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 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 outside or in water to protect it from predators would have resulted in the meat turning soft. They must have pulverized it with sticks or rocks. Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften it.
I imagine that people discovered that dry meat lasts long and soon they stumbled upon the wonderful benefits of salt. Food was initially only seen as something to consume to fuel our bodies. As humans developed, we started changing food into an art. The king or leader and people with means could demand the best meat. We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in different ways to improve the taste and food changed into an expression of our culture. These different techniques of “softening” meat became art in themselves and the 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 saltpetre 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 saltpetre, it changes to a dull brown colour. If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpetre, it changes the colour to pinkish-reddish. Curing is the first key to making good bacon.
The second thing that saltpetre does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat. The cured meat is taste is saltepters second benefit. The last one is longevity. Modern people know that cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator but in the ancient world, it was essential in a time before refrigeration. In Europe, cured meat became the staple meat for many.
I know saltpetre is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon. Let me rather say it like this. Using saltpetre is not the only guarantee for good bacon but if you leave it out, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity unless you cure it for a very long time. Meat with salt only and no saltpetre is only salted meat unless you cure it for many months, even years. In this case, the meat by itself changes into the cured colour, but this is not the kind of meat we want to produce.
In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimneys 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 added 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 set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpetre. Saltpetre 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 saltpetre, but saltpetre is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth. So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpetre. 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 and why does it give this unique taste? These are the questions I knew I had to answer.
The Problem of Scale
Besides understanding saltpetre, 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 David de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more than 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 underestimate. Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at is saltpetre!
Knowing the answer or understanding the innovation will not help us one little bit if we don’t have the right structure which will overcome the issues of scale and the business imperative of funding. Personally and even as a corporation, funding and structure to overcome scale will not help us to remain competitive by itself if we do not know the art of remaining competitive! These are matters that I did not even know that I do not know but my time in Denmark introduced me to it and I realise that learning about it is every bit as important as the secrets of great bacon! I know that as a banker, you will find this most fascinating because you work with this every day of your life. I would love your thoughts on the subject to see if there is any application for us in Cape Town.
The Spirit of the Danes
This 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 instil 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 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 centre of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig. His names were Nikolaj Frederik Severin but most people referred to him by his initials as NFS.
Denmark was an impoverished nation. They lost Schleswig-Holstein, where my ancestors came from, 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 of 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. Danes, he taught, 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 between the age of 18 and 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. 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. The Danes were focused on the best and latest scientific farming practices and on an unprecedented level of cooperation. The middle man had to be eliminated. 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 who had to also be “by the farmers elected into 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 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 land 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 the 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 were 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 and think in terms of self-help and are not reliance on the state for help.
As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to 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 can’t work in South Africa. An obstacle in South Africa will remain deep distrust between the different peoples who call South Africa their home and the matter of farm ownership. Another problem is the fact that we limit education to certain races. We are massing unthinkable difficulty for the future!
Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon
In Denmark, the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder. In the same way, the need to find a use for the skimmed milk gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs. Pig farming 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 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 of practical efficiency, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to action 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, the number of pigs converted to bacon in that one year was 1 250 000 pigs.
After breeding and pig farming, the next step in the process 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 for the ongoing expansion. Each is in excellent running condition. As in the case of the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has 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 guaranteeing the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improving 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 by Danish 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. This sound like an unimportant bit of history, but in the great story of bacon, it would be pivotal! 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.
How to Remain Competitive
Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals trader 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 and sharing life.
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, continued education, cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education. They are, however, every bit as important as bacon curing itself. The cooperative model, I realised upon reflection, can not be seen as a goal in itself. In the end, it provides an innovative solution to the problem of access to capital. I can see how, as circumstances in an environment change, other forms of access to capital may present themselves and may even be better than the cooperative model. The fact that we must remain cognitive of development and innovations in this field will be key to our continued competitiveness.
The fact is that William Oake’s system of curing with the concrete floor and the curing baths require a lot of capital to set up. The entire endeavour is expensive. The cooperative model was ideal for providing the capital required for exactly these kind of factories!
The other ingredient which I commit to making a focus of my life is continued education. I will have to remain knowledgeable of the most current thinking about meat curing as my chosen occupation. One of the ways I commit to achieving this is through book learning but the other is through relationships with the best curers in the world so that I can continue to be mentored by them.
The Ignorance of the Colonials
I see ignorance in our South African society which came from both the Dutch and the English influences. The view that all humans are fundamentally unequal will remain something that hampers our progress and it is patently clear to me looking at Danish society. The truth is that former slaves in the Colony continue to be the custodians of the artisan trades. Yet, we do not value them or honour them as some of the most important members of our society. We do not give them representation in government as the Danes did with their farmers. We do not make their continued education a priority. We certainly do not pay them what they are worth!
What is true in the Colony is even more true in the Transvaal and the Free State where black people are seen as second-class citizens. By not seeing them as our equal as human beings and as our partners in the development of the interior of the country, we are laying the groundwork for a very turbulent future! If only we would see their science as streams feeding the great universal pool of knowledge, we rob ourselves of utalising traditions that developed in Africa over millennia and which, if understood properly, will allow us to contribute to the advancement of the art of curing and many other sciences! As it is, the white man seems to seek nothing else but to get the native of Africa to forget his own science and in our view, education is equated with them replacing their knowledge with what is taught in Europe. I fear that this is a grave mistake! There is not a day that passes when I do not think back to how meat curing is done in Africa. It is similar to how it is done here but also very different! It makes me want to go back and look more carefully at how curing is done in Africa! Upon my return I will commit a lot of time to this!
The Most Wonderful Quest
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 saltpetre. “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 and David de Villiers Graaff 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 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.
Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle
Copenhagen, August 1891
A father’s relationship with his daughter is very special. It’s magical! This is your turn to get a letter, my precious La. How I miss you guys! This week I learned an important lesson, that life is about much more than science, technology, and business.
Tribute to Jacobus Combrinck
I got a telegraph on Thursday, 6 August 1891 from David de Villiers Graaff. He told me the devastating news about the death of Uncle Cornelius Combrinck. (1) I am immensely saddened. He was a part of our lives for so long. I practically grew up in his home. He and your grandfather were friends since before I was born. I can almost not imagine going forward without him. The knowledge of his passing left a gap in my heart. When I read David’s message, I took a long walk and cried much.
In my mind, I see him with the two of you on his lap when you were still very small. When we visited him in his Woodstock home (2) he would put you on his knee and you would “ride horsie”. I don’t know if you will remember this. You were so small!
You loved going there and he loved having us over. The large apricot trees in his back garden! You and Tristan enjoyed climbing them. He had the biggest garden and tended it with care. I will never forget the last time I saw him just before I left for Denmark. He spoke to me privately and urgently. He told me that he thinks I am finally making a good career choice. He did not like the fact that I rode transport to Johannesburg because he believed that the railroads would soon have put me out of business. The meat industry, he to him, is one of the iconic, almost eternal industries. People would always need food. He told me that the chance to become proficient in one aspect of it is something I can build a future on. Now he is gone. Life is short.
Uncle Cornelius never had his own children, but he invested liberally in the lives of others, particularly children. He spared no effort to mentor me, even in times when I made choices that he did not agree with. He took the Graaff brothers into his house and cared for them as if his own.
I understand that he was buried from the Groote Kerk, in Cape Town and laid to rest in the Maitland Cemetary. His life is an example to all of us, little La! He was your age when he started to work in the butchery of Johannes Mechau. His dad had passed away and his mother was desperate for extra income. The fact that as a 10-year-old boy he had to earn his living could have been a sign that he was destined for a life of mediocrity and poverty. The opposite was true! By his own resolve and willpower. Mechau found that he learned the trade quickly.
He was ambitious and left Mechau’s employment to join the leading pork butcher in town, the Swiss Ithmar Schietlin. When Schietlin returned to Switzerland, Combrinck went into business for himself.
He was very successful. He speculated in the diamond industry in Kimberly. He owned houses in Sea Point, Three Anchor Bay, and Wynberg. He had sheep farms that supplied his own and other butcheries throughout the Colony.
Uncle Jakobus knew the value of a young apprentice from his own experience. He thought it best to select such an apprentice from his own people and in 1870 he visited the farm Wolfhuiskloof in the lovely Franschhoek mountains. Like his own family situation, years earlier, the Graaff family fell on hard times and found it difficult to feed their children. One of the children of Petrus and Anna Graaff impressed Jacobus. The child was lively and intelligent and he suggested that David return to Cape Town with him where he would be taught the butchery trade. The suggestion pleased everybody. This is how it came about that David joined the butchery, Combrinck & Co. (Simons, 2000)
I am sorry that I missed his funeral but I managed to send a telex to the Graaff brothers. It is a comfort to know that you, Tristan, and my parents attended. I wonder how Cecil Rhodes took the news of his passing? (3) (Simons, 2000)
The Best I Can Be
Lauren, I am here to learn the butcher’s trade and the art of curing bacon. One of the best responses possible to honour the memory of Uncle Jacobus is to become the best I can be at these.
As a child on Stillehoogte, I learned that saltpeter is the magical salt that cures meat. A friend of Uncle Jeppe, Dr. Eduard Polenski, discovered that nitrites form in bacon brine and suspects that it is the actual compound that changes pork into bacon and not saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate). At the factory, I would walk behind Unkle Jeppe on the way to the curing room and he would ask me, “Eben, what changes pork into bacon?” My answer always had to be, “Nitrite!” (4) He would follow this up by asking, “Where does nitrite come from?” upon which I reply, “From the saltpeter, when bacteria change the nitrate into nitrite when it removes the one oxygen atom from the saltpeter molecule.”
To fully comprehend the different nitrogen compounds that play a rile in meat curing, there is another compound you must know besides nitrite (NO₂⁻) and nitrate (NO3-), namely ammonia. In my last letter to you and Tristan, I already introduced you very briefly to it when I told you about ammonium chloride which was another great salt from antiquity that cured meat.
