Chow: The Making of Chinese-American Cuisine

Apologies for the lack of recent posts! As consolation, it means that I'm maybe getting closer to finding my way to the end of my dissertation. Also, I've been writing for some other fine publications. (You can find some links here.) But I've got a ton of odd tidbits of knowledge too hairy and weird for my diss., but which are, to me, real darlings, laboriously distilled from archival sources in my bespoke scholarly alembic, and perfect blog-style aperitifs, so stay tuned.

Since anyone who reads this blog clearly cares about food, history, and culture, I wanted to put in a pitch for supporting the Museum of Food and Drink’s forthcoming exhibit — Chow: The Making of Chinese-American Cuisine. (I sent this to my email list, so some of you may have seen this already. I'm not going to apologize for that, because I think this is really important.)

Right now, MOFAD running a kickstarter to help raise money to finish building and installing the exhibit, scheduled to open in November. Here’s a link where you can find more information about the exhibit and about the museum and donate: http://chow.mofad.org

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with MOFAD since before they opened their first exhibit — “Flavor: Making It and Faking It” — in Brooklyn last year. I was a historical advisor to that exhibit, helped develop some of the content, and gave a couple of talks.   

I had nothing at all to do with this new exhibit. But I recently had the chance to preview the plans with MOFAD director Peter Kim, and it’s really phenomenal. I think this is going to be a fantastic show, bigger and even better than “Flavor." 

“Chow” tells the story of Chinese-American food, beginning with the immigration of Chinese laborers in the 19th century to build the Western railroads and up through the present day. The exhibit considers both the people who made the food and also the people who ate it — the entangled histories of immigrants and consumers — and presents a nuanced and fascinating account of American cultural, political, and social change in the 20th century. 

Some of the historic menus that will be on view at MOFAD's new exhibit.

Some of the historic menus that will be on view at MOFAD's new exhibit.

Now, many of you are probably like, “sounds… educational." But what makes a food-focused museum so great, and so necessary, is that it can take all that stuff that pro and semi-pro historians get excited about, and make it meaningful and memorable and accessible to ordinary humans by relating it to common experience. The ubiquitous corner Chinese takeout place — seemingly incidental, often overlooked — becomes a place with a history, a place where the personal and the social, the cultural and the political and the economic, converge, inspiring questions, curiosity, dialogue. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the kind of experience that actually makes democratic society thrive. Also, the exhibit is going to be crazy fun. 

The MOFAD team has been working with a group of amazing scholars to develop content and programming, as well as a brilliant design team, and they have assembled an incredible array of artifacts to bring this story to life. Some highlights: a timeline of historic Chinese restaurant menus, spanning more than a century, illustrating both how Chinese-American food changed and how US culture changed around it. In one corner of the exhibit hall, they are building a partial replica of Pekin Noodle House of Butte, Montana, the oldest continuously operating Chinese restaurant in the US. There are plans for a tasting station, where visitors can sample and compare what passed for chow mein in the 1890s and what that dish means in the present day.  

There is also an incredible automatic fortune-cookie-making machine, given to the museum by the machine’s inventor. I have seen it in operation, and it is bewitching. Visitors to the exhibit will have a chance to write fortunes for the machine, as will people around the world via the internet. (They promised me they have a plan for screening these!) 

MOFAD does have foundation and city funding, but, barely past its first year in a physical location, it is still more or less a fledgling start-up, with a small and ultra-dedicated staff of super smart and creative people. They really could use your support to help make this thing happen. 

So join me, won’t you? Pitch in to help MOFAD build this important and beautiful new exhibit. (And pass this along to anyone else who might be interested!)

Here’s that kickstarter link again: http://chow.mofad.org

Thanks so much for reading, and much love!

Is That Celery in Your Pocket, or Are you Just Happy to See Me?

Sexy celery beckons you, with chemistry. Illustration by yours truly. 

Sexy celery beckons you, with chemistry. Illustration by yours truly. 

Earlier this month, NPR's excellent blog The Salt posted an article entitled, "Celery: Why?" In it, science writer Natalie Jacewicz ponders what she calls the "paradox" of celery. Despite minimal caloric value and, in her words, "about as much flavor as a desk lamp," celery has featured in Mediterranean and East Asian cuisines for thousands of years. Why even bother? How did this apparently useless vegetable "sneak into our diets?"  

She talks to a series of ethnobotanists, plant geneticists, and other celery experts, who dilate on the plant's traditional medicinal and fibrous virtues (the highlight is a spokesperson for the Michigan Celery Promotion Cooperative who describes it as the "classic rock" of vegetables). Throughout, I remained dumbfounded by the very premise of the article. Was she even talking about the same celery that I know as celery?  To me, celery is intensely, distinctly, undeniably aromatic and flavorful. Its fragrant leaves add a musky green complexity to unctuous and savory things; its crisp and slightly bitter stalks perfectly counterbalance the heat of szechuan peppercorn and the slick fat of stir fries; its pungent seeds are super excellent in potato salad and pickle brines. Its appeal is obvious.

I'm pretty sure that we're both eating more or less the same celery, and I don't doubt that Jacewicz finds celery flavorless, just as I don't doubt my own experiences with the vegetable. But our vastly divergent responses point to a problem that has haunted the various philosophic and scientific disciplines concerned with studying flavor phenomena since the beginning. How do you produce reliable, reproducible, scientific knowledge about the sensory qualities of foods when tasters are liable to have incommensurable responses to the flavor of the same thing? Or to put it another way, is a difference in taste a difference in personal opinion, shaped over the course of one's life history within given social and cultural contexts, or does it signal a physiological difference in bodily systems of sensation and perception?

This implies it's either one or the other, when of course, reality is much much messier. It's always both, and can never be neatly sorted into "biological/natural" and "social" sets of causes. In this case, however, the idea of flavorless celery was so bizarre to me, that I wondered whether its flavor was associated with any chemical substances that are known to have different sensory effects for different people. I've written about PTC here before, and most people know that the flavor of cilantro is controversial; depending on your chemosensory affordances, it's green and heavenly or soapy and weird. Could different responses to celery likewise be an index to genetic differences among the population at large?   

I tweeted out a question along those lines, and a one-word reply soon arrived from the Monell Chemical Senses Center: Androstenone.

After I posted this blog with the picture of Ms. Sexy Celery above, I realized that the purported heterosexual dynamics of androstenone were much better illustrated by a celery that was sexily gendered male. I'll leave unexamined here the admission that even a self-declared feminist (yours truly) reflexively defaults to the feminine when depicting sexiness. Masculine sexy celery, also beckoning you with chemistry (powerfully?), is my attempt to remedy the earlier mistake. 

After I posted this blog with the picture of Ms. Sexy Celery above, I realized that the purported heterosexual dynamics of androstenone were much better illustrated by a celery that was sexily gendered male. I'll leave unexamined here the admission that even a self-declared feminist (yours truly) reflexively defaults to the feminine when depicting sexiness. Masculine sexy celery, also beckoning you with chemistry (powerfully?), is my attempt to remedy the earlier mistake. 

[P.S. My Twitter handle is @thebirdisgone, if you wanna follow me. This whole celery-flavor-rabbit-hole that I fell into was largely dug on Twitter, with the able assistance of Paul Adams (@PopSciEats), John Coupland (@JohnNCoupland), Susie Bautista (@flavorscientist), and Monell (@MonellSc),  among others.]

An internet search quickly uncovered that androstenone was the first mammalian pheromone to be identified. Pheromones are understood to be biochemical signals emitted by animals, and producing behavioral, social, or physiological responses in other members of the same species. According to Wikipedia, in addition to "celery cytoplasm," androstenone has been found in the sweat and urine of both male and female humans, and in the saliva of male pigs. When inhaled by a female pig in heat, the odor of androstenone triggers her "standing reflex," a pose of sexual receptivity. For this reason, synthetic androstenone is the active component of DuPont's "Boarmate," a spray used to get sows in the mood, in order to facilitate artificial insemination. Possibly for this reason (if you can call it one), androstenone is also a component of the various pheromone perfume potions that you sometimes see advertised in the back pages of high-class magazines like the New York Review of Books and Harper's — even though the readers who encounter these inducements are likely not porcine. The supposition here is that somehow androstenone "means" a similar or analogous thing among humans that it does in pig-world; suffice it to say, the evidence for even a slight correlation between the chemical and attraction and arousal in humans is thin and disputed, and it undisputedly does not produce similar behavioral effects (it should go without saying!) [Edit: after I posted this, Monell tweeted to say that there is no good evidence that androstenone is a human pheromone.]

"I see results both with my wife and with my office staff." Um, creepy? This is from the July 14, 2016 New York Review of Books. 

"I see results both with my wife and with my office staff." Um, creepy? This is from the July 14, 2016 New York Review of Books

The androstenone-arousal "connection" is also why celery takes the top spot in this listicle of "Foods that Make Men More Sexually Attractive." According to Alan Hirsch, M.D. (author of Scentsational Sex), androstenone and other related hormones released from celery when you chew it travel into your olfactory cavity, "turning you on, and causing your body to send off scents and signals that make you more desirable to women." ("Men, you could do worse than ordering a Bloody Mary at brunch," the article advises.)

Sometimes traces of androstenone remain in the meat of uncastrated pigs, leading to an off-flavor in bacon and chops that goes by the evocative name "boar taint." The chemical also contributes to the odor of truffles.

There is also strong evidence that people perceive androstenone differently. To some people, its smell is reminiscent of vanilla and sandalwood. To others, it stinks like rancid piss. These differences in reported perceptions have been correlated with specific genetic differences. However, perceptual differences do not necessarily correspond to preferences, which are shaped by social and cultural factors as well as circumstantial factors, such as familiarity. Cilantro may taste like soap to you, but even so, you might like it; you might even be able to learn to like it. Finally, there's a portion of the population that cannot perceive androstenone at all — people who are, technically speaking, anosmic to it.  

I confess that I'm attracted to (or at least not generally repelled by) musky, fetid, all-too-human smells. Sweaty bodies on the subway in the summertime, unwashed hair, steamy yoga studios, dirty T-shirts pulled from the laundry hamper -- none of these things really bother me, and I'll admit there's a certain interest factor when the world's ripe and rankness makes its presence known despite all our attempts to mask and tame its pungencies. Napoleon's loving plea to Josephine, "I'll be home in three days. Don't bathe," totally makes sense to me.  

So am I a celery lover because I'm chemoreceptive to androstenone, and generally into a little funk besides? (I should probably note here that I do not think boars are sexy.) Does Natalie Jacewicz think celery has the flavor of a desk lamp because she's (possibly) anosmic to androstenone?

