Cheese and Health in Rural France

French Cheesemaking

An earlier section noted that what is today southern France gained prominence for cheese in Roman antiquity (c. 750 BCE - c. 500 CE). After Rome’s decline, French monasteries preserved cheesemaking’s lore and techniques, in the north producing maroilles from cow’s milk in Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais and pont I'eveque in Normandy, and in the east munster in Alsace, Lorraine, and Franche-Comte. During the thirteenth century, dairies spread throughout France, each targeting a local market. By then, monasteries faced competition from homemakers, who kept recipes and made cheese. Yet monasteries retained an advantage in being exempt from taxes while requiring secular cheesemakers to give them one-tenth (a tithe) of output. Cheesemakers who tithed cheese to monasteries and paid taxes with it resented the Catholic Church and government, nurturing grievances that would help ignite the French Revolution (1789-1799). Encouraging entrepreneurship, King Charles VI (1368-1422) in 1393 granted Roquefort, France, the right to produce and sell the ewe’s milk cheese that bears its name. Subsequent monarchs likewise issued monopolies to cheesemakers. Able to choose from hundreds of types, consumers made cheese a national food by combining it with rye bread and wine.

Eighteenth-Century Poor Peasants

Longstanding tensions intensified in the 1760s as poor harvests increased food prices, causing French peasants to clash with landlords, tax collectors, and government officials 42 The most vulnerable occupied under 1 hectare (2.5 acres), plots too small to support a family. Between 1700 and 1792, the number of these farms in Basse Auvergne in south-central France grew from 490 to 870 as rents tripled.43 Peasants sought cash by migrating to large farms in search of employment or taking piece work from nascent industries.

Peasant Diets

In these precarious times, peasants relied on bread for carbohydrates and cheese for protein and fat. Twenty-three wills and marriage contracts—whose allotments are in Table 7.2—from Gevaudan, southern France, detailed diets among pensioners between 1754 and 1767.44 Although this number

TABLE 7.2

Daily Rations per Pensioner

Pensioner

Bread (g)

Butter (g)

Cheese (g)

Chestnuts (g)

1

270.5

4.8

0

0

2

443

0

0

149

3

270.5

0

0

0

4

638

5.9

5.9

0

5

666.6

11.9

17.9

0

6

668.8

5.9

5.9

0

7

426.6

7.1

7.1

0

8

400

0

0

0

9

933.3

14.7

14.9

0

10

240

0

0

0

11

506.3

7.1

7.1

0

12

510.8

7.1

7.1

0

13

754.3

9

14.3

0

14

853.3

7.1

7.1

0

15

945.6

23.9

24.4

0

16

880.1

11.9

7.1

0

17

1,177.2

11.9

14.1

0

18

853.3

9

9

0

19

959.9

0

0

0

20

125.8

0

0

0

21

251.6

0

0

0

22

838.4

0

0

0

23

935.1

5.9

0

0

may seem too small for extrapolation, total recipients cannot have been large. Pensioners were too old, ailing, or disabled to care for themselves. Illness and disability truncated lives so that these unfortunates would not long have collected pensions. This book emphasizes that few premodern people surpassed age forty. Only a “small number” of eighteenth-century French reached sixty.45 Life expectancy at birth (e°) hovered around forty years, a number that this book judges unusually long or inaccurate.46

Poverty is evident from the fact that peasant bread was chiefly rye (Secale cereale) and barley (.Hordeum vulgare), the second regarded as famine food. The masses afforded little wheat (Triticum aestivum). Fourteen pensions specified cheese as the only complete protein.47 Only one pension provided another protein, namely chestnuts (Castanea sativa), discussed in chapter 9. The pensioner lived in Prevencheres, near Cevennes’ chestnut forest in southern France. Fifteen pensions specified butter as the only other dairy product. Although appreciated for its fat, butter also has the mineral calcium and vitamins A, B12, E, and К48 Chapter 2 discussed these and other nutrients.

