The Tournament of Books  |   A champion is decided as The Good Lord Bird meets Life After Life

Ads via The Deck

The Perils of Academia

Trust Me

A century ago food vendors were often confidence men, cutting their products with inedible substances. A study of the history of food adulteration reveals hucksters at every turn.

Alexander Tinei, Hat, 2011
Courtesy Ana Cristea Gallery

Here is a set of nouns: sham, fraud, deception, cheat, sophistication, contamination, corruption, adulteration. Each speaks to some failed case of human interaction, where what we get is not what we thought we got. In the latter decades of the 19th century, these terms were widely applied to food. I’m writing a book about that. (A few summers ago, I jotted down some notes at the start of the project over at McSweeney’s.)

Mostly it’s a book about the Era of Adulteration, as those years were called. That’s an environmental issue and, since I’m an environmental historian, that’s the part of it that got me started on this research: Had the food been debased from its purportedly natural or pure state? And are “pure” and “natural” synonymous, anyway? It was just as much a cultural issue, prompting disputes at the time that took aim at matters of propriety and integrity: Was that debasement, supposing it was so, intentional or accidental? It was a public health issue too, let’s be clear: Were those sophistications (such a Victorian word) dangerous for your health or just a cheat on your wallet? Whichever it was, customers in the increasingly urban marketplace were leery of being duped, and I want to understand how that wariness related to deeper concerns about the right way to live in nature.

Milk and sugar, coffee and tea, mustard and ketchup, baking powder, butter, cheese, flour, olive oil, honey, candy, spices, vinegar, ice, beef, pork, lard, fertilizer, beer, wine, canned vegetables—these were all under suspicion of having been contaminated or debased, the blame falling variously on farmers, manufacturers, distributors, grocers, even potentially paid-off inspectors. The entire panoply of the food system, that is, was under suspicion at one point or another, from one view or another.

Wary, leery, duped, fooled. Because how could you tell the food you bought was the food you thought you bought? And what if it was manufactured instead of harvested from the field, as so many new products were in the later 1800s? What’s that all about, if there never was a natural or pure state to begin with? In 1906, the people asking this, pure-food agitators, helped found the FDA, an agency thereafter cast as the culmination of this era in U.S. history. Typical textbook accounts, with the pitfalls of simplification, explain the agency’s founding by pointing to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (also 1906) and a comment that afterward everything was better. But even today, we’re still wondering if some new product or some “natural” food or some preservative or additive is a sham, a cheat, an adulteration. Don’t let’s get started on genetically modified organisms. We’re still struggling to answer the eternal twinned questions of what to eat and who says so.


One thing that happened because I am working on this book was this: I read Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. A central plot point in the novel has one stranger approaching another to ask: “Would you have enough confidence to lend me a hundred dollars?” If the answer is no, he’ll ask, “But what could I do to gain your confidence?” He’s after money, it’s true. But there’s a bigger scope to that awkward interchange, one that fits inside the implied question: What does it take to trust me, to trust anyone? What do I have to do to gain your confidence?

Frontier life and cultural identity were fundamentally in flux. In that world, things are not what they seem on the surface.

The book’s a satire, published in 1857, and in it Melville ruminates on and mocks public mores, private virtues, and the difficulties of trust and confidence that come to the fore when strangers stop strangers, and not just to shake their hands. It takes place on a Mississippi steamboat headed upriver—the Fidele (“faithful”)—a boat full up with such strangers and shady characters. Throughout the journey, the passengers strike up conversations, enter into agreements and trades over property and supposed healing salves and other investments, eavesdrop on one another quizzically, and make it clear how tricky it might be to identify a charlatan in action. They appear forthright, these con men, concealing their inner deception. Even if The Confidence-Man is ostensibly a survey of mid-century character types set on a main route of continental mobility, it’s even more an allegory of authenticity set within a world where frontier life and cultural identity were fundamentally in flux, an era of constant and often erratic motion and novel encounters. In that world, things are not what they seem on the surface. Knowing what lies beneath, the authentic thing—that’s what’s so difficult.

I have a natural inclination toward distrust, that’s true, but I’d come to Melville for this project on food adulteration because in both stories (his fictional, mine historical), the theme of authenticity and sincerity is central. Critics often cast adulterators—I’m enchanted by that common root with “adulterer,” a cheater—as con men, swindling an unknowing public with deceptive labeling and shifty practices, masquerading their misleading wares from some far-off place (like Chicago, way over there, or the Indies) as the pure thing. The literature of the time is dramatic about it, make no mistake: Newspapers, periodicals, and advice books were rife with reports on the War Against Adulteration.

