How to Police Your Food: A Story of Controlling Homes and Bodies in the Early Age of Manufactured Foods is a talk about three concerns of our day: food, knowledge, and control. The concerns are anchored in debates over environmental and public health inside a world of manufactured, industrial food. Cohen will talk about the dawn of that manufactured food system to show the basis for and consistency of such anxieties. As it were, the biggest story of agriculture and food from the mid-1800s to early 1900s is one of shifts in control from the field to the kitchen, from the farm to the city, from production to consumption. Those trends grew substantially across the 1900s, but their shape was put in place early in the century. In the midst of those massive changes, domestic economists, chemists, and grocers engaged in intense arguments over the best way to police the food of new urban households. Taste, smell, and sight had long provided ways to judge the quality and presumed purity of foods. Those were measurements of the body derived from daily experience. But just as the household body was challenged by new foods from outside sources—some domestic, some foreign—so too did officials challenge the value of evidence from individual bodies in protecting that space. This talk focuses on debates between the value of bodily knowledge and the incursion of analytical evidence during the so-called pure food crusades. Those debates highlighted a struggle between household management (what foods were brought into the house) and individual health (how to assure sustenance and nourishment). It’s all very familiar as we struggle, to this day, to manage relationships between food, bodies, and the land.
Benjamin R. Cohen is assistant professor in the Engineering Studies and Environmental Studies Programs at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. From 2005-2011, Cohen was a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society [STS] at the University of Virginia. Holding STS, history, and environmental studies together, his interests sit at the intersection of the histories of science, technology, and the environment, with particular attention to industrial agriculture from the 19th century to today.