What Adam Smith Ate: Vinegar

what adam smith ate

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

In Adam Smith’s household, it’s likely that his mother or cousin, Janet Douglas, would have ensured the cooks pickled vegetables or fermented cabbage or turnips. 
In Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, he dissects the mechanics of the economy using real world examples to demonstrate the effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – of everything from taxes to tariffs.  In his discussion of duties on foreign goods, he specifically refers to French imports like wine, brandy, salt, and vinegar.  

As Smith knew, one could use the complex models of subsidies and duties to force changes in pricing and consumption, sometimes for the good of the consumer – and sometimes not. High taxes on French brandy drove the price so high that inexpensive gin displaced it in the marketplace, creating societal chaos (like the Gin Craze) and a host of other problems.

Smith understood cause and effect, leading him to often advocate for policies that made common products like beer and tobacco accessible to the working class. So, it makes one wonder about the high prices of two of the most common products for food preservation – salt and vinegar. Salt wasn’t just a common household item at the time. It was in high demand due to the needs of herring fisherman throughout England and Scotland. So, that one might make sense but why was vinegar so closely linked to these higher priced luxuries? 

Vinegar was important for food preservation, but it was often lumped into highly taxed products because it was produced by vineyards, breweries, and distilleries, so seen as similar to wine, cider, and even beer.  Vinegar was made, either accidentally or on purpose, from wine, malted barley, rice, or cider as a result of a microbial growth that soured the wine or cider. Entire batches of wine, cider, or malted distillates could be infected with these microbes during and after the alcoholic fermentation processes, so vinegar was naturally sold by those same wine and cider purveyors.  In Smith’s mind – as well as the government’s -- vinegar production was naturally tied to alcohol.

Similar to salt, vinegar was critically important to flavoring and preserving foods. Greens and other vegetables could be dressed in it for flavoring, and cabbages, cucumbers, turnips, eggs, and fruit could be preserved in crocks due to the highly acidic environment. 

Additionally, vinegar was popular for everything from medical cures to cleaning. Vinegar could even be mixed with honey or sugar as a tonic. Doctors understood vinegar to have some mild antiseptic properties and suggested wounds be bathed in it and linens boiled in it. Even sailors knew that cabbage preserved in vinegar prevented survey (due to its high quantity of Vitamin C.)

In Smith’s household, it’s likely that his mother or cousin, Janet Douglas, would have ensured the cooks pickled vegetables or fermented cabbage or turnips. In Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 cookbook A New and Easy Method of Cookery, she has more than 40 recipes for pickling anything from walnuts to elder flowers. Cooks knew how to avoid contamination or long-term spoilage so she lists a number of instructions on successful technique starting with “Let your Brafs Pan for any Pickles be very bright and clean. … Ufe the very beft Vinegar.”

Want to try a simple pickle that Smith might have enjoyed? Adapted from Cleland’s original 18th century recipe, here’s a modern pickled onion that is both easy and can provide a bright pop of flavor for anything from stews to cocktails. The spices here are based on Cleland’s recipe but you can try others for fun. 

Pickled Onions

  • 8 oz pearl onions, if frozen, thawed
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • ½ cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp pepper corns (black or white)
  • 1 tsp whole allspice
  • ½ tsp whole cloves
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • 2 clean 8-ounce glass jars or a medium size bail jar

  1. If using fresh pearl onions, blanch them in boiling water, then drain and lay on a kitchen towel. This should make them easier to peel. Peel off the outer layers.  If using frozen, you can skip this step.
  2. Place your peeled pearl onions or rinsed thawed pearl onions back in the sauce pan with kosher salt and boil for 5-6 minutes. This will ensure they stay crisp. Drain and rinse.
  3. Place the onions in jars. They should be crowded but not packed tightly. 
  4. In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, pepper corns, allspice, cloves, and ginger. Bring to boil. Simmer for 2-3 minutes or until sugar dissolves.  Pour the pickling liquid over the onions in the jars.  Let jars cool slightly, then seal and place in the refrigerator. Your pickles will be ready after a few hours but will last for several weeks.

You can play with this recipe by switching up the spices (try mustard seeds and coriander) or the vinegar. Malt vinegar or even white vinegar will work, especially since these are pickles for the refrigerator.