In other words, can our different responses to celery be partially accounted for by our different chemosensory receptivities? Not so fast. 

"Wysocki just now noted no citation for andros/celery claim," tweeted Monell. Charles Wysocki and Gary Beauchamp are two scientists at Monell who, in the 1980s and 1990s, did foundational work on androstenone perception in humans. Wysocki had gone back to one of his articles on the subject, and found that the claim (more of an aside, really) that androstenone is found in celery had no reference to back it up.  

It turns out that the vast majority of scientific studies concerning androstenone don't have anything at all to do with celery. They're interested in androstenone's role as a chemical messenger, namely, the ability of androstenone released by one individual to influence the disposition and behavior of other individuals (whether boar or lab-mouse or human). Scientists have studied, for instance, the olfactory and sensory mechanics involved in androstenone perception, the psychological and behavioral effects of the chemical, and the genes associated with different reactions to it. In many of these papers, celery plays a kind of wacky walk-on role at the very beginning, a humble escort to high-class truffles — just incidental examples of the other company this promiscuous pheromone keeps. Very, very few papers cite any source for the claim.   

Even when celery does make a more than incidental appearance, its link to androstenone is usually not elucidated. For instance, a 1998 study investigating whether the "scent of symmetrical men" was more appealing to ovulating women asked the men to refrain from eating a number of foods, including celery, for the duration of the experiment. I'm presuming that the prohibition on celery was to ensure that the men's "natural" androstenone levels were not elevated through vegetable means, though the study's authors do not explain the forbidden celery, nor any of the other food restrictions (a long list, which also included garlic, lamb, yogurt, and pepperoni).      

It turns out that the claim that androstenone is present in celery can be traced back to one wisp of an article from 1979. Paul Adams at Popular Science unearthed a copy from a digital archive of the Swiss life sciences journal Experientia: "The Boar-Pheromone Steroid Identified in Vegetables," by Rolf Claus and Hans-Otto Hoppen, two biochemists at the Technical University in Munich who worked on boar endocrinology.

"The initial impetus for these investigations was provided by the wife of one of the authors," the article explains. "She was familiar, from her husband's work, with the characteristic smell of boar taint, and noticed this smell when cooking parsnips grown in her garden." The wife's name is not given, so we'll never know which of these two guys regularly returned home smelling like boar taint. But her sensory observation was looked into, and Claus and Hoppen tested parsnip extract for the pheromone in the biochemical lab.   

And she was right! It was only after finding androstenone in parsnips did they test other vegetables: carrots, potatoes, radishes, fennel, salsify, parsley, and celery. Of that vegetal bounty, celery alone was found to contain androstenone.

Both celery and parsnip had "remarkably high" concentrations of androstenone, between seven and nine nanograms per gram. "For comparison," the authors explain, "concentrations in peripheral blood plasma of mature boars... are in the same range." Suprising, but not unprecedented, as they note that other plants are known to contain compounds that mimic or duplicate animal hormones — phytoestrogens, for instance. But the biological purpose (if any) of androstenone in celery remained unaccounted for, and "neither is it known if the boar taint substance in celery contributes to the 'libido-supporting' property for which this plant has some popularity." 

Shortly after this study, Claus and Hoppen were involved in research that detected the presence of androstenone in prized Perigord black truffles. The New York Times and other media outlets wrote about new scientific discovery of the pheremonal appeal of these super-luxurious super-delicacies. In an aside, some of these articles note that the chemical is found in parsnips and celery, too — a way, perhaps, for the rest of us supermarket shoppers to get in on the sexy-boar fun of rich people food. Possibly this was the first step toward this very thin fact assuming the ripeness of common knowledge, blooming without attribution over the fields of popular media and scientific literature. 

I can't find any other record of these experiments being repeated, or these results confirmed. (Which doesn't mean that it isn't out there, or that it hasn't been done.) I don't mean to cast doubt on Claus and Hoppen's results, which seem careful and reliable and involve both radioimmunoassay and GC-MS analysis, nor do I mean to dispute whether androstenone is "really" present in celery. But generally we do like to think that common knowledge (and especially scientific common knowledge) is built on sturdier foundations than a single decades-old study.

This happens all the time, though. A claim gathers credibility and authority as it is repeated and republished, an effect that is amplified by the perceived prestige of the source. Some examples: Spinach did not make Popeye strong because of its iron content. (Read this fascinating essay about "academic urban myths" to find out more about that one.) Our bodies are probably not 90 percent microbes -- that one is actually based on a single 1972 study that extrapolated from a fecal sample. The oft-repeated claim that one in three women over 35 will be unable to get pregnant is based on French birth records between 1670 and 1830, hardly a sample reflective of current biomedical and social circumstances.  Napoleon probably never said that thing about not bathing. 

We often take for granted or leave unconsidered the basic facts about what comes to count as facts. I'm working on a dissertation chapter now about what the introduction of megapowerful analytical instruments, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, meant for the work of flavor chemists and flavorists. What's striking is how intertwined sensory and instrumental analysis remain. The standard story we're told about the history of science in general goes something like this: people used to rely on imprecise and unreliable sensory knowledge. An alchemist smelled and tasted a solution, in order to say what it was. Then we built objective instruments that could get at some underlying, universal reality about things, despite ourselves. A chemist measured and quantified, to identify a substance. Thus, the astute sensory observation of the scientist's gardening wife — parsnips smell like boar taint! — becomes scientific knowledge only when confirmed instrumentally in the laboratory.  

But the data produced by powerful "objective" analytic instruments like the GC-MS have to be repeatedly confirmed by "nasal appraisals," at multiple stages through the process. "Without sensory evaluation chemists have no guideposts and will almost certainly lose their way among the byways of flavor research," instructs the 1971 textbook, Flavor Research: Principles and Techniques, a book that is almost entirely devoted to explaining the use and operation of a battery of complex lab instruments, but which nonetheless proclaims "the human nose" to be "the ultimate instrument in flavor chemistry." Rather than replacing the "unreliable" evidence of the senses with information untainted by the subjectivity of the human body, the reliability of these machines must be vouchsafed by the senses. And even so...

On the one hand, we think of sensory experiences as a sort of personal knowledge. Each of us knows what we taste — perhaps we can learn to taste more acutely, more articulately, but our certainty will be our own. Celery is this for me, for you it may be quite different.  

But the "pheromonal" flavor of celery also provides an example of another way that we tend to think about flavor and its effects. Flavor chemicals are members of a world of influential chemicals, which act on us in ways that we cannot detect and thus cannot reasonably resist, and which perhaps induce us to take actions that are counter to our better interests. This way of thinking about flavor slips into the impersonal, the universal. Thus, the seeming ease of making the leap from the effects of a chemical in pig saliva on other pigs in particular physiological circumstances, to the effects of celery on a man's attractiveness to women. (I fall into this fun rhetorical trap too, above, when I wonder whether my olfactory interest in sweaty people is related to my taste for celery.) You also find it in critiques of the food industry, such as Michael Moss's Salt, Sugar, Fat, where flavor is depicted as an addictive force, designed to make us fall for the wrong snack rather than the steady, reliable, "genuine" food.  

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes' investigation of and meditation on the nature of photographic images, he proposes to understand these artifacts by considering only the ones that have an undeniable personal effect on him. This is how he explains it:     

In this (after all) conventional debate between science and subjectivity, I had arrived at this curious notion: why mightn't there be, somehow, a new science for each object? A mathesis singularis (and no longer universalis)?

It's a counter, original, spare, and strange understanding of science, but what if we understood and pursued knowledge about flavor this way, too?

Okay, that's probably as far down as I want to go now into this particular rabbit warren. As a token of forgiveness for all that maundering pseudo-philosophy, I'll leave you with this:  

Bananas!

The still-catchy tune "Yes! We have no bananas" dates from an earlier banana extinction scare in the 1920s. (Image from NYPL.)

The still-catchy tune "Yes! We have no bananas" dates from an earlier banana extinction scare in the 1920s. (Image from NYPL.)

Have you heard? Bananas are going extinct!

Don't worry; this has happened before.

For the first half of the twentieth century, Americans were eating a different type of banana: the Gros Michel. (Fat Mike, to its friends.) Native to the Americas, Gros Michel was grown in massive plantations in Honduras, Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Central America, most of which were owned by a few huge companies. But by the 1950s, fungal diseases had ravaged production, destroying more than a hundred thousand acres of Central American banana plantations.

The Gros Michel was replaced by a banana of Asian origin, the Cavendish, which was resistant to the fungal blights that had wreaked havoc on its predecessor. Predictably, the story has now repeated itself. Intensive monoculture and the interconnectedness of global trade virtually assures the spread of pathogens, wrecking crops, devastating local banana economies. In the end, fungus always wins.

You may have also heard the persistent rumor that, banana to banana, the Gros Michel bested the Cavendish in every way. "Fifty years ago, we were eating better bananas," broods CNN. According to the somber assessments of these banana moralists, the Cavendish is blander, more boring, needs "artificial" ripening, is altogether more buttoned-up and tucked-in than the wilder, fruitier Fat Mike. 

There's another rumor: If you want a hint of what the Gros Michel tasted like, try a banana Laffy Taffy, or those little yellow banana candies, or any cheap banana-flavored thing. Fake banana flavor, the legend goes, is based on the Gros Michel.  There's some evidence that isoamyl acetate — banana ester, the characterizing component of "fake" banana flavors — was a more prominent note in the Gros Michel than it is in the Cavendish.

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

"It's not that the fake banana flavor doesn’t taste like bananas, it’s that bananas don’t taste as flavorful as they used to," concludes a recent article about fake-banana-real-banana on foodandwine.com. 

So this is what we are left with: an apparitional Gros Michel. "Fake banana" flavor, a shabby memento of a better, more delicious banana that was wiped from the planet (or, at least, the export economy) by the hubris of industrial agriculture. Modernity always promises us better living, but meanwhile perpetrates these secret swaps, leaving us with mass-produced versions of nature: duller, dimmer, less.

Or at least this is a story that we like to tell ourselves — that the price we pay for living the way we do, allegedly unconstrained by nature, is that we are consequently denied our full measure of experience. As we pass into the future, we get worse and worse bananas.

But was "fake banana" flavor really "based" on the Gros Michel? Was the Gros Michel better? Is the fake inevitably an attenuation of the real? What is "real" banana flavor, anyways?

And could it even be possible that fake banana flavor came before real bananas?  

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's begin with the bananas.

According to John Soluri, whose excellent Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States I'm drawing on here for most of these banana facts, prior to the 1850s, bananas were rare indeed in these United States.

