writer and historian
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Pure Adulteration

Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Do you trust your food? How do you know that what you’re eating is what you thought you were eating? Is it because you know the source, you trust the label, you made it yourself, or some combination of each? Upheaval in agriculture and food production in the later 1800s threw all these questions into tumbling relief, spawning a debate called the pure food crusades. The confusion wasn’t new as claims of adulterated (contaminated) food were nearly timeless. But the terms of the debate became ever-more confusing with the introduction of foods from factories and not just fields. Conventional agricultural production and food identity were radically upended in just a half century with those new factories, new manufactured products, and new ways of buying, cooking and knowing food. Add to this that trusting food has always meant trusting people, yet trusting people was also increasingly difficult in the face of Gilded Age hucksterism, con men, and duplicitous cheats. Challenges to character and authenticity wrought by a world in flux brought this question to the forefront: What did it take to find sincere people and sincere food?

By the early twentieth-century, trusting food would mean trusting labels. Pure Adulteration (University of Chicago Press, 2019) tells the story of the transition from trust in the agrarian world to trust in the analytically certified consumer market. It uses debates about purity and adulteration—debased, corrupted, or contaminated food—to examine how new manufacturing practices challenged cultural ideas of “nature” and “natural” and how those challenges resulted in new science-based food regulation. In the end, people would wonder if industrial, manufactured food was a con too. The result was modern food regulation based on the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and anchored by the new authority of chemical analysis.

A digital companion to the book, purefood.lafayette.edu, hosts maps that illustrate the changing circumstances of late-nineteenth century food geographies. The maps begin with a tour of one of the century’s most notorious con men, the Chevalier Alfred Paraf. They then provide visual access to changes in legislation, commodity production for oleomargarine and cottonseed oil, and export patterns for three contentious adulterants of the era, oleomargarine (and oleo oil), cottonseed oil, and glucose (“grape-sugar”).

Notes from the Ground

“In the course of the period marked by the birth of modern scientific discourse, the map has slowly disengaged itself from the itineraries that were the condition of its possibility.” —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

“Listen sometimes to the moans of an educated man of the nineteenth century suffering from toothache...not simply because he has a toothache, not just as any coarse peasant, but as a man affected by progress and European civilization, a man who is ‘divorced from the soil and the national elements,’ as they express it now-a-days.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Notes from the Ground (Yale, 2009/2011) is about how and why dirt became an object of scientific interest. To that end, it is a story of defining the modern landscape with scientific means. The book examines the historical and cultural basis from which agriculture and science first came together in America, a combination that begins in the early Republic of the later eighteenth century and becomes fully manifest by the mid-nineteenth. It explains how and why agrarian Americans—yeoman farmers, gentleman planters, politicians, and policy makers alike—accepted, resisted, and shaped scientific ways of knowing the land. It also asks questions about credibility and authority: when advocates claimed to know something new about the soil, why did anyone else believe them? Taking the knowledge and credibility questions together, in its larger ambition Notes from the Ground is a study of how science became a culturally credible means for humans to interact with the environment.


Notes from the Ground encompasses the entire subject of science and the environment during the nineteenth century. Cohen writes with grace, clarity, and insight about the 'georgic science' of American farmers—a philosophy that resonates in the present, meant to ‘reveal rather than conceal our connections to the land.’” —Steven Stoll, author of Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America

“Cohen takes readers back to the Early Republic to explore how people thought about land and production, ingeniously demonstrating how day-to-day labor in fields and barns led farmers to adopt and create their own scientific approaches. This is a crisp and clever book.” —Deborah Fitzgerald, author of Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

Notes from the Ground, by explaining how new technologies were evaluated and accepted in practice, transforms our understanding of antebellum Southern agriculture.” —David Nye, author of America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings

“Cohen contributes to the study of Virginia’s agricultural development by documenting the increasingly specific knowledge that the gentleman farmers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison’s times tried to foster. Using diaries, published writings, and private correspondences, Cohen recreates a geographical view of their efforts to come to grips with the changing panorama of the eastern United States.” —Margaret Rossiter, American Historical Review

Notes from the Ground is a healthy reminder that the roots of modern agriculture go deep. It provides a useful tonic to the popular mythology of a sudden transformation during the mid-twentieth century. [Notes] is the product of deep thought and careful research. It is written with concise and clever prose and contains lovely pictures and refreshing insights. It will surely be welcomed by scholars.” —Carrie Meyer, Journal of American History

“Cohen has uncovered a remarkable and little-known record of scientific activity. By drawing our gaze down to crumbling earth and by tracing the growing network of Americans who gleaned knowledge from their fields as well as from books, Cohen shows agriculture to be a central motivating force in American science, a little-examined realm of scientific practice, and a vital direction for the history of chemistry.” —Emily Pawley, Chemical Heritage Magazine

Notes from the Ground [is] a tightly argued, engaging, and important analysis that will be valuable for any scholar interested in changing attitudes about the land.” —Mark Finlay, Technology & Culture

“[Cohen] provides essential background for the eventual emergence of the land-grant complex and industrial agriculture. Notes from the Ground is an impressive monograph that deserves a wide readership.” —Mark Hersey, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

