Two Great Food Discoveries: Microwave Oven & Pasteurization
Microwave & Pasteurization Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares the stories of two of the most important discoveries in food history – that of microwaves and of pasteurization. Both changed the way we eat and the safety of the ingredients that we buy. And, both have really fascinating histories that go back further than you might think.
Support Eat My Globe on
Share This Page on
EAT MY GLOBE
TWO GREAT FOOD DISCOVERIES:
THE MICROWAVE OVEN & PASTEURIZATION
What washes up on really small beaches?
I don’t know, Simon. What washes up on really small beaches?
Micro. . . [Laughter] . . . Waves.
I have nothing.
That’s true. . .
I have nothing left to give.
That’s certainly true. That’s certainly true. Okay.
I like that.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar and welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s very special episode, I want to pay tribute not only to some of the inventors that have changed the way we eat, but also the discoverers, who work in science and engineering over the centuries have helped make our food not only safer to eat, but also considerably easier to prepare. For our purposes, I am distinguishing “inventors” as those who have created equipment while “discoverers” are those who have defined concepts.
So today on Eat My Globe, let’s tip an historical hat in the direction of two perfect examples of discoveries.
THE MICROWAVE OVEN
So, let’s begin with an invention that, at best, might be considered by people, chefs in particular, as polarizing. One that some people see as having a definite purpose, and others as the “pinging” enemy in the corner of the kitchen, only to be used to resuscitate the forgotten morning beverage when discovered later in the day. It is a piece of equipment that, at one point, was expected to become the center piece of the modern kitchen, but although it still appears in most people’s homes, it is one they point to with a look of guilt that says, “I just use it for reheating stuff.” And yet, it is a piece of equipment that, I think, can still play a useful part in the kitchen, once we understand how it works and what it is really designed to achieve.
Yes, of course, on the first segment of today’s episode of Eat My Globe is on that often much maligned piece of equipment – the microwave oven.
Now, usually on Eat My Globe, when we begin to talk about something, we start with a definition, so we can be very clear what it is that we are going to be discussing. In the case of the microwave oven though, this is a little more complex, as not only do we need to look at the definition of the oven itself and see how that was developed, but, we also need to look at the definition of a “microwave” itself, to see when these were first discovered, and how they first began to be used in the context of preparing food.
So, why don’t we begin then with microwaves themselves?
Our chums at the Cambridge Dictionary define microwaves as,
“a very short electromagnetic wave used for cooking food, or for sending information by radio or radar.”
They define the microwave oven as,
“an electric oven that uses waves of energy to cook or heat food quickly.”
But first, I think it makes sense to look at the discovery and history of the microwave before we begin to look at the impact it has had on our food.
For this, we have to look back to the mid and late 1800s for the theoretical and then practical proof that such microwaves existed. And then to the 1940s and to a self-taught scientist and inventor by the name of Percy Spencer.
Oh, and to the melting of a peanut butter candy bar. Stay with me.
In 1873, Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, declared in a book that is now considered pivotal in the study of energy, “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism,” that electromagnetic waves could be created in a laboratory. And, in 1887, his theory was finally able to be demonstrated by another of the great names of science, German physicist, Heinrich Hertz. Those of you who recognize the name may recall that the unit of frequency of these microwaves was given his name in recognition – the “Hertz.”
However, while both of these illustrious scientists were able to theorize and demonstrate microwaves, it was not until our next food hero came along that we see a real move from scientific debate to kitchen usage.
Percy Spencer is another one of those amazing people that we encounter on Eat My Globe during our regular journeys through food history. Born in 1894, in the small rural New England town called Howland, Maine, Spencer came from a poor family, and did not have much of a formal education. He never completed grammar school.
But, despite these setbacks, Percy Spencer had an innate sense of trying to figure things out, and at the age of only 12, the fifth grade, he left what schooling he was receiving and managed to get a job at one of the local spool mills that had sprung up in the area into which he was born. He also took other odd jobs when his father died and his mother sent him to live with an aunt who was a nomadic weaver.
At the age of 16, he found himself signing up for work on the instillation of electricity for the first time at another paper mill. Although he had little or no formal schooling and had no idea how this relatively new power source worked, he found himself being fascinated by it. With days spent working on it, and nights spent looking at relevant textbooks, he was soon a skilled electrical mechanic.
