Eggs are a longstanding symbol of spring, with featured roles in both Easter and Passover celebrations. For the latter holiday, which this year begins on the night of April 22, they’re roasted. And for the former, they’re traditionally dyed, a custom that in 1939 inspired a Charleston Evening Post recipe for cheese-stuffed pears.
To make the split pears look more like what celebrating boys and girls might find in their baskets, the recipe instructed cooks to “tint (them) pink, green (and) yellow with diluted food coloring.” While that was a fairly uncontroversial notion by 1939, it could have been a deadly suggestion just a few decades prior.
At least since 1500 B.C., people have treated pale food with beet extract, turmeric and squid ink; wine has been dyed for nearly as long. In Medieval Europe, brightly colored foods were often served at royal banquets.
But as Adam Burrows points out in his history of food coloring, when peasants encountered fake hues, they typically weren’t being used for festive reasons. To avoid using costly white flour, bakers regularly stirred crushed bones and chalk into their bread dough. During the reign of Edward I, English parliamentarians decreed that anyone found guilty of producing a faulty loaf would be dragged “through the streets which are most dirty” with the offending hunk of bread hanging from his neck.
If the law was supposed to have a deterrent effect, it came up short. Thrifty food manufacturers kept trying to fool customers by adding poisonous dyes to their products. The problem only worsened with the development of modern chemistry. Nineteenth-century reformers warned eaters about pickles that got their green color from copper, and candy made red with mercury. In 1880, researchers tested candy sold in Boston and found at least one toxic mineral pigment in 46 percent of the items they sampled. “You would have to be extremely fortunate to find a pickle not bathed in copper sulfate at that time,” Burrows writes.
American food manufacturers tried to ward off government intervention with self-policing: The National Confectioners Association voluntarily advised its members to give up 21 particularly dangerous food colorants. But an unimpressed Congress in 1906 passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, making it a crime to use or sell any kind of poisonous food coloring. Green pickles, red candy and pink and yellow pears, were newly safe for consumption. Or so the theory went: In reality, toxic products continued to surface, leading to the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.
One year after the government stiffened food coloring laws, dictating exactly which colors were legal, The Evening Post could rightly assume its readers had bottled food coloring in their pantries. The dyes lent a cheerful touch to a snack that would have been very stylish in the 1930s. The use of celery, sculpted fruit and fillings are all hallmarks of the era.
Although the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was enacted almost 80 years ago, many consumers are still skeptical of mass-produced food coloring. Jennifer Bremer of Gaulart & Maliclet, commonly known as Fast & French, is among them.
“When I got the recipe, I tried to follow it exactly like it was written, but I was questioning the use of artificial dyes,” she says. “So I tried to do some natural dyes.” But beet, saffron and turmeric failed to produce the colors Bremer wanted, and their flavors clashed with the dish.
Ultimately, Bremer decided to skip the coloring step, instead using Anjou pears that could pass for eggshell white. She also decided to leave her “eggs” open face, which meant she ended up approximating something closer to a deviled egg (while that sounds like a radical turnabout for a dish associated with Easter, Bremer says she just felt it was “too much pear.”
Roquefort and pear is a classic combination, but for Bremer’s purposes, it didn’t adequately resemble a yolk. So she instead used gouda mixed with cream cheese, sour cream and turmeric.
She plated the pear with red watercress, arugula, prosciutto and a cornichon, and served it as a daily special with a cup of soup and a glass of wine. Bremer admits she had to hustle to hollow out pears to order.
Fast & French sold out of the pear eggs. But Bremer served them again the next weekend at a private brunch. “It was delicious,” she says.