Friday, March 2, 2018

When Housewives Were Chemists

Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue.

Not many foods deserve a biography. Those that do generally either date back to prehistory (bread, wine, beer) or were among the essential building blocks of empire (tea, sugar, bananas). But chemical leaveners, including baking powder, had humble origins and, not terribly long ago, they altered the way we eat dramatically. Imagine no cookies, cupcakes, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, doughnuts, or quickbreads. Okay, now stop imagining that: I don’t want to traumatize anyone. But chemical leaveners made all of them possible.

With Baking Powder Wars, food historian Linda Civitello has recovered the forgotten story of how chemical leaveners changed the way we eat the story of an “indispensable, invisible ingredient.” Its protagonists are, at the outset, American women. This is because, though baking was largely professionalized in Europe, in much of North America it was the domain of housewives. In fact, Protestant moralizing on this continent associated baking with feminine virtue. Before the advent of chemical leaveners, baking meant bread, and bread meant yeast. Even the rare cake was leavened with yeast.

There were several reasons why American women were on the lookout for some alternative to breads leavened with yeast. New England, for example, didn’t have easy access to wheat, and so relied more on corn and rye; but corn has no gluten, and rye has very little, and yeast requires gluten to work its magic. In addition, women generally had to produce the yeast they needed themselves, using a variety of methods, before they could even consider making bread dough. Commercial yeast didn’t become available until a couple of decades after the first baking powder hit the markets when the Fleischmann brothers introduced it at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876.

If making your own yeast doesn’t sound like enough drudgery, there was the additional problem that yeast is a living creature, though that wasn’t fully understood until the middle of the 19th century. Even so, it required something like the care we devote to household pets. If the temperature was too cold, it died. If it was too hot, it died. If it wasn’t fed enough or properly? Well, you know.

Then along came the chemical leaveners. The first cookbook that can claim to be fully indigenous to North America was Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. American Cookery contained the first known use of the word “cookie”; and it’s not entirely a coincidence that the book also contained 7 recipes that called for pearlash basically, burnt plant matter, a mild alkali that once played the same role in leavening that baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) does today: if you combined it with something acidic, like fermented milk (clabber) or cider, the result would be carbon dioxide bubbles, which would cause your cornbread and cakes to rise. American Cookery is the first mention in print of pearlash, though it had probably been in informal use for at least a decade, possibly longer.

Pearlash “created a revolution in baking as profound as the discovery of yeast thousands of years earlier.” This was the beginning of all those cakes and biscuits and waffles that now permeate North American food culture. For the next half-century or so, women didn’t confine their baking experiments to pearlash, which evidently tasted dreadful in mildly flavored recipes. Instead, they tested a variety of chemical leaveners, including hartshorn (which Civitello describes as “pungent”), saleratus (potassium bicarbonate), and, beginning in 1846, sodium bicarbonate what we know as baking soda. Ingredients weren’t always of a consistent strength and so recipes weren’t always reliable about amounts. Women made or purchased their alkali and their acid individually and had to keep them separate until it was time to bake.

After the middle of the 19th century, the experimentation started to wind down as professional chemists recognized the untapped market implied by all this kitchen science. Eben Horsford’s formula was to combine baking soda (an alkali), monocalcium phosphate (an acid that he made from animal bones) and, crucially, corn starch to serve as a buffer, so that the other two ingredients wouldn’t react with one another prematurely. This combination meant that the elements of the chemical reaction could now all be prepackaged in a single, convenient container. He named his product “Rumford” after the man who had endowed his Harvard chair.

And that was when the baking powder wars began. The invariable ingredient of any baking powder was and is baking soda, but different companies used different acids to activate it. As new companies established themselves, they battled in a number of arenas for a share of the lucrative market. They waged dirty advertising campaigns, fought to pass laws against the ingredients and practices of other companies, and concocted fraudulent “tests” to convince consumers that their product was more effective. The scrappiest, most relentless fighter in all of these battles was Royal Baking Powder, particularly one of its founders, William Ziegler, who actually engaged in a turf war to knock off his co-founders before he took up arms against other companies.

The most enduring of the wars that Civitello records—one that was fought over decades in a number of distinct battles—was between the various companies that used alum (sodium aluminum sulfate) and Royal Baking Powder, which used cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is an acid by-product of winemaking. In the 19th century, when there weren’t many domesticated grapevines in North America, it had to be imported. Alum, on the other hand, was widely available and, at a tenth the cost, cheap. The cream of tartar formula was developed first, but if Royal was to survive that sort of competition, it would have to launch a full-frontal assault on the use of alum in baking powder.

Photo by Jim Grey.

