The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The work is far from complete, but with so many collaborators around the globe, I put this out for review and comment. So, to the curing industry, please fire away with the contributions and corrections.
In the development of bacon curing technology, four iconic curing methods stand between the old dry-cured system and the modern system of the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines and the latest development which is Grid bacon. Here I list the chapters dedicated to these different systems of curing.
In the post above I list all the chapters in Bacon & the Art of Living which deals with the legendary company from Calne, Wiltshire, C & T Harris. I present the chapters for those who desire to restrict their inquiry to the Harris operations.
I fell in love with the story of the Kolbroek from the first time I heard it. It is one of the indigenous South African pig breeds, closely related to the Kune Kune from New Zealand. In trying to trace the origins of these breeds, I had to go back to the development of the English pig. It’s one of the greatest stories of our trade and here I share the complete work from Bacon & the Art of Living on these amazing animals! The list of chapters dealing with these are given in the link above.
In Bacon & the Art of Living, I dedicate three chapters to salt. It remains one of my favourite study subjects. The truth is that I only scratched the surface. It is a subject that I will return to often and I am planning to expand on Chapter 10.12, The Salt of the Land and the Sea. In the link above, I present the three chapters for those who are interested in a more thematic study.
The Afrikaner Nation and Boers feature prominently in my story of bacon. The timeline is such that I returned to South Africa just before the outbreak of the war. So, inserting the Boer War into this work makes perfect sense.
The second role of inserting it is that it is a perfect example of the power of the mental world where we serve images we created and exist only in the mind such as nationalism. It is central to the “art of living” considerations and insights that came to me through the discipline of meat curing.
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Curing Molecule
Before we get into storytelling, it will be of great value to have a technical discussion about meat curing. The story will be more enjoyable if you understand how curing works. This chapter is designed to give you enough background to understand the fundamentals of curing and some of its complexities. This is not intended to be a science textbook and so I take the liberty to present matters in a somewhat simplified manner. I don’t for example always indicate when I am talking about an ionic compound when I write a simple notation for nitrite as NOO. I also added, “Want to know more?” sections for those who have a chemical background or those who want to gain a deeper understanding. Get through Chapter 2 and a story awaits which will blow your mind!
What is Meat Curing?
The most important question in a work on the history of meat curing is to understand what meat curing is! Meat curing is the process whereby meat is changed into a form that lasts outside a refrigerator. We can say that it imparts longevity to meat. In the curing process, there are two changes that we can identify with our senses. A delicious taste develops and the colour change to a characteristic pinkish/ reddish colour. A slightly less obvious characteristic is cured meat is safe from microorganisms which make us sick. These characteristics are observed through observation but what happens as far as chemical reactions are concerned?
The large molecule which is the building block for muscle or meat is called a protein. An important class of proteins in our body is called hemeproteins (also spelt haem protein or hemoprotein). These are proteins which have something attached to them that biochemists refer to as a heme prosthetic group. A prosthesis helps a person who lost a limb to still accomplish a certain task like a handshake. The prosthesis in the case of proteins is non-protein additions to the protein which accomplish specific tasks. The heme prosthetic group allows proteins to carry oxygen, facilitate electron transfer and participate in oxygen reduction among other processes. Curing is the reaction between protein and the small gaseous molecule called nitric oxide (NO).
In curing nitric oxide is bound onto this heme component. It is this binding of nitric oxide to the protein which we observe as a pinkish/ reddish colour. Nitric oxide is responsible for key characteristics of cured meat. The colour, the longevity and the fact that the product is free from microorganisms, likely to make us sick. Another characteristic of cured meat we observed with our senses is the cured taste. Exactly how the taste is altered through curing is something which we have not completely worked out yet.
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Nitric oxide is the most important molecule related to the cured colour of meat. This does not say that other chemical species also derived from nitrogen do not play a role in changing the colour. This is true related to colour formation as well as anti-microbial ability. An example is nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The researcher Cornforth (1998) showed that pink rings that form in beef roasts cooked in gas ovens and turkey rolls are produced by nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Similarly, we know that both nitrite and nitric oxide plays a very important role in the antimicrobial working of the curing process. The researcher, Scairer (2012), reported on the antimicrobial value of nitric oxide.
How is Nitric Oxide formed?
Let’s begin by looking at how nitric oxide is formed. For our discussion, what is essential to know is that it is formed both inside the body or by the body itself and outside the body. Almost every cell in our bodies can produce it. There are also two basic types of reactions that produce it.
i. Meat proteins contain an amino acid called L-Arginine. The body has the ability to access its nitrogen and combines it with an oxygen atom to create nitric oxide. Beginning in the 1990s scientists started to understand that certain bacteria also have the ability to convert L-arginine into L-citrulline and nitric oxide which cures meat. The exact mechanism is still under investigation but this remarkable discovery accomplishes what has become like the search for the holy grail namely the curing of meat without the use of nitrate or nitrite.
ii. The second major way that nitric oxide is created is the conversion of nitrate to nitrite and the nitrite to nitric oxide. The source of nitrate can be salts such as sodium or potassium nitrate or it occurs in large volumes in certain plants which we regularly consume. Bacteria break the nitrate down to nitrite and nitrite is changed into nitric oxide through mainly chemical reactions. In conventional curing operations, either nitrate or nitrite salts are used to create nitric oxide which cures meat.
This means that bacteria are involved in the reactions involving nitrate and L-Arginine. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the reason why this remarkable discovery remained unidentified for so many years. The conversion of L-Arginine only takes place when no nitrate is present. If nitrate is present the bacteria use the nitrogen found in nitrate and not L-arginine. That L-Arginine plays a role in salt-only, long-term curing processes has been suspected for many years and in the 1990s it was identified that the reaction was mediated through bacteria. What seemed to have happened was that the scientific community continued to relegate this to the realm of long-term cured hams and bacon. It is only in recent years that commercial quick-curing factories using bacterial fermentation became a reality in large high throughput commercial curing plants using bacterial fermentation and no nitrates or nitrites. In fact, so successful have these developments in meat fermentation been that meat curing is achieved in approximately the same time as is done with sodium nitrite.
That sets the first part of the stage for our discussion about meat curing. My own life is a good example of how only knowing the facts as I presented above about meat curing does not mean that you can use the techniques. The reality is that these methods can only be effectively applied within the framework of a complete curing system and developing such a system is far more complex than one imagines. I have, for example, known that bacteria are able to use L-Arginine to create nitric oxide for a full five years before I started to unravel the context and requirements of what it will take to use this to cure meat in a commercial curing operation. Colour stability and a safe microenvironment must be created. The formation of biofilm must be managed. The speed of the reaction must be increased. So I can go on and on and the point is simply this, it is a wonderfully complex endeavour.
Let’s return to the consideration of the two curing paths that we just looked at. In the course of this chapter, I will make repeated references to these two reactions. The story of bacon is, in a nutshell, the story of ways to produce nitric oxide in the fastest possible time to cure meat.
It has been an obsession of many curers and scientists to find another way to cure meat. In other words, not to use the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide path to curing due to questions that emerged about the safety of nitrate and nitrite. The use of bacteria to cure the meat achieves this! However, right at the outset, I want to caution that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide are like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in that where you find one, you find them all due to the high reactivity of these nitrogen species (Reactive Nitrogen Species) as we refer to them. Creating nitric oxide with bacteria from L-Arginine may seem like solving the problematic use of nitrate and nitrites in meat curing but if the two cousins of nitric oxide (nitrate and nitrite) will in any event both appear in meat cured with bacteria only, is it really addressing the problem?
A far more fundamental question exists namely if the hysteria against nitrate and nitrite is warranted! Is the use of nitrite or nitrate really problematic? Are these really entities of concern when we consider human health? In recent years evidence started to emerge that the exact opposite is true namely that if we do not ingest sufficient nitrate and nitrite, this has far more detrimental health effects on humans than having them in our food.
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A closer look at the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide sequence in our bodies:
The researcher, Weitzberg (2010) reportes that “several lines of research . . . indicate that the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway is involved in regulation of blood flow, cell metabolism, and signaling, as well as in tissue protection during hypoxia (meaning, a lower-than-normal concentration of oxygen in arterial blood).” This is the exact curing reaction when we begin with slatpetre (NO3–) or with nitrite NO2– as is the predominant current system of curing in high throughput curing operations. When we use sodium nitrite to cure the meat, the process still results in the formation of nitric oxide (NO). The curing reaction is therefore a “natural reaction” which takes place in our bodies and is essential to life.
Can we remove nitrogen (nitrate or nitrite) from our diets?
We are all aware of the importance of oxygen to our everyday lives. Without it, life as we know it is not possible. A second element as important to life as oxygen is nitrogen. Where does nitrogen come from and why is it important to life? Let’s take a step back and consider nitrogen for a moment before we return to nitrate and nitrite in food and the chemistry of curing.
The Importance of Nitrogen
I have written extensively about how reactive nitrogen species are formed from atmospheric nitrogen and I will leave the subject to be discussed later.
Sufficient to point out that nitrogen is one of the most essential plant foods and is taken up in the structure of plants. From the plants, they provide sustenance to animals when they eat the grass. The ability of animals to absorb nitrogen is a key element in what makes food nutritious. From very early it has been shown by various scientists that animals fed with food containing no nitrogen get sick and even die whereas animals fed with food high in nitrogen thrive. This is important since, in evaluating the use of nitrogen in meat curing (through nitric oxide), the first thing we must realise is that without nitrogen, there is no nutrition. We need nitrogen like we need water or oxygen to live.
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The role of nitrogen in plants:
Nitrogen is part of the green pigment of plants, responsible for photosynthesis, called chlorophyll. It further is responsible for a plant’s rapid growth, increasing seed and fruit production, and improving the quality of leaf and forage crops. (Plant Nutrients and Lilies) This is important as we will later see how nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide not only cures meat and ensures the overall health of our bodies, but how the same reaction is key to the nutrition of plants. The curing reaction is by no ways something foreign. It is vitally important to all aspects of animal and plant life and humans form part of this group of animals.
Nitrogen as plant food:
Potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) together with phosphorous (P) are considered the primary nutrients of plants. These are normally lacking in the soil because plants use them for growth and thus deplete it. As we will see, nature replenishes nitrogen, but modern farming created the demand to add extra nitrogen to the soil. Potassium (K), nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) are all part of the macronutrients. The secondary nutrients are calcium (Ca), magnesium (MG), and sulphur (S). These nutrients are normally abundant in the soil. When lime is applied to acidic soil, large amounts of calcium and magnesium are added. Decomposing organic matter normally yields enough sulphur. Potassium (K) is absorbed in bigger volumes than any other mineral element except nitrogen and in some cases, calcium. It assists in the building of proteins, photosynthesis, and fruit quality and it reduces diseases. (Plant Nutrients and Lilies) The abundance of potassium in plants can be seen from where we first identified it namely from potash or plant ashes soaked in water in a pot. Potassium is derived from this practice predating the industrial revolution.
All proteins, the building blocks of muscles contain nitrogen. Our bodies use nitric oxide to stay healthy in many different ways. To such an extent that without nitric oxide in our bodies, life will not be possible. The question is now if the body produces enough nitric oxide on its own and the answer is no. We need to supplement what the body can produce through our diet. Some of the foods where we get nitrate or nitrite in our diets are:
By far the biggest source of nitrates is leafy green vegetables. The way that the nitrates end up as nitric oxide in our bodies is the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide sequence. These vegetables also contain nitrites and these turn into nitric oxide through the steps of nitrite-> various-chemical-reactions ->nitric oxide.
Borehole water often has nitrate and nitrite from animal and human waste and fertilisers in surrounding areas. The sequence of reactions that change the nitrates in water into nitric oxide is the same as above namely nitrate-> nitrite-> nitric oxide.
-> Cured Meat
Nitrate salts are found naturally around the world. Potassium nitrate for example we know as saltpetre. Nitrite salts are manufactured salts containing sodium and nitrite. Saltpetre (potassium or sodium nitrate) is used in meat curing to this day. If we consume cured meat we ingest nitrates or nitrites and it ends up changing into nitric oxide in our bodies either through the reaction nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide or nitrite-nitric oxide. Cured meat is, however by far the smallest and most insignificant source of nitrates and nitrites.
What is important to focus on here is the path from nitrate to nitric oxide. Let me illustrate it in greater detail using saltpetre as an example. Saltpetre can be represented as one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms and to make it easy, I will write it as NOOO to focus on the number of oxygen atoms. The astute observer will see that I leave the metal part of saltpetre out and I represent only the nitrate part. Nitrate joins forces with metals like sodium, calcium, or potassium to form sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate (which is known as saltpetre) or calcium nitrate. In terms of curing meat, only sodium plays a further role and we will look at that later, but for now, it’s helpful to ignore the first part of the pair and focus only on the nitrate part.
When nitrate connects to one of the metals it forms a very stable salt which does not easily lose an oxygen atom. We said we represent nitrate in this chapter as NOOO, but you remember that the actual representation is NO3–. The stable molecule now loses an oxygen atom through bacteria that use the extra oxygen atom in its metabolism. So, NOOO loses an oxygen atom through the action of bacteria and nitrite is formed which we represent as NOO (actually, NO2–). In contrast to nitrate, nitrite is an unstable molecule and is easily changed to one of the other Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) such as nitric oxide. If NOO loses an oxygen atom, NO or nitric oxide is formed. This reaction happens chemically and not through bacteria and it involves nitrate first changing into other forms before it ends up as nitric oxide.
Ancient curing methods start with nitrate, which is changed to nitrite and eventually to nitric oxide. This is the way that it was done before sodium nitrite became available around the world after World War I and many artisan curers still prefer to start with nitrate when they cure meat. The reason for this is that the bacteria also contribute to the development of flavours in the meat which one loses if one starts directly with nitrite in the form of sodium nitrite which does not require bacteria to change into nitric oxide to cure the meat. It became the norm following World War II to skip the step of changing nitrate to nitrite which is time-consuming and may result in inconsistent curing by beginning the reaction sequence by using sodium nitrite and not nitrate.
Whether you talk about the reaction nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide or nitrite-nitric oxide, these scenario has at their heart the loss of one oxygen atom in every step. The opposite is also possible mainly that oxygen atoms can be added. At times, nitric oxide can gain an atom to form NOO or nitrite and NOO to form NOOO or nitrate. Remember that we said that where you find one, you are likely to find the others. So, where you have either nitrate, nitrite or nitric oxide, you are likely to find the others also.