The three cousins of the chemical gas, nitrogen are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates. These three cousins are key to all life and exist almost everywhere. It occurs naturally in sea salt, in the ground, in salt beds. They are pervasive. Without them, we won’t be able to shoot a gun, fertilize our fields or cure bacon. Some people refer to it as the nitrogen cycle – the fact that nitrogen exists in the atmosphere as a stable gas, that the tight bonds are broken through the action of lightning which then frees the two nitrogen atoms so that one can react with oxygen to form nitric oxide (NO). As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. 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.
There is now an interaction where oxygen is added to nitrogen-containing compounds (oxidation) and removed (reduction). Bacteria change decomposing animal and plant matter from ammonia into nitrite and nitrates and eventually back into nitrogen gas which is released into the atmosphere. Certain bacteria change atmospheric nitrogen directly into a form that can be digested by plants. Uncle Jeppe organized a visit for Minette and me to the University of Copenhagen where a professor in biology and chemistry took an entire morning to describe to me the most recent discoveries in this field.
I wrote to Tristan about nitrate. I told him about saltpeter and nitrite, when I reported on the work of Dr. Eduard Polenski and his insight and experiment showing that in bacon cures, nitrate is converted to nitrite. It has recently been shown that there is a conversion of each of these compounds into the other through the action of small organisms, called bacteria in soil and water. It was these discoveries that gave Dr. Polenski the insight that it may be bacteria in brine, changing the nitrate (NO3-) to nitrite (NO₂⁻). Our visit to the University was breathtaking. I was glad that Minette accompanied me. I needed someone there to simply help me take notes and to remember every bit of insight shared by the Professors. It is thrilling to share my journey of discovery with all of you!
Discovery of the Microscopic
One of the pillars of understanding nitrogen is its chemical make up. Another is to understand bacteria and their role in these processes. Some of the reactions in meat are driven by chemistry and some by bacteria. Like many of our greatest discoveries, the ancients had a very good idea that the microscopic world must exist.
Bacteria and micro-organisms were discovered between 1665 and roughly 1678. Two of the men responsible for their discovery were Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. (Gest, H. 2004) As one can imagine, the microscopic was discovered when the instruments were invented to see very small organisms. It came about after the discovery of the microscope. The first illustrated book on microscopy was Micrographia, published by Robert Hooke in 1665. (Gest, H. 2004)
On 23 April 1663, Hooke reported on two microscopic observations to the Royal Society, one of leaches in vinegar and another of mould on sheepskin. So opened up to humankind the magical world of the minute! The microscopic!
It was the astonishing Antoni van Leeuwenhoek from Holland who introduced us to many micro realities of our world. Here is an interesting list of some of the discoveries of this remarkable man:
In 1674, in a single vial of pond scum that he took from the Berkelse Mere, a small lake near Delft, he discovered and described the beautiful alga Spirogyra, and various ciliated and flagellated protozoa. He found in 1674 that yeast consists of individual plant-like organisms. In 1675 he discovered and accurately described and differentiated red blood cells in humans, swine, fish, and birds. In 1677 he was the first to observe sperm cells in humans, dogs, swine, mollusks, amphibians, fish and birds. In 1679 and 1684 he described the needle-shaped microscopic crystals of sodium urate that form in the tissues of gout patients in stone-like deposits called “tophi”. In 1684, he correctly guessed that much of the pain of gout is caused by these sharp crystals poking into adjacent tissues. More than a century would pass before any further advance in the understanding of gout. He found and described in 1680 foraminifera (single-celled protists with shells) in the white cliffs of England’s Gravesend and nematodes in pond water.
Between 1680 and 1701 he carried out many microdissections, mainly on insects, making an enormous number of discoveries: He wrote extensive accounts of the mouthparts and stings of bees. He was the first to realize that “fleas have fleas”. His keen perception enabled him to correctly conclude that each of the hundreds of facets of a fly’s compound eye is, in fact, a separate eye with its own lens. This outlandish (but true) idea was met with derision by visiting scholars. The big breakthrough came in 1683. In his most celebrated attainment, he discovered the bacteria in dental tartar, including a motile bacillus, selenomonads, and amicrococcus.
16 October 1674, Antoni wrote a letter describing his study of the tongue of an ox and his observations of the taste buds. On 24 April 1676 Antoni studied pepper water that has been sitting for three weeks under his microscope. He observed small organisms that he called “little eels” (animalcules). What he was looking at were bacteria. He has discovered a world that we knew very little about!
Antoni was responsible, not just for discovering bacteria, but for discovering important classes of bacteria. He was among others responsible for identifying anaerobic bacteria. (5) (6) In a letter dated 14 June 1680 to the Royal Society, he described his discovery. This would become very important in considering the action of bacteria in meat systems since the environment is often devoid of oxygen.
The important point about bacteria that I want you to focus on is that it plays and pivotal role in the nitrogen cycle as described by Louis Pasteur. It continues the very same interaction with family members of nitrogen in the curing of meat. (Dikeman, M, Devine, C: 436) (6) (7)
Scientists in the late 1800s started to hone in on the particular bacteria responsible for converting nitrate to nitrite. This is becoming very important to us because generally, nitrate exists because of the action of bacteria, but particularly, as Dr. Eduard Polenski speculated in 1891, it is the action of bacteria that turns nitrate from saltpeter into nitrite in curing brines and meat that is being cured. The question we have been asking is if this was a fair assumption for him to make and the answer is an overwhelming “yes!”
From 1868 it has been known that bacteria in soil are responsible for the exact same reduction. It was known for 23 years before Dr. Polenski’s 1891 experiments on curing brine and the meat being cured. The reduction of nitrate in soil to nitrite or ammonia was brought about by various forms of microorganisms. The person who demonstrated this in 1868 was the German scientist C F Schonbein. Our French friends, Gayon and Dupetit, confirmed this. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181)
Adding carbohydrates, glycerol, and organic acids, in addition to peptone (a soluble protein formed in the early stage of protein breakdown during digestion) to meat through its brine stimulate the reduction of nitrate to nitrite. It was also discovered that an abundance of oxygen hindered it. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181) This will prove to be of the greatest importance to meat curing and since we can achieve a brighter colour by adding organic acids, glycerol, carbohydrates and reducing sugars to the brine mix.
One researcher, Maassen, tested 109 different bacteria and found that 85 were capable of reducing nitrate to nitrite, especially Bact. Pyocyaneum. Similar results were found by others who studied this. Not only did they find that many of the bacteria responsible for the reduction were anaerobic (functioning in the absence of oxygen) but that many strict aerobic bacteria were found to act anaerobically in the presence of nitrates. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181) This was true of soil and certainly, it should be true in meat and brine systems also!
Ammonium Chloride (Sal Ammoniac)
We have seen that nitrite is formed by removing an oxygen atom from nitrogen. There is another very important way that nitrate is formed namely when ammonia breaks down. The Russian microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky discovered this. Microorganisms, through a process called biological oxidation, change ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate. Have a look at how oxygen is added at every step. Ammonia is NH3 and there is no oxygen. Nitrite is formed NO−2 which is the nitrogen and two oxygen atoms. From nitrite, through bacterial action, nitrate is formed NO−3. So, from a form with no oxygen, the most oxygenated state is reached namely nitrate with its three oxygen atoms.
We have to understand a bit more about ammonia to see how this works. This will be very important when we look at the decomposition of animal tissue and in animal urine and excrement since it contains copious amounts of ammonia. The building blocks of ammonia is seen in its chemical formulation. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3.
In nature, ammonia exists as NH3 or its ammonium ion (NH4+). The ammonium ion, in nature, also combines with a metal such as chlorine to form a salt of ammonium. Ammonium is therefore not only important in the nitrogen cycle, but also in meat curing in the form of a salt where a metal such as chloride combined with the ammonium ion to form ammonium chloride (NH4Cl). It is the NH4 which makes it mildly acidic and the new molecule of sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride is highly reactive with water. Ammonium chloride occurs naturally as a crystal and it is formed through the action of bacteria on decomposing organic material. As a salt, it is one of the iconic salts of antiquity.
Natural Sal Ammoniac
Ammonium chloride occurs naturally in the smoking mountains of Turfan and in Samarkand where volcanic fumes are released through vents. The crystals form directly from the gaseous state, skipping the liquid state. The crystal that is formed tends to be short-lived, as they dissolve easily in water. This is the basis for my guess that in Turfan, where ammonium chloride occurs in the mountains and nitrate in the depression but they have a similar effect on meat. Once the crystalline form of ammonium chloride comes into contact with moisture it breaks down to a brownish salt which looks similar to the nitrate salts found on the top layer of soil in the depression between the mountains. I suspect that these nitrate salts were sold as “fake” ammonium chloride because it has overlapping characteristics because of the nitrogen.
Natural Sal Ammoniac occurs in places like the Turpan and Samarkand. An important branch of the silk road runs from Turfan runs through Samarkand and into Europe. Samarkand is a city in south-eastern Uzbekistan. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia.
In China, ancient names given for Sal Ammoniac are “red gravel” and “essence of the white sea.” There were sal ammoniac mines in Soghd. Mohammadan traders passed it at Khorasan traveling towards China. Kuča still yielded sal ammoniac at the beginning of the 1900s. There are ancient references to white and red varieties of sal ammoniac. The mines in Setrušteh or سمرقند (Samarkand in the Persian language) are described in classic literature as follows. “The mines of sal ammoniac are in the mountains, where there is a certain cavern, fro wich a vapour issues, appearing by day like smoke, and by night like fire. Over the spot whence the vapour issues, they have erected a house the doors and windows of which and plastered over by clay that none of the vapour can escape. On the upper part of this house the copperas rest. When the doors are to be opened, a swiftly-running man is chosen, who, having his body covered over with clay, opens the door; takes as much as he can from the copperas and runs off; if he should delay he should be burnt. This vapour comes forth in different places, from time to time; when it ceases to issue from one place, they dig in another until it appears, and then they erect that kind of house over it; if they did not erect this house, the vapour would burn, or evaporate away.” (Laufer,1919)
Tibetans received this salt from India as can be seen from an ancient name they gave to it namely “Indian salt.” There are records that it was harvested from certain volcanic springs from Tibet and Se-č’wan. (Laufer,1919) The same vapours are seen in the smokey mountains of Turfan.
