Lobster à la Robinson

Kinsmen shipwrecked in the East Indies become means by which to impart the virtues of proper husbandry, self-reliance and thorough knowledge of the natural world – such is the conceit of the pastor Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. As much a child of the Enlightenment as a man of the cloth, Wyss presents his subjects’ exploits as a series of lessons in morality, natural history and the physical sciences. An ostrich tamed is transformed into transport, soil into earthen vessels. The heteroclite character of the island – elephants cavort with kangaroos, tapirs with giraffes; coconut palms grow side-by-side with fir trees – perplexes not the resourceful Swiss family; they draw from it nourishment, entertainment and comfort, as well as valuable insight.

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Counterfeit Oysters from Paris

Food adulteration presented a difficult problem in the nineteenth century. Unscrupulous types mixed plaster in flour, tinted butter yellow with marigolds and added arsenic to jarred pickles. An 1896 edition of the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Reports shares an instance of food adultery taken to new heights. “One might imagine that shell fish would be about the last edible to attract the adulterer’s attention,” the article reports, “yet we are credibly informed that a Frenchman is now manufacturing artificial oysters which are so natural, both in appearance and taste, that, unless they are subjected to a chemical test they cannot be distinguished from genuine ones.”

How exactly are these faux oysters made? The American Druggist goes on to explain that the Frenchman uses “natural shells” which he fills with “certain substances” (what these are the article leaves unstated). The ersatz oysters were then “fastened together with isinglass and immersed in a liquor that speedily covers them with a thin silicate deposit.” The article ends by informing readers that the sham oysters “are being sold freely in Paris, at a price greatly below that which is charged for Blue Points.”

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