Some diets were more diverse than bread, cheese, and butter. Thirteen pensions stipulated cabbage (.Brassica oleracea var. capitata), turnips (Brassica rapa spp. rapa), and garden vegetables.49 The last category is imprecise, though French gardens typically supplied onions (Allium сера), carrots (Daucus carota spp. sativus), and celery (Apium graveolens). The number of pensioners who kept gardens must have been small given infirmities. Instead, they relied on family and neighbors for produce. Peasants grew the potato by the eighteenth century, though it usually fed more pigs than people.50

The most prevalent cheese was tomme—sometimes spelled tome—made from cow, sheep, or goat’s milk. Removal of milkfat, needed for butter, before inoculation diminished tomme’s fat. Gevaudan tomme, known as tomme de Lozere, contained ewe’s milk and salt, an additive common in cheeses. Aged four to six months, tomme attracted houseflies (Musca domestica),

which laid eggs in it. Peasants ate cheese and maggots.51 Such behavior may discomfort us, though Chapter 3 noted entomophagy’s antiquity among primates and prevalence among humans. Because Europeans and their descendants eschewed insects, however, readers might doubt that these peasants ate them.

Hunger overrode squeamishness, making the poor consume what was available. Three pensions totaled under 1,500 calories per day, and six incomplete pensions sank below 1,000 calories daily.52 Only two surpassed the 2,400 calories thought adequate for daily existence in eighteenth-century France. Moreover, insectivory may have been acceptable. In 1827, French zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) described children’s preference for grasshopper thighs.53 Nature enthusiast Miles Olson described maggots as “a traditional superfood” with essential amino and fatty acids.54 Although their contribution to eighteenth-century nutrition eludes quantification, maggots are 60 percent protein by mass.55 One hundred grams more than doubled the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium and exceeded the RDA for phosphorus, zinc, and iron for children and adults including pregnant women.56 Maggot-infested tomme must have been more nourishing than cheese alone.

The thirteen complete pensions allotted between 5.9 and 24.4 grams of cheese and between

4.8 and 23.9 grams of butter per day.57 The mean of all thirteen for cheese is 10.9 grams daily and for butter 9.7 grams. These averages are almost equal, suggesting that the grantors valued both similarly. The larger cheese allocation implies that it was understood to be more nutritious, if only marginally. The greatest apportionments—between 125.8 and 1,177.2 grams daily—were for bread, reflecting its status as France’s staple. The mean of all thirteen bread rations is 703.5 grams per day. These recipients would have done better to supplant bread with potatoes, which Chapter 13 judges the world’s most nourishing food. The pensions specified exact amounts for only cheese, butter, bread, and chestnuts; other items cannot be pinpointed.

Considering the first three, the daily allotment averaged 724.1 grams of food, although the total must have been larger at least during summer, when cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables were available. Chestnuts, included only once, are omitted. Using 724.1 grams as the base, the mean cheese apportionment of 10.9 grams represented 1.5 percent of the total and butter, averaging 9.7 grams, was 1.3 percent. Neither was generous, though plentitude was improbable given poverty and hunger in eighteenth-century France. The 703.5 grams of bread, however, constituted slightly over fourteen slices per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) quantification of one slice (one serving) as 50 grams.58

Inadequate Nourishment and Health

French scholar R. J. Bernard judged the meager cheese and butter inadequate in calcium in absolute terms and relative to phosphorus and in vitamin D, calories, fat, and protein, though carbohydrates were adequate.59 Additionally, he intimated deficiencies in “certain vitamins” without detailing them.60 When in season, cabbage and other fresh vegetables supplied vitamin C, though deficiencies were widespread by winter’s end in temperate lands.61 Vitamins A, E, and K, all fat soluble and available in cheese, butter, or both, were inadequate given small quantities. Negligible fat implied inadequacies in these fat-soluble vitamins, discussed in Chapter 2. The remaining fat-soluble vitamin D—treated in Chapter 2—receives additional commentary below.