Apparently, he was so inspired by reading about the radio operators that had worked to try and save the Titanic – don’t forget, we have two great episodes on the last meals served on the Titanic [Ed Note: found here and here] – that he joined the United States Navy so he could be like them. At the age of only 18, while working as a radio operator when on duty, he spent all of his downtime in self-study and managed to become knowledgeable in calculus, chemistry, metallurgy, physics and trigonometry.
He later declared,
“I just got hold of a lot of textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night.”
It was after he left the Navy at the end of World War I, in 1925, that Percy Spencer comes into our line of food history. Not that he was intending to. He joined a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts named, the American Appliance Company. Its name later changed to one that many of you might now know by its current name, Raytheon.
While there, Spencer’s reputation began to grow and grow. A reputation that many of his colleagues put down to his initial lack of education, with one saying,
“The educated scientist knows many things won’t work. Percy doesn’t know what can’t be done.”
And Vannevar Bush, the founder of Raytheon, once declared that Spencer,
“earned the respect of every physicist in the country, not only for his ingenuity, but for what he has learned about physics by absorbing it through his skin.”
And, by the approach to World War II, he was Raytheon’s most reliable troubleshooter, particularly when it came to working on the development of a British invention, the combat radar. This war winning device was dependent upon the mass production of a key component, the cavity magnetron. Now that reference might sound like an album by 1970s band, Hawkwind – there’s a reference for the teenagers – but so vital was the cavity magnetron, and so important to the Allied war effort, that for that and his other efforts during the war, Spencer was awarded the Distinguished Public Service Award by the US Navy. It is the highest award the Navy can award to a civilian.
Now, this is all very splendid but, I can hear some of you ask, what the heck does any of this have to do with me heating up my morning coffee?
Well, it’s a good question and was the result of an accident that happened to Percy Spencer in 1945, while he was working on the magnetrons for the radars. He noticed that the microwaves that powered the magnetrons had caused a peanut butter candy bar in his pocket to melt. The candy bar was not for him to eat, and according to his grandson, Rod Spencer, Jr., his grandfather used it to feed squirrels and chipmunks during his lunch break.
Now, you might be wondering whether it was safe for Percy Spencer to have been so close to the microwaves that cause his candy to melt. According to Popular Mechanics, microwaves are considered safe and in the context of when Spencer noticed his candy bar melting,
“people would wear nuclear stuff around their neck to get rid of cancer.”
So, there’s that.
Soon after he noticed his candy melt, Percy Spencer being Percy Spencer, he immediately began to think about what may have caused this and decided to try this again. This time, he used kernels of corn. And that, my friends, is the day microwaved popcorn was born.
But it gets better. According to Percy’s grandson, Rod, Percy also brought in one of those ingredients that we now warn everyone never to place in a microwave – an egg in its shell – which inevitably popped splattering the face of our inventor friend with its gooey contents.
Not dissuaded by the “egg on face” faux pas, the same year, on October 8, 1945, Spencer filed U.S. Patent 2,495,429 for
“Method of Treating Foodstuffs.”
Spencer and Raytheon, would commercially call this new invention “RadaRange,” In 1947, Raytheon released the very first commercial microwave oven. It was not as huge a success as Percy Spencer or Raytheon would have wished. Perhaps, in part, because of its cost, which was a whopping $3,000 in the 1940s. That’s nearly $38,000 in today’s money. Perhaps it was also to do with the size of the machine, which was a nearly six feet tall in height, and weighed an impressive 750 lbs. And, perhaps it was because the notion of cooking something with the contents of a radar might have been rather intimidating to the regular person.
Through the years, the microwave would evolve into what we are familiar with today.
In 1955, Raytheon, along with another company, developed a microwave for home use. Although it sold at a reduced price of $1,295, it was still too big for the home kitchen. And, in 1967, Raytheon, through its company, Amana, put out a compact microwave for $495. But even then, it still did not become a commonplace item found in home kitchens.
In the early 1970s, a company known as Litton Industries, released two new models of microwaves as part of their own push into what they described in the New York Times as,
“the most exciting new product since TV based on reaction in the marketplace.”
The article went on to say that by 1976, they expected the market for microwave ovens to reach around $750 Million in the United States alone. Sure enough, as prices went down and the sizes became more compact, by 1975, microwave ovens have outsold gas ranges, and stores sold 1 million microwaves every year. Microwaves had become so popular due to its quick way of cooking food over conventional cooking.
