Deborah Blum — author of this year's Go Big Read book — begins her novel by stating that we “romanticize the food of our grandparents.” The reader is then given an expose about the food of the past that, no matter what your opinion is on the food of your grandparents, is likely to surprise you. Blum reports that food products of all kinds were preserved with things such as Formaldehyde, Salicylic acid or Borax, and most products were cut heavily with cheaper additives, meaning consumers had very little insight into what they were eating.
Blum's novel ‘The Poison Squad’ documents the fight for food regulation, championed by Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. In 1883, Wiley was appointed the chief chemist of the United States Department of Agriculture and began to push for consumer protection. The name of the novel comes from the experiments that Wiley conducted to test food safety, in which the participants were dubbed by the media as “The Poison Squad.”
Last week Deborah Blum visited UW-Madison campus and I had the pleasure of hearing her speak in my Journalism class. A self-described “journalist who loves poisons,” Blum's talk centered around her background in narrative science and her inspirations for writing ‘Poison Squad.’
Blum describes the Poison Squad experiments as “one of the strangest public health experiments … where Dr. Wiley deliberately poisons his co-workers in the name of public health.” Her background in narrative science journalism and chemistry drew her to Dr. Wiley and the Poison Squad tests.
Throughout the book, she braids together the personal life of Dr. Wiley and his work in the Department of Agriculture. This book is an absorbing read that is intensely literary, despite being non-fiction. The reader is left not only with biographical knowledge of Dr. Wiley but with historical knowledge about the political climate in the early 1900s. Deborah Blum's background in chemistry and science journalism means that she can leave the reader with a general understanding of food science without causing the novel to be out of reach of the average liberal arts student.