Bernard characterized the typical peasant bread as 40 percent rye, 40 percent barley, and the rest wheat.62 These percentages made the daily 703.5 grams of bread 281.4 grams of rye and barley each and 140.7 grams of wheat. Because Chapter 12 examines grains’ nutrition and health effects, details here are unnecessary. Our purposes are advanced by noting that whole rye flour has the minerals phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, iron, and potassium, В vitamins, vitamins E and K, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and some fat.63 Whole barley flour supplies carbohydrates, fiber, protein, the minerals copper, molybdenum, manganese, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, and chromium and vitamins B, (thiamine or thiamin) and B2.64 Whole wheat flour furnishes iron, selenium, manganese, phosphorus, and copper, vitamins B„ B6 (pyridoxine), and B9 (folate, folic acid, or pteroylmonoglu- tamic acid), carbohydrates, fiber, and protein.65

Providing the only complete protein, cheese must have protected against protein deficiency diseases like kwashiorkor. Yet residents from Gevaudan and nearby towns were the shortest, ricketiest early-nineteenth-century French conscripts.66 This book correlates nutrition and height, indicating that shortness often reveals undernutrition. Inadequate vitamin D causes rickets. Considering diet, rickets’ prevalence is unsurprising because unfortified dairy products, bread, and vegetables lack the vitamin.

Yet from youth, peasants worked outdoors and should have absorbed enough sunlight, at least during warm months, to avert a disease of vitamin D-deficient children. Depictions of eighteenth- century French peasants—for example, Figure 7.7—reveal, however, that their garments exposed little skin.67 Broad hats shielded the face and neck. Only the hands were exposed, a practice that cannot have yielded enough vitamin D. As early as the second century CE, Galen reported the swaddling of infants, a habit that also caused rickets.68 The condition is even older, retrogressing to Europe’s Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age) between roughly 9000 and 7000 BCE.69 Whatever rickets’ cause among eighteenth-century French peasants, they were undernourished as rising food prices victimized many Europeans.

Eighteenth-century French peasant supporting nobility and church. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2009633457/.)

FIGURE 7.7 Eighteenth-century French peasant supporting nobility and church. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2009633457/.)

Urbanization, Industrialization, Milk, and Health

Raw Milk and Pathogens

Beginning about 1750, the Industrial Revolution made milk central to the quest for vitality. Europeans and Americans added the liquid to coffee and tea as they ingested caffeine to stay alert during long hours in factories. Working outside the home, women could not nurse newborns and infants, leaving the task to cow’s milk. But raw milk could harbor pathogens, including Escherichia coli that causes diarrhea, Shiga toxins that cause dysentery, Salmonella bacteria that cause fever, cramps, diarrhea, and chills, Mycobacterium tuberculosis that causes tuberculosis, Brucella bacteria that cause brucellosis, and Listeria monocytogenes that causes listeriosis. These diseases were no abstractions given that almost one-fifth of Herculaneum’s residents may have had brucellosis, for example, at Mount Vesuvius’ 79 CE eruption.70 Chapter 15 evaluates their diet, nutrition, and health.

During industrialization, milk producers amplified dangers by crowding cows, a practice that spread contagion. In 1815, deaths before age five totaled one-third of all Boston fatalities, but by 1839 the percentage had risen to 43.71 In 1815, under one-third of deaths in Philadelphia and New York City occurred before age five, but by 1839, this cohort tallied half of all deaths. In the 1840s, nearly half of infants died before age five in Manhattan, New York.72 In 1842, English American social reformer Robert Milham Hartley (1796-1881) blamed unsafe milk for these casualties.

Raw milk’s dangers could not be pinpointed until microbiology and medicine developed new ideas. In 1857, French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) announced that microorganisms caused fermentation.73 Six years later he enlarged this finding by demonstrating that they putrefied beverages and foods.74 In 1876, German physician and bacteriologist Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch (1843-1910) linked microbes to diseases by identifying the bacterium Bacillus anthra- cis as anthrax’s cause.75 Spoilage could be avoided, and pathogens killed, with heat, a discovery Italian naturalist Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799) had anticipated in 1765.76

Louis Pasteur. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ 2003680820/.)

FIGURE 7.8 Louis Pasteur. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ 2003680820/.)