Interestingly, according to the book, “Elusive Consumption,” microwaves were initially intended as a “brown good,” that is, a range of appliances that was specifically aimed to appeal to young men, and often single men, who did not want to spend too much time cooking. It was marketed as high technology and sold along with other “brown goods” like video recorders and stereos. Because the sales were slow, it was re-marketed as a “white good” – such as ovens, refrigerators, etcetera. In the new marketing materials, it targeted the whole family, with the assumption that women would prepare the meals. Which is a fascinating background on how gendered technology and marketing could be.
Saving time and energy when cooking with microwaves happen because of its very nature. Basically, a magnetron, similar to the one that Percy Spencer would have had in his laboratory, is reduced so it can fit into a much tinier electron tube. This produces the microwaves, which can then be reflected off the metal interior of the oven, and into the food. The microwaves cause the water particles in the food to move and this cooks the food. So, food with a lot of water, such as vegetables, can benefit from being prepared in the microwave.
Now, I will hold my hand up here, and say that I often use my microwave to “blanch” vegetables, before adding them to other dishes on the stove. Sprouts, carrots, spinach, etcetera work really, really well.
One has to be careful what container to use when heating food in the microwave. Metal, for example, is a reflector of microwaves and if a metal container is placed in a microwave, it could reflect the electrical waves causing what would look like a mini thunderbolt in the area of the appliance.
Although, more recent developments in microwaveable packaging have allowed for small amounts of thin metal foil to be used to help concentrate the microwaves on certain parts of the food, for example, the crust of a pizza.
The market for microwave ovens has continued to grow, with nearly $9 billion in sales expected for 2022 worldwide. The largest majority of that is in the United States, with nearly 13.5 million units being sold in 2019. With countries in Europe – like Germany, Spain, France and Great Britain – being the next biggest buyers, although considerably less than the United States.
With the increased sale of microwaves came the inevitable supply of products designed specifically to be prepared for this new piece of equipment. Popcorn, one of the first food items that Percy Spenser trialed, has become one of the great microwave staples. This was fueled not only by the ubiquity of microwaves, but also by the trend of the 1980s towards healthy eating. Popcorn, particularly the unbuttered kind, being seen as a healthy snack alternative to other foods.
Pillsbury introduced the first microwaveable popcorn in 1982, with the current market leader, Orville Redenbacher, issuing their first product to the market in 1983. According to the Popcorn Board – yes there is such a thing – the average American currently eats around 43 quarts of popcorn every year, which includes the microwaveable variety.
Also, we begin to see the development of kitchen gadgets that were meant to be used in the new cooking appliance. You only need to look online now to see that there is a whole new range of equipment that is designed for those who use the microwave for more than just warming their coffee in the morning. These include pieces of equipment to help you cook bacon, cakes, pasta, and many more.
While hundreds of microwave cookbooks began to be published two decades after the microwave’s invention, by the late 1980s, many bemoaned the absence of a “great” microwave cookbook. These initial cookbooks were produced by, as The Washington Post calls them,
“The Industry and Amateur-Hour Cookbooks . . . [where] the contents of those books were left to unimaginative home economists and staffers who were guided more by market research than culinary wisdom.”
Soon, independent cookbooks began to appear in the bookstores which appealed across the cooking range from books by the Betty Crocker brand, “The Betty Crocker Microwave Cookbook,” to “Microwave Cooking For One” by Marie Smith to “A Man, A Can, A Microwave” by David Joachim. I am certain that I have a few of these in my collection back in London.
Despite this growth, and the ubiquity of microwaves, certainly in American households, it has not been a battle without challenges. Some of that was down to the initial reticence to try a new piece of equipment that was based on something that emerged from World War II radar. But, just as much in the mid-2000s, it was more down to the changes in the eating habits of the American public. A desire to eat more healthily has seen a decrease in the sales of food that have been most associated with the microwave, particularly frozen meals, whose sales have dipped in the last decade or so. Also, in a world where the counter top of the kitchen has become a battle ground between gourmet coffee makers and air fryers – yes, I do have one those in case you were going to ask, and I love it – rice cookers, and high end food processors, the microwave can look like a relic from another age. And, the existing microwaves that are already out in the market place are already very well made and don’t need altering terribly often, which limits how often people need to buy replacements.
Perhaps the biggest challenge more recently has come from the growth in sales of high-end toaster ovens. Their sales are up over 80% since 2000. I have to admit, I use one of these, too. In fact, I do most of my cooking in there.
It may be that the microwave, after nearly fifty years as an essential piece of kitchen equipment, is past its prime. Over 90% of US households still have one, however. Although nowadays, they are increasingly built into the kitchen, rather than nestling on the countertop. And, with an expected sale of 81 million units by 2026, it would be fair to suggest that the death knell of the microwave oven is unlikely to be seen anytime soon.