Human-Made Ammonium Chloride
Just like saltpeter, sal ammoniac occurs naturally and is also generated through human endeavour. The name, ammonia, came from the ancient Egyptian god, Amun. The Greek form of Amun is Ammon. At the temple dedicated to Ammon and Zeus near the Siva Oasis in Lybia, priests and travelers would burn soil rich in ammonium chloride. The ammonium chloride is formed from the soil, being drenched with nitrogen waste from animal dung and urine. The ammonia salts were called sal ammoniac or “salt of ammonia” by the Romans because the salt deposits were found in the area. During the middle ages, ammonia was made through human endeavour through the distilling of animal dung, hooves, and horns. (Myers, RL. 2007: 27)
The New-York Tribune of 31 January 1874 wrote the following. “For centuries sal ammoniac was imported from Egypt where it is sublimed from camels dung.” An article, published in 1786 on Friday, 18 August in the Pennsylvania Packet, described the process of making sal ammoniac in Egypt as follows. “Sal Ammoniac is made from soot arising from the burnet dung of four-footed animals that feed only on vegetables. But the dung of these animals is fit to burn for sal ammoniac only during the four firsts months of the year when they feed on fresh spring grass, which, in Egypt is a kind of trefoil or clover; for when they feed only on dry meat, it will not do. The dung of oxen, buffalos, sheep, goats, horses, and asses, are at the proper time as fit as the dung of camels for this purpose; it is said that even human dung is equal to any other.”
“The soot arising from the burnt dung is put into glass, vessels, and these vessels into an oven or kiln which is heated by degrees and at last urged with a very strong fire for three successive nights and days, the smoke first shews itself, and, in a short time after, the salt appears sticking to the glasses, and, by degrees, covers the whole opening. The glasses are then broken, and the salt taken out in the same state and form in which it is sent to Europe.” At this time, Egypt was one of the major suppliers of sal ammoniac to the European continent.
Discovery of gasses
– Joseph Black
At this point in the development of chemical technology, a much bigger development took place in which the discovery of nitrogen and ammonia is only a small part of. In the 1770s scientists started to realise that the atmosphere is made up of various gasses. This was the start of the chemical revolution and the discovery of gasses was, in a way, the major propellant. Up to this time gasses were not regarded as a separate chemical entity and largely ignored in experimental work. The drawback was major and real advances became only possible as this was being resolved. One of its pioneers was Joseph Black (1728–1799). Black is credited with the discovery of carbon dioxide (fixed air).
– Charl Wilhelm Scheele
The Swedish Chemist, Charl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786) prepared oxygen by heating saltpeter (potassium nitrate, KNO3) in 1770. Somewhere between 1771 and 1772, he became the first scientist to realise that “air consists of two fluids different from each other, the one that does not manifest in the least the property of attracting phlogiston while the other … is peculiarly disposed to such attraction.” (Smil, 2001: 2) Phlogiston was believed to be the substance present in all material that burns, responsible for combustion. The one substance is obviously oxygen and the other nitrogen.
– Daniel Rutherford
At the same time, Daniel Rutherford (1749–1819), a pupil of Black, obtained his doctorate in Medicine in 1772 from the University of Edinburgh. In his “Dissertatio inauguralis de Aere Fixo Dicto, aut Mephitico” (Rutherford, 1772) he records the following experiment. He placed mice in a closed-in environment. Eventually, the mice will die and Rutherford expected to find was that the only air that is left will not be able to support life and a flame will not burn in it. He removed the fixed or mephitic air (carbon dioxide) with a caustic potash solution (alkali). He found a residual gas still incapable of supporting respiration or fire, similar to carbon dioxide, but unlike carbon dioxide, did not precipitate lime water and was not absorbed by the alkali. He thus discovered a residue of his fixed or mephitic air. He named it “aer malignus” or noxious air.” (Munro and Allison, 1964)
– Joseph Priestley
Priestly, who is credited for the discovery of oxygen (1774 – 1775) presented experimental evidence similar to Rutherford’s before the Royal Society of London. He, however, did not draw conclusions regarding the possible nature of the gas (Priestley, 1772).
– Isolation of Ammonia
The identification of nitrogen was “in the air”, so to speak and as we will see, never far removed from meat curing. Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride, NH4Cl) was used since antiquity as a curing and preserving agent of meat and was investigated by none other than Joseph Black. In 1756 he became the first to isolate gaseous ammonia by reacting sal ammoniac with calcined magnesia (Magnesium Oxide). (Black, 1893) (Maurice P. Crosland, 2004). Scientists were now widely experimenting with gasses and along with air, gasses like ammonia received a great deal of attention. It would later be discovered that nitrogen is its key constituent in ammonia along with hydrogen.
Following Black, ammonia was, for example, also isolated again by Peter Woulfe in 1767 (Woulfe), by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1770 (kb.osu.edu) and by Joseph Priestley in 1773 and was termed by him “alkaline air”. Eleven years later in 1785, Claude Louis Berthollet finally unraveled its composition. (Chisholm, 1911) (Berthollet, 1785)
Priestley, in Part II of his work, Experiments and Observations, described work from between the years 1773 and the beginning of 1774. In this document, he gives a reprint of an earlier publication on effluvia from putrid marshes. Here he identifies ammonia and nitrous oxide. (Schofield, RE. 2004: 98)
His discoveries on ammonia were the result of a consistent application of the English scientist, Stephen Hales’s (1677 – 1761) technique for distilling and fermenting every substance he could get his hands on or capture over mercury rather than over customary water so that the air would “release.” He heated ammonia water and collected a vapour. When it cooled down, it did not condense, proving it was air. He called it alkaline air. (Schofield, RE. 2004: 98, 103, 104)
More experiments showed him that alkaline air was heavier than common inflammable air but lighter than acid air. It dissolved easily in water, producing heat and it was slightly inflammable in the sense that a candle burned in it with an enlarged colour flame before going out. In the end, he not only described ammonia chemically, but also its mode of production, and its characteristics. (Schofield, RE. 2004: 98, 103, 104)
– From Ammonia to Nitrogen
In 1781 the French Chemist, Claude Louis Bertholett became aware that something joined with hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3). Three years later, Claude joined Lavoisier who was responsible for unraveling the composition of saltpeter along with de Morveau and de Fourcroy, in naming the substance azote. (Smil, V. 2001: 61, 62) Lavoisier named it from ancient Greek, ἀ- (without) and zoe (life). He saw it as part of air that can not sustain life. In 1790 Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal, in a French text on chemistry which was translated into English in 1791, gave it the name “nitrogen”. He used the name ‘nitrogène’ and the idea behind the name was “the characteristic and exclusive property of this gas, which forms the radical of the nitric acid,” and thus be chemically more specific than “azote.”” (Munro and Allison, 1964) As for ammonia, its modern name was given in 1782 by the Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman. (Myers, RL. 2007: 27) The discovery of hydrogen, the other component in ammonia, is credited to Cavendish in 1766.
A Hint of Nitrogen in Animals
The relation between nitrogen through ammonia and animal bodies was known from early on. In 1785, Claude Berthollet reported to the French Academy of Sciences that he found that the vapor that came from decomposing animal matter was ammonia. When he realised the gas, he found that it was composed of three volumes of hydrogen and one volume of nitrogen, or around 17% hydrogen and 83% nitrogen by weight. He was very accurate in his measurements and the modern values of these are given as 17.75% and 82.25% respectively. (Carpenter, 2003)
Techniques for Testing for Nitrogen
Key to the identification of nitrogen in animal substances was developing the tools to test for it. One of the earliest tests was the oxidation of organic material in the presence of cupric oxide. The gasses resulting from this reaction is then collected and measured. It was extensively developed by none other than Gay-Lussac while he was professor at the Sorbonne, and later when he was a chemist at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)
The method of Gay-Lussac was modified by Jean Dumas (1800-1884) and used by Dumas’ contemporary, Liebig. Despite the many alterations of the basic method of micro procedures, the Dumas method would continue to be the preferred one well into the 1900s. In 1841, F. Varrentrapp and H. Will developed a total nitrogen method. This method is based on the liberation of ammonia by heating protein with alkali, followed by gravimetric estimation of the ammonia as its chloroplatinate. (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)
A downside to this method was the fact that it is slow and tedious with fundamental inaccuracies. It had, however, specific technical advantages over that of the Dumas-method when applied to metabolic observations and it was used in many early studies. The famous method we are all familiar with today is the Kjeldahl method. It was developed by the Danish chemist, J. Kjeldahl (1849-1900), of Carlsberg, who in 1883 presented a much-improved method for catalyzed digestion of nitrogenous materials in sulfuric acid which allowed for the production of ammonia quantitatively. (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)
Nitrogen in Respiration
Antoine Lavoisier was inspired by Joseph Black, something that Lavoisier was not shy to admit. He wrote Balck a letter, dated 19 November 1790, where he describes experiments on the respiration of human subjects. He showed that oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide evolved during this process. Interestingly he showed that oxygen consumption increases by some 50% above the basal level after a meal (the modern specific dynamic action of food) and that in severe exercise, oxygen consumption can increase by as much as three-and-a-half times. The measurements were accurate, even by modern standards. Part of the letter states: “Legaz azote ne sert absolument à rien dans l’acte de la res piration et il ressort du poumon en même quantité et qualité qu’il y est entré” which translates to Nitrogen is absolutely useless in the act of respiration, and it appears from the lung in the same quantity and quality that it has entered it.