Pasteurization

From these advances followed the insight that heating milk destroyed germs, a practice known as pasteurization. Pasteur invented it in 1863, though producers opposed it as an extra expense.77 In 1908, Chicago became the first U.S. city to mandate pasteurization.78 By 1917, forty-five cities imitated Chicago, and in 1947, Michigan was the first state to require the practice.79 American veterinarian Russell W. Currier and American pediatrician John A. Widness credited it with halving infant mortality in Europe and the United States between 1850 and 1910.80 British pediatrician, epidemiologist, and medical historian Thomas McKeown (1912-1988) attributed European and U.S. reduction in infant mortality between 1900 and 1931 to pasteurization.81

Yet as late as 1926, processors pasteurized only 1.5 percent of Britain’s milk.82 This year is too late to have reduced British mortality, a trend that began in the 1820s and accelerated after roughly 1870.83 British historian and economist Roderick Castle Floud (b. 1942) credited improvements in “nutritional status”—the outcome of nutrition, public health initiatives, and efforts to eliminate or minimize childhood diseases—with decreasing death rate.84 Increases in real income—wages rising faster than inflation—enhanced nutritional status and thereby decreased mortality, he believed. Efforts to sanitize hospitals after 1869 appear to have lessened mortality in London, England, and Paris, France, in the 1880s and must have contributed to general reductions in fatalities.85 After 1905 in Lincoln, England, and after 1908 in Jersey City, New Jersey, use of chlorine—an element in the Periodic Table’s group 17 (halogens) and a nutrient discussed in Chapter 2—to sanitize drinking water amplified this progress by eliminating waterborne diseases like cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.

These developments question McKeown’s emphasis on pasteurization as dwindler of infant mortality between 1900 and 1931. For example, France required pasteurization only in 1935, and not until 1955 did it establish minimum standards for the procedure. Britain and France demonstrated that pasteurization made slow progress in parts of Europe. Moreover, mid-nineteenth-century mortality diminution, which Currier and Widness cited, owed nothing to pasteurization, which was then merely an idea. Besides pasteurization, water chlorination, and asepsis in hospitals, Oakland, California, businessmen in 1913 began manufacturing Clorox bleach.86

In this context, pasteurization is best conceived as part of a sanitary movement against germs in milk, water, hospitals, and homes. All reduced the infections that killed countless people over millennia. American physician and Rockefeller Foundation president John Hilton Knowles (1926-1979) summarized the situation, asserting in 1977 that pasteurization, clean drinking water, sewage treatment and disposal, and nutrition accounted for twentieth-century reductions in mortality.87

Milk as Wholesome

Hygienic milk came to symbolize wholesomeness. Early in the twentieth century, scientists and medical authorities announced that calcium made milk and other dairy foods indispensable in strengthening teeth and bones, increasing mass and density and thereby averting osteoporosis.88 Cow’s milk was thought valuable because its calcium surpassed that in human milk fourfold by mass, helping calf skeletons grow rapidly before weaning.89 In addition to calcium, American biochemist Elmer Verner McCollum (1879-1967) in 1922 named vitamin D rickets’ cure.90 With ties to the dairy industry, he promoted milk, cheese, and butter as ideal foods. During the 1930s, manufacturers began to fortify milk with vitamin D.91

Milk penetrated the classroom. In the 1920s Newton, Massachusetts public schools typified the trend toward serving it, targeting children who were at least 10 percent underweight for their age and sex.92 Some schools encouraged all students to drink milk while they listened to teachers espouse its benefits. As part of a national effort to improve nutrition, Britain in 1927 subsidized milk in schools, in 1934 reducing 151.2 grams (one-third pint) of milk—an amount thought adequate for children—to a halfpenny in elementary schools.93 U.S. schools offered milk at breakfast and lunch, and the 1946 National School Lunch Act directed the federal government to reimburse them for it.94

As in Britain, milk and other dairy strengthened national security. Children who drank milk matured into adults fit for military duty when the nation demanded it. Congress subsidizes milk and cheese through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), an outgrowth of the 1966 Child Nutrition Act.95 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid recommends two or three dairy servings daily. In the global arena, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Italy— inaugurating World School Milk Day in September 2000—urges developing world schools to serve the beverage.96

 
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