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It is easy to see that the 3 following the O which represents oxygen indicates that one nitrogen atom binds to three oxygen atoms in the nitrate molecule, but what does the minus sign indicate? The nitrogen and three oxygen atoms form a unit or a package. The nett charge of this package is, however, negative, which is what the minus sign indicates. We call this not a molecule, but a very special molecule called an ion (where there is only one atom) or an ionic compound as in the case of nitrate with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the molecule. A compound is supply two or more elements grouped together. An ion is what we call a unit like this (which can be an atom or a molecule) but it has a net electrical charge which is either + (positive) or – (negative). Ionic compounds are held together by these ionic bonds or electrostatic forces, as we refer to them. The ion by itself has a charge as either + or – but when it connects with another ion of opposite charge, the molecule is neutral overall. It has a component which is positively charged (called an anion – a positively charged ion) and a negatively charged component (called a cation – a negatively charged ion). An example of an ionic compound from everyday life is table salt with one positively charged sodium ion (Na+) and one negatively charged chloride ion (Cl−) called sodium chloride or table salt. We call it a salt because one component is alkali and the other is acidic.
The combination of nitrogen and oxygen yields several salts of importance for example saltpetre. Like table salt is the colloquial term for sodium chloride, so the colloquial term for potassium nitrate is saltpetre. The nitrate component or ion, NO3– reacts with metal ions such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, or calcium. The metal components occur in solution (mixed into water) as a strong acid in the form of (HNO3) with a strong base (KOH) which reacts to form a crystal [P+].[NO3–] or PNO3. Traditionally, saltpetre refers to potassium nitrate.
Another metal it often combines with is sodium to form sodium nitrate. Sodium or natrum (German) is represented by the letters “Na” for sodium and again, the nitrate component which is NO3– combines to give sodium nitrate written as [Na+].[NO3–] to form NaNO3.
The final example is the metal calcium, abbreviated Ca which represents calcium, but calcium combines with two sets of nitrates (NO3–) x 2 written as (NO3)2 and the complete name is therefore Ca(NO3)2. In our discussions here we ignore the metal part of the molecule being in our examples above potassium (K), sodium (Na) and Calcium (Ca). For easy of reference, when we talk about nitrate, we only refer to the NO3–component but often, there would be either K or Na or Ca attached to the nitrate but because it plays no role in the rest of the chemical reaction, we will conveniently ignore these metal components.
Summarise different metals that combine with nitrate:
NOOO (nitrate) + K (potassium) = KNO3 (Potassium Nitrate)
NOO (nitrite) + Ca (Calcium) = Ca(NO2) 2 (Calcium Nitrite)
This is another equally likely reaction which involved the gaining of oxygen atoms and not losing it (reduction). An example of an oxidation reaction is the reaction with L-Arginine which we looked at briefly and the oxidation of ammonia (NO3)/ ammonium (NH4+), both of which creates nitric oxide and are mediated through bacteria. We will tell the story of the formation of nitric oxide from ammonia in a subsequent chapter.
We summarise the two reactions as follows:
-> Reduction (losing oxygen atoms)
One way to create nitric oxide is by removing oxygen atoms. We remove one of the three oxygen atoms from nitrate (NOOO), and we get nitrite (NOO). In the name, the “a” is replaced with an “i” and, nitrite has one less oxygen atom than nitrate. If we remove one more oxygen atom from nitrite (NOO) we get nitric oxide (NO) which is the primary curing molecule.
So, let’s review the simple but important chemistry. Don’t worry about trying to remember these. We will refer to them so many times that you will easily remember them when we are done.
NOOO or (NO3–) = Nitrate or Saltpetre
NOO or (NO2–) = Nitrite
NO = Nitric Oxide
When nitrate loses one oxygen atom, it changes to nitrite and nitrite that loses one oxygen atom changes to nitric oxide.
NOOO (nitrate) – O = NOO (nitrite)
NOO (Nitrite) – O = NO (nitric oxide)
We have seen that to form nitric oxide from nitrate salts, you lose two oxygen atoms. Chemists say that the number of oxygen atoms is reduced. The word “reduced” will be important as we will say that the nitrate or nitrite is reduced, we mean that it lost an oxygen atom.
The same salts that nitrate forms with metal are formed by the more reactive nitrite.
NOO (nitrite) + K (potassium) = KNO2 (potassium nitrite)
NOO (nitrite) + Ca (Calcium) = Ca(NO2) 2 (Calcium Nitrite)
-> Oxidation (Gaining Oxygen Atoms)
Earlier, we have seen that nitric oxide is created by our bodies through certain processes in our cells. Instead of taking an oxygen atom away, it created nitric oxide by starting with a nitrogen atom and then it adds an oxygen atom to the nitrogen atom, and it forms nitric oxide. This process is called oxidation (adding an oxygen atom).
Ammonia is oxidized through bacteria which adds an oxygen atom to nitrogen and creates nitric oxide. More about this later when we drill down into sal ammoniac. Another way this happens is when ammonia is burned in the presence of oxygen. In this case, it is also oxidized to either nitrogen gas (N2) or nitric oxide (NO). It must be noted that the oxidation of ammonium salts usually produces nitrogen gas.
The Ever-Presence of Nitrogen
Let’s return to considering how gas, nitrogen, enters our world and becomes part of the nutrition of plants and animals. Otto et al (2010) estimate that with 1.4 billion lightning flashes each year, an estimated 8.6 billion tonnes of chemicals of one form or other are generated from the general formulation of NOx. Don’t get scared with the introduction of the x. It tells us we have a variable from which the exact number differs. You are already familiar with three of the forms this can take. Look at Nitric Oxide (NO), nitrite (NO2-), and nitrate (NO3–) and see if you can spot the function of the x which in this case is either an implied 1, an overtly stated 2 or 3. Can you tell me why the 1 is implied and for what form of nitrogen and oxide?
This estimate by Otto et al (2010) is staggering. It dwarfs what the curing industry can produce. It comprehensively obliterates the notion that nitrogen or nitric oxide or even nitrite for that matter are evil chemical species, which is produced by humans, and added to meat which will, so it is reported, do harm to the human body.
Otto, et al (010) and many others show conclusively that the presence of nitrate and nitric oxide is pervasive on planet earth. Nitrite is far less prevalent than nitrate. Nitrite is highly reactive and does not stay in this state very long (similar to nitric oxide). It forms a salt such as sodium nitrate which is more stable and is naturally found in some vegetables and meat, but still, nitrites often occur in vegetables. Most current sodium nitrites in dietary sources are made by humans. Nitric Oxide is also “fleeting” being a gas which quickly reacts to become another species.
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“Nitrogen is an essential element for all forms of life and is the structural component of amino acids from which animal and human tissues, enzymes, and many hormones are made. For plant growth, available (fixed) nitrogen is usually the limiting nutrient in natural systems. Nitrogen chemistry and overall cycling in the global environment are quite complex due to the number of oxidation states. Nitrogen itself has five valence electrons and can be found at oxidation states between −3 and +5. Thus, numerous species can form from chemical, biochemical, geochemical, and biogeochemical processes.” (Hanrahan, 2005) Below I list the oxidation state of different nitrogen species (and important chemical data).
Global nitrogen species and selected chemical data by: Hanrahan, 2005.
If you’re interested to learn more, google oxidation states. For those with a lively interest in this, I give the oxidation state of key nitrogen species.
The special Oxidation States of Nitrogen
Nitrate ion, oxidizing agent in acidic solution.
Nitrogen dioxide is a brown gas usually produced by the reaction of concentrated nitric acid with many metals. It dimerizes to form N2O4.
An oxidizing agent usually produces NO(g) or a reducing agent to form the nitrate ion.
Nitrogen oxide is also called nitric oxide. A colourless gas is produced by the reaction of metals with dilute nitric acid which then reacts with O2 in the air to form the brown NO2 gas.
Dinitrogen oxide is also called nitrous oxide or laughing gas.
Commonly found in air and very unreactive because of the very strong triple bond.
NH2OH Hydroxylamine, a weak base, can act as either an oxidizing agent or a reducing agent.
Hydrazine, a colourless liquid, is a weak base. Used as rocket fuel. It is disproportionate to N2 and NH3.
In basic solutions and as NH4 agent in aqueous solutions. When ammonia is burned in the presence of oxygen it is oxidized to either N2 or NO. The oxidation of ammonium produces nitrogen gas. salts usually.
Demonstrating Oxidation and Reduction
Let’s illustrate this with a helpful diagram which illustrates both oxidation and reduction of nitrate found in beetroot.
Nitrate–nitrite–nitric oxide pathway. Adapted from Niayakiru et al., 2020 by Milton-Laskibar (2021).
In the illustration above, beetroot contains nitrate (NOOO). Nitrate loses an oxygen atom and nitrite (NOO) is created. This is done through bacteria. It loses another oxygen atom and nitric oxide (NO) is created. These are examples of reduction reactions or losing-an-oxygen-atom reactions. In our current survey, nitric oxide (NO) can now react with a heam protein to cure the meat.
Nitric oxide (NO) can gain an oxygen atom to create nitrite (NOO) and nitrite can gain an oxygen atom to create nitrate (NOOO). There is another mechanism whereby nitric oxide (NO) gains two oxygen atoms at once and nitrate (NOOO) is created directly, skipping the formation of nitrite (NOO) completely. These are all examples of oxidation reactions or gaining-an-oxygen-atom reactions.
I add another graph to explain the various ways that oxidation and reduction take place of nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide.
Meat curing is no longer the only industry to recognise the importance of nitric oxide. It turns out the molecule vilified for hundreds of years as purportedly being bad for us, possesses some remarkable qualities which recently became the intense subject of scientific investigation. Without it, life is not possible and the reason why few people know about it is that it has only been discovered as late as the 1980s and 1990s.
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Nitric oxide turns out to be an extremely important molecule.
The Biologically Essential Molecule, Nitric Oxide; Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS)
Years ago, before the importance of nitric oxide was appreciated, consumers looked upon the fact that nitrite (which is very reactive and much more poisonous than nitrate) is used in food with great scepticism. They failed to understand that in nature N (nitrogen) easily and often becomes NO (nitric oxide), NOO (nitrite) or NOOO (nitrate or saltpetre). Also, NOOO (nitrate or saltpetre) often and easily becomes NOO (nitrite) and NO (nitric oxide). Where you find NO, chances are that you will also find NOO and NOOO. Likewise, where you find NOO, you will find NO and NOOO. This is a normal part of the functioning of the human body.
The fact that nitrite is poisonous must be qualified by the statement that nitrite is poisonous under certain conditions. What exactly those conditions are will become a major focus of our study, but simply to say that because something is poisonous under specific conditions, that it is dangerous to include it in food is itself a false assertion.
During this work, I will introduce a very important comparison namely between Oxygen and Nitrogen. Oxygen is like nitrogen in that under certain conditions it is toxic and can lead to death. In fact, it can be stated that ANY cell with a nucleus, as a normal process of the metabolism of the cell, generates both reactive species of oxygen and nitrogen. (Griendling, 2016)
We understand that even oxygen has unintended negative consequences such as ageing us and causing the ultimate demise of the body despite the fact that we recognise it as foundational to life on earth. The same two-edged sword experience is what we encounter in the discipline of curing and it is extremely important to understand it and responsibly ensure that no negative environment exists that may cause the nitrogen species to be harmful to humans in any shape or form.
The facts so far are crystal clear. Nitric Oxide (NO), the curing molecule, as its cousins of nitrate or saltpetre (NOOO) and nitrite (NOO) are essential to human and animal life and the functioning of our bodies. Nitrogen is probably no more or less dangerous than oxygen.
It’s Present in our Bodies!
Green et al, (1982) gave us these interesting results of nitrate and nitrite found in our urine, saliva, plasma, gastric juices and milk which points to the fact that these compounds are ever-present in the body. It is part and parcel of human physiology!
When discussing nitric oxide which we have seen as an essential part of our biology, or whether we are talking about nitrate or even nitrite, the first thing to grasp is that these molecules are naturally part of the human body and, as you can see from the table above, they are found in our saliva and our gastric juices. There are other places they are also found on the human body, but we will get to that later. A blanket statement such as that nitrite is bad for us we can unequivocally call an incorrect statement!
The curing molecule is Nitric Oxide. There are different ways to produce nitric oxide. One is to start with the more stable nitrogen salt, saltpetre or nitrate (NOOO). Bacteria use nitrate or saltpetre in respiration in the absence of air and nitrite is created (NOO). Nitrite comes into contact with chemical elements which facilitates the loss of another oxygen atom which brings nitric oxide about which reacts with the protein. It is this reaction that presents itself to us as creating a pinkish/ reddish colour. Nitric Oxide, an extremely important and versatile molecule is created in the human body through a chemical reaction with the amino acid, L-Arginine. This same reaction is also mediated through bacteria added directly to the meat and fermentation becomes a very productive method to cure meat without the use of sodium nitrate or nitrate. So, nitric oxide comes to us through that which our bodies produce naturally or through our diet when we ingest either nitric oxide, nitrates or nitrites.
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen
Copenhagen, May 1891
Last week Andreas tells me that we will not be doing anything the following Saturday. Uncle Jeppe visits Liverpool once a year. He is returning to Copenhagen and Andreas and his dad asked me to welcome him to the harbour. I am always delighted to spend time with the old man! I was looking forward to the train ride into the city with him. I was bright and early at the harbour and when the English steamer docked, I eagerly looked through the crowd to see him.
The crowd was milling around with people greeting and porters busily hauling luggage to waiting horse carts and some, off to board the train. I scanned the milling crowd and my eye caught sight of a beautiful young lady, a bit younger than me. She looked a lost with no porter by her side, carrying two leather travel bags, too heavy for her. My glance passed over her, looking for Uncle Jeppe. My gaze almost immediately returned to her. There were two reasons for this. She was beautiful and there was something familiar about her! She looked up and right at me and suddenly I recognized her. “Minette!!”
My heart jumped with excitement! At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me and a broad smile graced her beautiful face! “Minette!” I blurted out! The last person on earth I was expecting and the one person that I most dearly want to see! “Minette!” I said again, this time a lot softer as I riched her after a few large strides to get to her. “Minette, what on earth!?” I said again. She dropped her bags and we embraced! “I almost did not recognise you with your hat and your nice dress!
“What are you doing here?” “Where are you staying?” “Come,” I said and picked her bags up. “I’m here to visit you,” she said and started walking with me towards the train. I was still baffled. “Two months ago Andreas wrote to me. He invited me to visit and surprise you.” I realised that it must have been after Andreas and my long drinking session in Copenhagen that I write to you in my last letter that he hatched his plans. It appears that he took his lead from the many times I spoke about you in all my adventures.