One day, I happened to be reading The Confidence-Man in a coffee shop. As I was getting a refill, it struck me that coffee had been high among the adulterated products. Chicory, bark, stems, crushed beans, dandelion leaves, peas, whatever you could grind into it. Sugar, too, was commonly adulterated, cut with sand or some such. Or you’d find something outright artificial, as with the glucose they started making in factories by late in the century. Watered or chalked milk, bread baked with newfangled chemicals. I could go on. As it was, I stirred in some half-and-half simply hoping not to unearth any bark or stems.


Another thing that happened because I’m working on this book was this: I came in contact with a cabal of others around my town doing similar “food studies” things. During a local film festival we got together to screen one of the very many recent documentaries about today’s tenuous food system. I introduced the film and, afterward, a guy in a Stetson introduced himself, asking for my email address. He wanted to talk about the work we are doing. I agreed to meet. He chose my coffee shop as a good spot. We set a date. Talking about food as an environmental issue has loads of people—farmers and gardeners, often—getting in touch. His request wasn’t unusual, is my point, no need to be suspicious.

He got there before me and was sitting in the same chair where I’d been reading Melville the week before. His hat was set over a stack of four books on the low, wood-planked coffee table. Something about his posture gave me a sense of unease, so I mentally pivoted to clarify that I only had a half hour. He was gracious, seemed by all rights kind, and told me that wasn’t a lot of time to convey the concepts he wanted to convey, but we are all on a journey, so we must start somewhere.

The books were descriptive and directive, explaining how to add a cow’s horn to water to increase soil fertility, the arm movements necessary to create a vortex that best aligns ions.

Sure, yes, he was amiable and personable, even if definitely speaking too loudly, our conversation uncomfortably open to the whole place. After a career in the building trade here in Virginia, he told me, he was moving on to new and blessed things. Since we only had a limited time, I told him we could continue our chat some other day, but he said he was probably moving to New Mexico on Monday so that wouldn’t work.

Me: “Next Monday? Like five days from now, you mean?”

Him: “Yes, I think so.”

Me: “You don’t know yet?”

He wasn’t a farmer and he wasn’t a gardener, and I started to realize he perhaps saw in me a chance to gain support from the school where I teach. He told me about a ministry he was either a part of or starting, it wasn’t clear which, and then brought out the books from under the Stetson, each of them illustrating a big concept about how we ride as passengers on Spaceship Earth. I was respectful, I wanted to be respectful, even if Melvillian suspicion was growing. The books were descriptive and directive, explaining how to add a cow’s horn to water to increase soil fertility, the arm movements necessary to create a vortex that best aligns ions, the chance to tap into the findings of Nikola Tesla and quantum-leap energy.

After the books and their concepts got their due, and after he showed me his craft-made dowsing rods, our time was up. The coffee shop was bustling, doors opening and closing, active like a train station. Or a steamboat at its port-of-call. Here was a sincere man, earnest and plainspoken, believing in his mission and seeking support for his ministry—one, he said, built on principles of right living and environmental respect. His half hour was an effort to gain my trust. Although I hadn’t been skeptical about his character beforehand and he certainly appeared forthright, on my drive home I did start to worry about what had just happened. Was he really leaving town in five days? Had I made any promises? Why didn’t he turn up on any Google searches?

Melville satirized and dramatized these interactions, as a thousand books and movies have done since. He didn’t coin the term “con man,” but took from it to set the deeper slipperiness of trust, belief, and faith into a sticky lifeworld of cultural relations. His was a living philosophy of the social everyday, not trust and faith as Descartes or, I don’t know, Kierkegaard might have presented, not questions of the isolated mind. The everyday is where the money is, a marketplace of wares that might or might not be what the seller claims. Melville didn’t want to skim surfaces or simply read labels, and I don’t want to, either; I want to know and trust, deeply, forthrightly. Nothing is ever clear or clean in that world, then or now, that world as much a steamboat as a café. Maybe I misunderstood my new be-hatted traveling friend. It isn’t him, it’s me. I should trust, and I should try to Google him again.

The next day, before I had a chance to do that, I checked my email to find that he’d written a lengthy follow-up to our chat, ending with a pitch about the character of his ministry (extant or envisioned, it still wasn’t clear) that put me back on the Mississippi, back inside the tangle of trust, faith, and knowledge. And money. “I am willing to take the leap of faith,” he wrote, “and, in order to do this, I need funding.”

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at the University of Virginia and lives outside Charlottesville with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009). More by Benjamin R. Cohen