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Invention was his stock in trade

Born in 1803, Justus Liebig anticipated Atkins, invented baby formula and made the bouillon cube possible.

January 19, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

The story of the pioneer behind the bouillon cube is too strange to be fake. In 1860s Uruguay and Argentina, cattle were often slaughtered just for their hides and tallow, and the meat was left to rot. Meanwhile, Europe was hungry. A European railway engineer working in South America contacted the presiding German chemist of the day to see if there wasn't some way to capture the essence of this meat and ship it back to the Old World.

Using evaporation techniques developed for the sugar industry, a process was devised in which boned carcasses were pulped, steamed, sieved, skimmed of fat and reduced. "Extract of Meat" was born. As it happened, the man who developed it had already produced modern fertilizers, popularized baking powder and found grass substitutes for cattle; he was about to invent baby formula. He was Justus Liebig, "von" Liebig after the barony.

Until William H. Brock wrote "Justus von Liebig: the Chemical Gatekeeper," published in 1997, a conviction had set in that modern food processing was somehow an American phenomenon. In fact, Brock's text shows us that much of its logic sprang from one 19th century German mind.

Liebig, who was born the son of Darmstadt hardware store owners in 1803, was spared a working-class boy's life of mixing house paints only because his parents bribed the necessary fixers to secure his admittance to the University of Bonn. As a student, he fell in love with the aristocratic poet August Graf von Platen. The emerging chemist wrote Von Platen: "I wish I were a gas that could ... surround you like an atmosphere."

Iconoclasm became his trademark. Not only was Liebig bisexual; he was a Lutheran who later married a Catholic. By June 1823, as a low-rung instructor at the University of Giessen, he became so depressed by his colleagues' backwardness of thought (some senior faculty still disputed the circulation of blood) that he set up a lab outside the university gates. This converted guardhouse became the world's first department of biochemistry and was soon overtaken by food processors.

Farmers, brewers, vintners flocked to Giessen to study practical science at the new chemistry lab. In addition to the Englishman James Blake, who went on to co-found the Australian wine industry, and German Wilhelm Bottinger, who became a chemist for Bass Ale, Liebig's students included the American Charles Mayer Wetherill, the first chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Chemistry on the farm

There was a nervous breakdown in the 1830s, which Brock brushes over. By the 1840s, the chemist was busy reinventing agriculture, though he'd never farmed. After a "cook's tour" of British farming estates, Liebig pronounced that crop rotation was inefficient. He became a partner in a Liverpool-based fertilizer business that sold heat-melded mixes of ash, gypsum, calcined bones, potassium silicate, magnesium sulfate and ammonium phosphates.

The fusing of the compounds in a furnace was intended to ensure gradual release of nutrients into soil. But Brock reports a mighty blunder: "No field trials were made before the materials were launched for marketing in the autumn of 1845 -- a fatal mistake.

When, following the bad harvest of 1844 and the onset of the potato famine in 1845, enthusiastic British farmers tried the products they rapidly discovered that the materials remained on the surface like a grass dressing unless at further expense they were ploughed in."

The chemist moved to nutrition, where he argued that fat didn't make you fat, carbohydrates did. "He could find very little fat in animal feeds," recounts Brock. After anticipating the Atkins diet by more than a century, Liebig moved on to baking powder. By the 1850s, an American student, Eben Norton Horsford, patented a baking powder that Liebig predicted could supplant yeast in commercial bakeries. In an attempt to switch German bakers from yeasts to chemical leavens, Liebig took to baking muffins as part of his chemistry demonstrations.

When he was wrong, he was wrong so influentially that chemists are still correcting him more than a century later. Modern American chemist Harold McGee, author of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," hauls him out of history for promulgating misinformation about "sealing" juices into meat. Liebig thought boiling would do it. Variations of his advice found their ways into the cookbooks of Eliza Acton, Fannie Farmer and Auguste Escoffier.

The British government recently published evidence that Liebig promoted grinding up meat and bone meal, then mixing it into cattle feed. To his eyes, protein begat more protein. He had no way of knowing that a century later the resulting feed would harbor a lethal pathogen and give rise to the "mad cow" epidemic in the 1980s.

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