Suddenly I remember that I was there to welcome Uncle Jeppe! She saw the panic in my eyes as I started looking around again. “Uncle Jeppe is only arriving next week,” she helps me out of my misery. “He is still in Liverpool. The whole thing was a ruse to get you to the harbour!”
I have never been this excited to see anybody! The last time I saw her we were sitting in Pennys Cave on Table Mountain with our friends. Minette and I love exploring the mountains and valleys around Cape Town and we would do this as often as we get an opportunity.
It was on one of our hikes that we discovered the cave on Kogel Bay, Dappa se Gat, where I think the slaves lived who took in the pigs from the Colenbrook which became known as the Kolbroek pigs. We discovered the Cave when we hiked from Hermanus to Cape Town, one year. We started at Hangklip at Pringle Bay close to Hermanus where my younger brother, Elmar, Juanita and their two kids live.
I started reading Alexander Von Humboldt’s work when I was still a small boy and was captivated by the destruction brought about by European colonists. In my imagination, I would accompany Von Humboldt on his travels across South America and the Russian Steppe. I got intensely interested in the physiology of the human and animal body when I read about his work with Guthrie. The sense of adventure and the need to explore partly come from stories such as his.
Across the decades that separate our lives, Von Humboldt mentored me. If I had enough money to buy a book I wanted, but not enough for food for the day, I would buy the book. Choices between using my savings from my Transport work to buy a house in Cape Town or to either travel to Europe to learn how to make bacon or go on an expedition to the Magaliesberg Mountains always ended up on whatever would teach me the most and be the greatest adventure. Buying a house never was a priority!
During my time as a Transport Rider across the vast open spaces of Southern Africa, I witnessed the destruction that people bring to nature and each other first hand. I visited old Tswanruins at the Vaal River between Paryd and Potchefstroom and at Hartebeespoort. I hiked through these massive Tswana and Sotho cities at the Suikerbosrand and in Johannesburg on the farm of Sarel Marais. The cities of the Tswana and the Sotho were decimated by Mzilikazi Khumalo, a Southern African king who founded the Mthwakazi Kingdom now known as Matabeleland. It was precisely because Minette and I shared these priorities and values that I was drawn to her. Well, apart from her good looks and inquisitive personality.
The existence of slavery and the wholesale destruction of our natural world went hand in hand. A period followed where I had an intense interest in slavery and the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand our land better. The Kolbroek pigs are an excellent example.
Minette and I knew there was another famous cave where a community of runaway slaves lived. Between Pringle Bay and Rooiels, much closer to the water’s edge, legend has it that these poor people discovered a cave that can house them and hide them from the slave masters. The entrance is very narrow and like Dappa se Gat, one can enter it only during low tide. It is accessible from the sea. It became known as Drostres gat (cave). From Rooi Els to Kogel Bay is a short distance.
We rode out to Pringle Bay at Cape Hangklip. It is always good to rely on local knowledge when looking for these things. Locals directed us to a restaurant and bar called Miems. The owners are Morris and Kerneels. Morris, a tall and well-built man, is a trained geologist who worked in Johannesburg mines for many years. Kerneels, his partner and he traveled to Ireland a few years ago in a stunning reversal of where people go to find their fortunes. Where most Europeans are hoping for the new world to provide a living, Morris and Kirneels went to Ireland where they worked till they saved enough to start Miems at Cape Hangklip. He too read the account of Green about Drostersgate (Drosters cave) between Pringle Bay and Rooiels.
An old farmer wrote that the Gat (Cave) can only be accessed at low tide and climbing down down a precipice with a rope. A neighbor and he went in with candles for about eighty yards. He remembers that it was dark and damp and one could see bones of large game animals and cattle still scattered across the cave floor. They also found trunks of melkhout trees, used to make fire to roast the meat. He wrote that there are graves of “strandlopers” (scavengers) around the general location of the cave. Morris has been to the exact location more than once and says that he is not able to get into the cave. The opening is too small for such a big man. He tried to access it from the sea without any success. It does not surprise me that the salves managed to get into areas where he could not. By all accounts, they were gaunt and small.
Minette and I looked for it and when we could not find it, we returned to Miems for another few pints. Back at the bar that evening, it seemed as if everybody had a cave story where runaway slaves hid out.
It is immediately obvious that finding food would have been a massive challenge. There are accounts of such slaves wandering around on Table Mountain only to eventually returned to Cape Town and hand themselves over to authorities to face the cruelest punishment rather than dying of starvation. It is this reality that made the feat of young Joshua Penny even more remarkable who stayed for an extended time period on Table Mountain.
The only place on the mountain that was regularly inhabited by these most unfortunate people was an overhang up Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain. There are accounts of slaves who lived up this gorge taking live cattle up. Anyone who ever hiked up there will know that taking a cow or an ox up there must have been extremely arduous. The cave can still be seen to this day up the oldest recorded route up Table Mountain.
The many accounts of the struggle for food of the slaves and the fact that keeping livestock was a strategy they used to sustain themselves lend tremendous credence to my theory about the fate of the Kolbroek pigs. In the Hangklip area, there are a number of other well-known legends of runaway slaves-communities hiding away in caves. The area is mysterious and to this day, sparsely populated. An old man once told me, there are many ghosts in these mountains!
We hiked from Rooi Els to Kogel Bay when we first discovered Dappa se Gat. We just passed Kogel bay and I got to the stretch of beach, strewn with round boulders, resembling cannon shot when I saw the cave. Dappa se gat! The cave is a couple of hundred meters deep and during high tide it is inaccessible. I sat in front of the cave and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the runaway slaves.
My mind effortlessly wondered to the sinking of the Colebrook and the fate of the pigs that swam ashore. So it happened that not even on Minette and my wildest adventures were we ever very far from bacon, hams, salamis, and pigs.
Another favourate site of ours is the Witels River. Between the Matroosberg and the Winterhoek Mountains is the town of Ceres that officially existed since 1854. A pass was constructed called, Michells Pass which follows the route to Ceres next to the Bree River. Where the Witels flows into the Bree River is an open “outspan” area which is clearly seen on the West bank of the river. I am sure that the trekkers spent a couple of nights here, feeding and resting their cattle before taking on the pass.
The first pass was built by Jan Mostert and was called Mostert’s Hoek Pass (1765). Jan was one of the first settlers to settle on Ceres’ side of Tulbagh. The pass was a very rugged 3kms. The road was so bad that wagons had to be dismantled and sections crossed on foot, the cargo and the wagons strapped to the backs of oxen.
Charles Michell surveyed Mostert’s Hoek Pass in 1830 to improve it. Andrew Geddes-Bain constructed the new pass in 1846, with the assistance of 240 convicts. The Bree River runs all the way into the Warm Bokkeveld. The pass effectively reduced the travel time from Cape Town to Beaufort West from 20 to 12 days. It was almost possible to do the route with a horse-drawn carriage.
On my way to Johannesburg through Kimberly, I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn. It was the main road between the Cape and Kimberley. It was formerly known as Mill & Oaks Country Inn. The restaurant is built on the foundations of an olf wheat-mill dating from the 1800s. It was called the Ceres Meul (Mill). It is not known exactly when the Mill was built. Probably in the late-1700s by the first European settlers. The Inn is the kind of place that I prefer. Steeped in history, enough ghosts to chase, legends to unravel, exceptional food and great company!
One of Minette’s banking clients told her about the Witsels river; that it runs down towards the Bree River from the southern Peaks of the Hex River mountains. The best approach is through the Waaihoek Kloof. The man who first identified the route will forever remain nameless in accordance with his own wishes. The next time I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn, I asked the locals if they know the access route. They explained to me in great detail. When I got back to Cape Town a few months later, I immediately looked Minette up at the Bank and the plan was set out for a legendary hike.
One ascends a mountain and through a very precarious route, access the river. Once you are in the river, there are very few ways out. The cliffs are for the most part right next to the river, forcing you to either swim or jump from boulder to boulder. At certain places, the cliffs fold over the river creating long stretches that you swim through caves, following the flow of the river. Next to the river, there are small stretches that resemble sea sand. It created the most amazing places to sleep. To go up the mountain, into the Witels River and out at the Bree River takes around 5 days. Some young people are able to cover the distance in a day provided that they don’t take anything heavy in their backpacks. The best Minette and I did was 2 days from start to finish, but the river was very full and progress painfully slow. The Witels river has become a spiritual pilgrimage for us and ranks as one of our most favourate routes on this bountiful earth!
One of the Witels hikes it started raining. Rain down the Witels can be life-threatening if it rains higher up in the catchment area and the river comes down. The force of the river carries large boulders from higher up, downstream and the force is such that if one would be in the water when this happens, chances for survival are slim to zero. We moved our backpacks higher up the sandbank and as close to the cliff as we could get a comfortable place to lay down. I was trying to get Minette’s mind off the raging river!
I was laying under my sleeping bag. Minette was getting her overnight spot comfortable for the night; painstakingly removing the rocks that would start to irritating her once the initial tiredness has worn off. I asked her if she knew what air was made off. “Oxigen and of course. . . ” “Nitrogen!” she answered.
“Correct! It was discovered separately in 1772, by the Scottsman, Daniel Rutherford and in the early 1770s by a Swiss, Carl Scheele. Rutherford called it “noxious air” and Scheele, “foul air.”” I replied.
I briefly explained for fear that I would bore her, “It exists as a gas and comprises of two nitrogen atoms, joined to form one gas molecule. They are split apart by something of high energy such as a lightning strike. This leaves the two atoms free to react with other matter floating around it.
“One of these elements floating around in the atmosphere is oxygen. Nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen monoxide (NO). Nitrogen monoxide, a colourless gas, is an extremely important compound. It is also called nitric oxide or nitrogen oxide. The nitric oxide is heated from the energy from the lightning flash that created it.”
The drizzle was coming down softly. Minette finished nesting and I got enough energy together to build a fine. I cleared a small sandy patch at my feet and with a twig I wrote the simple chemical reaction in the sand.
N2 (g) + O2 (g) lightning —> 2NO (g)
“There are different sources of Nitric Oxide. Very important one which I will tell you about later.”
“As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide. Nitric Oxide is one nitrogen atom attached to one oxygen atom. It now combines with another oxygen atom and forms nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous, brown, acidic, pungent gas. There is another important molecule that exists in our atmosphere as a gas namely ozone which is three oxygen atoms that combined into a molecule. Nitrogen mostly reacts with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.”
“Like nitrogen, oxygen occurs as two oxygen atoms, bound in one molecule. Ultra-violet light and lightning cause the two tightly bound oxygen atoms to separate and react, either with other single-atom oxygen molecules or with more stable two-atom oxygen molecules. In the latter case, three oxygen atoms are bound into one molecule (O3). It is not very stable and quickly breaks down into one oxygen atom and or two oxygen atom molecules or it reacts with nitric oxide to form nitrogen dioxide.”
I wipe my previous simple formulation from the sand to write another very simple one.
NO (g) + 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)
“Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops. Water is H2O. The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together. There is still only one Nitrogen atom giving us NO3 or nitrate. There is now still one Hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3). Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants. Old writers called nitric acid (HNO3) aqua fortis or spirit of niter.”
I clear the sand at my feet for a third equation.
3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)
“Nitric acid is highly reactive and combines with salts in the soil. The Hydrogen atom is replaced by a calcium, potassium or sodium atom, converting it to a nitrate salt. This salt is called saltpeter. The extreme importance of this is that it is plant food. Saltpeter is used today for gunpowder, fertiliser and to cure meat.”
“Fascinating,” Minette said a bit sarcastic. I did not notice that she started cooking supper and I can help. She hands me an onion to peel. “Saltpeter!”, she said. I thought its the sweat from a horse. My dad always said that we ride the horses till the white saltpeter is running down his neck!
I smiled because she did not know how completely correct she was! The few raindrops that fell stopped. The sound of the rushing river and the peace of the mountains transcends everything. I looked at her in the glow of the fire and was struck by her beauty!
The Witels became one of those important cathedrals in our life! The first time I came down the Witels, it arrested my soul and I fell in love with it. Unspoiled! If you are thirsty, you drop into the water and drink directly from the river. The only company for almost the entire length if the baboons on the cliffs. The place I gave my first lecture on nitrogen and the place where I first noticed how beautiful Minette is. It was the start of the two great loves of my life. Unraveling the technical reasons why saltpeter cures meat and Minette!
How much I would love to have you guys here with us. Today, as they say in the Bible, “my joy is complete” with Minette here with me. What I was feeling on the Witels and in Penny’s Cave is now undeniable. I have very strong feelings for this amazing woman who traveled halfway around the world to see me.
When we got home, Andreas and his family provided Minette with her own room. I was overjoyed that she is staying with us. That evening around the supper table we told our stories, including my nitrogen lecture on the Witels. Andreas slapped me on the shoulder when he walked past me. Let Minette join you tomorrow for Uncle Jeppes’ lunchtime lecture. He is going to start with “satltpeter” and if you and Minettes’ interest in it, you will both find it fascinating.”
We had the most amazing dinner!
Well, kids, its time to go to bed. A great week is waiting for me with Minette here. Next weekend I will write and tell you all about it!
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to late 1800 when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
The Danish Cooperatives and Saltpeter
Copenhagen, March 1891
My dear Minette,
It is Sunday afternoon. I slept most of the morning. I am excited and refreshed. I know you are here in spirit. Life has turned out much more insanely exciting than I could ever have hoped for. The entire thing is a grand adventure of discovery. I could never dream that trying to unlock the secrets of bacon would be as insanely exciting as it all turned out to be. Hopefully, you will receive the letter I wrote yesterday before you get this one. I will hold on to it and post it next Friday.
I have been wondering about meat curing for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I tried to imagine how people discovered that dry meat lasts longer. Initially, I believe that people ate meat raw or fermented. Animal carcasses that are left outside will start to ferment. Fermentation breaks the tough muscles down and the first priority of humans must have been to find ways to get tough game meat soft. Leaving the carcass then outside or in water to protect it from preditors would have been a natural way of softening the meat. Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften meat or pulverizing it with a stick or a rock.
I imagine that as people soon discovered that dry meat lasts long and the wonderful benefits of salt. Food was initially only seen as something to consume in order to fuel our bodies. As humans developed, we started changing food into an art form. The king or leader and people with means could now demand the best meat. We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in many different ways to improve the taste and food changed into art. These different techniques of “softening” meat were becoming art in themselves and Sharma, medicine men and women and housewives became the custodians of this new technology.
When we make bacon, we use a technique called curing. Cured meat is identified by three things. The salt and saltpeter change the colour of the meat. When an animal is killed, the meat blooms a beautiful red colour. If you do not rub it with saltpeter, it changes to a dull brown colour. If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpeter, it changes the colour to a pinkish-reddish colour. Related to the science of making good bacon, colour is the first key.