And most Americans wouldn't get a taste of bananas until the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where the fruit, wrapped in foil and sold for a dime, drew gigantic crowds. At first, multiple varieties of bananas were available in US markets, red and yellow, but by the 1890s, one banana reigns supreme: the Gros Michel.

Stereogram of banana trees on display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

Stereogram of banana trees on display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

There are many reasons that Gros Michel became the top banana. Superior taste was by no means the main factor here. (After all, prior to a consumer market in bananas, how can we know what people believe the best-tasting banana to be?) In fact, the features that put Gros Michel squarely on top had to do with logistics — the logistics of getting bananas from Central America to U.S. ports and then to markets in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, i.e., by train and by boat.

Gros Michel were thick-skinned, resistant to bruising. A bunch of Gros Michel bananas tended to include more "hands" (that's the term of individual bananas) than other varietals, and those bunches basically packed themselves: the hands grew tight and symmetrical, perfect for tossing straight into a ship's cargo hold. The bananas were thick-skinned, resistant to bruising, and had a long ripening period, and grocers appreciated their attractive, unblemished bright yellow appearance. Basically, Gros Michel bananas were born to be shipped.

By the 1890s, most bunches of banana entering the U.S. were yellow Gros Michel bananas, "the variety around which late-nineteenth-century consumer markets formed their notions about just what constituted a 'banana,'" according to Soluri.

This 1917 photograph by Lewis Hine shows a boy peddling bananas in Boston. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

This 1917 photograph by Lewis Hine shows a boy peddling bananas in Boston. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

And so, in 1912, when Clemens Kleber, head chemist for the flavor and fragrance firm Fritzsche Brothers, set out to determine which chemicals in bananas were responsible for their flavor, the bananas that he used in his New Jersey research laboratory were, almost certainly, Gros Michel.

After ripening, mashing, distilling, and variously analyzing his banana mush, Kleber managed to isolate a quantity of an oily, odorous, neutral liquid, which he identified as amyl acetate.

[Note/plea to chemists: I know that isoamyl acetate and amyl acetate are different molecules. But I've found references that indicate that this difference was less significant to nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century chemists. For instance, this 1894 chemical dictionary presents the two as synonymous. Not being a chemist, I don't quite know what to make of this. What difference does the difference between these two molecules make? In what processes, reactions, and applications are they not interchangeable?] 

Milt Gross, pioneering cartoonist, illustrating the real meaning of "banana oil!" (ie, bullshit.)

Milt Gross, pioneering cartoonist, illustrating the real meaning of "banana oil!" (ie, bullshit.)

Kleber's motive for studying the chemical constituents of banana was, in part, to challenge the principles of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug law, which required flavor extracts containing synthetic chemicals to be labeled as "imitation." But if the chemicals used in preparing a synthetic flavor were the same as those present in the actual fruit, how could regulatory officials tell the difference? And why should labels impose a difference that did not exist (according to Kleber) on the molecular level? "As the evidence that substances identical with the so called artificial fruit ethers are also present in natural fruit flavors is of considerable importance in reference to the various pure food laws, I intend to make further researches about the composition of other natural fruit flavors," he vowed, in the December 1912 article where he described his banana research, continuing "It is, however, by no means my intention to monopolize this field of research" — and he certainly appears not to, as he never published anything of the sort again.

As was the case with methyl anthranilate and grape flavor, the reason that amyl acetate was used as banana flavor is not because chemists already knew that it as a banana-native substance. In fact, in order to really understand where artificial banana flavor comes from, you have to start with artificial pear. Because amyl acetate — produced from fusel oil, a waste product of alcohol distilling, and one of the very first synthetic chemicals used as an artificial flavor -- initially came to prominence as a pear flavoring.

Pear drops — barley sugar flavored with amyl acetate diluted in alcohol — were one of the new confections available at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London. The drops and the chemical used to flavor them drew the attention of August Hofmann, the distinguished chemist who was one of the judges of the exhibition. In a letter to Justus Liebig, his teacher, he noted the "remarkably fruity odor" of amyl acetate, and the "agreeable odour of the Jargonelle pear" that emerged when it was diluted in alcohol. Upon inquiry, he learned that "tolerably large quantities" of amyl acetate were being manufactured. "It is principally used for flavoring pear drops, which are much admired in England."

Jargonelle pears are an early-ripening pear common in Great Britain, but (it seems) relatively rare in the United States. And pear drop candies are also more common across the pond. According to Wikipedia, "A 2009 survey of 4,000 adults found that pear drops were the fourteenth most popular sweet in the United Kingdom."

Chemical catalogs from the 1850s through 1880s often refer to amyl acetate as "pear oil" or "jargonelle pear essence." But as the twentieth century nears, in the United States, the chemical is increasingly referred to as "banana oil," not only in flavor and fragrance raw material catalogs, but also in materials that refer to amyl acetate's other uses (especially as a paint thinner or varnish remover.)

So this is the story I originally wanted to tell here. I wanted to show that amyl acetate first signified the flavor of pears — was tagged, specifically, to jargonelle pears — then, in the United States, came to signify the flavor of bananas. I wanted to use this to show that our association between a sensory experience produced by a chemical and a particular real-world referent is historical, contingent, socially constructed. What amyl acetate reminds you of depends on your experiences and your frame of reference. 

I wanted to tell that story, but then I dug a little deeper, and I discovered that the historical record doesn't support that hypothesis as tidily as I'd hoped. The past is a messy place! And a more interesting place than we perhaps imagine.

Working on a draft of my first chapter, I was reviewing a handful of notices from the early 1850s advertising "fruit essences," ie artificial fruit flavors, in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston newspapers.  

And I was surprised — shocked, even — to find "banana" listed among the flavors offered, as early as 1855. Looking closer, it seems that banana flavor was present at the Crystal Palace as well. Scientific American, in its 1853 review of the exhibition's highlights, featured an account of the new artificial fruit essences, and claimed that the most common flavors at the exhibition were pineapple and banana. (Is it any accident that, in contrast to the other available flavors — jargonelle pear, greengage plum, apple — these are both "exotic" fruits, fruits we can assume many of the visitors to the exhibition had never had the opportunity to taste in the flesh?)

What comprised banana essence? The earliest formula I've found dates from 1859, from an important American textbook for pharmacists, which describes the composition of some of the "most prominent" commercially available artificial flavors. "Banana essence" is there described as a mixture of amyl acetate and "some" butyric ether, diluted in alcohol. (The book gives the formula for jargonelle pear as amyl acetate, diluted in alcohol. I should also note here that amyl acetate was a component of many synthetic fruit flavors in this period, not just pear and banana.)

Edward Kent, a manufacturer, importer, and dealer of chemicals and other chemical supplies, lists amyl acetate alternately as "Banana Essence" in his 1854 catalogue.  But another New York chemical supply dealer, J.F. Luhme, lists amyl acetate as "pear oil" in a catalogue from the same period. What accounts for the difference? I'm not certain. However, while Luhme was only an importer, Kent was also a manufacturer -- ie, his company was making some of these substances in-house. Could a (relatively?) greater banana-consciousness in the U.S. at the time summon that fruit first to mind, prior to the pear?   

Image from a chemistry textbook from 1860, published in Philadelphia, that associates amyl acetate with banana, not jargonelle pear. Digitized by Googlebooks.

Image from a chemistry textbook from 1860, published in Philadelphia, that associates amyl acetate with banana, not jargonelle pear. Digitized by Googlebooks.

In 1879, an article in a Canadian pharmaceutical journal reprinting Kletzinsky's flavor formulas makes an addition: "essence of banana," a flavor absent from Kletzinsky's table, but "much employed in the United States." The author indicates that it usually comprises equal parts of amyl acetate and ethyl butyrate, combined with five parts of alcohol.   

So what arrived first to the American sensorium, banana flavor or bananas? Most people writing about the history of bananas in the US seem to agree that the fruit is rather rare and precious prior to the late 1870s. It seems that amyl-acetate-based banana flavor had a peak in popularity that anticipated or slightly preceded the widespread availability of Gros Michel bananas. Perhaps the presence of banana flavors in confections, beverages, and candies conditioned Americans to expect certain sensory qualities when it came to the taste of bananas, familiarized them with certain aspects of banana flavorness that they then were able to find and confirm in the Gros Michel.  

Because of course, multiple chemicals contribute to the flavor of bananas, whether Gros Michel, Cavendish, or any of the hundreds of other banana varietals — green, blue, red, pink, and yellow — that grow in bunches on this wonderful planet we seem on the verge of wrecking forever. And we learn to attend to certain sensations in the multiplicity of sensation, and to mark them as the significant ones — to recognize and know the flavor of banana in amyl acetate. In a certain manner of speaking we are always denied our full measure of experience, because perception is always selective; the sensations we attend to, and the meanings we attach to them, are shaped by our histories and the contexts in which we live.    

When making a banana flavor today, flavor chemists have access not only to a more exhaustive literature of the multiple chemicals that contribute to the flavor of bananas, but also to a far wider range of synthetic chemicals. But a "better" banana flavor is not always one that's more "real." Instead, flavorists build situational bananas, tailored to the food the flavor will be used in, the requirements of the market, and expectations and desires of consumers — also perhaps to something else, a different note, a new sensory idea. (If I've accomplished anything with this blog, I hope it's to shake up the belief that flavors should be bounded by some materialist, literal version of reality; or that questions of quality and pleasure can be settled by drawing a line between the "artificial" and the "genuine.")  

But seriously — how "real" is a banana, anyways? (I should probably take this opportunity to assure everyone that bananas aren't going extinct, though the identity of the "banana of commerce" may be revised.)

Chiquita banana ad from 1970 that I found on the internet (and now can't find the source of), demonstrating the fruit's considerable potential as a cross-branding platform.

Chiquita banana ad from 1970 that I found on the internet (and now can't find the source of), demonstrating the fruit's considerable potential as a cross-branding platform.

After all, the commercial banana shares many of the features that characterize the kind of food that we think of as industrial, mass-produced. Cheap and sweet, the banana was the first fresh fruit available for mass consumption in the U.S. that was available all year round. It's always banana season. The monocultural cultivation of a single banana varietal offers a kind of global uniformity reminiscent of Coca-Cola or Oreos.  Bananas even come in their own packages, with surfaces susceptible to brand names, logos, and other inducements.

I want to end here by invoking one final role played by the banana in the early twentieth-century. T.H. Morgan's fruit fly lab at Columbia University is a crucial site in the history of science, the place where, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the foundations of modern genetics were laid.   

