Review of “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This book reminds me of an optical illusion that looks like one thing when you look at it one way, but appears to be something totally different when viewed another way – think of the ubiquitous Escher posters:

Viewed from one perspective, A Perfect Red is a quirky and witty, albeit highly selective, history of Western Civilization from 1500 to the present, with a special emphasis on the Spanish Empire. From another perspective, it is a 261-page history of the trade in a particular commodity that has no economic significance today but was marginally important 200 to 400 years ago.

The commodity in question is cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a red dye prepared from the bodies of a kind of insect that attacks and lives in and on prickly pear cacti pads that grow in Mexico and the American Southwest. The Spanish conquistadors discovered that native Mexicans could dye clothing a brighter, more vivid red than any available in Europe. The dye was prepared by a painstaking labor-intensive process of scraping the bodies of the insects off the cacti. Cochineal became a valuable export for the Spanish Empire because other Europeans could not duplicate the intense red color it produced.

Cochineal on a prickly pear pad

The insect that produces the dye is so small that in the days before good microscopes, Europeans (including the Spaniards) had no idea of the nature of the dye. Most of them thought it was a form of inorganic matter. The finished product was quite valuable and easy to transport, so it attracted many pirates. However, it was extremely difficult to produce anywhere but Mexico because the prickly pear cacti did not thrive in many other places and the live insects were very sensitive to cold. The Spanish maintained tight security on the production of the product and enforced severe penalties on anyone who attempted to break the crown’s monopoly.

The story of how the Spanish maintained their monopoly and how other Europeans tried to discover the secret of the dye is an interesting one that stretches from the 16th to the 18th centuries. In the process of telling a little story (the dye trade), the author’s “back story” account encompasses the reigns and characters of Charles V and Phillip II, the Hapsburg Empire, the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and the continuing rivalries of Spain, England, Holland, and France. In this respect, the dye trade acts as a microcosm of a much broader European history, a conceit that Greenfield handles deftly.

However, the author’s technique of filtering the history of Western Europe through the lens of the red dye trade breaks down in the 19th century. Spain’s monopoly in cochineal persisted, but by then the country had declined significantly as it gradually lost its overseas empire and faced bankruptcy. Moreover, the German chemical industry developed synthetic dyes of comparable quality. I think Greenfield overstates her case when she attributes the rise of the whole German chemical industry to efforts to find a substitute for cochineal. And when she traces those efforts to the development of poisonous gas for World War I, the chain of causation is too diffuse to be credible.

So back to the optical illusion. When the book is viewed as political history seen as a partial function of the cochineal trade, it works pretty well from 1500 to about 1830, but then has nothing worthwhile to say. If viewed as merely a history of the trade in a particular red dye, it is no more significant than a history of the trade in copra or jute.

Evaluation: This is a good book for those who like niche knowledge, or who prefer history in more entertaining forms.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2005

Note from Jill: One of my many chores when we lived in Tucson used to be to blast the $%&# cochineal off of our prickly pear pads with the jet spray setting of the hose. If you just leave it, it will eventually kill the host cactus. When you spray it, squishing the cochineal, you can see the dark red used for dye. Just in April, 2012, Starbucks announced it will stop using cochineal extract in four food and two beverage products, and will switch to lycopene – a tomato-based extract, for coloring. Obviously a lot of customers were bugged by the cochineal, so to speak….

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10 Responses to Review of “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield

  1. sounds interesting, but perhaps a little too niche for me.
    and I must say I am shocked to find Starbucks is using dye in their drinks..their very expensive drinks.

  2. I don’t read much historical fiction so I’ll take a pass on this one. I do find it rather disturbing that they were using the cochineal for coloring in food, but then many people eat bugs. I’m really wondering why it’s necessary to color the drinks at all.

  3. Beth F says:

    At least the lycopene is really good for you. Sounds like a book I’d like to at least look though.

  4. Barbara says:

    I’m satisfied with what I learned from this review. Now I don’t feel the need to actually read the book. lol

  5. Ha! The only thing I ever eat order at Starbucks (since I hate coffee) is the strawberry frappucino, which is rather alarmingly pink. Bet I’ve been drinking bugs. 🙂

  6. I don’t know if I’m odd, but as long as it’s a natural product it wouldn’t bother me that it was in food (way less worrisome than random chemicals). Although why food makers think that we need things to be neon bright in color is beyond me.

    It sounds like it could be a fascinating history topic, but maybe something better suited to a magazine article than a whole book (at least for my attention span).

  7. zibilee says:

    This book sounds fascinating because I always love a good nonfiction read that threads history and science together, and I had never heard of cochineal dye before. I would love to read this one sometime! Fantastic review today, Jim!

  8. I love your quirky sense of humor…who knew about the coloring Starbucks used??? Not me!

  9. lisa says:

    Now that is a niche bit of history! You find the most unusual books.

  10. bookingmama says:

    Probably not for me but maybe my dad! I love your comment too!

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