The second thing that saltpeter does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat. The third characteristic of cured meat is taste. The last one is longevity. Cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator and in Europe is the staple food in many countries as far as meat is concerned.
I know saltpeter is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon. Let me rather say it like this. Using Saltpeter is not the only guarantee for good bacon, but leaving it out of the salt-rub, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity. You have the option of drying the meat without saltpeter in which case it will also last longer, but the meat will be dry and it will not have the characteristic taste of cured meat.
In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimnies in Holland and the North European practice of using vinegar in their hams with the indigenous practice of hanging meat out in the sun and wind to dry. I have found this to be an ancient practice among all the peoples of southern Africa that I met in my travels.
The Dutch farmers add coriander and black pepper with salt to the vinegar to create what they call biltong. The coriander and black pepper were initially added to mask any off-flavours in case the meat did not dry quick enough and some spoiling of meat has set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpeter. Saltpeter can only be left out of the recipe if vinegar is used and lots of salt.
I have always known that the secret of bacon is in saltpeter, but saltpeter is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth. So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpeter. What is it and why does it have the power to give longevity to meat, change the colour back to the colour of freshly slaughtered meat why does it give this unique taste? These are the questions I knew I had to answer first.
Besides understanding saltpeter, our goal in Cape Town is to set up a factory and not merely making bacon for home use. Scale changes everything. This is a lesson I learned from very early on. On my grandfathers’ farm, I have seen how easy it is to make the best bacon on earth if we make it for our family only. When my dad’s bacon became famous and Dawid de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more we normally do. It was a disaster! Everything went wrong. We had more workers to help, but they were not trained. We could not keep the meat cool and in the end, we had to feed most of the meat to our dogs. Scale is difficult and the importance of the right structure of a bacon factory is something that we can not under-estimate. Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at was saltpeter!
The Spirit of the Danes
The morning was crisp and interesting. Andreas’ dad is an impressive man. He is very intelligent with an amazing knowledge of many things. He gave me a lot of perspective on what Jeppe told me on Friday. For example, how did it come about that a man of Jeppes age was exposed to learning new butchering and curing techniques? Why was there in Denmark such a focus on continued education that people showed up for lessons by the Irish, in sufficient numbers to make a proper transfer of skills possible. How did the most current thing about the structure of a bacon plant fit so nicely into the Danish culture? How were the Danish people inspired to take up a new way of doing things?
It often takes a prophet to change long-held perceptions; a visionary to change entrenched positions! An inspirational man who draws his own strength from the Divine to lift peoples gaze from their own depressed positions and onto better things. To instill hope. These are however not all that is needed because these are often also the qualities of an imposter and someone who destroys. What is needed are all these qualities with a simple and effective plan to improve things. A person who can lead people to a better and more profitable future.
Andreas’ dad told me about just such a man. In many ways, he is the father of the agricultural miracle of Denmark. It may sound like a boring report on men and women who lived very long ago, but the truth is that it is an inspirational story about men and women with their backs against the wall. Who triumphed against the odds. The man at the center of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig.
Denmark was an impoverished nation. They lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany. The soil of their lands was depleted and yielding fewer crops with every harvest. In all of Europe, the Danish soil seemed to be the poorest. The conditions in 1864 were dire and farmers had little hope competing with Russia and America with their crops. They were not making money. Apart from little diversified agriculture, there was very little money in the country. Farmers identified dairy farming as a lucrative diversification of their economy, but they lacked the money to make their plans a reality. The depleted soil on the farms offered little collateral for lenders to advance money against.
I wish so much that I would get every South African to hear their message. We are a nation of faith and still, we complain as if we have no hope. What we need in South Africa is a prophet, a visionary and a very good plan! The plan will in all likelihood have to be built on very practical education! It is exactly for this reason that I am here! I need to be very clear on the plan! To my great amazement, the bedrock of the structure of the Danish bacon factory is in the first place not on the mechanics of doing it one way as opposed to another way. The basis of their entire system rests on an almost religious belief in the power of cooperation and education!
Grundtvig was a churchman who lived between 1783 and 1872 and was described by some as the Apostle to Denmark. He taught that Danish people must love their own country above all, more than any other real estate on earth. He believed that Danes must love God and trust each other; their own skill and ability to solve problems; that success will come through cooperation. The principal way to achieve this was through education and what he called the “cultivation of the people.” This was distilled through his concept of high school which is completely different from high school in the rest of the world.
N. F. S. Grundtvig’s high schools were initially attended by people from the age of 18 to 60 or even older and everyone in between. Every farmer’s adult son and daughter, every farmer himself or his wife, considered it a loss not to attend High School for at least one term. The poor and the rich paid the same small fees and lectures covered an array of interesting subjects. Religion and nationalism were part of the course, but it never dominated the other subjects. Men and women looked forward to high school in the same way as Americans looked forward to a trip to Europe. What he achieved is that even more than the information that was imparted, a general method of teamwork was created which would become the basis for cooperative farming and production. Later, men and women aged between 16 and 35 mostly attended these high schools. Young men attended in the winter and young ladies, in the summer. Experimental agricultural farms were set up around the schools. The teaching was not done from textbooks, but from practice.
His teachings against individualism slowly but surely sowed the seeds which germinated into mutual trust and a belief that by doing things together, more can be achieved. Directly as a result of this, in 1881/ 1882 the first cooperative dairy farm was established in Jutland. The Danes realised that to be successful, they must find ways for their fields to yield better crops and they must develop better ways to use their crops, once harvested. Better than selling it at depressed margins on the open market in competition with the Russians and the Americans would be to utilise it to produce commodities. On par with a relentless focus on scientific farming practices was unprecedented cooperation. The middle man had to eliminate. The farmer and the salesman joined forces and discovered that by cooperating they always had “something to go on,” a phrase which became an example of the new approach.
The cooperatives were set up where every member had equal rights. Each member of the dairy cooperative had one vote and his milk was collected every morning and the cooperative agents returned the skimmed milk. The cows, therefore, produced butter and feed for the pigs. Money is loaned from the bank. Each member made himself responsible for repaying the loan in accordance with the number of cows he had. Every seven days, the members received 25% of the value of the milk they delivered to the cooperative. Apart from selling the milk to the cooperative, the member was entitled to his shares of the profit on the sale of the produce. The cooperative kept 25% from which running expenses were paid and the loan was repaid.
There is another reason, Andreas’ dad tells me, why the Danish system works so well. Not only did they manage themselves, but they also elected farmers to positions of power in government. It was not only, like the Americans, for the people, by the people, but the Danes took it one step further. The need and most pressing priority was their agriculture and so the cooperatives elected representatives for the farmers, by the farmers to the government. These men and women abhor profiteering so that the priority is the benefit of the many. This hatred for large trusts and monopolies goes back to the old feudal system which was prevalent in Europe. Peasants did not own land, but in Denmark, this changed and the peasants were allowed to own their own farms. This gave them every stimulus and motivation to improve the small farms. It is said that 90% of all farmland in Denmark is owned by small scale farmers. The first revolution in Danish agriculture was ownership.
The new farm owners started protesting against rulership and land aristocracy. They sought more political power and proper representation. They worked out a constructive plan to break up the remaining large feudal farms and to distribute it among sons and daughters of the workers. Farm ownership, a systematic and thorough education system and the cooperative model for farming and production all work together. The one feeding the other and strengthening the overall agricultural experiment. In large part, the middle man was eliminated and the few matters run by the state are done for the benefit of the farmers and not for the government to make a profit. A good example is the railways. Still, the Danish farmer is not a socialist. They simply believe in cooperation who thinks in terms of self-help and are not reliant on the state for help.
As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to come and tell them how it was done in Denmark. I know that cooperation runs much deeper than simply pooling resources. The role of education and private ownership was the basis of the Danish miracle and I see no reason why the exact same model cant work in South Africa. The one reason I see is how deeply distrust runs between the different peoples who call South Africa their home.
Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon
In Denmark, it was probably the need to find a use for the skimmed milk that gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs in the same way that the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder. Pig farming therefore directly grew out of dairy farming. It was going well with the establishment of cooperative pig farming and the live pigs were sold to Germany.
Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their live pigs in Germany. The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and Hams from it and it was mainly sold to England. A disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the country in the autumn of 1887. This halted all export of live pigs. Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888. One of the most insane industrial transformations followed. In a staggering display, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to solving it. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England. The project was a stunning success. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
After breeding and pig farming, the next step in great bacon production is slaughtering. On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir. On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsens’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter. In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight where it will end. Each is in excellent running condition. As in the case with the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has only one vote. The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon are determined by the cooperative. The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.
Every farmer in Denmark or manager of a bacon curing plant cant be a scientific person, and yet, it is important that farmers and factory managers alike know something of the science underpinning their trade. It is here where the high school lessons play an important role because it provides a solid foundation and the government is doing the rest. They have a system of inspectors who look after farms and factories where they do the exact calculations, for example, to show how much butter must be produced from the milk of each cow. The reason for the inspections was that the Danish Government were required to guarantee the quality of the bacon and the butter it delivered to England, but it had the double benefit of on the one hand guarantees the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improved the quality by assisting the farmers and producers.
The logic of cooperation was extended into England, the largest market for Danish bacon. Some years ago the English bacon market was being serviced for the Danes by middlemen. The farmers organised a selling agency in England to represent them known as the Danish Bacon Company of London. The concept was applied to many areas of the Danish economy. Banking and buying in Denmark are likewise done cooperatively. Every village has a cooperative store.
The farmer in Denmark also uses the state in another interesting way. Commissions are sent abroad to study foreign methods. It was most probably on one of these trips that the Danes came across the striking workers in Ireland whom they brought back to Denmark to teach them mild curing. Mild curing technology that came from Ireland years earlier became the cornerstone of Danish bacon. It was this industrialised model that allowed the Danes to become the undisputed leaders in the world bacon trade. The Danes did exactly what we intend doing namely learning not only how the cooperative factory is set up, but also the inner workings of such a factory. They learned this from the Irish and I intend learning it from them! That will satisfy one of the cornerstone reasons why I am in Denmark.
Neat, Prepared, Ready
Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals traders with the name of Willie Oosthuizen. Willie told me that wherever I am in the world, before I leave home, every morning I must ask myself, “am I ready, prepared and neat? These are according to him, the three essentials without which nobody will be in a position to use opportunities that come our way every day.
Thinking about the Danish Bacon trade, I realise that the government ensured that when the right time came, the industry was ready, prepared and in a general position of neatness. It is a strange thing that as we walked through this small Danish town and I saw the small but neat Danish houses, that I could see this Danish approach to life in everything. I do not see class differences between people. I see people from all walks of life getting together in small coffee shops at the end of the day, celebrating life and sharing stories.
I can see how my quest to unravel good bacon curing is teaching me as much about life than it is teaching me about meat. Andreas told me something this afternoon before I retired to my room which is very curious. He told me that I am too quick to claim that this is the end of my quest. That simply knowing the steps of bacon curing without understanding it is not to know the steps at all. Brief exposure to the Danish attitude towards work and cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education.
We were sitting in a small coffee shop one afternoon when Andreas and I were talking about all these matters. Nothing about the pork trade is easy! It is one of the most wonderfully complex trades on earth! He asked me how long I think I will have to stay before I know enough to set up our Woodys bacon plant in Cape Town. I knew enough by now not to simply venture a guess. “As long as it takes”, I said. He smiled. “There is so much to learn!” “Stay for at least a year!”. He then produced a pouch with salt in. He placed it in the middle of our table. I dipped a finger in the salt and tasted it. I recognised it as saltpeter. “This, he said, is the next subject. I discussed it with Jeppe and he agrees that after the structure of the factory, understanding Saltpeter is your next priority!”
That was where our business talk ended. The rest of the afternoon we talked about life. What it was like growing up in Cape Town and the many different cultures that co-exist in this great city. I shared many of my experiences with him from my transport business. I told him the story of Joshua Penny and how, after his ordeal on table Mountain, a Danish captain gave him a job on his ship sailing for Europe. I invited Andreas to visit us when we set the Cape Town factory up. The evening was pleasant and I became very fond of my Danish instructor. A great friendship was struck that would last the rest of my life.
Please give the kids all my love and to our dear parents. Please give them both my letters to read before you sent it on to Oscar, James, and Will. I will write Dawie Hyman, David de Villiers Graaff, and Uncle Jakobus separately.
I miss you dearly!
Photos from Chris Speedy and my visit to Denmark in 2011 when Andreas Østergaard introduced us to the science of bacon production. Chris was a master, but as for me, I knew nothing! 🙂
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Drums of Despair
Johannesburg, December 1889
In 1889 my life was carefree! I was fully fascinated by the world I was born into. Riding transport between the Colony and Johannesburg allowed me to forge a bond with the disappearing natural world and my interactions with the people of the land allowed me to study the human condition up close. Both nature and the human mind were possible pathways to connect with the eternal. Nature is an obvious point of connection. It is our culture that carries our religion and since it is the primary human connection with the divine I wanted to learn more about it. Its up-close and intimate study was the unintended benefits of my first profession as a transport rider. When I later chose to take up meat curing as a profession it was this exact same drive that caused in me the desire to understand it completely.
I found that when I considered myself and life around me, I understood everything, including myself, to be temporal. My mind, however, perceived the eternal. Despite the fleeting nature of life and its ever-changing cycles, I continually searched for that which is permanent. The grandeur of Africa, I could see with my own eyes, to be very impermanent. A consideration of the human mind, likewise, did not bring me any closer to what is eternal. My experience at the Shambles brought about grave doubts if the human mind, despite the noblest mental inventions of language, writing and the evolution of constructs such as tribe, nation and religion, could stop humans from wandering into the most ghastly cruelty. It rather seemed to me that the exact same mechanics that build the mental worlds of algebra and trigonometry, language, nationhood and marriage, created cruel systems of torture and horror.
I kept on searching, but before I could make real progress, I had to understand the evolution of thought much better. In particular, I needed to see the mental devices of our enormous brains at work. It was when I looked into this that I, on the one hand, identified only turmoil and strife for our land’s future. The mind, I saw, give us the ability to build a complex set of assumptions that we aproach life with. The natural world is unaware of our tribal affiliations or our systems of faith. Without humans, these notions disappear completely. The biggest impact of our culture on nature is where culture leads to our manipulation of nature and, as is mostly the case, our destruction of it.
