The side-dish preferences of vice presidents don’t normally make the news.
But 1959 was no ordinary time. It was the year a tiny berry caused Americans to take a massive look at potential carcinogens in their food and care enough about the culinary choices of lawmakers that Richard Nixon’s dinner selection one night in November warranted a front-page story in The Washington Post.
“Vice President Has Cranberries in Wisconsin,” read the above-the-fold headline on Nov. 13, 1959.
Nixon’s indulgence in not just one, but four helpings of cranberries in a state that grew the crop came just days after Arthur Flemming, secretary of what was then known as the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, warned the public that some cranberries in the Pacific Northwest had been contaminated by a weed-killer that was known to cause cancer in rats. He advised housewives “to be on the safe side” and avoid buying cranberries with uncertain origins.
The announcement, made just weeks before Thanksgiving, immediately set off a nationwide scare and delivered a massive upset to, at that time, a $50 million industry. The Washington Post and The New York Times both ran front-page stories on the issue for weeks. An article even appeared after a pie containing a mix of apples and cranberries was served “in error” in the Agriculture Department cafeteria. A manager in the story promised that no more would be served until the controversy was cleared up.
Across the country, grocery chains removed cranberry products from their shelves, restaurants dropped the item from their menus, and suddenly lawmakers made powerful statements by simply closing their mouths and chewing.
“I see no reason for hysteria over cranberries on any consumer’s part,” Nixon said after his dinner in Wisconsin Rapids, according to media accounts at the time. “I am certain the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is working rapidly to separate those comparatively few contaminated cranberries, and I, like other Americans, expect to eat traditional cranberries with my family on Thanksgiving Day.”
Not to be outdone, especially with a presidential election looming, Sen. John Kennedy, D-Mass., who was 30 miles away on that night, drank two glasses of cranberry juice.
The Post, in a story the next day, called it a “bi-partisan cranberry consumption.” Kennedy had joked to groups about being on a mission with Nixon to test cranberries, according to the book “Humor in the White House.”
“Well, we have both eaten them, and I feel fine,” Kennedy reportedly said. “But if we both pass away, I feel I shall have performed a great public service by taking the Vice President with me.”
Finding the humor in the panic was not hard it seemed. Political cartoonists latched onto the issue. In one, two freckle-faced boys write a letter to Flemming asking if he could please mention spinach once. In another, an ax sits on a log as a turkey reads Flemming’s statement and wishes someone would make a crack about the birds.
But, in serious ways, the cranberry crisis marked a shift in the nation’s relationship with food. The innocent consumer was suddenly replaced with the well-informed one. Suddenly, the public’s vocabulary included the word “aminotriazole,” the herbicide that had been detected on some of the crops in the Pacific Northwest.
Ruth Desmond was a homemaker in Arlington, Va. when the crisis pushed her to form the Federation of Homemakers. The organization would later take on nitrates in baby food and the contents of peanut butter, but at that time, Desmond was just hoping to find healthy food to cook for her husband who had beaten bladder cancer, her daughter Janet Swauger recalled recently.
“My father said he would know when mother was getting ready to do him in if he saw a pack of package food on the counter,” recalled Swauger, who still lives in Arlington. Her mother died in 1982, two years after her father.
Swauger described her mother as “short,” “plump” and “one hell of a woman.” Cranberries may have pushed her to join the conversation on food regulation, Swauger said, but once she found her voice, she used it to testify against General Mills with confidence and gave gripping speeches without notes.
“She always said, ‘I’m just a housewife and a grandmother,’ ” Swauger said. “That’s all she spoke as, but, boy, could she speak.”
And she was not the only women making herself heard. Many articles at the time addressed housewives in the first few paragraphs, an acknowledgment that they would ultimately decide the cranberry industry’s fate.
“Women have always had the upper hand in terms of voting with their pocketbook,” said Suzanne Junod, a historian with the Food and Drug Administration who this month unveiled a public display on the 1959 crisis at the agency’s White Oak headquarters. The time marked a pivotal change for the government agency, Junod said. The cranberry crisis pushed the FDA into the public consciousness, and once it was there, it remained.
“They knew to perk their ears up and pay attention if the FDA said something,” Junod said. “It was the start of a trajectory that was taking the agency into a more prominent position.”
The FDA had detected the herbicide that started the public scare, and it would fall to the agency to find a way to test massive amounts of the berries in time for Thanksgiving. The daunting task caught many FDA employees off guard, said Junod, pointing to quotes from former employees. One district and regional supervisor said: “Here I was, I didn’t even like cranberries, had never seen one grow. I was thrown into the breach, as was every other investigator, in November of 1959.”
At one point, the agency dedicated a fourth of its staff just to cranberries, and the agency’s chemists worked around the clock testing volumes that could be measured by trainloads.
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving loomed and the public’s menu remained uncertain.
Newspapers ran recipes of alternative side-dish options. Among them: lingonberries, pickled pear and spiced cherries.
Days before Thanksgiving, the government declared that it had cleared more than 7 million pounds of canned and bagged cranberries. It also announced it had approved an emergency labeling program “to tell the housewife whether she’s buying tested, taint-free cranberries,” according to a front-page Washington Post article.
In that same article, Flemming expressed confidence that his wife would find properly labeled cranberries, and they would eat them for the holiday.
“Mrs. Flemming’s Cranberry Ring” recipe, calling for a package of lemon Jell-O and one quart of cranberries, ran in the paper next day.
“I’m very fond of cranberries,” Flemming said, with that breaking “a ‘no comment’ stand maintained while her husband negotiated with producers for a settlement of the problem.”
In the end, her endorsement and Nixon’s four servings would not be enough to help the industry avoid major losses. By January, according to news accounts, the cranberry industry reported $20 million in losses and Ocean Spray announced it had laid off a third of its work force. Sales had plummeted 70 percent below normal for Thanksgiving and 50 percent below normal for Christmas.
It probably didn’t help that The Associated Press ran a story about what Mamie Eisenhower served alongside her turkey. She went with applesauce.
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