January 1, 1893
Swift & Co introduced a product called Cottonsuet in 1893
The development of cottonseed oil from Southern cotton plantations helped fill the void. Americans still didn’t consider oil acceptable for cooking or baking, but that didn’t stop some companies from mixing the oil with beef fat to make a “compound lard.” Swift & Co., for instance, introduced a product called Cottonsuet in 1893. Unbeknownst to consumers, manufacturers had also been sneaking cottonseed oil into butter from the 1860s on as a way of reducing costs. Indeed, here was the enduring and compelling logic of vegetable oils: they were cheaper than animal fats. Starting in the early 1930s, when the mechanized process of hulling and pressing cottonseeds came to be widely used, this and then other oils pressed from seeds and beans were simply less expensive than raising and slaughtering animals.
January 1, 1906
Meat sales in the United States to fall by half in 1906
Ironically—or perhaps tellingly—the heart disease “epidemic” began after a period of exceptionally reduced meat eating. The publication of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s fictionalized exposé of the meatpacking industry, caused meat sales in the United States to fall by half in 1906, and they did not revive for another twenty years. In other words, meat eating went down just before coronary disease took off. Fat intake did rise during those years, from 1909 to 1961, when heart attacks surged, but this 12 percent increase in fat consumption was not due to a rise in animal fat. It was instead owing to an increase in the supply of vegetable oils, which had recently been invented.
Nevertheless, the idea that Americans once ate little meat and “mostly plants”—espoused by McGovern and a multitude of experts—continues to endure. And Americans have for decades now been instructed to go back to this earlier, “healthier” diet that seems, upon examination, never to have existed.
January 1, 1910
The only fats that could be found in any American kitchen up until about 1910 were those that came exclusively from animals.
As the accompanying graph shows, the only fats that could be found in any American kitchen up until about 1910 were those that came exclusively from animals: lard (the fat from pigs), suet (the fat from around an animal’s kidneys), tallow (a harder fat from sheep and cattle), butter, and cream. Some cottonseed and sesame oils were produced locally on farms in the South (the slaves brought sesame seeds from Africa), but none was produced nationally or in large quantities; and efforts to make olive oil foundered upon an inability to successfully cultivate olive trees (although no less a man than Thomas Jefferson tried). The fats used by housewives in the United States and also in most of Northern Europe were therefore those from animals. Cooking with oil was a largely unfamiliar idea.
Oils weren’t even considered edible. They didn’t belong in the kitchen. They were used to make soaps, candles, waxes, cosmetics, varnishes, linoleum, resins, lubricants, and fuels—all of which were increasingly needed for burgeoning urban populations as well as the machinery of industrialization in the nineteenth century. Whale oil was the primary material for all these purposes starting in 1820; a boom in that oil’s production enriched two generations of New Englanders living on the coast, but the industry had collapsed by 1860.