On the other hand, I saw that despite the evolution of thought, even the notions of gods and demons, heaven and hell, are unable to align the human condition with what is eternal and fixed. I saw that if anything, these concepts brought about greater strife on earth and increased our cruelty to one another and a continual destruction of nature. So overwhelming was the evidence of this that I completely gave up on it at a very young age. I later abandoned my quest to touch the eternal and fixed for practical reasons of earning a living. It was then that I ventured into meat curing. What follows is the final lessons I had to learn to become thoroughly disellusioned with our mental world and any notions of a peaceful future for southern Africa. It was the simple, age-old disciplines of the art of curing and the wonderful complexity of the mechanics underlying it which became the tool that took me by the hand and brought me to the answer of permanency in a temporary existence. The rest of my story gives the account how this unfolded.
Reports from the Church
Inquisitiveness was in my blood and at 20 I was eager to know what forces are crafting our world. I had to consider if riding transport, which allowed me to study nature and the cultures of our land, would bring me any closer to the answers I was looking for. Daniel Jacobs whom I had the pleasure to host at my campsite was a dedicated student of history. He was an author and a historian with a special interest in church and family history. He always travelled with his books. To him, they were his closest companions and it allowed him to read the most fascinating quotes to me. I became obsessed with tracing a story back to the very beginning and the first contact of Europeans with the people of southern Africa fascinated me.
These points of first contact showcased the different cultures and would uncover the true nature of human inventions to me, whether physical or mental images. I was too young to have been an eye witness to the first contacts but fortunately there exist many first-hand accounts from others. It was Daniel Jacobs. for example, who told me about the early years of the Cape Colony from the perspective of the Dutch Reformed Church. This was important since the Dutch Reformed Church became the dominant church in South Africa for many years and since it was the most important Boer church, its voice would be, if anything, biased to the Boer settlers. If it, therefore, paints the early colonists in an unfavourable light in its relation to the indigenous tribes, there is a great deal of credibility to the report. The night when we camped together, he read me some of his own poetry and when we spoke about the early history of the Colony, he fetched a book on the Dutch Reformed Church and read me sections from it. I was fascinated by an entry from 1795.
The DRC recorded how it saw the history, that “the colonists had been gradually spreading over the lands occupied by the Hottentot (1) and Bushman(1) tribes. These, too weak to make resistance, looked with no satisfaction on the arrival of the whites in their midst. As the latter were taking their lands, they retaliated by driving off cattle, and the Boers, taking up their long-barrelled hunting guns, exacted bloody and cruel revenge. The colonists ground down and oppressed by those in authority, spread themselves thus, heedless of the threats and admonitions of their government. That they did not spread more widely to the north and east was owing to the fact, that along their northern line the arid deserts skirting the Orange River offered little temptation to transgress the boundary, while at the eastern extremity they were fronted by the warlike and independent Amakoze Kaffirs (1), who, far from allowing any inroad into their territory, commenced a system of aggression upon the colonists.”
The “matter-of-fact” commentary by the Dutch church in Africa startled me. It was the stories about this eastern frontier that my dad would later tell me in great detail, that convinced me that the Dutch church was wrong in painting the indigenous tribes as the aggressor. The real aggressor was the white people, as he was in the rest of the land. What I started to discover was not the facts of what happened. These are very well documented. I started to understand the thinking that was driving the action.
“The farms, particularly in the east, lay very remote from one another, and between them lived the Hottentots (1) in their miserable kraals and smoky huts,” Daniel continued. “They still went unclothed, only covered with a kaross. The governor had forbidden, under pain of severe punishment, that any Hottentot (1) should be enslaved. Still, it was frequently done, as slaves proper were dear to purchase. Many Hottentots (1) and slaves ran away from their masters, particularly if badly used, and formed themselves into bands to rob and murder, and make the outlying farms unsafe.” (M’Cater, 1869)
My own experience informed me that the church was right. So completely devoid of respect were the colonists of the African people that hunters could, in later years apply on hunting permits for animals to kill Khoi or Bushman. The level of brutality by invading Europeans towards the people, beasts and places of this land is hard to fathom or put in words. Not only the Dutch Boers, but the English also partook heartily in the orgy of violence. They shared in the most savage treatment of the Southern African tribes. My dad told me about the wars in the Eastern Frontier.
The Frontier in the East
The savagery of the English knew no bounds! I always stop myself when I say this to add that many English were fierce opponents of slavery and brutality towards indigenous peoples, motivated by the English Church. Oom Stefanus Jordaan who’s farm I once visited told me that the continuation of the practice of slavery in the Transvaal was the spiritual motivation for the English to annex it and for the Anglo-Boer war of 1880 and 1881. (2) From the same parliament in London, not only unspeakable evil emanated but also good!
Even in my lifetime, visiting Boer farms in the Transvaal left me with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth and I could see that the attitudes of the farmers were steeped in a long tradition of oppression and destruction. On the one hand, these people were the warmest and heartiest people I knew. Rugged, industrious and hard working with a faith that almost moved mountains. On the other hand, I was angry to see the little black kids, indentured by people like the Jordaan’s on account of the fact that they were caught on their farms or captured when the Boers raided native villages or bought as “black ivory” on auctions like you would trade cattle. Slavery was alive and well in the independent Boer republics even after the Anglo Boer War and the treatment of black people in this way was a source of great anguish for me. It was and could never be right that any person treats another with such cruelty and disdain. This knowledge was one of my earliest childhood memories, the horror I felt when I saw people being mistreated.
In few other places in our land did the savagery of the English find a greater expression than in the eastern frontiers of the Cape Colony. The indigenous people they encountered here was the amaXhosa. The Xhosa nation never adopted the monarch as a powerful, centralizing figure such as the Zulus from Natal. In the Xhosa tradition, he was always viewed as the figurehead of the nation. The king, for example, do not appoint the chiefs. They are appointed by the people. When new chiefs secured the support of his people, the king would formally appoint them. In the same way, even the kingship itself was secured after a struggle between the possible heirs of the throne. The monarch would settle disputes and declare wars. The king ruled by the council of his chiefs.
The Xhosa developed a system called segmentation which allowed for the chiefs more aggressive and ambitious sons to depart and carve out an existence away from the ruler’s house, called the Great House. This was often the case with eldest sons from the Right Hand House which was a Xhosa invention to give status to the second favourite wife’s children, referred to as the right-hand wife and the accompanying Right Hand House. In this way, sons could splinter off their father’s house and establish new chiefdoms and still remain part of the amaXhosa.
The Colonial expansion to the east came in direct conflict with the Xhosa kingdom. The shadowy figure of Phalo set his Great Place from where the tribe would be ruled up to the west of the Kei River. The struggle for dominance between his sons would set the stage for another brutal war against the Cape Colony on its Eastward Expansion.
A short introduction to some of the key players in the drama is in order to set the stage. Gcaleka inherited the Phalo’s Great House with Rharhabe as his Right Hand son. When Phalo passed away in around 1775, Gcaleka was the heir of Phalo’s Great House. Rharhabe was his right hand son. In an ensuing battle for the throne, Rharhabe lost to Gcaleka and the former moved west of the Kei with his followers. The white Colonists would later call this region Ciskei. The region where Phalo resided with Gcalekas Great House later became known as Transkei.
Two dominant tribes now emerged. To the west of the Kei river was the amaRharhabe and to the east, amaGcaleka. This is important only to Xhosa people. As far as foreigners are concerned, they are all part of the amaXhosa. When Phalo died, Khwawuta succeeded him. West of the Kei, Rharhabe was killed in battle in around 1782 along with his heir, Mlawu. Mlawu’s son, Ngqika became hair apparent but since he was still underage, his uncle, Ndlambe was appointed till Ngqika would be old enough to rule. Ndlambe was the second son of Rarhabes Great House and Mlawu’s full brother.
Back to the east of the Kei River, Khawuta died in 1794. The heir in line as chief of the amaGcaleka was his son Hintsa who was also to be the ruler of the amaXhosa. Councellors would rule in his place till he come of age. This means that both houses to the east and west of the Kei were ruled by minors. As the minors grew up old scores had to be settled with other chiefs and more importantly, with the Cape Colony.
The Reply of the amaXhosa
It would be the stories of the frontier wars in the East of the Colony that would provide me with the clearest picture of what the invasion by the colonists did to the psyche of the locals. It became my most vivid example of the development of the mental landscape in the minds of people, called religion.
I spoke to my dad about the Jordaans’ and what I learned from Daniel. He told me that the Boers religion gave them the justification in their eyes to “leave” the Colony where they felt marginalised and treated unfairly and trek to the promised lands where they had, according to the belief of many, the right to dispossess the heathens (as they saw them) who occupy it. It seemed as if they had their religious beliefs forever, but here, in the case of the amaXhosa, I could see the progression of a god concept and how it morphed almost in front of my eyes. It was the actions of the Boers and the English in particular which caused the development of a theology among native tribes which does not bode well for the future. Like the Jews developed their Messianic theology in slavery and the Apostle John penned the book of Revelations under intense persecution by the Romans, so the soul of the black African, desperately trying to make sense of the rape of his culture and the persistent onslaught upon his existence, found solace in their deep spirituality which was progressed to bring hope. In so doing, the drums of desperation and despair would be heard for generations to come in this magnificent land.
The Cruelty of the English and the Faith of the amaXhosa
My dad loved telling stories. A story, as I learned, must have a beginning, middle and end. My dad’s story began with the arrival of a new leader for the Colony at the Cape of Good Hope in Lord Charles Somerset, the second son of the fifth Duke of Beaufort, a direct descendant of King Edward III of England. He arrived in Cape Town on 6 April 1814 as the new governor. Emotions ran high on the eastern front of the Colony preceded by 4 bloody wars with the amaXhosa as the Colony expanded and continued to dispossess amaXhosa land. As Summerset arrived, war was again looming on the eastern front. To stabilise it, he first sorted out matters with the Boers. After a small Boer uprising was put down and the ringleaders dealt with, believing that he firmly entrenched English supremacy and their new rule over the Dutch, by 1816 he turned his attention to the amaXhosa.
In Summerset’s estimation, he had two options in dealing with them. He could either completely conquer the amaXhosa and rule over them as subjects of the Colony or they had to be driven out beyond its borders. The amaXhosa continued to raid farms into areas that previously belong to them. Somerset, from his English- and Eurocentric perspective, believed he could “civilize” them. He looked towards the missionaries to teach them improved agriculture and a more peaceful Christian existence. My dad told me that Somerset remarked to Earl Bathurst that through these interactions “civilization and its consequences may be introduced into countries hitherto barbarous and unexplored.” My dad, as a follower of Alexander von Humboldt, did not share Somerset’s English and Euro-centric view of the superiority of their culture and had great respect for the sophistication of the indigenous peoples and their technology which, according to him, was above all, more in balance with the natural laws governing our world.
In the end, Somerset chose intimidation as his first direct engagement with the amaXhosa as he tried to end their cross border raids. He arranged an audience with the chiefs who ruled to the west of the Kei River, Ngqika and Ndlambe with some minor chiefs. So I became familiar with two iconic figures in the life of the amaXhosa in King Ngqika and Prince Ndlambe. Somerset incorrectly assumed that they speak for the entire amaXhosa nation who were ruled by two houses since the time of Phalo, the son of Tshiwo, the son of Ngconde, son of Sikhomo, son of Nkosiyamutu, son of king Xhosa. Since the time of Phalo, there has been a Great House under his son Gcaleka and a right-hand house under his son Rharabe. It was Rharhabe who crossed the Kei River with a number of followers who fought a bitter war against the Khoi in the area over land and cattle and eventually killed their king Hinsati. He negotiated the sale of land for his tribe from the Queen, Hobo, between the Keiskamma and Buffalo rivers.
Like a complete fool, Summerset staged the meeting with Ngqika and Ndlambe as a theatre-like production intended to intimidate. Summerset was present with his soldiers in full arms while the chiefs had to leave their soldiers behind. Somerset sat on a chair while the amaXhosas had to squad on the floor. Ngqika was the senior chief present. Ngqika was the grandson of Rahrabe or the son of his great house. This gave him the rightful claim to the amaXhosa throne!, Still, in the Xhosa tradition, he could not make binding agreements on behalf of the other amaRharhabe chiefs. Ngqika tried to explain this to him but Somerset wanted none of it. He lost his temper and with gifts and threats coerced Ngqika into an agreement that the chief could not enforce. Confident that he solved the problems of the Eastern Frontier, Somerset returned to Cape Town.
There was another reason why Ngqika was the wrong horse to back in peace negotiations. In 1794 he attacked the great house of Gcaleka to the east of the Kei River. Hintsa, who was only 5 when his father died in 1794 was imprisoned by Ngqika, had by this time come of age and turned out to be a good and popular leader. Under his leadership, the Great House of the amaXhosa reestablished itself and was now intent on asserting control over the chiefdoms west of the Kei. Of course, this meant settling a score he had with Ngqika and he naturally supported Ndlambe as the chief of the amaRharhabe. This support from Hintsa and the new support he received from his powerful son, Mdushane gave Ndlambe great courage. The other encouragement he received was the support he got from a powerful war doctor, Nxele. In a sense, everything I told you about so far is only background information to set the context of this remarkable man who would have a profound influence on the religious life of the amaXhosa. It would be the gifted and spiritual Nxele that would become my eyewitness account of the development of religion and the mental images that binds cultures together.
The Gospel According to Nxele
Nxele was “spiritual”, even as a child. The great scholar, Tisani, a friend of my dad, says about Nxele that he “was a solitary, mysterious child, often wandering off by himself. When he grew older Nxele went to live in the bush for extended periods. He fasted there and on occasional visits home he refused food because, he claimed, it had become unclean during preparation through the sins of his people.” (Tisani, 1987) Early on in his life, he was already recognised as a diviner who called out the sin of his people.
He led the mourning ceremony after Chief Rharhabe and his son Mlawu passed away. Long before he learned about Christianity, he was a spiritual leader, at least in the same league as the Missionaries he would later encounter. His creativity would prove him to be not only on the same level but superior to them in his natural ability and perception of the power of the divine narrative.
These innovations of Nxele came in the context of a bitter war with the Colony. He experienced the treat of the Colony to his people on many levels. He started to meet the men whom Somerset relied on to bring about a peaceful British takeover, the English missionaries. He stayed with Chief Ngquika at Joseph Williams’s mission station for a week where he was exposed to elements of Christianity and its messengers. From the start, there was tension between Nxele and the missionaries.
Nxele was able to see through the intentions of the missionaries and still, to taker the good out of their message. He started to use concepts that he was exposed to by the missionaries and so he preached against witchcraft, theft, adultery and blood-shedding, decidedly Christian themes. At one point he chastised Chief Ndlambe for having more than one wife. He was not opposed to the total teachings of the missionaries and as a result of his influence, the missionaries were accepted among the amaXhosa.