So, perhaps it’s time to dig out those old cookbooks and see what that kitchen staple can really do. What do you think?
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
Now that we’ve talked about the science behind a kitchen appliance that I suspect just about everyone would have in their house, or their workplace, the microwave oven, let’s turn our attention to another “discovery” that has had just as much, perhaps even more, effect and has changed the lives of so many people around the world. And that, is Pasteurization.
It is a word that I suspect folks who listen to Eat My Globe will, of course, know very well. Most of you will know that the name for this food treatment is in honor of 19thcentury French scientist, Louis Pasteur, and that the primary purpose of the treatment was related to making sure that foodstuffs – most people will think of milk or wine, at this point – are safe to eat or have an extended shelf life.
And, we’ll definitely talk about this at the end of this section.
However, as always on Eat My Globe, the story goes much further back in history, and brings us into contact with some really remarkable people along the way including, of course, Mr. Pasteur himself.
And, again, as always on Eat My Globe, let’s turn to one of our dictionary chums to make sure that we know what the subject of this segment is actually all about.
Merriam Webster defines pasteurization as,
“partial sterilization of a substance and especially a liquid (such as milk) at a temperature and for a period of exposure that destroys objectionable organisms without major chemical alteration of the substance.”
Over the years, the list of food stuffs that have had the process of pasteurization applied to them include such items as beer, vinegar, canned goods, all kinds of dairy products, and wine.
However, before we head to the mid-19th century to discuss the person whose name is honored with being associated with this treatment, I think it is definitely worth heading back in time to see what the issues had been all of these “objectionable organisms” before science shall we say, had caught up with reality.
And, my suggestion is that we can do this by looking all the way back to the very first time that human beings began to form communities, growing and harvesting grains, and begin to domesticate animals such as goats, sheep and cows.
Food, such as milk, or dairy products, meat and grains, could be harvested and stored for later use. Our ancient ancestors began to develop systems of preserving food. Many of these are still with us today in techniques such as chilling food in cool pits and cool waters, fermenting food, drying food, pickling food, smoking food and salting food.
In the case of milk, this would mean the creation of items with a longer life such as butter, yogurt, or cheese, which could then be stored or kept cool. In an archeological study of skeletons discovered in the region of Sudan and Kenya, it was found that people were consuming dairy almost 6,000 years ago.
And, in some cases, the cheeses made could be stored for quite some time. Recent archaeological evidence has found traditional cheeses, still being produced by the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia that are
“a hard, compact cake which may last for many years.”
And, in Ireland, sizeable pats of butter – one has been dated as far back as 3,000 years ago and weighing in at nearly 77 lbs. – has been dug up from the peat bogs of the country, where they were placed up to 5,000 years ago for storage.
People in Europe, did drink fresh milk, but given the differences in climate, between countries in the north and countries in the south, it tended to be the countries in the north that drank most milk as it had a longer period before natural spoilage began to take place. By the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, these northern territories, now considered the “Barbarians,” were often looked down upon because of the amount of milk they drank or the amount of dairy products they consumed. Julius Caesar was apparently horrified by how much milk the locals drank when he visited the conquered territory of Britain. And, even at home in Rome, because of the short life span of milk in the warmer climates, it tended to be only eaten by those who lived in the farms who raised cows and was therefore considered a drink for poor people.
Oddly, and tangentially, the Roman dislike of milk, and butter – which they thought of as a salve, not as a food – did not extend to cheeses, which were prized, and were a significant part of the Roman diet. Pliny the Elder writes about cheeses in his book, “Natural History.” For example, he says that putting fig juice in milk would curdle it and turn it into cheese. If you want to find out more about the history of cheese, please do go and listen to an episode I wrote about it for an earlier season.
The ancient Romans were, as we know from our Eat My Globe episode on dining in ancient Rome, very partial to their wine. And wine is another product that can be pasteurized. However, as with milk, wine too suffered from spoilage. Exposure to oxygen and the lack of modern wine bottles spoiled these ancient wines very quickly.
Winemakers of the time tried various techniques to try and counter this spoilage, including adding resin to the wine, and ingredients such as lead, lye-ash, marble dust, and a myriad collection of herbs and plants. The wines that people in these times, up to and past the fall of the Roman empire, would have been very, very different to what we might experience today.
There were improvements in wine preservation during the period of the middle ages, but it was not until the 12th century in China that we begin to hear of heating wine – which is very much part of the pasteurization process – being considered as a wine preservation technique.