“As a thick description of the emergence of a new way of scientific knowing, one that eschews the teleology of scientific modernization and insists that science came wrapped in culture, Notes from the Ground is a stimulating new interpretation of a well-chronicled moment in American agricultural history.” —Paul Sutter, Agricultural History

Notes from the Ground is a welcome addition to the debate on work and environments that has been nuanced by Richard White and others. [It] reflects Cohen’s valuable roots as a historian of science [and] treads ground familiar to environmental historians, making intriguing connections between nature as agent and the effects of georgic science in the nineteenth century.” —Hayley Goodchild, Environmental History

April 2013: Roundtable review at H-Environment, by S. Stoll, M. Finlay, D. Goldstein, R. D. Hurt, and J. Hamblin

December 2011: Organization & Environment, by M. Roth, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 486-489

August 2011: Journal of Southern History, by A. Marcus, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 698-699

January 2011: Environmental History, by H. Goodchild, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 348-349

Winter 2011: Agricultural History, by P. Sutter, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 146-147

January 2011: Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, by M. Hersey, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp. 81-82 [pdf here]

January 2011: Technology & Culture, by M. Finlay, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 188-190 [pdf here]

December 2010: Isis, by P. Lucier, Vol. 101, No. 4., pp. 892-893

September 2010: Journal of American History, by C. Meyer, Vol. 97, No. 2, e-version [pdf here]

Summer 2010: Chemical Heritage Magazine, by E. Pawley, Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 44

April 2010: Choice, by L.S. Cline, Vol. 47 [available on-line]

April 2010: The American Historical Review, by M. Rossiter, Vol. 115, No. 2, pp. 541-542

Technoscience and Environmental Justice

Over the course of nearly thirty years, the environmental justice movement has changed the politics of environmental activism and influenced environmental policy. In the process, it has turned the attention of environmental activists and regulatory agencies to issues of pollution, toxics, and human health as they affect ordinary people, especially people of color. This book argues that the environmental justice movement has also begun to transform science and engineering. The chapters present case studies of technical experts' encounters with environmental justice activists and issues, exploring the transformative potential of these interactions.

Technoscience and Environmental Justice first examines the scientific practices and identities of technical experts who work with environmental justice organizations, whether by becoming activists themselves or by sharing scientific information with communities. It then explore scientists' and engineers' activities in such mainstream scientific institutions as regulatory agencies and universities, where environmental justice concerns have been (partially) institutionalized as a response to environmental justice activism. All of the chapters grapple with the difficulty of transformation that experts face, but the studies also show how environmental justice activism has created opportunities for changing technical practices and, in a few cases, has even accomplished significant transformations.


“This book brings together many of the top scholars at the intersection of science and technology studies and environmental justice studies to explore how scientists and engineers engage with environmental justice issues and activists, often in the face of significant institutional constraints. Through detailed case studies, the scholars break new ground by showing how both the topics studied and methods used to understand difficult environmental justice issues have undergone significant innovation.” —David Hess, Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

“This collection brings empirical insight and fresh analytical perspective to issues of science, engineering, and environmental justice. In presenting scientific identities and practices as dynamic rather than static, it takes us beyond science-citizen dualities and opens up transformative possibilities for both science and environmental change.” —Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School, author of Citizen Science

“The questions raised by the authors about environmental justice and the transformation of science and engineering related to environmental decision making are important and have been largely neglected in the literature until very recently. The rigorous and scholarly discussion of how risk science can be transformed by values associated with the environmental justice movement is quite impressive.” —Elaine Vaughan, Research Professor and Professor Emerita of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California, Irvine

Fall 2012: Social Science Journal, by L. Alm, Vol. 49, pp. 556-557

June 2012: Organization & Environment, by K. Elliot, Vol. 25,  No.1, pp. 204-206

Spring 2012: Chemical Heritage Magazine, by J. Roberts, Vol. 30, No. 1—

Resetting the Table in the Lehigh Valley

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This book was written by students in the Spring 2014 semester of “Technology and Nature” at Lafayette College I taught. The 19 students—representing eight majors across campus and including sophomores, juniors and seniors—took the subject of local food as their topic and the Lehigh Valley as their site of attention. The book followed many weeks of background study about the ways those two unwieldy concepts, technology and nature, could fit together. Their goal, lofty though admirable, was to propose a way to promote sustainable technologies for the sake of an ecologically healthy food system. Rather than the industrial model of technology and agriculture, that is, they considered what it takes to imagine technologies that promote environmental health, not undermine it. The eight chapters of the book proceed in three parts. First, two chapters canvas historical and cultural backgrounds that have led to our current food system and the local context of the Lehigh Valley that frames the analysis to follow. Second, four chapters bring us from farm to fork by assessing alternative technologies for production, small-farm management, distribution, and consumption. A final part includes two chapters. One assesses the role of culture and policy in leading change for sustainable agriculture. The other discusses how we need to get beyond technology alone in our goal of building a sustainable future. In the end, the students find that a more sustainable food system is one that is scale sensitive, ecologically attentive, and economically feasible. It will not come about, they show, by new technologies alone, but with new ways of understanding the relationships between technologies and nature.

Interested readers can find a hard copy in Special Collections at Lafayette’s Skillman Library, under this call number.

A pdf version is available at the Lafayette Sustainability website here.