He was able to identify the fault lines, not only in the Christian system of belief, but also the inconsistencies in the lives of its evangelists. At the heart of the missions of the whites was a belief that they were “better”. Their message, their God, their culture, their language, their music, their laws were in their mind “better” and in their view, the African was inherently inferior.
It disappointed Nxele greatly! Where he respected them for their spirituality and their pursuit of the good in humans, they did not reciprocate in attitude. The missionaries saw him as inferior to them. The “we alone are right” and “we are better” attitude of many Christians is something that I find odd to this day contrary to the heart of their message. Nxele’s respect for the Christian message and his disappointment in the messengers is something that I would experience myself in the years to follow. His profound disappointment resonates with me.
He correctly saw the Missionaries as equally zealous to proselytise the amaXhosa to the English culture and customs as much as to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a direct response to the desperate plight of the amaXhosa in the face of the brutality of the English and the Boer, Nxele expanded on the belief system of the amaXhosa. From his deep spirituality, and no doubt, in an effort to give hope to the afflicted and to try and make sense of the brutality perpetrated against them, he progressed their theology and taught that there were two Gods being Thixo and Ndaliphu. According to his teachings, Thixo is the God of the Whites and Mdalidiphu, the God of Blacks. Mdalidiphu is superior to Thixo and the world was the battleground between the two – the age-old struggle between good and evil.
Nxele’s theology taught that Mdalidiphu would prevail against Thixo and punish him and his sinful followers. Nxele’s next progression reminds me of the sermon on the mount of Jesus when he said, “you have heard it taught of old, but I say to you. . .” In other words, I now give a new law thereby becoming a lawgiver myself as the son of God. Nxele did something similar when he said to the amaXhosa, “you have heard it said of old, but I say to you. . .” He too became a lawgiver. According to him, Tayi was the son of God and in an extraordinary move, like Jesus, he proclaimed himself as the son of God when he taught that he is the brother of Tayi. According to him, Tayi was killed by the white people and for this, they were thrown into the sea. They emerged from the sea in search of land, the abantu abasemanzi. Nxele was, therefore, the agent of Mdalidiphu and his son and it was he who would drive the white man back into the sea. His teachings were remarkable and powerful to a nation where the fabric of its society was being assailed on all sides.
One can see the comfort that his message brought to people, dispossessed from their lands and brutalised in every way possible. The hope that it inspired in the hearts of young and old reminds me of the hope the Messianic prophecies brought to Israel in exile in the land of Babylon. The fact that one people could inflict such suffering on another to precipitate a shift in theology stands as a testament to the cruelty of humans and at the same time, the resilience of the human spirit which is able to carve out hope amidst the most desperate situations! It speaks to the brilliance of Nxele! It also showcases a cultural device that oppressed people used, probably from the earliest time when the first cognitive and conscious humans roamed Africa, in which the human mind develops mythology to gives hope amid desperate circumstances. It connects us with the universal consciousness and allows us to look beyond our immediate circumstances. This is the exact same device that sprang Christianity itself and still, at this junction in the east of southern Africa, it was Christianity who brought about this unspeakable opression.
A Gospel of Peace or Eternal Struggle
If we now juxtapose the position of Pretorius and the fundamental Calvinism of the Boers who saw the land before them as a gift of God to be taken and from which all who do not serve their God must be driven with the teachings of Nxele, the clouds of war which I saw from the actions of the Boer and the Brit, becomes drums of war which declare the certainty of a bloody future. Locked up in the beating of the drums was a plea for recognition and humanity.
My dad did not have contact with tribes from the north and could not know their theological leanings, but he told me that he would not be surprised if the same fundamental religious developments were taking place in the black consciousness across the region as proud owners of the land, setting them up, in the most fundamental way against the colonial people and their drive to disposes the African tribes politically, culturally and in terms of land. Whenever I brought up the history of brutal attacks of Voortrekkers venturing into the interior by local tribes, my dad’s response was always the same. “What did they expect? How would they respond to invaders into their own lands?” My dad had only harsh words to Voortrekker icons, but reserved his harshest criticism for people like Summerseat and later Rhodes as the enemy of humanity itself and examples of the most wicked of humans.
The supernatural world had failed to deliver and the amaXhosa was faced with two options. Either they had to rise up against the white invaders with the help of the divine or they had to submit themselves to the new order as preached by the missionaries who laboured among them.
In the world of the amaXhosa, Ndlambe was recognised as the leader of the chiefs to the East of the Kai River and he had the support of the powerful Nxele. Each Rharhabe chief, however, had the freedom to choose his own spiritual counsellors and in reality, they did not all agree with Nxele. Chiefs chose councillors who mirrored what path they themselves favoured. This was nothing sinister or to be frowned upon. It was custom, and truth be told, in line with how these matters were being handled in Europe. Not that this matter as some kind of a higher standard, but it must be said for Europeans who would frown on this, forgetting their own history! It was the practice that the spiritual counsellor would limit his dialogue between the chief and the supernatural to what the chief was willing to accept.
The two rivals Ngqika and Ndlambe represented two opposing choices to the nation. Ngqika appointed Ntsikana as counsellor who was a Christian convert. His message was one of peaceful coexistence with Europeans through submission. Ndlambe, on the other hand, had the independent-minded Nxele who did not see himself as subservient to the Christian Missionaries; who was longing to see the awakening of black identity and prophesied that the amaXhosa would prevail against the white man. These notions were fundamentally part of the being of Nxele as we have seen from the theology he preached.
Nxele, patronised by Ndlambe grew in political power and wealth. He encouraged his adherents to, as it were, “go forth, multiply and fill the earth.” It is interesting that Boer leaders in later years would likewise encourage their people to have many children to strengthen the Boer numbers. Nxele taught that he would bring back to life the black people who had died and their cattle. He prophesied about a long and prosperous future for his people, built upon resisting the white invaders of their land!
Nxele served a useful purpose to Ndlambe in building support from other chiefs against Ngqika. Ngqika was married to Thuthula, Ndlambe’s wife whom he abducted and Nxele preached against him as an adulterer and their marriage as an incestuous relationship. This served the purpose of Ndlambe well.
In contrast to this was the theology of Ntsikana. He was driven by a vision he had to preach the Christian message in isiXhosa using Xhosa imagery and traditional forms of music. He used the image of God as a cloak that protects all true believers and the way to peace was by submitting to his will. Initially, he approached Ndlambe to be his patron, who wanted none of it. It was after this that he turned to Ngqika. Ngqika never converted to Christianity and never had a sizable following. Still, Ngqika saw his teachings in line with his own view of cooperation with the white colonists and appointed him as a counsellor. Ntsikana, in line with his theology, encouraged him to seek an alliance with the British. Ntsikana passed away in 1821 and his small group of followers were entrusted to the care of the British Missionaries.
This was the setting for another bitter war on the eastern frontier, the first where Somerset would be involved. So it happened that I was able to see the development of theology from the stories of my dad.
I discovered that not all good stories need to have a beginning, middle and end. That it really depends on what you want from the story and if you have what you wanted, sometimes it’s good to leave it there. So it is with this story. My intention is not to re-tell the story of the war. It is the development of the Black contentiousness in response to the colonial aggression which was the point my dad wanted to convey and the fact which informed my decisions about my future. It also taught me the valuable lesson that our religion exists only in our minds. It is our own creation. and as much part of our culture as our language and our technology. Without us, it does not exist. As such, it has no perminancy. It is not fixed, but ebbs and flows with the tide of human affairs.
Seeds of War on African Soil
Seeds of war were germinating in the soil of Africa. The exploits of the invader and the resister alike were being calcified through their religious belief systems and in a world where neither the white colonists nor the black people would disappear or annihilate the other, it signalled a long and bitter future of deep mistrust, hatred and bloodshed. I projected that true peace would not come as long as the traditional Afrikaans church represented the majority of the white population. That the time would have to come where a new religion must take hold which is not focussed on annihilating and dispossessing and killing, but where a positive message of hope and possibilities would prevail. I could well imagine a time when many will turn their back on a religion based on differences and what it is “against”. When others will not be demonised for being different and when respect would be mutual. This would signal the start of a true reconciled future where both black and white would live together as humans and will recognise the power in unity and freedom for all, represented by a new faith!
My Time to Play was Over
I knew my time was up to criss-cross this vast land and I had to seek out other opportunities. Apart from the nature of mental constructs and culture, I started to see science as a particular cultural development but built upon a completely different set uf presuppositions and an altogether more productive world view.
I am very comfortable with the image of science as many rivers feeding into the ocean of truth running down many different hills. These hills are African, Chinese, American, European. In fact, fevery culture on earth contributed to science. Science is the new religion that many turn to and as much as it is also a construct of the human mind, the outcomes of the entire enterprise is “better.” The one aspect of culture that I could wholehartedly ascribe to was science. So began one of the most thrilling adventures of discovery!
One day I embarked on another trip to the Transvaal from Cape Town. This would be the trip where a most fortuitous event would occur. A problem that would lead to a meeting that would lead to a plan that would result in the rest of my life. On this trip, I met the most interesting Boer from Potchefstroom, Oscar Klynveld.
The words “Hottentot”, “Bushaman” and “Kaffirs” were used in the original publication and is repeated for the sake of accuracy. Today they are recognized as derogatory terms and the use of the term Kaffir are prohibited by legislation.
An article, setting out the case for the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880/ 1881 and the continued annexation of the Transvaal; published in The Times (London, Greater London, England), 22 Feb 1881, page 9.
Laband, J. 2020. The Land Wars. The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony. Penguin Randon House.
M’Cater, J.. 1869. Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. With Notice of the other Denominations. A historical Sketch. Ladysmith, Natal. W & C Inglis.
Bacon and the art of living is a study in the birth of the elements of bacon curing. Neither the chemical reactions, nor the different mechanical processes are simple. Everything about bacon is complex and beautiful. One of the most amazing stories within the grand story of bacon, is the story of sodium nitrite.
Pork is changed into bacon by the reaction of nirtrite (NO2-). With salt, it is the curing agent. The meat industry uses nitrite in the form of an ionic compound, sodium nitrite. It is sold as Quick Cure or Insta’ Cure, Prague Salt, Prague Powder or simply Pink Salt or Curing Salt. It is coloured pink to distinguish it from ordinary salt (sodium chloride). Every spice company sells it. It is the essential ingredient in the meat curing process.
Meat changes colour from the red fresh meat colour to an unappetising brown colour within days. (1) If one injects nitrite into the meat or rubs a mixture of salt and a small percentage of nitrite onto it, the meat will develop an appatizing reddish/ pinkish fresh meat colour (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914) and a characteristic cured taste. It will retain this colour for weeks and months if packed in the right conditions. (1) Nitrite provides an indispensable hurdle against a particularly nasty food pathogen, clostridium botulinum. It also endows the meat with a distinct cured taste.
During ages past, it has however not been nitrite that was added to meat to accomplish this, but its cousin, nitrate (NO3-). They may be cousins, but are very different in characteristics. Nitrate takes several weeks or even months to cure meat where nitrite accomplishes the same task in 12 hours. How the change happened from using nitrate or salpeter in meat curing to nitrite is an epic story.
This article tracks the migration of the meat industry from the use of saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate) as curing agent to sodium nitrite. It gives an overview of the scientific discoveries which started to reveal the mechanisms of meat curing. This understanding lead to the realisation that a direct application of nitrite as the curing agent will be vastly superior to the use of saltpeter (nitrate).
This was a dramatic discovery since in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the world saw nitrite as a dangerous drug at best and a poison that polluted drinking water and cause death of cattle. Using this directly in food and meat curing was unthinkable.
Sodium nitrite was available in this time for application in the coal-tar dye and medical industries. Science and engineering have however not worked out its large scale production in a way that will make it a commercially viable proposition for direct use in meat curing from a price and availability perspective.
World War One provided the transition moments required to change everything. Germany invested heavily in nitrogen related technology for the war. The most organised scientific and engineering environment on the planet in the early 1900’s focused its full attention on overcoming the manufacturing challenges in the service of the manufacturing of munitions. It also required this technology to overcome the challenge of being cut off, as a result of the war, from the natural sodium nitrate deposits in Chili that it required as fertilizer to drive its enormous agriculture sector during the war. At the same time, the use of saltpeter in meat curing was prohibited under the leadership of Walther Rathenau so that the valuable nitrate could be reserved for manufacturing of munitions.
This prohibition, I believe, was the initial spark that caused butchers to change to the use of sodium nitrite. At the same time, sodium nitrite was being produced in large volumes since it had, in its own right, application in the manufacturing of explosives. Health concerns and probably the need to have it reserved for munitions, lead to a ban, similar to nitrate, on its use in meat curing. So, World War One solved the scientific challenges of large scale manufacturing of sodium nitrite, the engineering challenges of building production facilities and provided the impetus for the meat industry to change by banning the use of saltpeter in meat curing. The ban was lifted after the war.
Following the war, Germany had to find markets for its enormous war time chemical stock piles. One of the ways it “sold” sodium nitrite was as a meat curing agent based on its inherent benefits of curing consistency and the vastly shorter curing time required.
It was introduced to the world mainly through the Chicago based firm, Griffith Laboratories, who imported it as Prague Salt from Germany and later improved on it by fusing the sodium nitrite to sodium chloride and sold it as Prague Powder.
Early humans to Polenski (1891)
Early humans did not know they added nitrate to the meat. A mixture of salt and a small amount of saltpeter was used to cure meat in order to preserve it and to retain the fresh meat colour.
Saltpeter is found naturally around the world in typically dry areas. Deposits exist in India, China, Mexico, the USA, and the Middle East. Despite its wide occurrence, the concentration of natural saltpeter is low. (Whittaker, CW, 1932: 10)
Saltpeter is also made by human effort. Europe, particularly Germany and France, Great Britain, India and the United States all acquired the technology to produce satpeter. (Van Cortlandt, P, 1776: 7, 8)
In South Africa, saltpeter deposits are found in the Griquatown beds of the Transvaal geological system. It extends from just South of the Orange River Northwards to the Kalahari Desert and then Eastwards into the Old Transvaal from Zeerust to Polokwane. The nitrate deposits occur in the middle portions of these beds, in softer and more decomposed shale. These South African reserves have fortunately never been mined even though it was used on a small scale to make gunpowder for the old Boer government. (Whittaker, CW, 1932: 10)
Saltpeter was at the heart of the arms race of the middle ages. It was used mainly in gunpowder, but as the worlds population grew, it became indispensable as a fertilizer and for curing meat. (See Bacon and the art of living, chapters 2, 3 and 4)
The French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier worked out its chemical composition. It is an ionic compound consisting of the metal potassium and its power is nitrate. Potassium Nitrate. (Mauskopf, MSH. 1995: 96) Trade in Saltpeter around the world was done through companies such as the Dutch East Indian Company (Dutch abbreviation, VOC) who traded it for its main use as an ingredient in gunpowder. It was by volume one of the largest commodities traded by the Dutch East Indian Company who set up the trading post in 1652 that became Cape Town.
