Terrors of the Table
The Curious History
of Nutrition

Walter Gratzer
  • In the 19th Century, children of weary factory workers were likely to be fed Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, Godfrey's Cordial, Dalby's Carminative, or Ayer's Cherry Pectoral, all of which were spiked with opiates and put baby right in lalaland.

  • Scurvy is a fairly disgusting "disease." It induces blotches in the skin, a loosening of teeth, a rotting of the gums, and "constipation so persistent that it often required the attentions of a surgeon."
      To add to these afflictions the sufferers emit an intolerable stench of putrefaction. When scurvy appeared among the crusaders ... the best the barber-surgeon could do was to cut away the necrotic gums from around the teeth so that their patients might eat.

  • Scurvy puzzled scientists, doctors, and sea-captains for centuries. They couldn't figure out what caused it (they were convinced it was a disease of pestilential airs). It appeared in ships, prisons, and cities under siege.

  • It was the result, we finally learned, of a lack of Vitamin C, mostly from citrus fruit. Not a few navigators pointed this out, starting with Cabral in 1510. The key logical stumbling block was,

      how could a disease be caused by the lack of something unknown, rather than by a noxious agent such as a mould or bacterium?

  • During the siege of Paris (1871) citizens ate horses, zoo animals ("including two much-admired elephants, Castor and Pollux"), cats, dogs (bulldog was reputed to be tough; spaniel best), and sewer rats. A book of recipes for rat was published.

      A gourmandizing citizen fattened up a large cat for Christmas which he proposed to serve surrounded by mice, like sausages.

  • Farmed salmon are usually infested with sea lice, and carry little of the omega-3 unsaturated fatty acid that nutritionists urge us to eat. Since they do not get krill, their flesh is "a dispiriting grey," according to the author. "The salmon farmers therefore add a synthetic chemical, canthaxanthin, to the feed."

      This comes in various concentrations, allowing the farmer to select the depth of colour he thinks will best please his customers. Canthaxanthin has a questionable reputation: it has been used as a tanning pill and is suspected of causing retinal degeneration.

  • For centuries, the only cure for syphilis was mercury, "which was felt by many sufferers to be worse than the disease." The saying was,

      Twenty minutes with Venus, twenty years with Mercury.

  • "Everybody needs milk," is the mot of the dairy industry. Maybe not, since there's other stuff there. According to Gratzer, "the milk is contaminated to a greater or lesser degree with blood and pus."

      If, as so often happens, the cow is afflicted with painful mastitis, it will be treated with massive doses of antibiotics, a measure of which will pass into the milk.

    §     §     §

    We figured this one was mislabeled, since we didn't think that scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra were necessarily "terrors of the table" but were, rather, terrors of those away from the table. Then we got to Chapter 11, "The New Millennium: Profits and the Higher Quackery." Mama mia. Maybe you are best off to skip this one. Americans used to be the tallest "of all Caucasian populations." Now we are just the fattest. "Parts of animal carcasses once thought unfit for humans to eat are now, thanks to new technologies, turned into pies, sausages, and hamburgers." Chicken-lips, anyone?

    Polyphosphates are injected into meat "on the abattoir production line before rigor mortis has set in."

      The natural fluid in meat is thereby acidified, which causes the muscle protein to absorb more water, and also produces a change in texture. The water gain can be very substantial, and the process is commended in advertisements to producers and butchers on the grounds that it allows them to sell water in the guise of meat.

    "Tests in 2004 have disclosed presence in some produce of pesticide levels far above the statutory limits" in fruits and vegetables. "Apples are commonly sprayed 16 times before they are harvested, with pesticide mixtures containing up to 36 chemicals.

      "Organic" produce is not necessarily any more reassuring, for it is usually treated with the conventional pesticide spray of toxic copper sulphate, and nourished with manure, which probably contains pathogens and chemicals fed to the animals.

    Stop stop stop. No more. Gratzer is not a stylish writer, and sentences are often overloaded with facts. But what he lacks in grace he makes up for in sheer horror, making Terrors of the Table good late-night chiller-diller stomach-upset retching scare-you-to-death fare.

  • --- George Bell Ball
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