Finding Old Friends in Less-Old Places

I love MSG. I love monosodium glutamate, and I am not ashamed! Thus, naturally, I was quite pleased when I was handed the Melvin Benarde papers. This collection contains manuscripts for the title The Chemicals in our Food by Melvin A. Benarde, an author and professor of Environmental Studies at Temple, Drexel, and Hahnemann Medical School, all right here in Philadelphia. “Oh yes,” I thought. This was going to be lots of fun. “Bring on the doomsday warnings! Tell us about how food additives are going to make us grow extra limbs and hideously disfigured faces!”

However, I did not find any such warnings. Instead I found a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward chemicals in food, and the Classicist in me found a few old friends. Herodotus, Benarde says, described an Egyptian practice of preserving fish by salting. This, in my book, is a huge point in favor of salted fish. If it’s good enough for Herodotus, it’s good enough for me!

Benarde also uses a Classical example to point out the fact that “natural” chemicals can be just as harmful as artificial ones: “When…the ‘elders’ decided that Socrates was too disturbing an influence on the Athenian community, he was handed an extract of Conium maculatum—the hemlock plant—with which to dispatch himself to a more propitious environment.” Ah, yes, that little incident. Let’s just call that strike one against natural chemical “comestibles” and say it cancels out with the one above…

Oddly humorous references to the death of Socrates aside, this collection was a lot of fun to work with. Seeing Benarde’s ideas on chemical food additives from a time before some of them had a chance to be normalized or vilified, as they are now, provided unique insights into how our own ideas, and doomsday fears, about chemical additives developed.

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