Major developments shifted the balance of power away from Indie, China and home grown saltpeter production to South America where huge deposits of sodium nitrate were discovered that would become the principal source of the worlds nitrate for much of the 1800’s.
A popular legend tells the story of the discovery by two Indians in the Atacama desert in the South of Peru. According to the legend, after a hard day’s work, they camped in the Pampa and started a campfire to warm themselves. All of a sudden the ground started to burn and they ran away, thinking that they have seen the devil. They reported the event later to a priest in Camina who returned to the site. He had it analysed and found it to contain sodium nitrate (the same power as potassium nitrate, but linked to another common metal). The priest, according to the story, threw the rest of the soil in the courtyard of his house and saw the plants grew vigorously. He recommended the soil as an excellent tonic for the plant kingdom. (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :433)
So was discovered the enormous sodium nitrate deposits of the Atacama desert. The fertilizer properties of the salt was known long before the 1600’s. There are references to saltpeter and the nitrate ground in 1604. During the time of the Spanish Conquest, in the 1700’s, miners working in the South of Peru realised that gunpowder could be manufactured from the material in the soil instead of potassium nitrate. (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :433)
A report published in 1803 by Juan Egana, Secretary of the Royal Court of Mines in Chile showed the Huasco region is “covered in a large part by a crust of niter salt, well crystallized, and several inches thick” (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434)
The region was developed and by 1850 exports reached 24 000 tons/ year. In 1910 it was 2.4 million tons per year and by 1916, 3 million tons per year from 97 plants. (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434)
By the beginning of the 1900’s the country buying the largest quantity of the Chilean saltpeter was Germany (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434) who used it aggressively in their agriculture sector as fertilizer.
There is a close correlation between sodium and potassium nitrate. Its difficult to distinguish between sodium and potassium nitrate just by tasting it. Scientists were able to distinguish between the two compounds from the mid 1600’s and knew that sodium nitrate had a much greater ability to attract water (Whittaker, CW, 1932: 3). This made sodium nitrate a much better curing agent than potassium nitrate.
Nitrite was described in 1864 by the English Physiologist, B. W. Richardson. He outlined how to manufacture it and its chemical properties. (Wells, D. A., 1865: 233) Much earlier, in 1777 the prolific Swedish chemist Scheele,working in the laboratory of his pharmacy in the market town of Köping, made the first pure nitrite. (Scheele CW. 1777) He heated potassium nitrate at red heat for half an hour and obtained what he recognized as a new “salt.” The two compounds (potassium nitrate and nitrite) were characterized by Péligot and the reaction established as 2KNO3→2KNO2+O2. (Péligot E. 1841: 2: 58–68) (Butler, A. R. and Feelisch, M.)
The technology existed in the 1800’s to not only produce potassium nitrate (salpeter) and nitrite, but to also test for these.
Remember that curing up till 1890 has been attributed to saltpeter (potassium nitrate) or Chilean saltpeter (sodium nitrate). In 1891 a German food scientist, Dr Ed Polenski, working for the German Department of Health made an observation that would change the world while studying curing brines. When he tested the curing brine made from saltpeter and salt, days after it was made, he found nitrite to be present. This was surprising since saltpeter is potassium or sodium nitrate, not nitrite.
Dr Ed speculated that the nitrate (NO3-) was changed into nitrite (NO2-) through bacterial action, a reduction step between nitrate and nitrite that was well understood by this time. He had a hunch that nitrite is responsible for curing of meat and not the nitrate directly, as was previously thought.
From Polenski (1891) to WWI (1914 to 1918)
Following Dr Ed’s observations in 1891, considerable resources from around the world were dedicated to understand the chemistry of meat curing.
When World War One broke out, the concept of nitrite as curing agent (as opposed to nitrate) was firmly established.
Ralph Hoagland, Senior Biochemist, Biochemie Division, Bureau of Animal Industry, United States Department of Agriculture, published an article in 1914, Coloring matter of raw and cooked salted meats. In this article, he shows that nitrite as curing agent was a known and accepted fact by the outbreak of World War One (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914)
Readers who dont have an interest in the detailed description of the key discoveries may want to skip over the rest of this section altogether or glance over it generally. The goal of the section is to give the reader a sense of how firmly and universally the concept of nitrite as the curing agent was established by 1914. In the midst of the technical names and jargon, don’t lose the sense of the universal interest. The 1700’s, 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s was a time when the average person was as interested in chemistry as we are today about communication and information technology.
The difference between nitrates and nitrites, for example, was taught in school curriculum. An article appeared in the Daily Dispatch in Brainerd, Minnesota in the 20’s, that gives as an example of a diligent high school student, that he or she would know the difference. (The Brainerd Daily Dispatch (Brainerd, Minnesota). 17 January 1923. Page 3.)
Following Dr. Polenski’s observation, the German scientist, Notwang confirmed the presence of nitrite in curing brines in 1892, as observed by Dr Polenski, but attributed the reduction from nitrate to nitrite to the meat tissue itself. The link between nitrite and cured meat colour was finally established in 1899 by another German scientist, K. B. Lehmann in a simple but important experiment.
Karl Bernhard Lehmann (September 27, 1858 – January 30, 1940) was a German hygienist and bacteriologist born in Zurich.
In an experiment he boiled fresh meat with nitrite and a little bit of acid. A red colour resulted, similar to the red of cured meat. He repeated the experiment with nitrates and no such reddening occurred, thus establishing the link between nitrite and the formation of a stable red meat colour in meat. (Lee Lewis, W., 1925: 1243)
In the same year, another German hygienists, K. Kisskalt, confirmed Lehmann’s observations but proved that the same red colour resulted if the meat was left in saltpeter (potassium nitrate) for several days before it was cooked. (Lee Lewis, W., 1925: 1243)
K. B. Lehmann made another important observation that must be noted when he found the colour to be soluble in alcohol and ether and to give a spectrum showing an absorption band just at the right of the D line, and a second band, often poorly defined, at the left of the E line. On standing, the color of the solution changed to brown and gave the spectrum of alkaline hematin, the colouring group (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914).
The brilliant British physiologist and philosopher, John Scott Haldane weighed in on the topic. He was born in 1860 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was part of a lineage of important and influential scientists. (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009. The Haldane Effect)
J. S. Haldene contributed immensely to the application of science across many fields of life. This formidable scientist was for example responsible for developing decompression tables for deep sea diving used to this day. (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009. The Haldane Effect)
“Haldane was an observer and an experimentalist, who always pointed out that careful observation and experiments had to be the basis of any theoretical analysis. “Why think when you can experiment” and “Exhaust experiments and then think.” (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009. The Haldane Effect)
An interesting anecdote is told about him from the time when he was studying medicine in Jena. He apparently carefully observed the amount of beer being drunk, noting that the students on the average drank about 20 pints per evening.” (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009. The Haldane Effect)
Before we look at Haldene’s contribution, let us re-cap what has been determined thus far.
Polenski and Notwang discovered that nitrite were present in a mix of saltpeter and salt, after a while, even though no nitrite were present when the brine was mixed.
Karl Bernhard Lehmann linked nitrite conclusively with the reddening effect of fresh meat that was boiled in a nitrite and water solution with some free acid. He also showed that this does not happen if fresh meat is placed in saltpeter and water solution and boiled immediately. K. Kisskalt showed that the same reddening occurred if fresh meat is left in saltpeter for some time.
K. B. Lehmann managed to “isolate” the colour by dissolving it in ether and alcohol and analyze it spectroscopically.
What S. J. Haldele did was to apply the same rigor to cured meat and became the first person to demonstrate that the addition of nitrite to hemoglobin produce a nitric oxide (NO)-heme bond, called iron-nitrosyl-hemoglobin (HbFeIINO). (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009: 119)
Nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO) by bacteria or enzymatic reactions and in the presence of muscle myoglobin forms iron-nitrosyl-myoglobin. It is nitrosylated myoglobin that gives cured meat, including bacon and hot dogs, their distinctive red color and protects the meat from oxidation and spoiling. (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009: 119)
This is how he did it. He concluded (1901) that its red colour is due to the presence of the nitricoxid hemochromogen resulting from the reduction of the coloring matter of the uncooked meat, or nitric-oxid hemoglobin (NO-hemoglobin). (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914)
Remember the observation made by K. B. Lehmann that the colour of fresh meat cooked in water with nitrites and free acid to give a spectrum showing an absorption band just at the right of the D line, and a second band, often poorly defined, at the left of the E line. (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914)
Haldene found the same colour to be present in cured meat. That it is soluble in water and giving a spectrum characteristic of NO-hemoglobin. The formation of the red color in uncooked salted meats is explained by the action of nitrites in the presence of a reducing agent and in the absence of oxygen upon hemoglobin, the normal coloring matter of fresh meats. (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914)
Ralp Hoagland (1908) studied the action of saltpeter upon the colour of meat and found that its value as an agent in the curing of meats depends upon the nitrate’s reduction to nitrites and the nitrites to nitric oxid, with the consequent production of NO-hemoglobin. The red colour of salted meats is due to this compound. Hoagland conclusively shows that saltpeter, as such, has no value to preserve the fresh colour. (Hoagland, Ralph, 1914: 212)
The reason why the knowledge did not translate to a change in curing brines was very simple. The technology and infrastructure did not exist to produce enough nitrite commercially to replace saltpeter. This means that to produce nitrite was very expensive.
There were some attempts to capitalise on the knowledge gained. The German scientist, Glage (1909) wrote a pamphlet where he outlines the practical methods for obtaining the best results from the use of saltpeter in the curing of meats and in the manufacture of sausages. (Hoagland, Ralph, 1914: 212, 213)
Saltpeter can only effect the colour of the meat if the nitrate in the saltpeter is reduced to nitrite. Glage gives for the partial reduction of the saltpeter to nitrites by heating the dry salt in a kettle before it is used. It is stated that this partially reduced saltpeter is much more efficient in the production of color in the manufacture of sausage than is the untreated saltpeter. (Hoagland, Ralph, 1914: 212, 213)
The fear of nitrites
The lack of a large scale production process for sodium nitrite and the engineering to build these plants were however not the only factors preventing the direct use of sodium nitrite in meat curing brines. As one review literature from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, one realises that a major hurdle that stood between the use of sodium nitrites in meat curing was the mistrust by the general public and authorities of the use of nitrites in food. The matter relate to the high level of toxicity of nitrite, a matter that will be dealt with separately in Bacon and the art of living.
The first recorded direct use of nitrite as a curing agent was in 1905 in the USA where it was used in secret. (Katina, J. 2009) The USDA finally approved its use as a food additive in 1906. (porkandhealth) This did not mean that the public would accept it.
Sodium Nitrite started to be used in this time as a bleach for flour in the milling industry. Several newspaper articles reveal public skepticism and the great lengths that the scientific community and industry had to go to in order to demonstrate its safety as a bleaching agent for flour. An article appeared in The Nebraska State Journal Lincoln, Nebraska on 29 June 1910 entitled, “All for bleached flour. No harm can come from its consumption says experts”. The article deals with a federal court case about the matter and interestingly enough, it seems from newspaper articles that the government was opposing its use. Many other examples can be sited.
There is a 1914 reference in the London Times that shows the general view of nitrite as not just restricted to the USA. The article appeared on 9 June 1914 and a reference is made to sodium nitrite where it is described as “a dangerous drug with a powerful action on the heart.” (The London Times. 1914. Page 118) The reference was to the use of nitrite for certain heart conditions.
It is interesting that sodium nitrite did not find an immediate application in the meat industry, even after it was allowed in 1906 in the USA.
In my view, this points to problems surrounding availability and price. If the issue was the public perception alone, this could have been overcome with a PR campaign by the meat industry as was successfully done by the milling industry.
On 13 Dec 1915 George F. Doran from Omaha, Nebraska, filed an application for a patent for a curing brine that contained nitrites. His application strengthens the evidence that it was not the knowledge of nitrite and its role in curing that was lacking, but availability and price. He states the objective of his patent application to “produce in a convenient and more rapid manner a complete cure of packing house meats; to increase the efficiency of the meat-curing art; to produce a milder cure; and to produce a better product from a physiological standpoint.”
One of Doran’s sources of nitrite is “sterilized waste pickling liquor which he [I have] discovered contains soluble nitrites produced by conversion of the potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate, or other nitrate of the pickling liquor when fresh, into nitrites. . .” “Waste pickling liquor is taken from the cured meats. Nitrites suitable for use in carrying out the present invention may be produced by bacterial action from nitrates and fresh pickling liquor by adding a small percentage of old used pickling liquor. The bacteria in old pickling liquor are reducing bacteria and change nitrates to nitrites.” (Process for curing meats. US 1259376 A)
The use of old pickle has been described much earlier than Doran’s patent. His usage of old pickle when he understood the reduction of nitrate to nitrite and nitrite’s role in curing along with the fact that sodium nitrite was available can point to only one reason – price. It comes 10 years after sodium nitrite was first tested in curing brines for meat and shows that it has never become the curing agent of choice most probably due to limited availability and price. Much more about this later.
The postWWI era (1918 and beyond)
After WWI something changed. Saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate) has been substituted by the direct addition of nitrite to the curing brines.
The question is who pioneered this. Why and how did sodium nitrite production become so commonplace that it became available to bacon curing plants around the world?
Industry developments like this do not happen “by itself.” Someone drives it in order for it to become general practice in an industry.
Chilean Saltpeter is a good case in point. Even though natural sodium nitrate deposits were discovered in the Atacama desert, it took a considerable effort on the side of the producers (mainly the Chilean Government) to work out the benefits of sodium nitrate and to market it to the world. It is, for example, famously reported that the first shipment to Britain was dumped in the sea before the ship docked on account that the cargo attracted customs duty and the ships owners could not see any commercial application for sodium nitrate. (2)
In the same way, the direct application of nitrite in curing brines must have been driven by someone.
The Griffith Laboratories, Inc.
The Chicago based company of Enoch Luther Griffith and his son, Carroll Griffith started to import a mixture of sodium nitrite and salt as a curing substitute for saltpeter from Germany in 1925. The product was called Prague Salt (Prague Powder, 1963: 3)
The Griffith Laboratories (3) played a key role in marketing the new curing brine in the USA. They took the concept of the Prague Salt (sodium nitrite) and in 1934 announced an improved curing brine, based on the simple use of sodium nitrite, where they fuse nitrite salt and sodium chloride in a particular ratio. They called it Prague Powder. Their South African agents, Crown Mills (4), brought the innovation to South Africa. (Prague Powder, 1963: 3, 4)
It is fair to assume that if Prague Salt was being sold to Griffith in the 1920’s, the German producers must have sold it to other countries and companies around the world also.