In Morgan's lab, the fruit fly, cheap, brief, and prolific, was made into a "living instrument" to sustain the argument, provide the proof, of the connection between genes and traits, the chromosomal theory of heredity.

And what sustained Morgan's flies? Bananas. Cheap, abundant, always available, bananas were the model food for the first model organism, the insect whose cells would be used to map out the patterns of genes, at the moment when genes first seemed to be the stuff that makes our selves. 

Bananas hang in bunches in Thomas Hunt Morgan's fly room, Columbia University, c. 1920.

Bananas hang in bunches in Thomas Hunt Morgan's fly room, Columbia University, c. 1920.

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana — and apparently, so do we. 

Container for the Thing Contained

In last month's New Yorker food issue, Nicola Twilley takes a jaunt through sensory science with Charles Spence, the psychologist who heads Oxford's Crossmodal Lab. Spence's research investigates the multisensory aspects of perception, especially the perception of flavor. Beer tastes more bitter when bass is booming from the stereo.

Twilley's article looks at how food companies apply Spence's research to packaging design: in order to engineer cans for energy drinks, for instance, whose hiss when opened is pitched to evoke masculine fortitude, or low-sugar chocolate bars whose red wrappers dial up sensations of sweetness. In other words, shaping the container to influence the perceived qualities of the thing contained. For manufacturers, research like Spence's seems like a way of bringing some scientific rigor to the fuzzy, intuitive art of container design, perhaps minimizing the high mortality rate of new products. Spence himself keeps "a rogues' gallery of failed products" on display in his office, brief-lived merchandise whose commercial death warrant was signed, according to his diagnosis, by design decisions that failed to account for the perceptual effects of colors, sounds, and shapes on consumers' experiences of flavor.

But food packaging has long been an engineering problem with recognized sensory dimensions and consequences — though not exactly the kinds of sensory effects studied by Spence's lab.  

 One of the beautiful color lithographed advertisements in American Perfumer & Essential Oil review, this 1913 ad for Mulford Mints draws attention to their "individual sanitary boxes" which "keep their flavor."

 One of the beautiful color lithographed advertisements in American Perfumer & Essential Oil review, this 1913 ad for Mulford Mints draws attention to their "individual sanitary boxes" which "keep their flavor."

Consider the package for a moment. Packaging itself defines the category of "processed food" more than any other aspect, and sharply distinguishes the foodways of industrial modernity from prior modes of eating and living.  (For instance: Labels! The whole visual/informational superstructure of the modern food industry — and a good part of regulatory agencies' authority — depends upon the infrastructure provided by the package, which serves as the slate upon which the enticements and warnings and "facts" can be inscribed.) Think about the vast and heterogeneous category of food made in factories, now and in the past: Leibig's Extract of Beef, Heinz's 57 Varieties, Uneeda Biscuits, Land O' Lakes butter, Campbell's Tomato Soup, Diet Dr. Pepper, Midnight Cheeseburger Doritos. Each comes in its own, standardized, (almost always) inedible, rarely reusable container. Sometimes there are even containers within containers: colorful, printed cartons enclosing translucent bags of Wheaties, or transparent sleeves of Oreos, or microwaveable black plastic trays of Lean Cuisine, whose frosted slab of lasagna or sesame chicken is kept immaculate by a heat-bonded layer of crystalline film. 

The importance of finding the right container; in this case tin foil bags for coffee. Spice Mill, 1915.

The importance of finding the right container; in this case tin foil bags for coffee. Spice Mill, 1915.

Rather than thinking of food and package as two dissimilar kinds of things, brought together at the end of the production line only to be torn asunder in the kitchen, it is important, I think, to consider both as integrated components of a single system. The inedible package profoundly affects our experience of the edible contents within, defining the possibilities and scale of industrial food production, as well as setting our expectations for food that tastes "factory fresh," flavorful, familiar, reliably consistent.    

Packages are technologies of preservation, forestalling not only actual rottenness, but ideally also maintaining food in a sort of homeostasis until the actual moment of consumption. Long adapted to keeping out moisture, oxygen, vermin, and other assorted crud, in the twentieth century, the package becomes a deliberately designed tool of flavor control.

Flavor control? Yeah, cause flavor needs to be controlled. Volatile chemicals, those aromatic agents that deliver a large part of our flavor experience, are cosmopolitan and promiscuous. They are tireless travelers, and keep all kinds of company. Packages were designed to keep volatiles in the package, and to protect them from oxidative and other changes. Research into stale coffee led to air-tight packages filled with inert gas, that could keep ground beans tasting "fresh" longer.  Glass milk bottles were replaced with opaque containers in part to prevent the disconcerting, tallowy taste that sometimes developed when milk was exposed to sunlight.

In the flashy world of food packaging, don't forget about the humble paper bag!

In the flashy world of food packaging, don't forget about the humble paper bag!

But a package's membrane is penetrable from both directions, which also allows inauspicious odors to creep in and settle down. Tracking down the source of mysterious "off-flavors" that tainted packaged goods was often described as a kind of detective work.  As early as the 1930s, chemical consulting firms offered their sleuthing services to companies to track down the source of that musty smell in cigarettes, or that weird flavor in certain shipments of cocoa. (Both real cases handled by NYC consultants Foster D. Snell in the 1940s. The cigarettes were contaminated by benzene hexachloride, leached from a bag of insecticide that had been packed alongside the smokes during shipping. The cocoa's weird aroma was due to inks used on its colorful label.)

The new scientific attention to the flavor and "keeping qualities" of food fueled research and interest in new materials. Glass jars and tin cans were joined by squeezable tubes, waxed and laminated cardboard, and, especially since the Second World War, plastics, such as cellophane, polyethylene, polyvinyl, and other synthetic polymers and composites.  

The common material EVOH - ethyl vinyl alcohol - a copolymer of ethylene and vinyl alcohol - in action at the center of this multi-layered co-extruded packaging material. 

The common material EVOH - ethyl vinyl alcohol - a copolymer of ethylene and vinyl alcohol - in action at the center of this multi-layered co-extruded packaging material. 

The new plastic materials could be cheap, light, and flexible, durable and colorful, but they also had liabilities. Consider that packaging material isn't just a passive membrane, but has its own sensible qualities, and its own proclivities to form attachments, to cling and react. For instance, some commonly used plastics have a tendency to bond with certain flavor chemicals, upsetting the carefully calibrated flavor balance engineered by flavorists. The technical term for this is "scalping," I kid you not. Polyethylene, one of the most common plastics used in commercial packaging, is a notorious top scalper. The material lining the gabled tops of Tropicana orange juice cartons were found to be scalping the top-notes off the OJ within, which led manufacturers to move to materials that would not absorb the citrusy linalool and limonene within their clingy matrix.

The proliferation of chemicals in the world, and the complexity of the production and supply chain, means increasing numbers of opportunities for foods to be tainted. (Here's a great article by Sarah Everts on this subject.) Lubricants used in the production of beer cans can linger on the can, reacting with the beer to produce rancid flavors. Fungicides and microbicides used to treat wooden pallets can sometimes react to form chloroanisoles, which can leach through cartons stacked on top of the pallets to impart a moldy odor. A cat urine off-odor that contaminated some cooked ham products was found to be caused by printing inks that had migrated into the laminate film used as packaging, reacting to form the pissy-smelling 4-methyl-4-mercaptopentane. In 2010, Kellogg's recalled 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, and other cereals, because a weird smell — described variously as waxy, stale, metallic, and soap-like — had been reported, causing a handful of consumers to feel nauseated and vomit. It took quite a bit of sleuthing to determine that the cause was inks used on the exterior of shipping boxes, which had migrated through three layers of packaging to taint the cereal within.

Before sensory psychologists like Charles Spence can work their tricky magic on package design, the business of flavor chemists depends on packages that are engineered to preserve and protect the sensory qualities of food.

And to close out this little reflection on the increasingly intimate relationship between the container and the thing contained, the thing contained and the container, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Thurber. In "Here Lies Miss Groby," his 1942 rememberance of his old English teacher, (an essay which often haunts my reverie), he presents this joke as an example of reverse metonymy, of taking the thing contained for the container:  

A: What's your head all bandaged up for?
B: I got hit by some tomatoes.
A: How could that bruise you up so bad?
B: These tomatoes were in a can.   

Who's Afraid of the Whiskey Trust?

So the context for this Eve of All Hallow's Eve blog post is the Whiskey Trust, a monopolistic coalition of alcohol distilleries that accounted for nearly all the alcohol produced in the US in the 1890s, and the relationship between the industrial production of alcohol and the manufacturing of synthetic flavoring additives. But there's so much more. This story's got it all. Congressional hearings! A ruthless corporation! The virtuous and honest traveling salesman who helps bring it down, only to be later exposed as an unscrupulous villain! A million dollar lawsuit! Naked short selling! Lots of and lots of alcohol!  

Just a little reminder of the importance of moderation, from the prints & photo collection of Library of Congress. 

Just a little reminder of the importance of moderation, from the prints & photo collection of Library of Congress

Before I get into the story, though, I need to explain some things about whiskey and how you'd make it, if you were in the business of making whiskey, rye, or bourbon, circa 1893. First, you'd get some grain: most often corn and rye here in the US. Then you'd malt it, to convert starches to sugars; then, allow it to ferment, converting sugars to alcohols with the assistance of some hungry yeasts. You'd then distil this odorous slurry, to separate the alcohol from water and other materials in the fermented mash.    

What you've got at this stage is a solution that is mainly ethyl alcohol, but also a mixture of higher alcohols that goes by the name of "fusel oil." The concentration of fusel oil in this "raw" distilled product not only gives it a nasty flavor, it has some pretty nasty effects on the human body. These are the chemical compounds that trigger hangovers, and worse — blind by bathtub gin, dead by moonshine.

How do you turn this somewhat grody distillate into something drinkable, desirable — into whisky? In the late nineteenth century US, you've basically got a choice between two processing methods. You could call them rival methods, as each associated with different interests, technologies, economic calculations, and forms of labor.  The products of these methods are sold under different names: "straight" whisky or "rectified" whisky.

Option one: the distilled grain can be aged in charred oak casks, typically for one to ten years. Chemical changes during this period convert much of the objectionable fusel oil into pleasant tasting, less noxious compounds — organic ethers, mainly. Tannins and other compounds also leech out of the oak casks, adding flavor. This is known as "straight" whisky.

Technologies such as Coffey's Continuous Still greatly facilitated large-scale alcohol manufacturing.

Technologies such as Coffey's Continuous Still greatly facilitated large-scale alcohol manufacturing.