Even today, there are lingering questions about the possible neurotoxicity of sodium aluminum sulfate; but propaganda is easier and faster to disseminate than science, so Royal skipped the actual science and threw its effort into widespread advertising campaigns to create the impression that the alum companies were purveying poison. They hired (or manufactured) a few scientists to give their campaigns the appearance of credibility, but they never proved their case definitively. Still, it can be useful to create doubt in the public mind: it was a strategy that helped Royal survive for the better part of a century. The company also engaged in repeated attempts to get “pure food laws” passed—that is, laws against alum. In one, staggering instance, in 1899, they actually succeeded when they purchased enough votes in the Missouri state legislature to outlaw the use of  “arsenic, calomel, bismuth, ammonia, or alum” in food. That might sound innocent enough, but it’s a tendentious list. Ammonia and alum don’t belong in a food purity law that also includes arsenic: they were there solely because they were ingredients used by Royal’s competitors. Decades later, Royal was still citing the Missouri law, the one they themselves had purchased from corrupt politicians, as “proof” that alum was not safe for consumption.

This fight played out over decades. In 1918, the USDA finally offered an official definition of baking powder that refused to recognize any of the hysteria Royal had worked so hard to incite. Baking powder was, henceforth, “a leavening agent produced by the mixing of an acid reacting material and sodium bicarbonate, with or without starch or flour.” This definition insisted on its agnosticism: baking powder could be made with a phosphate, cream of tartar, or alum; or, for that matter, with any other acid a manufacturer might fancy.

Then, in the 1920s, one of the alum companies, Calumet, wrested market domination from Royal with a mix of ingenious marketing and bunkum. The ingenious marketing was to style its baking powder “double-acting”: this meant that it would react first when mixed with liquid, and then again when it came in contact with the heat of the oven. Their baking powder had always done this, but Calumet gave the process a fancy name and pitched it as a feature. The bunkum was a water glass test. When Calumet was measured into a glass of water, it frothed more than other brands, something the company was eager to demonstrate repeatedly as proof that its product was more effective. But the frothiness came from powdered egg albumen, an ingredient that had nothing to contribute to the actual leavening abilities of baking powder.

The Baking Powder Wars ended abruptly in 1929, for a reason that was as much a part of U.S. national identity as the competition and the charlatanism that incited the wars in the first place: conglomerates. Calumet was swallowed by General Foods and Royal by Standard Brands. Both conglomerates had connections to J.P. Morgan. Game over.

Actually, the game wasn’t entirely over. Throughout her narrative, Civitello returns to the story of the Hulman family, a group of German immigrants who were classic examples of what we today call chain migration. In the middle of the 19th century, Diedrich Hulman came from Germany to the United States and wrote his brother, Francis, to follow him. Francis did and, in turn, wrote to brother Herman; then Francis and Herman both wrote to little brother Theodore. The entire family moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where they founded a grocery business and prospered. At the time, that part of the state had a diverse population of “Quakers, Dutch, Pennsylvania Dutch, and free blacks . . . Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and German immigrants fleeing the failed democratic revolutions.” The Hulmans were the latter.

It’s hard not to like this family. The Hulmans were overachievers champion athletes, quilters, and livestock breeders. Diedrich was “the leading bee expert in Indiana.” Eugene V. Debs, who helped organize the first industrial union in the United States and was a perennial presidential candidate, said of his friend Herman Hulman, “With him, integrity was not an acquired virtue but an inherent governing force which he could no more have disregarded than he could have regulated his heart.” It was Herman who developed a family formula for an alum-based baking powder, which he called Clabber (later Clabber Girl) after the fermented milk that had once itself been a popular leavening agent.

In the 1920s, Indiana became a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, which turned its bigotry and rage on the Jewish, Catholic, immigrant and black populations of the state. The Hulmans had long since established their place as citizens of the United States, but they were also faithful Catholics, and they continued to hire the very immigrants the Klan was trying to drive out. This made them prime targets for a Klan boycott. The family company survived that episode, and more. It survived the Depression, when most baking powder companies did not, by coming up with an early version of the buy-one-get-one-free offer. By the end of World War II, Clabber Girl was at the top of the industry. Anton (Tony) Hulman, Jr. purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following the wartime suspension of car racing there; he then made the Indy 500 one of the most famous car races in the world. Today, Clabber Girl controls some 2/3 of the baking powder market in the United States. Among other companies, they own Rumford, whose label still advertises that it is “Aluminum-Free” because the product still contains Horsford’s original monocalcium phosphate. Clabber Girl also owns Royal, which is now made with alum, not cream of tartar.

Game over.

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

No comments:

Post a Comment