The benefits of Prague Salt and later Prague Powder over Saltpeter is dramatic. Prague Salt (sodium nitrite) does not have the slightly bitter taste of saltpeter (Brown, 1946: 223). It allows for greater product consistency since the same percentage of nitrate was not always present in the saltpeter and the reduction of nitrate to nitrite takes longer or shorter under various conditions (Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, December 1925: 1243). The big benefit was however in the curing time required. Instead of weeks or even months that is required with saltpeter, curing could now be done in days or even hours with sodium nitrite. (The Food Packer, 1954: 64) From there, brand names like Quick Cure or Instacure.
This means that we have narrowed the time line for invention of Prague Salt (Sodium Nitrite) to between 1914, the beginning of the Great War and 1925 when Griffith imported it from Germany.
However, a document, published in the USA in 1925 shows that sodium nitrite as curing agent has been known well before 1925.
The document was prepared by the Chicago based organisation, The Institute American Meat Packers and published in December 1925. The Institute started as an alignment of the meat packing companies set up by Phil Armour, Gustavus Swift, Nelson Morris, Michael Cudahy, Jacob Dold and others with the University of Chicago.
A newspaper article about the Institute sets its goal, apart from educating meat industry professionals and new recruits, “to find out how to reduce steers to beef and hogs to pork in the quickest, most economical and the most serviceable manner.” (The Indiana Gazette. 28 March 1924).
The document is entitled, “Use of Sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats“, and it it is clear that the direct use of nitrites in curing brines has been practiced from earlier than 1925. (Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, December 1925: 1243)
The article begins “The authorization of the use of sodium nitrite in curing meat by the Bureau of Animal Industry on October 19, 1925, through Amendment 4 to B. A. I. Order 211 (revised), gives increased interest to past and current work on the subject.”
Sodium Nitrite curing brines would therefore have arrived in the USA, well before 1925.
It continues in the opening paragraph, “It is now generally accepted that the salpteter added in curing meat must first be reduced to nitrite, probably by bacteria, before becoming available as an agent in producing the desirable red color in the cured product. This reduction is the first step in the ultimate formation of nitrosohemoglobin, the color principle. The change of nitrate to nitrite is by no means complete and varies within considerable limits under operating conditions. Accordingly, the elimination of this step by the direct addition of smaller amounts of nitrite means the use of less agent and a more exact control.”
Griffith describes the introduction and origin of Prague Salt and later, Prague Powder as follows in official company documents:
“The mid-twenties were significant to Griffith as it had been studying closely a German technique of quick-curing meats. Short on manpower and time, German meat processors began curing meats using Nitrite with salt instead of slow-acting saltpeter, potassium nitrate. This popular curing compound was known as “Prague Salt.” (Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc.)
The World War One link
The tantalizing bit of information from Griffith sets World War One as the background for the practical and large scale introduction of direct addition of nitrite into curing brines through sodium nitrite.
There has to be more to the reason for saltpeter being replaced by sodium nitrite as curing agent than the reasons given by Griffith. For starters, the meat industry has always been under pressure to work fast with less people due to pressure on profit margins. The need to cure meat quicker due to short manpower and time as a result of the war could not be the full story.
The World War One link from Griffith does not give all the answers, but it puts the introduction of sodium nitrite to meat curing between 1914 and 1918, at least 7 years before Griffith started to import Prague Salt.
A document from the University of Vienna would fill out the story. According to it, saltpeter was reserved for the war effort and was consequently no longer available as curing agent for meat during World War One. (University of Vienna). It was reserved for the manufacturing of explosives, and for example, the important industry of manufacturing nitrocellulose, used as base for the production of photographic film, to be employed in war photography. (Vaupel, E., 2014: 462) It gets even better. Not only did the prohibition on the use of saltpeter expand the information from Griffith as to why people started using sodium nitrite (macro movements in culture does not take place because of one reason only), but it provide a name to the prohibition.
In August 1914, the War Raw Materials Department (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung or KRA) was set up under the leadership of Walther Rathenau. It was Rathenau who was directly responsible for the prohibition on the use of salpeter. (5) He therefore is the person in large part responsible creating the motivation for the meat industry in Germany to change from saltpeter to sodium nitrite as curing medium of choice for the German meat industry during Wold War One.
Walter Rathenau’s actions may have motivated the change, but it was the developments in synthesizing ammonia, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite which provided the price point for the compound to remain the curing agent of choice, even after the war and after the prohibition on the use of saltpeter was lifted.
One ofthe most important scientific riddles to be solved in the late 1800’s/ early 1900’s was how to produce ammonia and its related chemicals from atmospheric nitrogen. Sir William Crookes delivered a famous speech on the Wheat Problem at the annual meeting of the British Association for the advancement of Science in 1898.
In his estimation, the wheat production following 1897 would seriously decline due to reduced crop yields, resulting in a wheat famine unless science can step in and provide an answer. He saw no possibility to increase the worlds wheat yield under the prevailing agricultural conditions and with the increase in the world population, this posed a serious problem. He said, “It is clear that we are taxed with a colossal problem that must tax the wits of the wisest.” He predicted that the USA who produced 1/5th of the worlds wheat, would become a nett importer unless something change. He pointed to the obvious answer of manure, but observed that all available resources are being depleted fast.
Sir William saw a “gleam of light in the darkness” and that “gleam” was atmospheric nitrogen. (Otago Witness. 3 May 1900, Page 4)
It was the German Chemist, Fritz Harber who solved the problem, with the help of Robert Le Rossignol who developed and build the required high pressure device to accomplish this. (www.princeton.edu)
In 1909 they demonstrated that they could produce ammonia from air, drop by drop, at the rate of about a cup every two hours. “The process was purchased by the German chemical company BASF (a coal tar dye supplier), which assigned Carl Bosch the difficult task of scaling up Haber’s tabletop machine to industrial-level production.Haber and Bosch were later awarded Nobel prizes, in 1918 and 1931 respectively, for their work in overcoming the chemical and engineering problems posed by the use of large-scale, continuous-flow, high-pressure technology.” (www.princeton.edu)
“Ammonia was first manufactured using the Haber process on an industrial scale in 1913 in BASF’s Oppau plant in Germany.” (www.princeton.edu)
It was the vision and leadership of Walther Rathenau, the man responsible for restricting the use of saltpeter, that drove Germany to produce synthesized Chilean Saltpeter. He saw this as one of the most important tasks of his KRA. He said: “I initiated the construction of large saltpeter factories, which will be built by private industries with the help of governmental subsidies and will take advantage of recent technological developments to make the import of saltpeter entirely unnecessary in just few months“. (Lesch, J. E., 2000: 1)
Fritz Harber was one of the experts appointed by Rathenau to evaluate a study on the local production of nitric acid.
During World War One production was shifted from fertilizer to explosives, particularly through the conversion of ammonia into a synthetic form of Chile saltpeter, which could then be changed into other substances for the production of gunpowder and high explosives (the Allies had access to large amounts of saltpeter from natural nitrate deposits in Chile that belonged almost totally to British industries; Germany had to produce its own). It has been suggested that without this process, Germany would not have fought in the war, or would have had to surrender years earlier.” (www.princeton.edu)
So it happened that Germany became the leader in the world in synthesised sodium nitrate production and it effectively replaced its reliance on saltpeter from Chile with sythesised sodium nitrate, produced by BASF and other factories.
So, as a result of the First World War, sodium nitrite was produced at levels not seen previously in the world and in large factories that was build, using the latest processing techniques and technology from a scientific and an engineering perspective. Sodium nitrite, like sodium nitrate was being used in the production of explosives. Nitroglycerin is an example of an explosive used extensively by Germany in World War One that uses sodium nitrite in its production. (Wikipedia.org. Nitroglycerin and Amyl Nitrite)
Sodium nitrite and the coal-tar dye industry
The importance of the manufacturing cost of nitrite and the matter surrounding availability can be seen in the fact that sodium nitrite has been around since well before the war. Despite the fact that it was known that nitrite is the curing agent and not nitrate, and despite the fact that sodium nitrite has been tested in meat curing agents, probably well before the clandestine 1905 test in the USA, it did not replace saltpeter as the curing agent of choice. My hunch is that it did not enter the meat industry as a result of cost.
The technology that ultimately is responsible for synthesising Chilean Saltpeter and made low cost sodium nitrite possible was being incubated in the coal-tar dye and textiles industry and in the medical field. The lucrative textiles and dye industry was the primary reason for German institutions of education, both in science and engineering to link with industry, resulting in a strong, well organised skills driven German economy. For example, “Bayer had close ties with the University of Göttingen, AGFA was linked to Hofmann at Berlin, and Hoechst and BASF worked with Adolph Baeyer who taught chemists in Berlin, Strasbourg, and Munich.” (Baptista, R. J.. 2012: 6)
“In the late 1870s, this knowledge allowed the firms to develop the azo class of dyes, discovered by German chemist Peter Griess, working at an English brewery, in 1858. Aromatic amines react with nitrous acid to form a diazo compound, which can react, or couple, with other aromatic compounds.” (Baptista, R. J.. 2012: 6)
Nitrous acid (HONO) is to nitrite (NO2-) what nitric acid (NO3) is to nitrate (NO3-).
According to K. H. Saunders, a chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., Martius was the chemist to whom the introduction of sodium nitrite as the source of nitrous acid was due. (Saunders, K. H., 1936: 26)
The economic imperative
The simple fact is that ammonia can be synthesized through the direct synthesis ammonia method at prices below what can be offered through Chilean Satlpeter. (Ernst, FA. 1928: 92 and 100) Sodium Nitrite can be supplied at prices below Chilean saltpeter and this made sodium nitrite the most effective curing agent at the lowest price since World War One.
As an example of the cost differences, the price of Nitric Acid (HNO3) from direct synthesis in 1928 was $23.60 per ton HNO3 plus the cost of 606 lb. of NH3 by-product and from Chilean Nitrate at $32.00 per ton of HNO3, plus the cost of 2840 N NO3 by-product. (Ernst, FA. 1928: 112)
The advantage of scale and technology
By 1927, Germany was still by far the worlds largest direct syntheses ammonia producer. Production figures of the year 1926/ 1927 exceeded Chilean saltpeter exports even if compared with the highest levels of exports that Chilean saltpeter ever had in 1917. A total of 593 000 tons of nitrogen was fixed around the world in 1926/27. Of this figure, Germany produced 440 000 tons or 74%. The closest competitor was England through the Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Ltd. with a total capacity of 53 000 tons of nitrogen per year. (Ernst, FA. 1928: 119, 120)
In the USA 7 direct synthesis plants were in operation with a combined capacity of 28 500 tons of nitrogen per year. (Ernst, FA. 1928: 120)
Supporting evidence from the USA
The thesis that before the war, the production of sodium nitrite was not advanced enough for its application in the meat industry (resulting in high prices and low availability) is confirmed when we consider the situation in the USA.
The first US plant for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was build in 1917 by the American Nitrogen Products Company at Le Grande, Washington. It could produce about one ton of nitrogen per day. In 1927 it was destroyed by a fire and was never rebuild. (Ernst, FA, 1928: 14)
An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer of 27 September 1923 reports that as a result of cheap German imports of sodium nitrite following the war, the American Nitrogen Products Company was forced to close its doors four years before the factory burned down. The imports referred to, was as a result of Germany selling their enormous stockpiles of sodium nitrite at “below market prices” and not directly linked to a lower production price in Germany, even though this was probably the case in any event. ( The Cincinnati Enquirer ( Cincinnati, Ohio), 27 September 1923. Page 14.)
The Vienna University document indicate that the fast curing of sodium nitrite was recognised and the ban was lifted when the war ended. It was this fact that Griffith picks up on in their literature.
This is how it happened that sodium nitrite replaced saltpeter as curing salt.
The ban on the use of saltpeter for non military uses by Walther Rathenau is the likely spark that caused butchers to look at alternative curing systems. A known alternative was sodium nitrite. Despite a similar ban on the use of nitrite, later imposed for concerns over the safety of nitrite in meat and because sodium nitrite was also used to produce explosives, it was available in such large quantities around Germany that it was possible to defy the ban.
The likely consequence of the developments surrounding the production of atmospheric nitrogen is that sodium nitrite was being produced at prices that was previously not possible. These prices, combined with the volume of sodium nitrite now available made it a viable proposition to replace saltpeter in meat curing and to remain the curing brine of choice, following the war.
(1) “The red color of fresh lean meat, such as beef, pork, and mutton, is due to the presence of oxyhemoglobin, a part of which is one of the constituents of the blood remaining in the tissues, while the remainder is a normal constituent of the muscles. When fresh meat is cooked or is cured by sodium chloride, the red color changes to brown, owing to the breaking down of the oxyhemoglobin into the two constituents, hematin, the coloring group, and the protein, globin.
On the other hand, when fresh meat is cured by means of a mixture of sodium chloride and a small proportion of potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, either as a dry mixture or in the form of a pickle, the red color of the fresh meat is not destroyed during the curing process, the finished product having practically the same color as the fresh meat. Neither is the red color destroyed on cooking, but rather is intensified.” (Hoagland, Ralph. 1914)
(2) The first export of salitre (sodium nitrate) was authorised by the Chilean government in March 1830 and went to the USA, France, and to Liverpool. It is the latter shipment which failed and was thrown overboard. Different sources give different reasons for the action. One, that price was not attractive, another, that the excise duties were to high, and a third that the Port captain did not allow the boat to come in because it was carrying a dangerous load. A few farmers in Glasgow received a few bags. They used it as fertalizer and reported a three fold increase in crop yield. (Wisniak, J, et al. 2001: 437)
(3) Steve Hubbard, Vice President, Global Marketing and Innovation at Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc. graciously provided me with much of the information from company documents.
(4) Crown Mills was bought out by Bidvest and became Crown National.
(5) The first War Raw Materials Department (KRA) in Germany was created (KRA) in mid-August 1914, as suggested by Walther Rathenau. (Vaupel, E. 2014: 462) Walter was the son of the founder of AEG and “one of the few German industrialists who realized that governmental direction of the nation’s economic resources would be necessary for victory, Rathenau convinced the government of the need for a War Raw Materials Department in the War Ministry. As its head from August 1914 to the spring of 1915, he ensured the conservation and distribution of raw materials essential to the war effort. He thus played a crucial part in Germany’s efforts to maintain its economic production in the face of the tightening British naval blockade.”
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