“The world’s first instant mashed potato factory,” and other Romantic-era food innovations

As a lover of anecdotes in a field (English) that doesn’t always embrace them in its scholarship, I often come upon delightful details I want to share, but can’t—in my dissertation, at least. So, it makes me especially happy to have the opportunity to write for this blog, as I get the chance to relate all the fun facts I’ve been learning in my food studies-related reading. Today, I’m expanding from my previously England-centric scope to delve into E.C. Spary’s recent book Feeding France: New Sciences of Food, 1760–1815.51Nvpf-pocL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Spary tells what turns out to be the fascinating story of “the role public scientific experts played in the development of a consumer society and the beginnings of industrialization,” in France, during the latter half of the eighteenth century and the first few decades of the nineteenth (8-9). Throughout this time, “public protest about food continued to be one of the most direct forms of political commentary by ordinary Parisians,” and a constant threat to the legitimacy and stability of France’s successive regimes (312-13). As France struggled with feeding its often hangry population, its leaders (both pre- and post-Revolutionary) turned to industrial food chemists to try and find innovative solutions to food shortage problems. Largely ignoring the heroic accounts of culinary artistry we generally associate with Gallic eating, Spary’s “lost history of French food” instead narrates the unlikely origin story of processed food (3). While I cannot fully summarize all her rich historic and scientific detail, I want to share the intriguing history of a few of the food products subjected to industrial “improvement” in the period:

1) Bread: In the 1760s and 1770s, the Italian chemist Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari showed “that the nutritive matter” in wheat “could be divided into two parts, the vegetable or amylaceous and the animal or glutinous” (56). With this new understanding of gluten, which they believed was the nourishing part of wheat, many French chemists decided that “gluten seemed to provide a scientific legitimation for the special status that wheaten bread held in France” (56). Despite increasing proof from returning global travelers that other populations managed to survive on a non-wheaten diet, most French people believed that wheat bread was not only their right, but also a necessity for life. Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, a lawyer and journalist, was one of bread’s most fervent antagonists in the eighteenth century. In a treatise on the subject, he argued that bread was not only bad for digestion, but also slowly poisoning the poor, who largely subsisted on it (while wealthier people could eat a more varied diet), a claim that would not seem out of place in our increasingly anti-gluten western world (77). Linguet, a fan of rice, saw bread as “a luxury, a sign of the degeneracy of the French nation” (79). But he failed to convince the bread-loving French people, and unfortunately could not continue to argue his case, as he met an early end at the guillotine (for reasons seemingly having nothing to do with carbohydrates). However, the hunt for acceptable substitutes for wheaten bread would continue…

2) Potatoes: Attempting to stave off protests due to the fluctuating price of wheat (as well as to prevent protests from escalating to food riots), French leaders turned to the perennially under-appreciated potato. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French food chemist and perhaps the number-one booster of the potato in modern human history, took it on himself to popularize the potato in France. Parmentier drew on the “epistemological framework of chemistry” to argue for a new definition of what constituted bread; in his experiments with starch, he attempted “to demonstrate that potato flour was chemically identical to wheat starch,” and that potato bread was nutritionally equivalent to wheat bread (71). After the Revolution, his efforts on behalf of the potato drew greater appreciation. As Spary explains: “In alimentary terms…the potato was resolutely democratic: versatile and cheaply prepared, it suited the different culinary capacities of rich and poor alike” (183). Indeed, by the second year of the French Republic, the Tuileries had been dug up and filled with potato plants (167). But the French still needed to discover “a reliable method for preserving the potato” (183).


Potatoes in front of Parmentier’s grave at Père Lachaise

Enter Pierre-Adrien-Just Grenet, a potato experimenter, and “a state-funded scientific researcher, perhaps the first national food chemist,” who also helped develop “mechanical potato-processing appliances” (191, 194). Spary notes that “Grenet marks a significant, if slightly bizarre, moment in French history: the establishment of possibly the world’s first instant mashed potato factory. At the heart of the embryonic centralized state which was emerging during the Republic, this space was an outcome of government attempts to quell food riots” (201). Sadly, after Grenet passed away in 1795, “rapid stigmatization of the potato” followed (198). Although Parmentier lived until 1813, “his attempts had only limited success” in convincing the French people to give up their wheaten bread and embrace the potato (72). Indeed, although many French potato dishes are named after Parmentier, his recipes yielding exceptionally dense potato bread did not earn similar appreciation. As Spary points out, “the case of the potato demonstrates with exceptional clarity how scientific claims about nutritional truth became tied to very specific political claims about nature, resources, and consumption” (200).

