The following menu for a 1902 Christmas dinner party stands—as far as I know—as one of the most unusual ever printed. And also one of the least appetizing.
Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax
Unless, of course, one happens to enjoy meals spiced up by the taste of borax—a little metallic, sweet and unpleasant, or so they say—a preservative used to keep meat from rotting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This particular menu grew from a series of federal experiments that ran from 1902 to 1907 and were designed to test the toxicity of food additives. In these tests, groups of volunteers—popularly known as “Poison Squads”—agreed to dine dangerously in the interests of science, working their way through a laundry list of suspect compounds.
Borax came first on the list, partly because it was so widely used by meat processors. Derived from the element boron, it slowed decomposition but could also react with proteins and firm them up, giving rotting meat a more shapely appearance. Borax had thus figured in the “embalmed beef” scandal of the Spanish-American War, in which officers in the U.S. Army accused their suppliers of shipping tins of refrigerated beef that was treated with “secret chemicals” and canned beef that was no more than a “bundle of fibers.” “It looked well but had an odor similar to that of a dead human body after being injected with preservatives,” an Army medical officer wrote of the refrigerated meat, adding that when cooked, the product tasted rather depressingly like boric acid.
But beyond the disgust element was another more important question concerning borax: was it actually safe to eat? This troubling issue was the reason why squad members were imbibing the compound at Christmas, the reason for the Poison Squad experiments themselves. Established by a famously outspoken, crusading chemist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvey Washington Wiley, the squads were also meant to answer another, larger question: were manufacturers actually poisoning the food supply?
Businesses had a near free hand to do so at that point. At the turn of the twentieth century, the federal government did not regulate food safety, did not require testing of food products in advance, and did not hold companies liable for resulting illnesses. Neither did it require food producers to inform consumers what materials actually went into a food product. Wiley actually had a range of alarming compounds on his test list beyond borax, including formaldehyde (used to slow the souring of old milk) and copper sulfate (used to restore color to canned vegetables).
The “Poison Squad” nickname did not originate with Wiley, who worried that the moniker anticipated the experiment’s conclusion. He had persuaded the U.S. Congress to fund the research under the less conclusive title of “hygienic table trials.” But the catchier description came naturally to journalists who followed the story, especially as squad members began sickening. Neither did Wiley write up that borax-rich menu for Christmas dinner 1902; his menus were dry catalogs of carefully measured portions. That was one reason behind the restaurant-style menu—it was likely a protest penned by disgruntled squad members. They were weary, as one told the Washington Post, “of eating chemically treated foods in apothecary doses.”
In its way, though, that very complaint illustrated Wiley’s reason for doing the experiments at all. He believed that everyone in the country was eating chemically treated foods, that all consumers were receiving daily apothecary doses. He suspected that the country was, in fact, suffering from a coast-to-coast epidemic of food poisoning, strictly due to commercial food production. But he wanted more than his own suspicions. He wanted to prove it, and then, he wanted to stop it.
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