They had their test subjects exercise in a closed container. They measured for oxygen and carbon dioxide. They also measured the amount of nitrogen ingested during a meal before the experiments started and then, after exercise, the urine and stools were tested to see how much nitrogen was retained in the body or “lost” through the urine and stools.
The experiment was undertaken 18 years after the discovery of nitrogen. It is regarded by many as the first metabolic experiment with nitrogen. The experiments appear (D. McKie, personal communication, 1962) to have been based on studies made by Fourcroy in the late 1780s, using gasometric methods that were published in 1791 by Séguin. They did not find any correlation between nitrogen and respiration. Some researchers of the time still claimed that some nitrogen is lost from the body during respiration. Today, most will simply subscribe to Lavoisier’s view that gaseous nitrogen plays no part in the nitrogen metabolism of the mammalian organism. (Munro and Allison, 1964) They believed that the balance of nitrogen ingested and that which was not recovered in stools or urine was probably lost through what they called “insensible perspiration.” (Carpenter, 2003)
Antoine Lavoisier and Armand Seguin’s experiment of human respiration showed that breathing had no influence on nitrogen levels. It had other positive results. An increase in the output of carbon dioxide (carbonic acid, as they called it) during exercise was demonstrated. They measured this at rest and while lifting weights. This was by itself a step forward. At the time it was believed that the only purpose of respiration was to cool the heart. (Carpenter, 2003)
Lavoisier, in collaboration with a mathematician and one of the greatest scientists of the time, Pierre-Simon Laplace, identified the slow combustion of organic compounds in animal tissue as the major source of body heat. In their experiments, they compared the heat produced by the guinea pig and the production of carbon dioxide with the heat produced by a lighted candle or charcoal. They used an ice calorimeter to measure heat production. The instrument itself is very interesting. It measures the heat generated by relating it to the weight of water released from the melting of the ice surrounding the inner chamber where the animal or burning material is housed. The measurements are crude and not very precise, but results were consistent and it allowed the researchers to draw the conclusion of the origin of body heat. (Carpenter, 2003)
Momentous political movements in France of the time would put an end to one of the most brilliant scientific careers of any person to have lived on earth. Lavoisier returned to further studies on respiration and was arrested in 1793 during the Reign of Terror and kept in prison. He pleased with the for a short stay of execution on the day of his trial in 1794, to be allowed one more experiment, but the judge is believed to have replied that the Republic had no need of “savants” (scientists), and he was guillotined the same afternoon. (Carpenter, 2003)
Nitrogen in Animal Matter
Lavoisier introduced order into the study of the new chemistry. One of his great achievements was the vigorous school of chemists he left behind. Some of his students took up the work on organic compounds and applied procedures in which gas was either evolved or removed. Gay-Lussac (a pupil of Lavoisier’s collaborator, Berthollet) and Thénard worked out a system of organic analysis in 1810. Accordingly, the organic material is treated with potassium chlorate and the amount of oxygen and nitrogen liberated is measured (Partington, 1951). The Dumas procedure, which we eluded to above, remained the standard gasometric method of nitrogen analysis. It was developed in 1830. (Partington, 1951). The studies made by Magendie on the importance of nitrogenous components in the diet was one of the matters to be elucidated by the new technique. (Munro and Allison, 1964) Viewed in this way, the persona and influence of Lavoisier continued to directly affect the work he started long after his untimely death.
It was confirmed that animal matter contains nitrogen and it was shown to be absent from sugars, starch, and fats. It was long suspected that wheat flour contained matter with characteristics closely associated with animal matter. This was proved, that gluten (the plant matter) has properties of animal matter, including the development of alkaline vapor when it was allowed to rot. When potatoes were introduced, there was a debate if it could provide an adequate substitution for wheat because it did not have anything resembling gluten. Was it the gluten that made wheat flour good food? (Munro and Allison, 1964)
Bartolomeo Baccari (1682 – 1766) was a professor at the University of Bologna for most of his life. In 1734, one of his papers entitled “de Frumento,” appeared. In this paper, he gives details on how to prepare gluten which was found and later it was found to be the protein portion of wheat flour. The following is translated from Latin:
“This is a thing of little labor. Flour is taken of the best wheat, ground moderately lest the bran goes through the sieve, for it ought to be purified as far as possible in order that all suspicion of mixture should be removed. Then it is mixed with the purest water and agitated. What remains after this process is set free by washing, for water carries off with itself whatever it is able to dissolve. The rest remains untouched.”
“Afterward that which the water leaves is taken in the hands and pressed together and is gradually converted into a soft mass and beyond what I could have believed tenacious, a remarkable kind of glue and suitable for many purposes, among which it is worth mentioning that it can no longer be mixed with water. Those other parts which the water carries away with itself for some time float and render the water milky. Afterward, they gradually settle to the bottom but do not adhere together; but like a powder return upward at the slightest agitation. Nothing is more nearly related to this than starch or better, it is indeed starch.”
He classified the starchy material as flour. He described the following characteristics. It ferments to give acid spirits, indicating its “vegetable nature.” On the other hand, it had a characteristic of “animal nature” for “within a few days it gets sour and rots and very stinkingly putrifies like a dead body.”
This was an old way to distinguishing what we call today proteins from carbohydrates. There was a theory at this time that vegetable protein which is consumed by herbivores changes into the flesh and blood of the animal. This was still prevalent during the time of Mulder and Liebig’s. (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948) Another question was the source of the nitrogen in animal bodies. Since nitrogen is most prevalent in the air around us, some chemists suggested that animals get the nitrogen from the air through a kind of combination must occur during an animal’s digestion of plant foods “so as to give the ingesta the characteristics that would allow them to be incorporated into the animal’s own tissues either for growth or replacement of worn-out materials.” (Carpenter, 2003) The mechanisms of nutrition were in a developmental process.
François Magendie: Nitrogen as the basis for Nutrition
A major step came from the work of Magendie (1783–1855) who linked the nitrogen of inanimate substances with that of living systems. He was the first to recognise that there is a major difference between the nutritional value of food containing nitrogen and those without it. Magendie grew up in revolutionary Paris and practiced as a surgeon before changing to physiology.
In his first work on the subject, reported to the Academy of Sciences in 1816, Magendie addressed the question of whether animals could access atmospheric nitrogen to “animalize” ingested foods of low nitrogen content. (Carpenter, 2003)
In his 1816 article, “Sur les propriétés nutritives des substances qui ne contiennent pas d’azote.” (On the nutritional properties of substances that do not contain nitrogen), Magendie famously described experiments on dogs that were only fed carbohydrate (sugar) or fat (olive oil) until they all died in a few week’s time. The conclusion is obvious that a nitrogen source was an essential component of the diet.
As we look back at these early experiments we can see that the results were complicated by vitamin deficiencies, yet they were the first approximations to an ideal—the long-term feeding experiment with purified foodstuffs—which has only been attained in recent years. They can rightfully be seen as forerunners of the classical procedure for establishing whether a nutrient is essential to the body, namely by excluding it from the diet and then looking for symptoms attributable to its deficiency.
In his “Elementary Compendium of Physiology for the Use of Students,” Magendie draws and even clearer distinction between nitrogenous and nonnitrogenous foods. The first edition appeared in 1817 and the third edition was translated into English in 1829. Magendie’s compendium of work is very different from earlier writers like Haller’s “Elementa Physiologiae,” (1757–65). Magendie did not write in Latin and he clearly departed from the primeval forests of mystery and speculation. His work is done with the illumination of bright sunshine of scientific observation and deductive reasoning.
Again, we have to give credit to the monumental work of Lavoisier. Magendie’s success in the physiology of nutrition directly stems from the influence of Lavoisier’s vigorous school of chemistry, which had grown up in the interval. Megandie followed his 1816 work where he fed dogs only carbohydrates or fat with new experiments. In these, he fed them exclusively on cheese or eggs, both nitrogenous foods. The dogs survived indefinitely, although they were weak. Magendie concluded that “these facts . . . make it very probable that the azote of the organs is produced by the food.”
Magendie’s inquiring mind also extended to views on how the diet was utilized by the tissues of the body. In his textbook (p. 18), he says: … The life of man and that of other organised bodies are founded upon this, that they habitually assimilate to themselves a certain quantity of matter, which we name aliment. The privation of that matter, during even a very limited period, brings with it necessarily the cessation of life. On the other side, daily observation teaches, that the organs of man, as well as those of all living beings, lose, at each instant, a certain quantity of that matter which composes them; nay, it is on the necessity of repairing these habitual losses that the want of aliment is founded. From these two data, and from others which we shall make known afterward, we justly conclude, that living bodies are by no means always composed of the same matter at every period of their existence. . . . It is extremely probable that all parts of the body of man experience an intestine movement, which has the double effect of expelling the molecules that can or ought no longer to compose the organs, and replacing them by new molecules. This internal, intimate motion, constitutes nutrition. And again (p. 468), … Nutrition is more or less rapid according to the tissues. The glands, the muscles, skin, etc. change their volume, colour, consistence, with great quickness; the tendons, fibrous membranes, the bones, the cartilages, appear to have a much slower nutrition, for their physical properties change but slowly by the effect of age and disease.” (Munro and Allison, 1964) (14)
When one looks back at history, one tries to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide. An important assumption underpinning Magendie’s work is that an animal species could be used as a model for humans; that our bodies are essentially of the same general character. A possible reason for this is the interest that existed in France for studies in comparative anatomy. (Carpenter, 2003)
Jean Baptiste Boussingault
Another active investigator in France in the 1830s, with a quite different background from that of Magendie, was also studying the source of an animal’s nitrogen-rich tissues. This was Jean Baptiste Boussingault, the great “farmer of Bechelbrom,” who had learned his chemistry in a school for mining engineers. After a period of adventurous geological exploration in South America, he returned, married a farm owner’s daughter and put his mind to agricultural science. He obtained a position at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he collaborated with J. B. Dumas, one of the leading French chemists, and divided his year between Paris and the farm. (Carpenter, 2003)
It was Boussingault who realised in 1836, over sixty centuries after it was noted and recorded that manure and legumes were beneficial to crop production, that it was the nitrogen content in the soil or fertiliser which is important for plant nutrition. In 1838, he performed a number of experiments where he grew legumes in sand with no nitrogen in it. The legumes continued to grow and the only conclusion he could come to was that they took their nitrogen from the air. How they did it, he still had no idea. (Galloway, J. N, et al., 2013) He was able to show that this was not possible for cereal grain.