By the late 1500s to the mid-1700s, developments in science also brought an improved understanding of the world around us, and to the scientific knowledge that Louis Pasteur would come to inherit. In around 1590, a Dutch father and son named Hans and Zacharias Janssen were credited with creating the first microscope. It was a compound microscope in a tube, looking rather like a telescope, rather than the desktop microscope that we might know today. It also did not have the name, microscope, a title given to it in 1625 by Giovanni Faber. And, no publications about what was seen through this device remain, so we are unsure how it was used.
It was not until nearly a century later when other scientists began to develop a microscope that is much closer to the ones we might use today. They were also the first to begin to discover the nature of what we now call, bacteria. Something of which Pasteur was to become very aware.
English scientist, Robert Hooke, is perhaps best known for his theory, “Hooke’s Law,” which discussed the elasticity of forces on an object. Now, please don’t ask me to explain – I hated science at school. In 1665, he used a primitive form of a microscope to describe the configurations of molds.
Dutch scientist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, is perhaps more important for our conversation. In 1676, he discovered the existence of bacteria. He described bacteria as those,
“very little animalcules.”
He was also a microscope maker, and in his lifetime, he ground down almost 500 lenses, many of which now reside in the collection of the Royal Society in England.
In 1768, an Italian priest and scientist named Lazzaro Spallanzani began to develop experiments so pivotal to the cause, that Encyclopedia Britannica suggests
“His investigations into the development of microscopic life in nutrient culture solutions paved the way for the research of Louis Pasteur.”
In a series of experiments, Spallanzani boiled gravy in vials and immediately sealed them. The results showed that microorganisms didn’t grow inside so those microorganisms must be living organisms that came from the air.
After Spallanzani, we pass by two gentlemen that I have discussed in a bit more detail on a very early episode of Eat My Globe on the history of SPAM®. Yes, I did say SPAM®. If you have not yet listened to it, it might be worth checking out particularly as a good part of the episode is all about the development of the science of canning food both by former Champagne bottler, Nicolas Appert, who canned tomatoes into glass containers to feed Napoleon’s army, and by Peter Durand, who did a similar task but using tin cans, rather than glass. Do go and give it a listen.
The reason I mention all these folks in something of a whirlwind fashion, is to show that not only had food spoilage been a thorn in people’s sides literally from the beginning of human communities, but also humans had been dedicated to find a way of combating that same spoilage for about the same time. Louis Pasteur was part of a long lineage of scientists and thinkers that have been concerned with the food we place in our bodies for centuries.
Now we have laid all that groundwork, let’s move on to Monsieur Pasteur himself, shall we?
Louis Pasteur was born in Dole, France on December the 27th, 1822. He earned his Bachelor of Art Degree in 1840, at only 18, and a Bachelor of Science degree in 1842 from the Royal College of Besancon. He then went on to earn a Master’s degree in science in 1845 and a Doctorate in Science in 1847, which is an impressive array of qualifications by the age of just 25 years old. From there, he moved from student to teacher, as he became the Professor of Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg.
It was in 1854 when Pasteur had moved to become the Dean of Sciences at the University of Lille. In 1857, when he returned to Paris to become the Director of Scientific Studies at the Ecole Normale Superieur, we really begin to see his work turning towards the prevention of food spoilage. What is interesting in hindsight is that while the majority of people today would think of milk as being the key product associated with the word, “pasteurization,” for Louis Pasteur himself, it was the spoilage of alcohol, and particularly wine that was the key concern.
In 1862, he conducted an experiment by boiling and cooling beef broth in a flask with a swan neck, which was long and curved. His experiment showed that, while the air cooled the liquid, microorganisms entered the swan neck and were trapped in the bend but the liquid itself was not touched by these organisms.
His success with this experiment led to a commission from the Emperor of France himself in 1863. Emperor Napoleon III requested that the famous scientist look at the ailing French wine industry, which across the board was experiencing issues that made the wines sour and bitter.
Pasteur came to the conclusion,
“there may not be a single winery in France, whether rich or poor, where some portions of the wine have not suffered greater or lesser alteration.”
In trying to solve the French wine industry’s problems, Pasteur developed a procedure by heating wine between 55 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius – that’s between 131 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit – to protect the wine from disease. Interestingly, the technique he used was similar to that which had been used by Chinese wine makers since around the year 1117. As an aside, when done properly, heating wine during the pasteurization process should not alter the wine’s flavor particularly when wine is heated with as little oxygen as possible.