3) Early health food: Despite our present-day association of processed food with unhealthy food, Spary emphasizes that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the French experimented with processed foods in the pursuit of health. In contrast with later health food crazes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—which focused on natural and wholesome food—“purification, refinement, processing and chemical extraction were the very phenomenon which in the eighteenth century were held to make foods such as potato flour or meat extracts healthier than their unrefined and unprocessed counterparts” (161). Spary “shows that the authority of scientific and medical practitioners in France was not exercised at the individual level, but was derived from their membership of government-supported institutions…at the center of expertise was the trial, conducted by scientific and medical experts” (128). She highlights how “salient features of modern food commerce emerged during the eighteenth century: brand names, advertising, patent and specialized foods” (127). A case in point is the development of “specialist flours,” a popular early health food category in Paris, which came to be associated with Lenain, who “targeted a medical clientele” and “offered a wide range of flours made from potatoes, haricot beans, lentils, broad beans, maize, rice, carrots, turnips, sorrel and chestnuts” (153). Spary emphasizes “the legacy of that alliance between entrepreneurial manufacturers and the world of medical expertise which sanctioned their knowledge-claims is one with which we must still reckon today. For it was that earlier science of food manipulation – developed to appeal to a health-conscious clientele – which gave rise to some of the first industrial foods” (161-2).

4) Meat substitutes: This “science of food manipulation,” which perhaps began with specialist flours, carried over into the “search for a substance which would successfully capture the nutritive properties of meat” (203). Debates raged over whether meat or bone was more nutritious. Although most people tended to favor meat, food chemists attempted to prove that bone gelatin was just as nutritious as meat, and developed various machines and techniques to more easily break down bone and produce gelatin (218-19). Spary introduces us to Jean-Pierre-Joseph d’Arcet, who developed a method to dissolve bone with acid, leaving only gelatin, and opened a gelatin production plant (227). Although Spary doesn’t go into the history of aspics, I wonder if all this gelatin innovation helped inspire the famous early nineteenth-century French chef Marie-Antoine Carême, who holds the dubious honor of being a great aspic innovator, among other culinary achievements.


Earliest “digester” (for turning bone into gelatin), invented by Denis Papin in the 17th century

5) Sugar substitutes
French leaders also found themselves pushing against the longstanding belief “that established dietary habits created permanent changes in the body’s fabric, which it was difficult to reverse and dangerous to disrupt” (269). This led to a search for sugar substitutes, which French people believed they had consumed for such a long time that to give it up would be dangerous. Indeed, refined sugar had its origins as a prescription – it was “originally often consumed for medical reasons” (161). Spary explains that “ministers and experiments presented surrogacy as a measure designed to accomplish both international and domestic goals: identifying successful surrogates would make it possible to break the despotic hold of France’s enemies over the nation, and also, perhaps, overcome the despotism of habit among French consumers” (277). Because the French could not successfully domesticate sugar cane, food chemists attempted to make create sugar substitutes, such as grape sugar, beet sugar, and apple syrup, among others. In 1812, Napoleon even toured a beet sugar factory, and made plans to open more, despite the French people’s ongoing attachment to their cane sugar. According to accounts by industrial chemist Anselme Payen, the government attempted to surreptitiously introduce beet sugar to the French, passing it off as the ‘real’ thing; Spary notes that this “highlights the extent to which administrators, scientific experts and manufacturers joined forces to establish a culture of public deception around substitutes for politically sensitive foods. These commentators represented the majority of consumers as unenlightened about their own best interests, yet simultaneously tried to ensure that they remained ignorant of their own alimentary realities in an industrializing world” (299).


Napoleon checking out sugar made from beets!