrangement of the Dishes. Genteel Light Suppers, and many useful Tables. ALSO, THE FAMILY PHYSICIAN; OR, A COMPLETE BODY OF DOMESTIC MEDICINE. Fourth edition, with additions. (An electronic copy of this book from the Harvard Library is available free on Google Play.)

For information on color:

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