His next subjects were cows and horses, whose common feeds were believed to be exceptionally low in nitrogen. First, he wanted to determine the level of feeding that would ensure that his animals are kept at constant weight, and then for 3 days, he recorded the animal’s feed, what was excreted and, in the case of the cow, its milk. All these were analised for its nitrogen content. The results for the horse was that he received 8.5kg hay and oats, every 24 hours. The daily nitrogen intake was 139g, and the nitrogen recovered in urine and dung came to only 116g. When the cow was fed on hay and potatoes the figures were as follows. The daily intake of nitrogen was 201g and the recovered output, including 46g from milk, was only 175g. This showed that the animals’ feed provided enough nitrogen to meet their needs. There was no need to speculate about them getting their nitrogen from the atmosphere.
It is important to have some understanding of how these trails were carried out. Many thousands of “balance” trials followed the Boussingault tests that continue to be carried out until today. A drawback was the method he used to test for nitrogen. The system of analysis required the sample to first be dried. There would have been a loss of ammonia when he was drying urine and dung. This probably gives the reason why there seems to have been an apparent “positive” balance in these animals that were assumed to be in a steady state.” (Carpenter, 2003)
Nitrogen and the Nutritional Value of Plants
Boussingault had proposed that the nutritional values of plant food could be extrapolated from their contents of nitrogen. These speculations came from before he did his balance experiments with herbivores. His reasoning was more or less as follows. “Magendie has shown that foods that do not contain nitrogen cannot continue to support life, therefore the nutritional value of a vegetable substance resides principally in the gluten and vegetable albumin that it contains.” Researchers of the time knew that animal bodies contained minerals which they got from the food they ate. Even earlier, two workers had written that: “Beans are so nourishing because they contain starch, an animal matter, phosphate, lime, magnesia, potash, and iron. They yield at once the aliments and the materials proper to form and color the blood and to nourish the bones”. Perhaps in response to such criticism, Boussingault explained, “I am far from regarding nitrogenous materials alone as sufficient for the nutrition of animals; but it is a fact that where nitrogenous materials are present at high levels in vegetables they are generally accompanied by the other organic and inorganic substances which are also needed for nutrition”. It is clear from the context that the “organic substances” to which he is referring are starches and not any hypothetical trace nutrients. (Carpenter, 2003)
Synthesis by plants
Dumas, a colleague of Boussingault’s concluded in the early 1800s that the plant kingdom alone was capable of synthesizing the kinds of nitrogenous compounds abundant in animal tissues. Then, from the observation that the overall reactions of animals were characterized by oxidation, he made the further generalization that the animal kingdom was only capable of oxidizing the materials that are obtained from its plant food. (Carpenter, 2003)
Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate
Ammonia is changed into nitrites or nitrated through the action of what was called a “microscopic ferment.” The next step would be the discovery of how nitrogen changes into its cousins and enters the earth and living plants and animals.
The afternoons with Jeppe became challenging as I tried to keep up with his lectures. He seemed to remember the names and formulations off by heart and I was not always sure who or what we were talking about. It was nevertheless engaging and I tried to keep up.
– How does nitrogen enter the plant kingdom?
The animal kingdom gets its nitrogen from the plant kingdom. We now return to the matter of how nitrogen enters the plant world. When we looked at the discovery of the microscopic world, we jumped to the discovery of nitrification and the reduction of oxygen in various nitrogen compounds. With the background information on nitrogen and its role in nutrition, let’s look at the progression of thought on ways that nitrogen enters our world.
HB de Saussure (1740 – 1799) discovered that the nitrogen in plants does not come directly from the atmosphere. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300) He was born in Switzerland and became interested in biology and geography. Most of his discoveries he made while scaling some of the highest mountain peaks and passes in the world. He regarded the Alps as central to understand the geology of the world and spend much time there.
His idea was that nitrogen must be taken up through the roots of plants, through the decomposition of humus (9, 11). (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300) Not everybody agreed with him and a debate developed that raged for almost 50 years. The German chemist, Justice von Liebig (1803 – 1873), was the first to see nitrogen as an essential plant nutrient. This discovery gave him the honour of being regarded as the father of the fertilizer industry. Justice was also an important man in the meat processing industry. He developed the manufacturing process for beef extract and founded a company, Liebig Extract of Meat Company, and later trademarked the Oxo brand beef bouillon cube. (10)
This question of how nitrogen was absorbed by plants remained very controversial (11). Justice believed it is taken directly from ammonia gas in the air. (Craine, JM, 2008: 70) This was the state of affairs until a French chemist, Boussingault (1802 – 1887) demonstrated that plants are incapable of absorbing free nitrogen but were able to flourish even without humus as long as alternative sources of nitrates or ammoniacal salts are supplied. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300)
Boussingault and his contemporaries saw the uptake of ammonia as purely chemical. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300) What other way could there be? The great German physiologist, Theodor Schwann, born in 1810, took a step closer to the solution. He discovered that alcoholic fermentation and the fermentation that causes putrefaction was carried out by microbes. (12) (Barnett, JA)
Louis Pasteur, born in 1822 grew up to become very important in the field of science. He was the first one to suggest that microorganisms may be involved in the nitrogen absorption process of plant. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300) He studied the breakdown and reorganization of material that contained nitrogen by soil bacteria, fungi, and algae. It seemed that nitrogen was not used up but was circulated. Decaying humus gave ammonia, from which microorganisms constructed nitric acid and its compounds. These were then absorbed by plants and turned into proteins and incorporated into living substance. The cycle was completed by the death and natural decay of the plant and the animal. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300) At the death of the animal, the process of nitrification was reversed and microbes were again responsible for breaking the molecules down until only gaseous nitrogen remained.
The German agricultural chemist, Hermann Hellriegel (1831-1895), discovered that certain plants (leguminous) take atmospheric nitrogen and “replenished the ammonium in the soil through the process now known as nitrogen fixation. He found that the nodules on the roots of legumes are the location where nitrogen fixation takes place.” (Boundless, 2014)
Hermann did not discover how this is done. Martinus Willem Beijerinck (March 16, 1851 – January 1, 1931), a Dutch microbiologist and botanist, discovered that the small growth areas on the roots contained bacteria. He called it rhizobia. It is the rhizobia that are responsible for changing the nitrogen to ammonium. Ammonia is NH3 and ammonium is NH4. (Boundless, 2014) Soon more ways were discovered that changed nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can absorb.
Berthelot described in 1885 how lightning was responsible for nitrogen fixation before he too turned his attention to microscopic organisms in the ground that is responsible for nitrogen fixation. (Elmerich, C, Newton, WE. 2007: 3) The energy of a lightning strike disrupts the nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) molecules in the air producing highly reactive nitrogen and oxygen atoms that attract other nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) molecules that form nitrogen oxides that eventually become nitrates. (Zumbal, 2000: 924) Alternatively, Beijerinck’s rhizobia bacteria fix the atmospheric nitrogen directly (Boundless, 2014) in small growths on plant roots such as beans, peas and alfalfa (Zumbal, 2000: 924), or animal droppings and urea or dead animal or plants provide saprobiotic bacteria, nitrogen or nitrogen-family members that can be changed.
Nitrogen is turned directly into either ammonia (NH3) or ammonium (NH4) or into nitrate (NO3–). Nitrifying bacteria turns the ammonia into nitrite. Nitrite is toxic and nitrifying bacteria change the nitrites into nitrates that either becomes plant food along with nitrate’s that are formed during lightning strikes or are changed back into nitrogen by denitrifying bacteria.
A friend of Jeppe, Dr. Polenski found in 1891, months before I arrived in Denmark, that when he mixed curing brine for bacon with Saltpeter and tested it, that he found nitrate to be present. After a week, when he tested it again, there were only nitrites. The same with the meat that he cured. At the beginning of the week, there was nitrate present in the meat and later he found only nitrites. (13)
The notion that bacteria are responsible for changing the nitrate to nitrite was well established by the time he did the experiment and so, his conclusion that what had happened in the brine was the result of bacteria was reasonable. It would not surprise me if it would be shown that nitrite is responsible for curing and not nitrate. (8)
I realised that saltpeter was a key part of the world we live in. The energy of the acid in the air, harnessed by an entire world of microorganisms that probably occur in every environment on earth and changed into a format that plants and then humans and animals can absorb. An acid, coupled with a salt, helping us to preserve meat and change pork meat into bacon, grow plants, feed oceans and drive the processes of the earth. By it we fight wars, we grow crops and we eat and live!