Pasteur’s study took two years to complete, and after he had finished, the Emperor invited Pasteur to spend time at the royal residence, Château Compiègne, to explain his successful findings. This led to Pasteur’s publication of a major work called, “Etudes Sur Le Vin.” It became a classic textbook for the wine industry and one that would change the business forever.
His solution to the problem of the wine industry was to show that it was microbes that were the cause of that problem. And heating the wine to a specific temperature killed them.
What is interesting in today’s wine market, is that very little wine is now pasteurized. These days, it is rarely needed, particularly for wine that will need the living organisms of the wine to develop with age. However, a relatively new system known as, “Flash Détente,” has been developed in France, and is now being used in some other wine making areas around the world, including the USA. “Flash Détente” is a quick way of pasteurizing where the grape stems are removed, the grapes are crushed, and the grapes put in a “Flash Détente” machine, which would heat the mash for three minutes at 180 degrees Fahrenheit then transferred to a vacuum where it is cooled quickly. Initially, “Flash Détente” was seen as being of value to producers who had issues with certain sites on their vineyard that were subject to diseases or lack of ripening. But, more recently, it has been used by other producers too, to help speed the wine making process along.
For Pasteur, however, there was still much work to do in the nearly 30 years until he was to pass away in 1895. He turned his attention to many other concerns. He turned his knowledge to the local beer industry. He later became the unexpected savior of the French silk industry, when he was able to show that it was the microorganisms that were responsible for the rising number of deaths of the silkworm population, and then was able to create a process that preserved healthy silkworm eggs.
He was also one of the founding fathers of the practice of immunology. Which, with this pandemic, is something that is very much on our minds right now. Starting in 1879, he developed a vaccine for a disease known as, “Chicken Cholera,” and starting in 1881, he developed a vaccine for “Anthrax.” In 1885, he created the first vaccine for rabies, which propelled him to even more fame. In 1888, the “Pasteur Institute” was inaugurated after an international campaign. It is still running now and shows why this remarkable man was and is considered one of the greatest scientists in human history.
It is also worth noting, at this point, that according to our friends at the UCLA Department of History, his wife, Marie, participated in the experiments Louis was known for. But is rarely recognized. So, here’s to Louis and Marie.
As I mentioned before, despite all of this incredible work by Pasteur, and the fact that the process of heating to destroy microorganisms will forever bear his name, the ingredient that is perhaps most associated with pasteurization was not one that he tackled. That is, of course, the ingredient of milk.
The credit for pasteurizing milk goes to a German agricultural chemist by the name of Frans von Soxhlet, who, in 1886, first suggested that the new process be used on milk before it was sold to the public. It was a good suggestion as, to that point, many diseases, such as typhoid, diphtheria, and tuberculosis could all be carried to human beings by drinking milk. In fact, in the United States, at this point, nearly a quarter of all infants who died in New York City did so because of drinking milk that had been tainted. This changed to one in fourteen once the practice of pasteurization became commonplace.
In fact, the quality of milk in New York City and New Jersey was so notoriously bad. Not just because, as an article in the Smithsonian Magazine put it,
“In the 1880s, an analysis of milk in New Jersey found the ‘liquifying colonies [of bacteria]’ to be so numerous that the researchers simply abandoned the count.”
It was also because of the unscrupulous practices of the dairy people themselves. They used chalk or plaster dust to alter the color to a brighter white. They also sometimes added pureed calf brains to cream to create a yellow color. And, if the milk began to sour they would add a drop of formaldehyde to the liquid which would stop the decomposition. So common did this become that scandals were named in the press as another “embalmed milk” scandal.
It was not until the 1930s that pasteurization had become a federal law in the United States. And, even then, it faced challenges from some doctors of the time who believed that heating milk would remove all of its beneficial properties, and even lead to scurvy.
This argument continues even now in the United States, nearly 100 years later. The raw milk enthusiasts claim that with better production techniques and the decline of diseases that used to be carried in milk, drinking raw milk is not an issue and is, from a health point of view, better for you. Whereas, there are many on the side of the health professionals that say that the possibilities for contamination during milking are still frequent, and there is genuinely no difference between milk that is pasteurized and milk that is not in terms of health benefits, so why take the risk.
Which, I think, is a good point at which to bring this episode to a close. So, I hope you enjoyed this look at two great scientific discoveries from food history. Do let me know what you think, and perhaps in Season 9, we can look at doing some more.
Okay, see you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider. That really makes a difference.
Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[Pa pa pa pa pa sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: June 27, 2022
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.