Food Not in Food: Grape Nuts, Bread & Butter Pickles and Teddy Roosevelt’s FDA
Clarence Hooverpeeper, in a single day, changed the course of American history. Little known in his time, he is even less known today. Let me tell you about him.
On April 11, 1907, Hooverpeeper awoke at 7 a.m. and prepared to go off from his apartment in Manhattan to his first day at work for President Teddy Roosevelt’s new Food and Drug Administration.
He brushed his teeth, combed his hair and put on his new blue suit, red bow tie and matching red breast pocket handkerchief along with a new yellow pork-pie hat, which was fashionable at that time. Friends knew Clarence as a mild-mannered fellow who always followed all the rules, which made him, sometimes, not so much fun. This new job was tailor-made for him, and he intended to be there on time. Which was 9 a.m.
Coming out to the street, he hopped on the trolley car that stopped at 53rd Street and Eighth Avenue heading downtown to the administration headquarters. Coming out of the elevator, he looked at his watch and it appeared he was on time. A secretary directed him to the private office of a Mr. Hammersmith, who she told him would be his new boss. Hammersmith looked up from a magazine he was reading when Hooverpeeper entered. A clock on the wall behind where Hammersmith sat said 9:02.
“You’re late,” Hammersmith announced. “Your office is that cubicle, third one on the right.” He pointed. “Your job is to confirm that the ingredients written on food labels shown to you by businessmen matches what is inside. If it is, you approve it.”
“Yes sir,” Hooverpeeper said.
Hammersmith pointed to the dozen or so businessmen sitting on the benches facing Hooverpeeper’s cubicle. “They’ve been waiting,” Hammersmith said.
“I won’t be late again,” Hooverpeeper said. “I’ll take an earlier trolley. I miscalculated.”
Hammersmith glared at him.
And with that, Hooverpeeper went to his cubicle, sat down behind his little desk, noted that a rubber stamp was on it and proceeded to begin that day that would change the world.
“Miss,” he said to the secretary just outside his cubicle. “Send the first one in.”
“My name is Florence,” Florence said.
“Sorry. Florence, send in the first one.”
The first applicant came in, handed Hooverpeeper his card and sat. He was from a company called Mount Olive. And he set a glass bottle containing a food product on Hooverpeeper’s desk together with two forms he’d filled out.
The label on the bottle said Bread and Butter Pickles. Green brine with pickles was inside.
Hooverpeeper scowled at the man. “These pickles are made with bread and butter?”
“Yes sir,” the businessman said. “It’s part of the brine.”
Hooverpeeper squinted at the bottle. The man said that bread and butter were in there. And so, Hooverpeeper took the man’s forms, saw where to stamp, and with a thump stamped both, handed one to the businessman from Mount Olive and kept one for himself.
“Approved,” he said.
The man smiled, thanked Hooverpeeper, got up with his stamped approval form, tipped his hat and left.
“Next!” Hooverpeeper shouted out to Florence.
The next businessman, from a company called Post Cereal Company, put a box on the desk with a label that read “Grape Nuts.”
Hooverpeeper had his stamper at the ready.
“You have grapes and nuts in there?” He asked.
“Yes,” the businessman said.
Hooverpeeper stamped the forms. “Next,” he shouted.
Over the course of the next few hours, Hooverpeeper stamped approvals of more than 50 products that came before him.
He approved root beer after being assured it had roots in it. He approved cream soda because yes, he was told, it had cream in it. He approved bacon bits after the businessman swore there was bacon in it, he approved Fruit Loops after the businessman said he crossed his heart and hoped to die if it wasn’t full of fruit. And he approved Duck Sauce because the man from Gold’s said it had duck in it.
By this time, it was almost noon. And the work was making him hungry. Now there were just two businessmen left.
The first was a man from Hellman’s who plopped on the desk a bottle of Real Mayonnaise “Made with Cage Free Eggs.”
“What are cage free eggs?” Hooverpeeper asked.
“Eggs made by chickens who are not in cages,” the businessman said.
“So they’re special?”
Hooverpeeper thought about it. He raised his stamp, hesitated, and then brought it down. Smack. Smack. “Approved,” he said, smiling.
“Thank you,” the Hellmann’s man said.
The last businessman was from a company called “Mr. and Mrs. T.” He set down a bottle. The label said “Bloody Mary Mix.”
Hooverpeeper recoiled. And then, after deciding not to ask any questions, he looked both left and right, then stamped the two forms. The man smiled, said thank you, and left.
Then the noon whistle sounded. And so Hooverpeeper stood up, walked out to Hammersmith’s office and told him he would be going to lunch. Hammersmith looked over at the benches, saw there was nobody waiting anymore and so waved Hooverpeeper away. Hammersmith did think that when Hooverpeeper returned, there would be a new crowd of businessmen waiting to see him.
But Hooverpeeper never returned. Some of his friends later said he had gotten upset about the Bloody Mary Mix. So, he quit.
And he never returned to pick up his pay.
Pay was set aside for him, of course. But after languishing for three years in the state of New York’s unpicked-up funds account — another Teddy Roosevelt law for all the states — his pay was taken out of there and amongst other money used to help build the Holland Tunnel connecting Manhattan with Jersey City, New Jersey.
America owes a big debt to Clarence Hooverpeeper. Nobody has any idea of what became of him. Apparently, he just left town. But we here at Dan’s Papers think a statue of him should be erected for all the mislabeled products we have today. The statue should, perhaps, be in front of the Eighth Avenue apartment building, still there, where he lived back then for a time.
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