Secret Financial Life of Food

The Secret Financial Life of Food by Kara Newman, Columbia University Press 2012, hardback $26.95, 194 pages

The Secret Financial Life of Food by Kara Newman, Columbia University Press 2012, hardback $26.95, 194 pages

In a food history or cookbook, one doesn’t expect to be greeted by a first chapter titled, “How Does Commodities Trading Work?” But as Newman points out, the role of commodities in shaping our foodways is a hidden history. When Joseph stored grain against a biblical prophecy of famine, he was dealing in commodities—smoothing out the market to meet future demand. Greeks and Romans traded on anticipated ship cargos—gambling on volatility.

In the US, the growth and sophistication of commodities markets followed the industrialization of food production. As east coast ports and Midwest stockyards used rail and refrigeration to create mass quantities of food, markets used telegraph and telephone to manage the trading. The first U.S. commodities market was the 1848 Chicago Board of Trade, with other markets sprouting and consolidating as trade demands shifted.

As production and trading grew more technologically based, our expectations at the table changed. Seasonal food, like butter and eggs, could be stored and sold all through the year. New products like orange juice become common. The vagaries of local farms were replaced by shared standards. Corn was rated food grade or feed grade. AA butter can be used in food processing, AAA butter is reserved for your morning toast.

Dealing with food at a large scale (one corn contract equals 127 metric tons) establishes value and allows hedging, which keeps supermarket food prices steady. That McDonald’s Dollar Menu can be guaranteed when the patty is formed from beef traded at a commodity scale.

After this overview, Newman continues with chapters on each food commodity, beginning with one of the oldest—spice. Spices were valued for medicinal, mystical, and culinary purposes, but the market, viewed them as money. Peppercorns were taken as a tax and the French word for spice, epicerie, came to mean a grocery market.

While the spice trade led to America, what built the nation was corn. This indigenous crop both paid for slaves and fed them. Today it is ubiquitous in our food—fed to the beef in our burgers, sweetening our sodas, and frying our potatoes.

Corn also built the American livestock trade, both in pork bellies and beef. A bull market, the potential to breed more cattle and make more money, started as an agricultural condition and has become a central financial metaphor. And while pork bellies are silly-sounding movie shorthand for stock trading, they too have shaped our financial market. In fact, de waal, a Dutch-engineered stream that ran red on slaughtering days and is now covered over by Wall Street.

Butter and egg men have been replaced by blank agribusiness façades, but they too were a popular cultural shorthand for big-spending, crass businessmen, often, as Newman writes, accompanied by chorus girls. Their success came from figuring out how to preserve their perishable products—limed and frozen eggs and “storage butter.”

As Newman shows, from spices to oranges, from cocoa to soybeans, the hidden world of commodities trading has shaped our table, our language, and our wallets.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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