Alternately, you can put your raw whisky through further distillations and through a process known as rectification to eliminate the higher alcohols, resulting in increasingly pure ethyl alcohol. By the 1890s, various material and design improvements in distillery equipment have made this process faster, cheaper, less labor-intensive than ever before, and more efficient at producing large quantities of near-pure ethyl alcohol.

The problem is that in removing these harmful and undesirable impurities, you're also removing the molecules that contribute to flavor and aroma, not only the fusel oil but also essential oils and other compounds from the grain and malt. You end up with neutral spirits — pellucid, insipid — which have a market in manufacturing, medicine, and scientific research, but which are decidedly not recognizable as whiskey — and not a consumer product. So how do you get your whiskey back?

This is where a group of people known as "rectifiers" come in.  Licensed rectifiers, who often acted as liquor wholesalers, were permitted to blend neutral spirits with aged whiskey or rye, to produce a swill that was often cheaper, and sometimes also better in some regards, than the "straight" goods. (Witnesses at the Whiskey Trust hearings testify that blending produced a smoother, more consistent product, and one that caused fewer headaches — because of the lower concentration of fusel oil. Kentucky Rye and Bourbon, one Whiskey Trust distiller says, "remain too high flavored for use" even after aging, "and the use of spirits which is absolutely pure is what makes them more palatable.")

Or, instead of mixing spirits with straight whiskey, rectifiers had another option: they could add flavoring, coloring, and other additives to the neutral spirits to give it the desired taste, aroma, and appearance.

By 1893, rectifiers were using flavoring additives to transform spirits into a full range of alcoholic beverages, not only whiskies but also "domestic" gins, brandies, and rums. A late nineteenth-century catalog and manual from Alexander Fries & Brothers, Cincinnati chemists who were one of the largest domestic manufacturers of flavoring additives for spirits, lists seven variations on "Bourbon Essence": Bourbon Essence no. E, Bourbon essence no. 2, Cynthiana, Harrison County, Kentucky, Paris, and sour mash. The catalog lists a similar number of Rye Essences, including Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Monongahela, and Robertson County. Likewise for various gins (Old Tom, Holland Gin, Schiedam Schnapps, London Dock), Rums, Brandies, and wines.

These lists of flavorings gives a sense of the variety of liquors that were available, and of the distinctions that had some commercial significance. Because these flavorings claimed to reproduce the particular sensory qualities that distinguished each of these varieties, they allowed rectifiers and wholesalers to tailor their offerings to local tastes and drinking preferences — and also to quickly shift the character of their inventory when necessary.    

Different whiskey labels from Jack High and Clayton Coppin's article, "Wiley and the Whiskey Industry: Strategic Behavior in the Passage of the Pure Food Act," Business History Review, Summer 1988.

Different whiskey labels from Jack High and Clayton Coppin's article, "Wiley and the Whiskey Industry: Strategic Behavior in the Passage of the Pure Food Act," Business History Review, Summer 1988.

So, whether flavored with aged whiskey or with whiskey essences, the spirit-based product was known as "rectified" whiskey, or sometimes as blended or compounded whisky. By the beginning of the 1890s, rectified whiskey comprised about half of the whisky consumed in the U.S.

Which brings us to the Whiskey Trust investigation. In 1893, the House Judiciary Committee launched an investigation into the business practices of an Illinois corporation known as The Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company.  The Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company (aka and henceforth, the Whiskey Trust) produced only neutral spirits for rectified whiskey — not "straight" whiskey. By the time of the investigation, they dominated the market. More than ninety percent of the alcohol sold in the United States was manufactured in their distilleries.   

The main question before the House Judiciary Committee was whether the Whiskey Trust was engaging in anti-competitive practices. I won't go into the details here, but basically, the Trust controlled a large network of distilleries, and was using a system of rebates to compel wholesalers and merchants to buy exclusively from them in order to drive competitors out of the market and exert a monopolistic control over prices. The Congressional inquiry had little effect — it was unclear whether they had the authority to break up the corporation — though the Trust itself filed for bankruptcy in 1895, and subsequently reorganized in a less market-dominant form.       

But inextricable from this investigation of commercial practices was an inquiry into the substance of the product they were manufacturing, whether there was something suspect or against public interest inherent in the very nature of rectified whisky. Indeed, many in Congress wondered repeatedly whether it could rightfully be called whiskey at all.  

There appeared to be a connection between the (allegedly) illicit profits of the Whiskey Trust, and the specious flavor of ready-made whiskey — both seemed unearned, dubious, untethered from solid virtues and values.  

The Judiciary Committee hearings kicked off with a bombshell witness, James Veazey. Born in 1854, in Hamilton County, Ohio, Veazey had worked as a traveling liquor salesman since 1878, peddling whiskies, brandies, gins, and other spirituous liquors for a half dozen companies in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois. This included three years working for Alexander Fries & Brothers, chemists, of Cincinnati, where, he became privy to "what is known as the 'secrets of the liquor trade.'"  He assures the Judiciary Committee: "I became acquainted with its entire manipulation."

But after ten years of this, as the 1880s drew to a close, he had some sort of crisis. "Broken health compelled my return to Cincinnati," he testified. He was off the road for two full years, and appears to have only worked intermittently, resigning his most recent position on the first of January.

Over two days of testimony, Veazey let Congress in on the "secrets of the liquor trade," showing them exactly how a dealer could produce "any kind of liquor that you want" with "five minutes' notice." The transcripts record a man unspooling an easy, confiding patter:

"Say an order comes in for any class of goods, say Jamaica rum; Jamaica rum essence is put into [spirits] and it is colored with burnt sugar and the name branded upon it as the law requires it shall be stamped, and away it goes. Say another order comes in for gin, and the spirits is filled out of the same tub, flavored with gin essence, colored with sugar, sirup, or glucose, and away that goes. Yes, sir; anything you want, and it is generally in use, and represents to-day one-half of the liquor business of this country."

Veazey dutifully and colorfully answers the Congressmen's questions, providing documentation at times, but drawing dramatic authority from his personal experience. For instance, asked whether the flavoring essences are poisonous, he replies: "I am not a chemist, but I have been warned when in the employ of these people not to take the crude material in my mouth."

On his second day of testimony, Veazey added some show to his big tell. He brought in two demijohns of spirits, as well as "a number of bottles containing essential oils, essences, etc." and stirred up a full bar's worth of libations for the Judiciary Committee.

Beginning with neutral spirits, he added a drop of Jamaica rum essence, some coloring, some simple syrup, and passed out tumblerfuls for the members to sample. "Does it smell like rum and taste like it?" he asked. I picture the tippling congressmen nodding in affirmation, all except the most teetotal of the bunch, who perhaps deigns only to stick his long and disapproving nose into his tumbler to take a long and disapproving sniff. Veazey then demonstrates the effect of another additive ("bead oil") that doctors a watered-down rum to make it run thicker, like full-strength liquor. He mixes up some rye whiskey, then "ages" it with other essences, prune juice, and raisin oil, to imitate successively older bottlings — three year, five year, and even "velvet" whisky, aged 30 years in oak casks.  

Throughout his testimony, he underscores that the ultimate dupe is the consumer. "The average man... is unable to protect himself, not understanding these imitations... at the time of purchase... falsely represented to him."

But what, really, makes the imitation so deplorable? Consider that the persuasiveness of Veazey's demonstration depended on the undetectability of the imitation, on the high quality of the flavoring. If whisky, rum, cognac made from alcohol and flavoring essences were bad imitations, then they would be less of a problem; frauds could be sniffed out, unscrupulous agents and manufacturers driven out of the market if substantially inferior to the real thing.

From the perspective of the chemists who manufactured flavoring essences, their products were directly related if not chemically identical to the compounds that gave "straight" liquors their flavors. Entered into the Congressional Record of this investigation is the complete text of a Manual for Compounders, published by Fries & Brothers — a handbook for users of their flavoring essences — which I've already quoted from above. "All natural old liquors (straight goods) contain certain odorous compound ethers arising from fermentative processes and slow oxidations," instructed the manual. But these sluggish processes can be abbreviated by chemical reactions, producing ethers that are "the synthetical reproduction of those manufactured in nature's laboratory." Moreover, chemists who manufacturing flavoring essences often began with a raw material sourced from alcohol distillation — fusel oil, those higher alcohols, removed during distillation and otherwise a waste product. The question is whether the transformation of an undesirable waste material to a pleasant and valuable one would be effected by the oxidative effects of time, or the directed and deliberate efforts of the manufacturing chemist.

When mixed with high-quality pure spirits, Fries & Brothers claimed that its flavoring essences would give "the most perfect imitation of the natural products." "Say Fina... Exactly As Good As the Best!" From Ed Ruscha's Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. 

When mixed with high-quality pure spirits, Fries & Brothers claimed that its flavoring essences would give "the most perfect imitation of the natural products." "Say Fina... Exactly As Good As the Best!" From Ed Ruscha's Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. 

In other words, if the way that whiskey changes as it ages in the barrel can be comprehended as a chemical process, then why not reproduce that process more efficiently, and thus more cost-effectively? Is this not one of the imperatives toward improvement that drives innovation? Yet this argument failed to be persuasive to many of the Congressional inquisitors and witnesses, who seemed to accept that there was something inherently inferior about whisky produced this way.

But you may be asking — Hold up, wasn't the problem here that these flavoring additives were perceived as harmful or dangerous? While this was certainly an issue of concern to some, the investigation concluded that they were not harmful, based on the testimony of none other than Harvey Wiley, chief of the Bureau of Chemistry and one of the driving forces behind the Pure Food & Drugs Act. Wiley gave a lengthy account to the Judiciary Committee about the chemistry of whisky production and flavoring essences. He stated repeatedly, and pretty conclusively, that the compounds used in flavoring essences are unlikely to be harmful in the quantities they are used: "All ethers employed by manufacturers of essences are undoubtedly not poisonous in the quantity so used. In fact, ten to fifteen times the amount employed could have no harmful influence." Coming from the man behind the "poison squad," this means quite a bit. (He would later take an explicitly oppositional stance against rectified whisky, but his shift in position was likely due to the coalition politics of getting his act passed.)

Even though he has a chemist's outlook on these matters, Wiley can't shake the belief that there's just something better about cask-aged whisky. Asked by a Congressman whether a doctor's prescription for whisky (remember, whisky was not just fun, but also medicine!) would be as effective if filled by "six-minute-old whisky" as the "real article of whisky," Wiley begins: "Well, I should say it would produce the same physiological effect." But then he hedges. "If I was a patient I would not like to have the spurious goods given to me, and in fact, I should want to be treated in a better way, but as far as the physiological stimulating effect is concerned, I do not think there is a difference, provided, of course, it is a good imitation."

