Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Triple-Washed Veggies, Old Erie Canal Style

Earlier today, in preparation for tonight’s salad, I cut open my bag of Trader Joe’s radicchio - romaine - butter lettuce mix and noticed in the process that it proudly proclaimed to be “triple washed.”  

Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed that kind of hype or given it a second thought, but I had just finished reading the 1910 Annual Report of the New York State Department of Health, and the section from the state’s Hygienic Laboratory was still in my memory.

Washing produce before its sale to make it more attractive to the consumer has been going on for a long time, but not always in the best of conditions.  Moreover, food inspection of any kind by government is a relatively recent thing, all things considered.  While colonial governments were concerned about short-weighting, actual food quality wasn't much to be concerned about.

 Here’s the section of the Report that stuck in my memory, mostly because the geographic area referred to is just a few miles from where many of my ancestors lived:

Albany, N. Y., May 27, 1910.

Hon. Eugene H. Porter, A.M., M.D., State Commissioner of Health, Albany, N. Y.: 

Sir:—Under date of May 21st, the attention of your Department was called to the washing of vegetables by truck gardeners in the water of the Erie canal, between Troy and Albany. This complaint was received by you on May 23d and transmitted to Inspector Number [___ ], with your instructions to investigate that matter on the following day.

Your inspector called upon the gentleman making this complaint, but was unable to find him at home. He accordingly proceeded to the direct investigation of the subject-matter.

He found that it is a constant practice and has been for some time for a number of truck gardeners to wash vegetables in the water of the Erie canal at various places, which vegetables they subsequently supply to the markets of Troy and Albany.

In particular at a point in the canal near Schuyler bridge, spinach was seen by your inspector to be washed and his investigation showed that this spinach was the property of a Mr. Beattie, who had built a wooden rack pen in the canal, into which pen vegetables to be washed were thrown from a wagon with forks; and after remaining in this pen, submerged with water, were taken out with the forks and thrown upon the bank to drain. They were subsequently loaded on to wagons, which wagons as a matter of custom usually left his residence from two to three in the morning to arrive at the Troy market at an early hour the following day.

At the time of this inspection a number of boys were in swimming at this place and samples of the water of the canal were taken at this time for examination at the laboratory.

In this vicinity also another pen, in which spinach, lettuce and onions were washed, was found existing in the canal, stated to be the property of O'Leary, a truck gardener who conveyed the most of his produce to Troy and also to the Albany market.

Another installation of the same sort served for the washing of products, the property of a man named Keys, who sold this produce at Troy.

At another point a similar installation belonging to Mr. O'Brien, was found; he washed practically all of his green produce in this way; at the time he was washing spinach, lettuce and onions and he sold all of this produce both in Troy and Albany.

Another installation was visited belonging to a Mr. Mattimore, where the actual washing of thirteen barrels of spinach, three of lettuce and a quantity of onions were seen and the two sons of this proprietor were interrogated. They stated it to be the usual custom to wash green produce here in this way; that after the produce remained in the water for some half hour or more, it was removed therefrom with forks, allowed to drain on the banks, subsequently loaded on to wagons and driven to the barn. From this barn the wagons started about two or three o'clock in the morning to arrive at the market at an early hour and sell the produce.

Another installation for washing the produce of Mr. T. Smith was also found, where spinach and lettuce were washed, which produce it was stated was carted early the following morning for sale at the Troy market.

Another installation opposite the farm of Mr. Clancy was said to be used by Mr. J. Mullen of Island Park, for washing of his green produce and a further installation was found of this nature, utilized by Mr. Burns.

Nearer to Albany, in the rear of Altro Park, a Mr. Burns was found to have a similar wash stand; and a Mr. Sheller and Mr. Carmend, vendors of such products, were found in this vicinity, but these last two were not provided with wash stands. The last three mentioned bring their truck for sale in Albany.

This method of washing green produce has been known for a long time by the people dwelling in that vicinity and is easily observed by passengers in the car line running between Troy and Albany and has been so observed in actual operation by members of the Laboratory Staff.

A report of the actual nature of the water in this Erie canal at the time of the washing is appended.

I will not bore you with the specific lab report on the water quality.  I will not even comment on the questionable practice of soaking vegetables in the Erie canal (with its rather exotic assortment of toxic effluents) and then letting them dry on the canal’s banks. 

Suffice it to say, it is my fervent hope that the good folks at Trader Joe’s have found a better, cleaner, more hygienic source of water for their “triple washing” than the early 20th century produce dealers of upstate New York.  

For those who are familiar with the general state of cleanliness of the Erie canal in that time period, it’s actually surprising that so many people in this area survived eating their veggies.

A hearty bunch, those long-gone New Yorkers, who took more risks than they suspected when they decided to fix a nice vegetable side dish.


  1. As someone who frequently drives by the Erie Canal I have one word. Ewww. The old saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." certainly applies in this situation. I remember seeing blue and red dye in "kill" water forty years ago from the paper plant my uncle worked at. Multiply that times a hundred and across a variety of industries. I can only imagine what that water was like.

  2. What probably saved our ancestors was the old habit of boiling vegetables until they were soggy and soft. No one ate fresh, raw veggies and my grandparents rarely ate salad. My grandfather called such dishes "rabbit food".

  3. Cynthia and Heather: Thanks for stopping by. It's always informative to look at ancestral foodways, especially the areas of food storage and food preparation and the evolving definition of "clean" and "sanitary." When I lived in east Africa years ago, it didn't take long to discover the consequences of *not* boiling vegetables thoroughly. Fresh fruits like strawberries and salads were off-limits for us for several years, even when we splurged for dinners in the highest quality "tourist-y" hotels.