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Crisco. The Promise of Modernity

Crisco was the first artificial trans-fat, launched in 1911. It was marketed as "better than butter". Its promise was the promise of Modernity, that 'we can improve on nature' through the application of science and technology. The result was a horror show, the first 'frankenfood'.

Crisco was an instant success, it caught the mood of the time. In its producers' own words, "Many people wonder that any product could gain the favour of cooking experts so quickly. A few months after the first package was marketed, practically every grocer of the better class in the United States was supplying women with the new product".

This was 1911, the period was still full of optimism, progress was being made everywhere. Crisco was one part of the story of Modern times,

"It seems strange to many that anything can be better than butter for cooking, or of greater utility than lard, and the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation, born in an age less progressive than our own, and prone to contend that the old fashioned things are good enough".

This statement captures the essence of Modernity, its assault on tradition, its belief that 'we can do better'. In our cynical, post-modernist era, its easy to forget how strong this appeal was among the newly urbanised population, especially the rising middle classes. Youthful confidence overcame any tendency to look back towards the past,

"But these good folk, when convinced, are usually the greatest enthusiasts. Grandmother was glad to give up the fatiguing spinning wheel. So the modern woman is glad to stop cooking with expensive butter, lard, and their inadequate substitutes".

Crisco solved a number of problems. In an interesting parallel with today, some of these were a direct consequence of mass immigration. Butter supply could not keep up with demand in the teaming growth centres of industry, meaning prices were high. At the same time, lard was being adulterated by unscrupulous food processors, using cheap industrial waste oils made from plant seeds, the same oils that a century later are being pushed as 'heart healthy'. On the other hand, advances in science and technology now meant that traditional cooking fats could be 'improved on'.

"What was needed, therefore, was not a substitute, but something better than these fats, some product which not only would accomplish as much in cookery, but a great deal more.

When, therefore, Crisco was perfected, and it was shown that here finally was an altogether new and better fat, cookery experts were quick to show their appreciation".

As part of its sales promotion, Crisco's development was heralded as a triumph of the scientific method.

"A part of the preliminary work... consisted of the study of the older cooking fats. The objectionable features of each were considered. The good was weighed against the bad. The strength and weakness of each was determined. Thus was found what the ideal fat should possess, and what it should not possess. It must have every good quality and no bad one.

After years of study, a process was discovered which yielded the ideal fat". Science improving on nature.

This 'process' turned out to be hydrogenation, which resulted in the now notorious 'trans-fats', a symbol of the worst in processed foods, although ironically probably not as dangerous as the current batch of seed oils promoted as 'healthy' by the mainstream. Nevertheless, processing, in keeping with the spirit of the time, was a source for boasting,

"It would be difficult to imagine surroundings more appetising than those in which Crisco is manufactured. It is made in a building devoted exclusively to the manufacture of this one product. In sparkling bright rooms, cleanly uniformed employees make and pack Crisco.

The air for this building is drawn in through an apparatus which washes and purifies it, removing the possibility of any dust entering.

The floors are of a special tile composition; the walls are of white glazed tile, which are washed regularly. White enamel covers metal surfaces where nickel plating cannot be used. Sterilised machines handle the oil and the finished product. No hand touches Crisco until in your own kitchen the sanitary can is opened, disclosing the smooth richness, the creamlike, appetising quality of the product".

It was marketing pitches such as this that inspired Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision of a 'Brave New World'.

The story of Crisco does not have a happy ending, at least not for the millions who were poisoned by this toxic forerunner of today's 'frankenfoods', whose lives were cut short by heart disease or cancer. Far from improving on nature, they created something infinitely inferior, from the perspective of human nutrition.

This was not how things appeared in 1911, however, and this part of the narrative needs to be borne in mind as well. The United States had recently industrialised, its cities were dirty, full of disease, the food supply was corrupted, its people uprooted, either from their country areas or from their native land. Belief in progress, in the power of man to overcome any and all challenges through the power of rational thinking, through science and its application in technology, was central to the spirit of the age. The recent past was a nightmare, the present marginally better, but the future... the future was bright.

Here we can see the irony at the heart of Modernity. In the 20th century, genuine progress was made, in all manner of domains, life did improve, leaving aside the two great wars. But progress compared to what ? The early phase of the industrial era was little short of a hell on earth, of 'dark, Satanic mills', a period of such intense mass misery that no other historical time comes close. Modern science and technology did find solutions, but the problems it solved were only those of its own making. Even worse, today, with the benefit of hindsight and recent experience, we can see that the 'solutions' were an illusion, they only made the underlying problems worse. No one wants Crisco any more, although the brand does still exist in a modified form, its promise is shattered, it is a shell of its former self. This is the essence of our tired, cynical, 'post-modernist' present day.

So what to do ? Understanding the story of Crisco and its meaning is a first step. Making our way back to butter and lard a clear second. But this only raises a series of new questions - how are we going to produce this butter, how do we want our farming to look, our countryside, our towns and cities too, what does our 'bright future'* look like, post-transfats ? None of us have answers to these questions right now, but they are the right questions to be asking, I believe, and that is something of a start.

* this is a deliberate play on the Soviet version of the Crisco promise, 'светлое будущее'. No different in essence, just another version of Modernity

for further reading on the Crisco story, go here https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/modern-foods/marketing-crisco/

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