Setting aside the question of what makes a "good imitation," Wiley did not manage to produce any solid evidence for his preference. His final explanation relies on the persistent uncertainties of medicines, whiskies, and their modes of therapeutic action. "While the mixed goods" — ie, the flavor-added spirits — "do not contain injurious bodies, they may not contain and do not contain all the beneficial bodies which the natural goods do contain." What these beneficial bodies might be is left unstated.   

Back to Veazey, though. Reading his testimony, I became increasingly intrigued by the man. Who was this guy? What was he all about? What were his motives?

I imagined the life circumstances of an itinerant liquor salesman in the boom-and-bust late nineteenth century, going from town to town in Ohio and Kentucky, with each little town looking like a Currier & Ives print: clear and mellow weather, a horse-drawn carriage, a forest, a smokestack or steam engine to indicate the recent arrival of the future. In order to sell his wares, a salesman must first sell himself; trustworthiness, reliability were precisely the qualities that he had to persuade his customers that he possessed in order to make the sale. Smooth-talking Veazey, on the stand before the Judiciary Committee, seemed a natural-born salesman. But yet there was something amiss, as well, and not just because of his (unelaborated) pang of conscience, or whatever it was that caused him to reveal the secrets of his erstwhile business. Why did he change employers so frequently? What was behind his "broken health"?

Digging further through the documents, it turned out that Veazey was selling Congress a story. His testimony was not a total sham, but an inflationary account, and one designed to provoke a market recoil from which he had schemed to skim some profit.

The backstory began to unfold in newspaper headlines almost exactly seven years after Veazey showed Congress how simple and quick a job it was to turn plain spirits into old whiskey.

"J.M. Veazey's $1,000,000 Stock-Jobbing Congressional Tip Suit Thrown Out," ran the headline on the front page of the February 20, 1900 Washington Weekly Post. "Persecutes Trust for Gain: Plaintiff Loses Action to Recover Share in Stock Exchange Profits," read the Omaha Daily Bee's headline of his subsequent loss on appeal in February 1903.

The articles explained that Veazey had lost his suit to recover $1 million dollars from Henry Allen & Company, New York stockbrokers. In his court filings, Veazey laid out the whole racket. He claimed to have instigated the Judiciary Committee investigation of the Whisky Trust in collusion with Allen & Company, as part of a short-selling scheme to cause the price of Distilling & Cattle Feeding Company stocks to plummet.

In the 1890s, Veazey seems to have been way, way down on his luck. He'd only just gotten back on the road again, only to find the viability of his traveling salesman gig hamstrung by the Whisky Trust's practices. He seems to have been grumbling widely about how the Trust did business — this was a moment when Americans were extremely anti-monopoly, riled up against the depredations of large corporations, vast new capitalist entities. Fatefully, in the autumn of 1892, Veazey met a certain Mr. Flagg in New York, who listened to his gripes and saw a business opportunity. Flagg told Veazey that there would be "an opportunity to make considerable money out of the decline of the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company's stock" if the practices Veazey described were publicly exposed, "and he thought it would be well for [him] to see and consult with some broker here in New York."

Flagg introduced Veazey to Allen, the stockbroker, on January 5. At the time, there was no investigation of the Whisky Trust pending or proposed. Veazey agreed to go down to Washington and "stir up this question," sharing damning information about the Trust to "any member of Congress who could introduce a resolution for an investigation of this." The goal was to provoke enough attention and outcry to cause a drop in the share price of the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company. Astonishingly, Veazey does seem to have played a big role in making the investigation happen. He got Congressman Burrows of Michigan hooked on his story, and during the investigation, he actively conferred with the Judiciary Commitee chairman, provided witnesses and lists of questions, especially those that could most effectively undermine the Whisky Trust's president.

So how exactly was this supposed to net any money? Essentially, Allen & Co. would sell shares of the company's stock that they did not technically own on the bet that the price of the equity would drop in the future, when they would actually purchase the shares that they had sold — naked short selling. The firm's profit was the difference between the price of the shares at the beginning of the contract, before Veazey's provocation of the investigation, and after Congressional action caused the share price to fall. Allen & Co. contracted to share these profits with Veazey. The transaction involved 3000 shares, and Veazey received nearly $6,237.81 for his efforts.

But he felt that he had been defrauded out of much, much more. Hence the million dollar lawsuit, which was not for damages, but for his fair share of profits. Here's a good point to note that Veazey may have been a bit delusional, a bit unhinged.

Veazey appealed, twice — though Appellate Court and the New York State Supreme Court reaffirmed the earlier judgment, which declared the contract invalid because it was counter to the interests of public policy and public morality. The court rulings spared to harsh words in condemning Veazey's actions. He was a scoundrel, manipulating public policy for his own personal benefit, not that Allen & Co. was much better. Not only did Veazey not get his settlement, he was forced to pay all the stockbroker's legal fees.

So what can we learn from this tangle of conflicting interests, claims and representations?

A central, driving motif of life in late nineteenth century America is growth. Not only is the nation experiencing a tremendous economic, demographic, and territorial expansion, this is accompanied by a sort of hypertrophic elaboration of the material and social possibilities of life.  The world is crowded with novel technologies, consumer goods, sensations, pleasures, but also new ways of adding and extracting value, of deriving a profit, of making one's way in the world. But this growth and expansion is inextricably bound with concerns about fraudulence, adulteration, speculative bubbles, fake currencies. The verso of the self-made man is the confidence man. Is the growth all just illusory? Is it mere inflation, puffery, hot air? Are these multiple new pleasures empty, or worse, are they actual garbage?

Understanding the meaning of flavoring additives to American consumers in the waning years of the nineteenth and dawning years of the twentieth century means recognizing this prevailing context. This fretting over the relationship between apparent qualities and actual value. And in the case of whisky, what makes its flavor legitimate? Time or chemistry? Was the source of flavor the years the whisky spent mellowing in oak casks? Or was flavor a chemical effect that could be summoned from chemical reactions? And if the aged whisky, which gets its flavor "honestly," is reflexively valued above the "good imitations" of firms like Alexander Fries, then what grounds are there to value the skilled work of the manufacturing chemists, whose expertise is revealed and hidden by the undetectability of these imitations? 

Far from being settled in 1893, the fundamental questions here continue to be unresolved.

I'll close this with the earliest trace of James Veazey that I've found, from 1873, before his furious lawsuits, before his star-turn before the Judiciary Committee, before his broken health, before he went on the road peddling liquors. An article in the Pacific Rural Press from March of that year recounts a meeting with a man from Covedale, Ohio, at the previous summer's Cincinnati Exposition. This man had news of a remarkable new fruit: "a crystal white blackberry." It had a "peculiar and delicious flavor." It was "very juicy." And it grew on a hardy bush that never failed to produce a crop.

Luther Burbank's iceberg blackberry, perhaps related to that Ohio crystal varietal...

Luther Burbank's iceberg blackberry, perhaps related to that Ohio crystal varietal...

According to the Pacific Rural Press: "He found the fruit would sell for three or four times as much as the black kinds. When taken to the Cincinnati markets it created such an excitement on account of its beauty, extra quality and rarity, that it sold readily for one dollar per quart." Even better, it grew prolifically and dependably, on bushes unsundered by the blights that ruined other blackberries. 

The man touting the news of this remarkable, profitable, beautiful and delicious fruit was James Veazey, of course. And I'll let you decide: was what came after coherent with this first glimpse, or was it a departure?  

There's No Voting on Matters of Taste: Phenylthiocarbamide and Genetics Education

In my former life, before all of this PhD stuff, I spent some time working as a speechwriter. It wasn't the political trenches, exactly; it was more like the political chicken-coop where "messaging" is laid, hatched, and polished under the sweaty, intense glow of artificial heat-lamps. Perhaps as a result, there's something irresistible to me about politics at its grossest, when it's all pandering and bluster, dirty feathers and rotten ugly guts. I'm too squeamish for horror movies, but the Republican primary is the kind of grotesque spectacle that I can't turn away from. (By the way, for those who prefer to imagine the candidates as blobby, expostulating critters, I'll be live-drawing the next debate, September 16, and posting the pictures on Twitter— my handle is @thebirdisgone — and then maybe somewhere on this website.) Nonetheless, the headlines from the race are so bizarro, that I find myself harboring a persistent feeling of unreality.

So this blog post goes out to all of you who are also experiencing that queasy sense of doom and despair as the next presidential election draws slowly but ineluctably nigh. Here is evidence of an election where "FOR ONCE EVERYBODY VOTED RIGHT!"

Well, the story is a bit more complicated than the caption suggests. This is a photograph from the 1931 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in New Orleans. What these people are "voting" on is taste — specifically, the taste of phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Many of you might remember this kind of taste-test from biology class, where it's a standard part of lessons about genetics and human variation. I the day in genetics summer camp (yes, I'm a nerd) when we all placed tabs of chemical-infused blotting paper on our tongues and wrote down in our lab notebooks what we did (or did not) taste. Who else learned that supertasters are picky eaters, and non-tasters are the ones you want at your dinner party?  (Full disclosure, I'm a non-taster).

Of course, your tasting abilities, eating habits, and food preferences depend on much more than whether you have a gene for PTC-sensitivity or not. And even though the myth of the "supertaster" — the person gifted with an acutely sensitive palate — persists, the ability to recognize the components of what we taste and smell are largely learned through practice, as this recent piece by Eliza Barclay at NPR illustrates. (For a nice take on the complexities and ambiguities involved in designating someone a supertaster, and the ambivalent relationship between supertasters and wine connoisseurship, check out this series by Mike Weinberger from 2007. For even more on supertasters, take a gander at Mary Beckman's 2004 article in Smithsonian.)

PTC "taste blindness" is possibly the most studied trait in human genetics, according to Dr. Sun-Wei Guo and Dr. Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. (For an interesting history of PTC in genetics research, see this journal article.) But as the photograph above shows, PTC began to be used in an educational context almost as soon as it was used in scientific research. As a chemical index of human variation, it was from the outset used to support specific social and political arguments about the meaning of these differences. And after all that preamble, that's what the subject of this blog post is: the peculiar intersection of the senses, science, and political ideology illustrated by the spectacle of people voting on the taste of PTC.

PTC's dramatically different effect on different people was discovered, apparently by accident, in a DuPont laboratory sometime around 1930. Arthur L. Fox, a chemist, was messing around with a container of the chemical when some of the PTC crystals wafted into the air. His lab partner complained of their intensely bitter taste, but Fox was unaffected. He tasted nothing at all. How could one molecule produce such different responses?   