At night after supper we are reading Foods by Edward Smith. He wrote on bacon and said, “bacon is the poor man’s food, having a value to the masses which is appreciated in proportion to their poverty, and it is a duty to offer every facility for its production in the homes of the poor.” (Smith, Edward, 1876: 65) The reason why it is good for the poor is that it can be cooked in water and the liquid part can be given to the children and the solid part consumed by the parents and “thus both be in a degree pleased, if not satisfied.” (Smith, Edward, 1876: 65)
He continues to say that “it is also the rich man’s food, for the flavour, which is naturally or artificially acquired by drying (and curing), is highly prized, and although it may be taken as a necessary by the rich, it is in universal request as a luxury” (Smith, Edward, 1876: 65)
This is our business plan. To produce the best bacon on earth. Uncle Cornelius passed away after a full life and I can not help to see our current quest as a necessary evolution of time as young and new thoughts replace older methods. The evolution must in the first place be predicated on sound science as well as common sense.
This is then your chance to discover the nitrogen cycle from the perspective of a meat scientist. I miss you, my little girl. There is not a single day that I don’t think off you! It’s late. I am sure that you are fast asleep by this time and that you are holding your bear and dream of the cumming summer.
I learn so much and still, you are my biggest lesson in life. Your love and your spirit have taught me how to live myself!
I count the days till I see you guys again! I miss you all so much and love you!
Practical Applications for the Modern Bacon Curer
In this section, I highlight some of the points of application in the modern high throughput bacon plant.
A friend of mine from the bacon industry in Castlemaine, Australia recently interacted with me on the matter of total meat content in bacon. Nitrogen is a constituent of the meat protein and important in its nutritional value. This identification and the subsequent determination of a phenomenally stable nitrogen percentage in meat lead to a number of important applications and implications, among others, a way to determine lean meat content and total meat content in meat processing.
A good summary of the thinking early in the late 1800s and early 1900s on the subject exists in the old South African Food, Drugs and Disinfectants Act No. 13 of 1929 (See note 1). It has subsequently been repealed, but the basis of the law is still very much applicable. As an important historical document, it sets out the determination of total meat content. It essentially remained unchanged (apart from minor updates).
The calculations of total meat content are defined in subparagraph 4 (iv) which reads as follows: “In all cases where it is necessary to calculate total meat under regulations 14 (1), (2), (3) and (4), the formula used shall be:—
Percentage Lean Meat = (Percentage Protein Nitrogen × 30 ). Percentage Total Meat = (Percentage Lean Meat + Percentage Fat).”
The questions of interest are how did they arrive at this and how accurate an indication is it of total meat content? What is the relationship between nitrogen and nutrition? When decay takes place, what happens with the nitrogen in the protein? How does the amount of nitrogen we consume determine the total nitrogen content of our bodies or any animal or plant for that matter? What is the value of nitrogen to the body which makes it essential for nutrition? How does nitrogen move from a plant or an animal into our bodies to provide nutrition? What is the impact of processing on nutrition and the total nitrogen content? Can the standard calculation for fresh meat be applied to processed products? Lastly and equally fascinating, what are other sources of nitrogen that can increase the total nitrogen count and skew the nitrogen count in a product and its relationship and to meat content.
This short series of articles set out to deal with these fascinating issues. In this first article, we will look at the time from the start of the chemical revolution to Boussingault. Sincere thanks to my friend in Castlemaine, Australia for provoking a fascinating line of inquiry!
(1) After a short service in the Woodstock house, the procession moved to the Groote Kerk where Jacobus has been an elder. The coffin was carried into the church by the Cape premier, Cecil John Rhodes, Sir John Henry de Villiers (subsequent chief justice of the Union), JW Sauer, Onze Jan Hofmeyer, Sir Gordon Sprigg, Colonel F. Schermbrucker, ML Neetling and DC de Waal.
After the service the funeral procession moved to the Cape Town station, where a special train took the mourners to the Maitland Cemetery. The coffin, of Cape teak, was lowered into the ground which Jacobus picked himself.
The grave was filled up and wreaths were laid on top. One from David and Johanna Graaff, a second from John and Rosetta Graaff and a third from Jacobus and Susan Graaff. (Dommisse, E, 2011: 48, 49)
The affection from the Graaff brothers who were responsible for erecting the gravestone is evident. At the top, the words, “Ter Dierbare Herinnering aan Jacobus A. Combrinck,” “For affectionate remembrance of Jacobus A. Combrinck.”
Under Jacobus’s birth date and date of passing, the inscription in Dutch reads, “Ik weet op wien te vertrouen,” “I know in whom to trust.”
Underneath is written in Dutch,”Opgericht door zyne dankbare neven de broeders Graaff,” “Erected by your grateful nephews, the brothers Graaff.”
David took over Jacobus’s position in the Legislative Council of the Cape Colony soon after his passing.
The following notice appeared in a colonial newspaper.
(2) The Woodstock house was previously owned by a highly respected judge, Henry Cloete in the suburb of Papendorp (later to be renamed, Woodstock). He enlarged it greatly. The house was built on an estate where Jacobus planted trees, erected a water mill of his own design, cultivated a splendid flower garden. (Simons, PB, 2000: 14)
(3) Sir Gordon Sprigg, prime minister before Rhodes ousted him, was moved when he heard the news of Combrink’s death. He said, “A good man has gone from among us.” Rhodes apparently only slipped a posy of white and purple violets into his coffin and said nothing. These two powerful men were never the best of friends. (Simons, PB, 2000: 27)
(4) When doing trials at the then Vion Factory in Malton, Ken Pickles was the NPD (New Product Development) manager. A young intern from Brazil would walk behind him and every time we went to the curing tanks, he would ask the young man this question. It’s an image that I will never forget.
(5) An anaerobic organism or anaerobe is any organism that does not require oxygen for growth.
(6) Processed meats many times contain bacteria, many of which are responsible for changing nitrate to nitrite. “This conversion proceeds more rapidly in unpacked bacon than in the vacuum-packed variety, a difference which has been ascribed somewhat surprisingly to the low reducing activity of anaerobic bacteria. (Hill, MJ. 1991: 96)
(7) The nitrate and nitrite in salts are primarily responsible for the curing activity in meat. “The reduction of nitrate (NO3-) salts to nitrite (NO2-) and then to gaseous NO and its subsequent reaction with myoglobin to form the nitrosyl-myoglobin complex forms the basis for cured meat flavour and colour.
It was also later realized that it is bacteria that first converts nitrate into nitrite, which is the mechanism underlying in the preservation of food. Nitrite in meat is responsible for inhibiting the growth in aerobic bacteria (especially the spores of Clostridium botulinum), retard the development of rancidity during storage, develop and preserving the meat flavour and colour, stabilizing the oxidative state of lipids in meat products.” (Dikeman, M, Devine, C, 2014: 436)
(8) The fact that nitrate is not the curing agent, but nitrite was in fact discovered soon asfter 1891. One of the men at the forefront of these discoveries were Prof. D. R. Hoagland, professor of plant nutrition, University of California (www.nature.com). He suggested in 1908 that the “reduction of nitrate to nitrite, nitrous acid and nitric oxide was by either bacterial or enzymatic action or a combination of the two and was essential for NOHb formation. The scientific knowledge led to the direct use of nitrite instead of nitrate, mostly because lower addition levels were needed to achieve the same degree of cure.” (Pegg, RB, Shahidi, F. 2000)
In keeping with our interest in the person and his discovery, the following notice was published at the death of Prof. Hoagland by the University of California.
Dennis Robert Hoagland, Professor Emeritus of Plant Nutrition, died September 5, 1949. His life had been fruitful in achievement and stimulating in quality.
Professor Hoagland was born in Golden, Colorado, on April 2, 1884. He attended the Denver public schools and in 1903 entered Stanford University, graduating with an A.B. degree in the Chemistry major in 1907. After a fall semester of graduate work, he accepted a position at the University of California in January 1908 as Instructor in Animal Nutrition. From that time until his retirement June 30, 1949, with the exception of the period 1910 to 1913, his academic life was associated with the Berkeley campus.
About 1910 the U. S. Department of Agriculture became concerned with the alleged injurious effects of food preservatives on humans. A consulting board of scientific experts was set up and Professor Hoagland became a member of its staff. This assignment took him to the University of Pennsylvania where in addition to his research he found opportunity to continue his graduate studies in chemistry. It is evident that this early experience introduced him to the intriguing problems of biochemistry and this interest once developed became his major scientific concern the remainder of his career. In 1912 he accepted a graduate scholarship at the University of Wisconsin in the field of Animal Biochemistry, a field there cultivated with distinction by E. V. McCollum and E. B. Hart, and he was awarded the M.A. degree in 1913.
In the fall of 1913 he returned to California as Assistant Professor of Agricultural Chemistry. This area of knowledge, through the stimulating domination of Professor Hilgard, concerned itself with the soil and crop problems confronting California agriculture. Professor Hoagland found no difficulty in adapting himself to this new emphasis. It was probably his diversified early experience that made it possible for him later to develop on this campus a world center for the study of interrelated plant and soil problems. His broad interest did not lead him to scatter his efforts, however. He early demonstrated an ability to clearly outline a segment of the field and vigorously attack it, without restricting his vision of the entire complex problem. It was this quality which enabled him to achieve so significantly.
Professor Hoagland became head of the newly created Division of Plant Nutrition in 1922. Under his guidance and stimulation, this became more than a “Division” in the College of Agriculture: it was in effect what the Germans might have termed an “Institut für Pflanzen und Boden Wissenschaft.” It was a dynamic research center in which both basic and practical problems of plant oil interrelationships were studied with enthusiasm and insight; the laboratory was a magnet which drew students and mature investigators from all parts of the world. His own contributions to the research center’s activities were many and important. It was the early disclosure by himself and associates of the phenomenon of so-called “active absorption” of salts by living cells, both plant and animal, that compelled a complete reappraisal of salt absorption processes. His own research and that of his students led to new discoveries on the need and function of “trace” chemical elements–elements required by living cells in such minute amounts as to escape detection except by the use of the most refined techniques. These and other revelations constituted the leaven which activated investigations in many associated fields. His laboratory was a center with a radiating influence which reached out and touched other great scientific centers, and also the lone worker at an isolated post.
