Now be a good boy, and eat your pie.

I ran across this line today in an article I was reading: “A great deal is being written now… about provisioning our households with an eye to the nutritive value of what we buy.” Ain’t that the truth? Hang on, though: This was 1915, and “nutritive” didn’t mean what you think it means.

Pie: Now, with extra fuel value. A bargain at twice the price! Photo by cobalt123/flickr.

The article was in a magazine called American Cookery, which, far from being the sort of friendly down-home publication you’d expect from that title today, took a “scientific” view of its subject. Nineteen-fifteen was the height of the home economists’ effort to rationalize homemaking, and the author, Mrs. E. T. Brewster, was giving her all for the cause.

We pay for things by the pound; but we can afford to pay twice as much for a thousand food-units as for five hundred, even though the two viands do weigh the same on the scales. In fact, a really modern efficiency engineer would as soon think of trying to get on without a vacuum cleaner in her house as without some list of “fuel values.” Only by such means can she distinguish the substance of food from the shadow, and make sure of getting her money’s worth of anything. “A New Way of Using Food Tables,” American Cookery vol. 20 no. 3 (October 1915), p. 187.

Viands is such a nice word, and I am making a mental note to drop it into one or two conversations next week, but set that aside. Also set aside the fact that in 1915 a majority of American homes did not have electricity nor, therefore, vacuum cleaners. Smart shopping is about getting the most nutrition for your money, that’s the point. But what’s nutrition? “Fuel values.” In other words, calories. The housekeeper’s goal should be to provide as many calories for as little money as possible.

We learn that corn meal, oatmeal, and wheat flour are the cheapest of all fuels that drive the human engine, with sugar, potatoes, dried beans, and rice only just behind them. We are told, quite correctly, that it costs twenty times more to drive an adult through an hour’s toil or for a child to grow an ounce on halibut as on bread and butter. ibid.

Mrs. Brewster suggested that the housekeeper keep at her side a table of the calories per pound provided by various foods, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bulletin 28, and use as a guideline that a cheap foodstuff is one that “yields a thousand calories for a dime.” That made the math easy — just shift the decimal point two places to the left to find that, for example, loin steak, at 1035 calories per pound, is cheap at 10 cents a pound but expensive at 20 cents a pound. Butter was cheap at 36 cents a pound, about its price in 1915; so were lard, white flour, and white sugar:

We chide our young people for wasting their money on cakes and cookies, and wanting pie for lunch. But nearly all cakes and cookies, and many sorts of pie, stand about 1500 calories to the pound. Most of them do not cost many times fifteen cents a pound. Even candy at two pounds for a dollar is no dearer than salt codfish at eight cents for one pound. But mushrooms sell for a dollar a pound and are worth — two cents. ibid., p. 220.

In short, food is fuel. “We must have fuel value to run the machine,” she concluded. “Beyond that, is the question how much we can afford to pay for what we like or what we think is good for us.” Calories are the substance; everything else — taste, along with everything we’d think of today as nutrition — is mere “shadow.”

This kind of thinking is, of course, the origin of our present-day food policy and problems with obesity. “Bulletin 28” was actually The Chemical Composition of American Food Materials, first published in 1896, and it read like an abbreviated version of the “Nutrition Facts” we’re confronted with on packaging today, listing protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber for common foodstuffs. The bottom line, though, was “fuel value per pound,” measured in calories. That book wasn’t superseded until 1940; for half a century, the landmark of nutritional analysis — and the basis of much of the USDA’s policy — was “fuel value.”

That left vegetables as next to worthless, of course. Nineteenth-century cookbooks are full of recipes for vegetables — a fairly wide range of vegetables, in fact, if not an equally impressive range of techniques. Not that the average American ever got the now-recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but now we had a scientific basis for not eating them. Here is one of the “balanced menus” American Cookery offered for October of that year:

Breakfast: Filets of Fresh Fish, Fried; Creamed Potatoes; Griddle Cakes; Coffee; Cocoa

Dinner: Scalloped Oysters; Philadelphia Relish, Jellied; Quick Yeast Rolls; Apple Pie; Cream; Sugar

Supper: Tomato Rabbit Toast; Graham Cracker Cake, Mocha Frosting; Stewed Crabapples; Tea Balanced Menus for One Week in October (Friday menu), p. 218.

Several of the menus also advised an after-supper laxative wafer.

What’s scary about this, or ought to be, is how familiar Mrs. Brewster’s advice is, in tone as well as substance. Whole Foods now posts ANDI values for various unpackaged foods — produce, bulk goods, meats, cheeses. ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, and it, like the USDA’s fuel values, reduces each food’s worth to a single number for the convenience of shoppers. I don’t know exactly what goes into the calculations, and I really don’t care. But the numbers are impossible to escape, and I’m left feeling vaguely guilty when I buy walnuts (ANDI 34) instead of almonds (38) or red kidney beans (100) instead of black beans (83), as if I’m throwing away my money on nonnutritive luxuries. Mrs. Brewster would, no doubt, be pleased.

I can’t help thinking that reducing food to numbers — to “chemical values” that are, whatever chemicals we’re talking about, merely “fuel” for the human “machine” — is the problem, not the solution. Taste doesn’t enter into the equation, and can’t, because it’s (merely) personal and can’t be quantified. We’re not asked to think about our food, let alone enjoy it. How can we enjoy it, if we’re constantly running mental calculations about its nutritive value? And why should we, anyway, if we’re only machines? Eating “whole foods” was supposed to be the solution to that problem, but now we have to reduce them to numbers, too, just like the packaged stuff. What we need to do is to think holistically about food, but apparently concepts like “variety” and “balance” and “whole” and “fresh” are too complicated — or is it too simple? — for the American consumer. Even, it seems, for the liberal foodie consumer.

Stop the madness.

Extra credit: Prepare a table of fuel values for the items in your school’s vending machine. Which are the best buys, according to Mrs. Brewster? Which are overpriced? Assume a dollar to be worth 10 percent of its value in 1915. (Hint: The Honey Bun is a steal at 580 calories for only a dollar!)

Extra extra credit: Test the recipe for Mrs. Hill’s Laxative Wafers on page 214 of the October, 1915, issue of American Cookery. Do they work? What is their (presumably negative) fuel value?