Fox appears to have been most interested in the relationship between chemical structure and taste sensation, but he also studied the distribution of PTC-insensitivity across the population. "This peculiarity was not connected with age, race or sex," Fox wrote in a 1931 report to the National Academy of Sciences. "Men, women, elderly persons, children, negroes, Chinese, Germans and Italians were all shown to have in their ranks both tasters and non-tasters."

Somehow, Albert F. Blakeslee got wind of these experiments. Blakeslee was a prominent botanist and geneticist at the Carnegie Institution Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, one of the premier institutions for genetic research in the United States. Cold Spring Harbor was also the home of the Eugenics Records Office, which collected family pedigrees, case studies of genius and deviancy, and other evidence used to shape public and social policy to produce a "fitter" populace.

PTC was probably initially attractive to Blakeslee because it seemed to offer a simple experimental protocol for tracing heredity in otherwise messy and difficult to study human populations. One little taste told you unambiguously whether someone was or was not a taster, and you could mark it on your chart and move on down the family line. Conveniently, PTC insensitivity appeared to be a classic Mendelian recessive trait. About a quarter of tasters were non-tasters. Non-taster parents (homozygous for the recessive) only produced non-taster children. A taster child must have at least one taster parent. But non-taster children could be, and were often, born to (heterozygous) taster parents.  

But for Blakeslee, PTC was not only a useful tool for mapping the inheritance of traits. In cheap, "harmless" PTC, he found a perfect pedagogical device both for demonstrating the existence of hereditary differences among individuals, and also for advancing what he called the "genetic view-point" among non-scientific audiences.

"What Taste World Do You Live In?" "Know Thyself" "Vote Here" ... In the Taste Exhibit at the 1931 New Orleans meeting of the AAAS, messages of self-knowledge, scientific participation, and civic engagement intermingled. Image from the March 1932 Journal of Heredity.

"What Taste World Do You Live In?" "Know Thyself" "Vote Here" ... In the Taste Exhibit at the 1931 New Orleans meeting of the AAAS, messages of self-knowledge, scientific participation, and civic engagement intermingled. Image from the March 1932 Journal of Heredity.

This is the context for the exhibit that Blakeslee, Fox, and other colleagues designed for the 1931 AAAS meeting in New Orleans, the image that kicked off this post. Under a banner asking, "What Taste World Do You Live In?" visitors were invited to "try this harmless substance and learn whether you are a taster or a non-taster." 2,550 people pulled the lever, indicating whether they found the PTC "tasteless," "bitter," "sour," or something else — "other taste." The following year, another 6,000 people voted when the exhibit was reassembled for the Third Eugenics Congress at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

This is the information that exhibit visitors received prior to tasting PTC and voting on it. After tasting, voters could have a peppermint life-saver — but they must not eat it first! As this text makes clear, many PTC tasters experienced the chemical as something other than "bitter." People described their experience of PTC as sour, sweet, or astringent, or compared it to the taste of lemons, rhubarb, cranberries, vinegar, and camphor. Where did these people fit in? They could vote "sour" or "other taste," but their civic-scientific duty was not complete with the casting of a ballot. The exhibit informed visitors who experienced a taste other than bitter: "you are AN EXCEPTIONAL PERSON OF MUCH INTEREST TO SCIENCE" and directed them to report to the "Taste Consultation" booth for further study. In this way, Blakeslee and colleagues discovered various cases of people who could not discriminate between bitter and sour sensations, or who described bitter "incorrectly" as sour, salty, and sweet. 

This is the information that exhibit visitors received prior to tasting PTC and voting on it. After tasting, voters could have a peppermint life-saver — but they must not eat it first! As this text makes clear, many PTC tasters experienced the chemical as something other than "bitter." People described their experience of PTC as sour, sweet, or astringent, or compared it to the taste of lemons, rhubarb, cranberries, vinegar, and camphor. Where did these people fit in? They could vote "sour" or "other taste," but their civic-scientific duty was not complete with the casting of a ballot. The exhibit informed visitors who experienced a taste other than bitter: "you are AN EXCEPTIONAL PERSON OF MUCH INTEREST TO SCIENCE" and directed them to report to the "Taste Consultation" booth for further study. In this way, Blakeslee and colleagues discovered various cases of people who could not discriminate between bitter and sour sensations, or who described bitter "incorrectly" as sour, salty, and sweet. 

The centerpiece of these exhibits was not exactly the chemical PTC, nor was it any scientific device. It was a civic instrument: the voting machine, generously loaned by the Automatic Voting Machine Corporation of Jamestown, NY. The noisy machine "attracted people in the exhibit hall and undoubtedly increased the number of people who took the test," Blakeslee wrote. Tasters were asked to pull the lever to register the "real taste" of the substance: tasteless, bitter, sour, or "some other taste."

The AAAS exhibit in New Orleans even stoked regional, partisan sentiments in order to encourage participation:

The voting machine was not only a tactic to lure visitors. It was a crucial part of the message the exhibit was meant to convey. After a series of charts illustrating the chemical structure of PTC and the inheritance of PTC taste acuity, visitors faced these posters, the culminating moral of the exhibit:


THOMAS JEFFERSON SAID ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL BUT HE HAD NOT TRIED THESE CRYSTALS

TASTE TESTS SHOW PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT

OUR WORLD IS WHAT OUR SENSES TELL US

EACH LIVES IN A DIFFERENT WORLD

Differences in the perception of PTC were thus always standing in for other, fundamental differences among individuals. Differences that were innate, inherited, ineradicable, and profoundly meaningful.

The power of PTC lay in the immediacy and certainty of sensory response to the chemical. Tasters had a hard time accepting that non-tasters could not sense what they experienced as pungent bitterness. Non-tasters, likewise, were incredulous at the intensity tasters claimed to experience. (One non-taster man apparently berated his taster wife for making "a fuss over nothing.") According to Blakeslee and Fox, who wrote about the exhibit in the March 1932 Journal of Heredity (where these pictures are from), "a wide dissemination of this test might increase the realization that those who fail to agree with us may be as honest and faithful to the truth as ourselves, but that the picture their senses bring them may be as different from those that we perceive as black is from white."   

The ultimate lesson here was not exactly supposed to be tolerance for other viewpoints. The public realization of this innate, ineradicable, irreconcilable difference in people's experience of the world, the authors dared to hope, would lead to a radical transformation of social, political, and cultural institutions, even a transvaluation of the values fundamental to American Democracy itself. According to Blakeslee and Fox, "much of our educational system and of our other efforts at human betterment are based on the tacit assumption that people are essentially equal in their innate capacities." The authors hoped that the evidence of different reactions to PTC would convince visitors that this assumption was wrong, and that they would draw certain conclusions from this realization. If the democratic institution of voting could not resolve the question of the "real" taste of PTC — "matters of personal sensation could not be decided by majority vote" — what other controversies could voting not resolve? The strong implication was that mass democracy was not a reliable way of adjudicating other matters, including the shape of laws, the distribution of resources, and the design of social institutions. 

"Thomas Jefferson Said All Men Are Created Equal But He Had Not Tried These Crystals." E Pluribus Unum? No. We Live In Different (Taste) Worlds. "It is our belief that a full realization of the extent of differences between individuals would revolutionize the philosophy of 'the man in the street," Blakeslee and Fox wrote, "and through his philosophy would also affect his laws, religion, and other efforts at social advance."

Blakeslee developed this idea further in a lengthy speech published in Science ("The Genetic View-Point," May 29, 1931). He explained that the pillars of modern civilization — the educational system, professional norms, mass media — pushed young people toward uniformity, conformity, and standardization. He worried that mass democracy and mass culture were "spoiling interesting experiments in different parts of the world in customs and ways of thinking." He pleaded that children be protected from the forces of uniformity, from regression toward the mean, and that more attention should be devoted to "discovering and developing exceptional talent."  The Declaration of Independence, with its assertion that all men were created equal? "This proposition, like many others assumed to be self-evident, is certainly not true," Blakeslee thundered. "Whatever politicians and others may say about the equality of mankind, the success of democracy is due to inequality, to leaders whom the majority learn to follow."

Unstated, but strongly implied, was that scientists and technicians would number prominently among these leaders — experts and authorities like Blakeslee himself who could steer the ship of state, adjudicate among the different worlds that we all live in, and properly direct the fate of mankind.

Blakeslee and Fox's 1932 Journal of Heredity article ended with an invitation to use the PTC taste-test as an educational tool in schools and colleges. Interested readers would find an envelope with PTC-impregnated paper test strips in the journal, as well as a blank heredity chart that students could use to map the inheritance of PTC-sensitivity in their own families. The American Genetic Association was prepared to furnish more PTC paper for classroom use at a "nominal charge." They had already mailed out more than 5,000 PTC test strips and blank heredity charts to interested educators for use in classes and clubs. "No other demonstration of heredity," the authors wrote, "has been so promptly and so enthusiastically adopted." By taking the test and filling in the heredity charts, huge numbers of non-scientists would be "actually engaging in research in human genetics."

"The cooperation of many individuals in preparing and returning such charts makes possible real advances in this most important field of knowledge."

"The cooperation of many individuals in preparing and returning such charts makes possible real advances in this most important field of knowledge."

The PTC taste-test was a way to recruit individuals to become willing participants in genetic studies of populations. It also meant to enlist them in new ways of thinking about themselves and others. Whether PTC tasted bitter to you or not had little apparent bearing on your life chances; it didn't even seem to have much correlation with your acuity in tasting and smelling other substances. But, as Blakeslee and Fox wrote, "if it were possible to bridge the gap between this character [ie, PTC sensitivity], which has no particular 'practical value,' and the growing list of others, of the utmost importance to the individual or to society, in which the same principles of heredity are operative, the value of the test will be still further enhanced." The alleged insignificance of PTC, its apparent harmlessness, opened the door to other kinds of tests, other kinds of conclusions.

Or did it? Ultimately, the messages that visitors and students took away from their experience with PTC did not necessarily conform to the lessons that the investigators so wanted to instill in them. Reflecting on the Taste Exhibition almost 15 years later, in a March 1945 article in The Biology Teacher ("Teachers Talk Too Much: A Taste Demonstration vs. A Talk About It"), Blakeslee admitted that all the detailed charts showing the inheritance of taste capacities, and the "charts which pointed out the moral which the taste tests were believed to show" — nobody read them. (Ruefully, he wrote: "The considerable labor involved in making these charts... could have been profitably avoided.")