Professor Hoagland entered fully into the academic life of the University. He served as a member, then as chairman, of the Budget Committee and as a member of many other Senate and administrative committees. He was a member of numerous scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Science, and served on important national scientific boards. Many honors came to him. The American Society of Plant Physiologists presented him with the Stephen Hales Award in 1929; the annual $1,000 prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was given to him and an associate jointly in 1940. He was selected as Faculty Research Lecturer at Berkeley in 1942 and the same year delivered the John M. Prather Lectures at Harvard. In 1946 he was awarded the Barnes Life Membership in the American Society of Physiologists.
Professor Hoagland was married to Jessie A. Smiley in 1920. She died in 1933 leaving three sons, all of whom are graduates of this University. He did not possess a rugged constitution and the last few years of his life were marred by illness. But almost to the last he kept a faculty for keen appraisal of scientific and social situations and an interest in human events of the most diverse sort. He was a man of judgment, of tolerance, and of discernment, one who abhorred hypocrisy and admired honesty. He was the quality out of which great human structures are built.
W. P. Kelley D. I. Arnon A. R. Davis” (CDLIB)
(9) Humus is decaying organic matter. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981: 300)
(10) The trademark was granted in 1899 for Oxo.
(11) The German chemist, Justice von Liebig (1803 – 73), continued to believe that plants got their nitrogen from the air (in the form of ammonia). (Wikipedia, Justice_von_Liebig) He has popularised a principle developed in agriculture science by Charl Sprengel (1828) and was called Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, often simply called Liebig’s law or the law of the minimum. It states that growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor) (Wikipedia, Law_of_the_Minimum)
(12) He also attributed fermentation to microorganisms.
“Schwann is famous for developing a ‘cell theory’, namely, that living structures come from formation and differentiation of units (the cells), which then constitute the bodies of organisms (Schwann, 1839). His paper on fermentation (Schwann, 1837) was entitled ‘A preliminary communication concerning experiments on fermentation of wine and putrefaction’. Using a microscope, Schwann examined beer yeast and described it as resembling many articulated fungi and ‘without doubt a plant’. His conclusions from his observations and experiments were unequivocal, revolutionary and correct: The connection between wine fermentation and the development of the sugar fungus is not to be underestimated; it is very probable that, by means of the development of the fungus, fermentation is started. Since, however, in addition to sugar, a nitrogenous compound is necessary for fermentation, it seems that such a compound is also necessary for the life of this plant, as probably every fungus contains nitrogen. Wine fermentation must be a decomposition that occurs when the sugar-fungus uses sugar and nitrogenous substances for growth, during which, those elements not so used are preferentially converted to alcohol.
In one of his experiments, Schwann boiled some yeast in a solution of cane sugar in four stoppered flasks. After cooling, he admitted air into the flasks: for two flasks, the air was first passed through a thin red-hot glass tube (analysis showed this air still to contain 19·4 % oxygen); the other two flasks received unheated air. Fermentation occurred only in the latter two flasks. Schwann’s conclusion was important:Thus, in alcoholic fermentation as in putrefaction, it is not the oxygen of the air which causes this to occur, as previously suggested by Gay-Lussac, but something in the air which is destroyed by heat.
In this notable 1837 paper, Schwann anticipated observations made by Pasteur over twenty years later, writing:Alcoholic fermentation must be regarded as the decomposition effected by the sugar fungus, which extracts from the sugar and a nitrogenous substance the materials necessary for its own nutrition and growth; and substances not taken up by the plant form alcohol.
(Barnett, JA. 1998, 2000)
(13) The chemist, Eduard Polenske (1849-1911) (Wikipedia. Pökeln), was born in Ratzebuhr, Neustettin, Pommern, Germany on 27 Aug 1849 to Samuel G Polenski and Rosina Schultz. Eduard Reinhold married Möller. He passed away in 1911 in Berlin, Germany. (Ancestry. Polenske) He was working for the German Imperial Health Office when he made the discovery about nitrite in curing brine. (Wikipedia. Eduard_Polenske)
The Imperial Health Office was established on 16 July 1876 as a focal point for the medical and veterinary in Berlin. First, it was the division of the Reich Chancellery and since 1879 the Ministry of the Interior assumed. 1879, the “Law concerning the marketing of food, luxury foods and commodities” was adopted, including the Imperial Health Office was responsible for its monitoring. Erected in 1900 Reichsgesundheitsrat supported the Imperial Health Office in its tasks. (Original text: “1879 wurde das „Gesetz betreffend den Verkehr mit Lebensmitteln, Genußmitteln und Gebrauchsgegenständen“ verabschiedet, für dessen Überwachung unter anderem das Kaiserliche Gesundheitsamt zuständig war.”) (Wikipedia. Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt)
The spelling of his surname varies between Polenski and Polenske.
(14) “This prophetic insight into the continual renewal of body constituents, differing in rate in different tissues, succumbed to the theories of Liebig, Voit, Folin and others, and was not regained until more than a century later when Schoenheimer’s publication in 1942 of “The Dynamic State of Body Constituents” demonstrated the instability of tissue components by isotopic means.” (Munro and Allison, 1964)
The remarkable story of Wright Harris and Jan Kok’s participation in the Second Anglo-Boer War. These stories begin much in the same way. Their faith played an equally important role in surviving the war and it established a legacy where hard work, faith and opportunity determined the actions of their children grandchildren and great grandchildren. Finally, both stories end with the creation of a bacon curing company!
Food science and the meat industry, in particular, have amazing untold stories. I was researching great bacon companies of ages past when I received a scanned copy of Bringing Home the Bacon, A History of the Harris Family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company, by Leigh Edmonds.
I discovered a remarkable link with South Africa in the participation of one of the founders, Wright Harris, in the Second Anglo-Boer War on the side of the British Empire. This peaked my interest since my own great grandfather, Jan (Johannes) Kok fought in the same war, but on the side of the Boers. Despite being adversaries in war, their stories are very much alike. Deep religious beliefs were their compass and following its direction ultimately brought us to bacon curing. In the Harris story, this happened in one generation and in the case of Johannes Kok, it would take 4 generations before his great-grandson would complete the process and become one of the founders of a bacon company. This is the story.
The story of Wright Harris, the Australian protagonist, begins in England where his parents were married in January 1864 and migrated to Victoria, Australia. Wright was the 7th of 11 children. His father was a farm labourer and wood cutter. Wright remarked in later life that he left school at age 12 when hard work was the lot of most boys and added that “it didn’t hurt us.” Wright was a devout Christian. A heritage he got from his mother. By 1900 he was a regular lay preacher at many churches in the area.
Johannes W Kok was born in Winburg in the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State on 4 April 1880. The Orange Free State got its independence from Brittain on 23 February 1854. Winburg itself was a self-proclaimed independent Boer territory since 1837 and was incorporated into the Free State in 1854. Jan Kok was christened in Winburg on 02 Mei 1880. He grew up right in the heart of Boer-self determination.
THE SECOND ANGLO-BOER WAR
In October 1899 the second Anglo-Boer war broke out in South Africa. In the first few months, the Boers had the upper hand, but the British government responded by massing its forces from across the empire. Wright enlisted in February 1900 in the Victorian Bushmen Contingent.
P. L. Murray writes about the Third Bushmen Contingent in his work, Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa, “This corps was largely subscribed for by the public. It was resolved that, in lieu of drawing the men exclusively from the local forces, a class of Australian yeomen and bushmen should be obtained; hardy riders straight shots, accustomed to find their way about in difficult country, and likely to make an expert figure in the vicissitudes of such a campaign as was being conducted.”
An enormous number of candidates volunteered for enlistment. The men selected were largely untrained in military matters; 230 were farmers or with some connection to farming. The selection criteria were based on their ability to ride and shoot. The men were allowed to bring their own horses. Many brought two.
They left Melbourne for South Africa on 10 March 1900 aboard the Euryalis and arrived in Cape Town on 3 April 1900. Wright suffered from severe seasickness on the voyage to South Africa and wrote only two words in his diary, “sea sick.” Of the 261 men and NCO’s and 15 officers, 17 would loose their lives in the South African campaign.”
In South-Africa, thirty-seven days later, on 5 May 1900, on an autumn evening, the 20-year-old Jan Kok greeted his mum and dad, took his rifle and mounted his horse. At 20:00 he rode off with the kommando from their farm Kransdrif. From there they rode to the farm of A. Nel, Kafferskop. In all, they were 11 people riding together; 6 from Winburg, 1 from Kroonstad, 2 from Thabanchu and two black people. They travel to Ficksburg, where they join this Kommando and on 18 May, they set off from Ficksburg to join larger Boer forces.
From Jan’s diary, there was considerable disagreement where they should go and which Boer forces they should join.
The Australians, on the other hand, had none of the indecisiveness associated with a more informal military organisation of the Boer’s. As soon as they landed at Cape Town, they travelled to Beira and to Marondera (known as Marandellas until 1982), a town in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, located about 72 km east of Harare. Here, all the colonial Bushmen were formed into regiments known as the Rhodesian Field Force; “the Victorians and West Australians forming the 3rd, under Major Vialls. They marched in squadrons across the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to Bulawayo. From there to Mafikeng where they were again mobilised and equipped and took part in one of the major battles of the war, the siege of Mafikeng.
Wright noted the following entries in his journal at Mafikeng.
23 July, Monday. “Left Bulawayo for Mafikeng at 3 o’clock. Twenty-five in a truck, packed in like pigs.”
24 July, Tuesday. “Ostrich running alongside the train. A halt for two hours at Palepwe to feed and water horses.” (I am not sure where Palepwe is. The name is probably misspelt)
25 July, Wednesday “Met by an armoured train. Reached Mafikeng at about 6 o’clock, and slept out in the rain.”
26 July, Thursday. “A look around the trenches and around Mafikeng. Saw the Boer prisoners, two sentenced to death.”
27 July, Friday. “Got our saddles. The ponies captured from the Boers allotted to us. Saw the guns that saved Mafikeng.”
28 July, Saturday. “Sent out to hold the river against the enemy with four guns. Got orders to go away and take three months provisions. Order countermanded (rescinded/ cancelled).”
29 July, Sunday. “Church parade. Went to the Wesleyan church in town, had a grand service. Text Timoty 21 and 22. On picket, got a piece of shell which had come through the roof. (This must be a mistake because there is no such reference. My best guess is that it is 2 Tim 2: 21 and 22 which reads: “If a man, therefore, purges himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
On 28 July, Jan notes in his own diary that the kommando, under the leadership of General Marthinus Prinsloo, decide that it is not worth fighting any further since the Boers are heavily demoralised. They ask the British to negotiate a surrender. At this time they are still in Fouriesburg, in the Brandwater Basin.
The formal surrender was on 30 July 1900, but Jan and his fellow Boers lay down arms on 31 July. They are assured by the British that they would be allowed to return to their homes and farms, but in the end, this does not materialise.
Jan writes in his diary on Monday, 31 July 1900, “we have our weapons deposited on the surrender of General Prinsloo to General Hunter. On this day he notes, “a time of new experiences and disappointment, for sure.” On August 11 they sent us by train to Cape Town (Green Point).” He writes that “the Malaaihers (Malays?) and bastards (colourds?) were standing both sides of the street and mocked us all the way.”
They board the ship Dilwara on 15 August. On 18 August they leave Cape Town and stop over in Simonsbaai (probably Simons Town). On 21 August they arrived in Durban. Aboard they are tortured by an infestation of fleas. They leave Durban on 22 August. On 30 August, they anchor at the “Chysellen.” Here they are allowed for the first time to buy some fruit, “12 bananas for 6 “pence.”
On 8 September they arrive in Colombo Bay. From here they travel 160 miles by train and arrive eventually in Diyatalawa.
On 16 September a fellow inmate and an ordained minister, Ds C Ferreira, preach from Matt. 8:12, “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” That afternoon Ds Postma preach from Luke 18:10 (probably up to : 14). On that day they were very upset that the “koelies” (a derogatory but common term for people of Indian descent) worked on that day, a Sunday as if it was any other day. Ds Postma’s reading dealt with that judgemental attitude towards others who do not observe and worship in the same way as you do.
He writes on 22 September that he and Gert van de Venter from hut 48 started a “Zingkoor” (a choir). He attended bible study at hut 63 where a certain Ds Roux spoke.
This was obviously a time of great reflection and soul searching. On 1 October, he writes that “as I reflect on the past year and what happened to me, I can not say anything else but that the Lord helped me through it all and that he can not but to thank Him for all that He has done for me.” It is interesting that he named his son, years later, Ebenhaezer, God helped me all the way and brought me to this place. He never told my grandfather why he named him Eben. It was not a family name and must have been done deliberately in a time when conservative farmers gave their children the names of their parents or grandparents. From this entry in his diary, I can see how important this thought was to him and, especially in Afrikaans, the wording is similar to the words used in the bible from where we get the meaning of the name, Ebenhaezer. I suspect that in naming his son Eben, Jan was celebrating Gods faithfulness in by allowing him to return and have his own family.
There was also ministers in the camp who used Sunday school for a time to criticise the fact that they laid down arms. Ds Roux accused them of being selfish when they surrendered and say that they were only feeling sorry for their horses and were homesick. He spends lots of time attending bible study and Sunday school. On 3 January when a school was started, he attended. On 7 January he mentions that there was a missions prayer meeting and he starts to attend a missions class.
His grandson, Ds Jan Kok (my uncle), writes a dissertation when he completes his studies as a Dutch Reformed minister, about the development of a missionary zeal in the POW camps and indeed, many of the POW’s returned home to become missionaries. This was later published under the title “Sonderlinge Vrug” (special or unusual fruit).
Jan became one of the founders of the “Zuid-Afrikaansche Pennie Vereniging” on 1 June 1902. The goal of the organisation was to promote the missionary course and through this, to expand the Kingdom of God.
On 31 July, as Jan surrenders and is taken POW, Wright Harris is still very much part of the siege of Mafikeng and writes in his own diary, “Called out to wait for the Boers at daylight. Ordered not to start.” 1 August, Wright notes, “Starting out for Mafikeng. Passed Boer trenches.”
He survives the campaign, but his health deteriorates. He suffers horrible bouts of severe illness. His Christian faith sustains him through everything, like Jan Kok in the Diyatalawa camp. Wright also continues to attend church parades, tent meetings, bible readings and prayer meetings. I wonder if he could have imagined that on the Boer side there were men with much the same commitment and a common experience of faith with him.
In early October, as Jan is getting used to life as a prisoner of war, Wright Harris contracts deadly typhoid fever. He is taken to hospital where he lay for weeks, delirious and close to death. He is so severely sick that later becomes convinced that his eventual recovery is a miracle. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he is sent back to Australia and arrived in Melbourne in early Feb 1901.
Wright, deeply committed to his faith, undertakes a year of church work in New Zealand, following the war. Jan is eventually released on 5 December 1902 and returns to South Africa on 27 December 1902.
FOLLOWING THE WAR
There is a deep belief among the young men at these camps that a reason for the war was that they did not do everything in their power to spread Christianity among the native African tribes. It was in a way, Gods judgement upon them for their inaction. It is therefore not surprising that after their homecoming, Jan enrols in the Missionary Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington. The collective Boer nations had matters to resolve that, in their interpretation of events, brought about such devastation on their land and it is completely understandable and commendable that this became the passion of Jan’s life. Jan is confirmed in March 1906 in a missions church in Heilbron.
Wright did not have a nation to save and without the spiritual issues that plagued the young Boer-men, focussed on building his own life. He was ready to do whatever his hands find to do. Events in his life would steer him, not to full-time church ministry as was the case with Jan, but to a life of business and bacon curing.
Probably through the Methodist church at Scoresby, he met John and his daughter, Janet Weetman. William Haine ran a butter factory in Kennedy Street, Castlemaine. He also ran a bacon company part time as the Castlemaine Mild Cured Bacon Company, to earn additional income. Haine and Weetman agreed for John and Janet to take over the running of the bacon side of things and Weetman roped Wright Harris in to assist them. The three arrived in Castlemaine in 1905 and started the Castlemaine Bacon Company in a room in the butter factory. Together with John Kernihan they processed five pigs per week. John Kernihan and John Weetman were the experienced craftsmen. Kernihan had employed Weetman years earlier in his own bacon company in Northcote but lost his business during the depression of the 1850’s.
Wright and Janet eventually marry on 18 April 1906. John Weetman passed away on 28 March 1922 at which time Wright and Janet acquired the company and the land the factory was built on. So started a long and prolific history of the Castlemaine Bacon Company under Wright Harris’s name.
Back in South Africa, Jan remains faithfully at the congregation in Heilbron for 39 years until his retirement in 1945. My uncle, Oom Jan Kok, who was named after his grandfather, follows in his footsteps and become a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. He faithfully serves in the Moedergemeente, Warmbad for most of his life. He tells an interesting story that when he was christened, this was done in the “black church” where his grandfather and the man who’s name he received, was the pastor, in Heilbron. In those years this was of course not permitted under the Apartheid Laws. My uncle, Jan, needed a “doopseël” (baptismal seal) for some reason and it was eventually found at the “white church” (Heilbron-South) where his grandfather must have registered it.
I, in turn, am named after my grandfather, Oupa Eben Kok and was destined to follow in the footsteps of my great granddad and uncle to become a pastor. During a year I spent in the USA after my own time in the South African Army (1988 to 1990), I returned to South Africa with a commitment to pursue a career in business. Bacon curing became my life.
I fell in love with Chemistry and in my mid 30’s decided to enter the world of food manufacturing. In 2008, Oscar Klynveld and I created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. with the ambitious goal of selling the best bacon on earth. Oscar himself is the son of a Dutch Reformed minister with deep religious convictions. I always loved writing and storytelling and when I discovered that the field of meat science is replete with amazing untold stories, I start a blog where I feature some of these amazing stories.
It was in researching an article for this site on famous bacon curing companies from around the world and a book I am writing on our setting up of Woody’s Consumer Brands that I came across the story of the Castlemaine Bacon Company and the link they have with South Africa. Since the founding of the company, our growth has been meteoric, much like Wright Harris’ Castlemaine Bacon Company. The Harris family now stand and look back at a company which they eventually sold and they have in a sense completed the full circle, a road that we are still excited to be travelling and in a sense, continue to follow in their footsteps.
On Saturday morning I was standing in our own dispatch area, telling Oscar about this article and my attempts to make contact with the Harris family. The commitments, disciplines and great lessons from the words of John Harris and the inspiration we can draw from them.
The great story of bacon curing is, from the beginning to the end, a human story. It took the best of humankind, over thousands of years to create a dish that mimics natural processes that are part of human metabolism, every moment. The story of bacon curing is our own story in a very personal way. It is a science and an art – human culture at its best. Telling the story of curing is telling our own personal stories. They are inseparable.
As humans, we identify patterns, we learn, evolve and we connect. Looking at our own experience in Woody’s Consumer Brands fill Oscar and me with a deep gratitude and we take courage from the men and woman of the Harris family with their remarkable heritage which is so close to our own. Bacon curing brings together some of the greatest stories on earth!
I liberally quote and use information from Bringing home the bacon: a history of the Harris family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company 1905-2005 / Leigh Edmonds. Monash University. The photo of Wright Harris, this source.
Murray, P. L.. 1911. Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa. Albert J. Mullett, Government Printers.
All information and photos of JW Kok supplied by Jan Kok in private correspondence.