Instead, what drew people to the exhibit was the noisy, clattering voting machine, and what kept them there was the surprise of sensation itself, tasting with others, discussing and disputing and marveling at the differences in their experiences.    

Blakeslee shared another PTC story in his 1945 article in the The Biology Teacher. After his term at Cold Spring Harbor, Blakeslee taught botany at Smith. He tried out the PTC taste-test and his set of associated moral lessons in a speech to 2,000 students at the Smith College Assembly about "The Differences Between People, and the Significance of These Differences in Education and Other Human Relations." Surveying reactions afterwards, he found that what he said "was quickly forgotten, but this was not true about the taste of PTC."  Two years after, students continued know him as the professor who gave them "awful-tasting stuff in assembly that some of the girls couldn't taste at all." But none of the students remembered anything he said about the importance of individuality in college education, nor his impassioned declaration that "college should be a weaner and not a feeder," nor did they retain any of his platitudes, such as "to learn to dispense with professors should be the aim of higher education."

All the Smith students seemed to remember was the bitter taste, or the lack of it — the vivid, certain reality of their own sensations, and how surprising it was to find that their classmates did not necessarily share it.   

"The results of this assembly talk," he wrote, "though extremely unflattering to me, emphasize the value of the student's own experience over mere talk about it." He used this to argue for the importance of giving students more time to mess around in laboratories, to learn by doing and sensing, rather than passively listening to lectures or watching demonstrations. And he suggested a better way to use PTC as a teaching device. Instead of serving up the lessons of PTC sermon-style, he wrote, "it is possible that profitable use could be made of such a taste demonstration... in which the student could point the morals to be drawn in different fields of human activities."

Despite the apparent failure of his pedagogical efforts with the chemical, Blakeslee had not given up on his conviction that PTC was the right tool to experimentally prove the truth of his political ideology, the irreducible primacy of the individual and the impossibility of the collective. He left readers of The Biology Teacher with these parting words: "We believe that a few pounds [of PTC]... would be of more value to students than an equal number of tons of the usual run of didactic text books." Writing as the Second World War drew to a close, with the Cold War on the horizon, this seemed to him more important than ever.

Flavors, Formulas, and Flavorists

Harrison's Extracts, the best in the world. Some of these flavors were likely made with "natural" ingredients (clove, cinnamon, ginger, lemon), some with synthetic chemicals (pineapple, peach, banana, strawberry, raspberry.) Image from Library of Congress.

Harrison's Extracts, the best in the world. Some of these flavors were likely made with "natural" ingredients (clove, cinnamon, ginger, lemon), some with synthetic chemicals (pineapple, peach, banana, strawberry, raspberry.) Image from Library of Congress.

Not too long ago, I was a guest on the fantastic podcast Gastropod, talking about the history of artificial flavors. (If you aren't already listening to Gastropod, what are you waiting for? It's a fortnightly treat for food-history-science-culture gluttons, smart and strange and ever-curious. The most recent episode was about sounds and farming, and included stories about plants listening to themselves being devoured by caterpillars; cows listening to REM; and the noises made by sick chickens.)

One of the things I talked about on Gastropod was Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making artificial fruit flavors. Vincenz Kletzinsky (1826-1882; (sometimes spelled Kletzinski) was an Austrian chemist, specializing in "animal chemistry." That is, he studied the chemical reactions underlying the physiological processes of life: digestion, metabolism, health and disease, the ways that drugs worked upon the body. He also suggested using strawberry leaves as a substitute for tea.

Kletzinsky's Table of Formulas for "Artificial Fruit Essences," originally unleashed upon the world in 1867 in the pages of Dingler's Polytechnisches Journal:

Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making of artificial fruit essences, from the U.S. Pharmacopia, 1885.

Kletzinsky's table of formulas for making of artificial fruit essences, from the U.S. Pharmacopia, 1885.

No arbor, no orchard is needed to produce the aromas of a summer's worth of fruits; Kletzinsky's table is the key to replicating these savors in the laboratory. By combining a small set of organic chemicals in varying proportions, and diluting the resulting mixture in pure alcohol, the flavor-maker can summon the aromatic specters of fifteen distinct fruity flavors: pineapple, melon, strawberry, raspberry, gooseberry, grape, apple, orange, pear, lemon, cherry and black cherry, plum, apricot, and peach.

I haven't been able to find out much about how Kletzinsky created his flavor-table — whether he developed these formulas himself, or whether he collected them from commercial flavor-makers (I suspect mostly the latter) — but I'm pretty certain about one thing. Coming up with these formulas didn't start with the fruits; it started with the chemicals. Manufacturing chemists working empirically with available organic chemicals, combining and diluting them, mixing and sniffing, until they obtained recognizable, and pleasurable, results.

So, for instance, to make a pineapple flavor, you would combine one part chloroform, one part "aldehyde," five parts ethyl butyrate, ten parts amyl butyrate, and three parts glycerine (to "blend" and "harmonize" the different components). Add all this to 100 parts alcohol. Voila! Break out the tiny paper umbrellas and the pina colada goblets! One sniff and you're back in your little grass shack in... Hackensack, New Jersey

"Chloroform! Like knock-you-out chloroform?" I hear you asking. "Really?! Why?" Apparently, chloroform has a kind of juicy, fruity fragrance. "When diluted with alcohol," Chambers' 1891 Enyclopedia tells us, it produces an effect like that of "ripe apples." Charles Sulz, in his 1888 Treatise on Beverages, says that chloroform intensifies the fruitiness of a finished flavor, but assures readers that it can also be omitted without serious detriment to the quality of the final product. Chloroform's inclusion in 19th-century flavor formulas gives us a hint about the people who most often developed and worked with these products, namely, pharmacists and druggists trained in "practical chemistry." Chloroform was a familiar material, a commercially available chemical that mixed well with others and smelled fruity. So why not use it?

By the first decade of the twentieth century, however, chloroform seems to have fallen out of favor for flavors. No doubt the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, and the increased concern about chemical additives in food, played a role in this. For instance, in 1908, Alois von Isakovics, head of the pioneering US synthetic fragrance and flavor company Synfleur, warned that the older artificial fruit flavors "contained many objectionable substances which do not properly belong in the flavor and should not be used in a food product under any conditions," for instance, "chloroform and other substances, which we find in freak formulas of that period.

For at least fifty years, Kletzinsky's table percolates through the written record: first in trade journals and professional reference books; later in miscellanies and recipe-books for amateurs. You'll find Kletzinsky's table in the 15th edition of the U.S. Dispensatory (1885), the standard manual for pharmacists, and in subsequent editions through the early 20th century. Its formulas are transcribed in Charles Sulz's 1888 Treatise on Beverages, or the Complete Practical Bottler, an important early handbook for the soft drink industry, as well as in The Complete Practical Confectioner (1890), a similar guide for the candy and confectionery business. It continues to circulate well into the twentieth century, appearing in the 1919 edition of the Scientific American Cyclopedia of Formulas and other compendia of miscellaneous recipes for manufacturing household goods, among 15,000 other formulas for glues, embalming fluids, varnishes, and descriptions of the symptoms of poisoning by sewer gas, among many other things.  

However! Although Kletzinsky's table persists more or less unchanged from its first appearances in chemistry and pharmacy journals to its last hurrah in the pages of technical miscellanies, its meaning changes; its standing in the world drops. By the twentieth century, its formulas no longer are cited in professional literature, except with caution or derision.  

Erich Walter, in his 1916 Manual for the Essence Industry, wrote: "In the course of time the public has come to look with disfavor on the artificial fruit flavors formerly employed, and in the formulas which follow no attention will be paid to such imitations." (He then goes on to supply his own formulas for imitation fruit flavors.) The 20th edition of the U.S. Dispensatory (1918) demurs from including Kletzsinky's formulas, referring readers to previous editions. However, it warns that artificial fruit essences are "vastly inferior" to concentrated juices and extracts made from real fruit, and notes that "their use is largely being abandoned" in the wake of the Pure Food Law, which requiring labels to disclose the presence of imitation flavors.

This is not at all true — the market for chemical food additives grows and grows in the twentieth century, despite the laws and labels, in order to supply the needs of food manufacturers, as processed food plays an ever-bigger role in the American diet. The persistence of Kletzinsky's table is one of the signs of the expanding commercial need for flavor additives.

Its diminishing status, however, indicates something else: a widening divide between flavor amateurs and flavor professionals, and the emergence of a new professional specialty, a kind of worker that we might call a "flavorist" or "flavor chemist."

Admittedly, it's totally anachronistic for me to use terms like "flavor chemist" or "flavorist" here, as those designations don't appear to have come into service until the 1940s, but here's what I'm trying to get at:

There's a distinction that starts to open up as early as the end of the nineteenth century between "practical chemists" who mix up flavors and fragrances, among many other things, and specialized chemical workers (affiliated with newly established firms specializing in flavor and fragrance materials) who claim a particular kind of expertise with aromatic materials, an expertise that is both scientific and sensory. The latter, let's call them proto-flavor-chemists, are not merely supplying a market, they are creating it — in part by distinguishing their synthetic specialties from the kind of products you get when following published formulas.

The difference between the professionals is illustrated in a pungent, purplish essay titled "The Formulist," which appeared in the February 1921 Ungerer's Bulletin: A Symposium of Aromatics, a bimonthly compendium of editorials, news, and gossip published by the NYC synthetic aromatic materials firm Ungerer & Co. "The Formulist" is a moral fable of the aromatic materials business, where the eponymous figure is ultimately contrasted with the "real creative perfumer or flavor maker."

"The Formulist," we are told, "is he who, on a day in the far dim past, has inherited, achieved, or had thrust upon him a formula. On that... eventful day our Formulist entered the valley of self-satisfied contentment and ceased forever to function as a builder and producer."

The Formulist's career is subsequently spent assiduously protecting his cryptic recipe, like a mystic whom illumination has visited only once. "There is nothing more to be done," intones the narrator, "but to guard jealously the precious scrap of paper containing the clue to the sublime odor or flavor of his; to make his sacred mixes in guarded seclusion; and to carry on pompously in his self-assigned role as creator of the magnum opus."

The author of the fable (an F.N. Langlois, of the United Drug Company, Boston) finds two major faults with the ways of the Formulist. First, in taking his formula as perfect and complete, the Formulist shuts out new material developments in chemistry that could enhance his formula's sensory qualities, decrease its production costs, or improve its utility.

Second, the Formulist's hermeticism is a problem because it precludes a proper market orientation. As a secretive recluse, the Formulist is incapable or unwilling to work with others in the flavor and fragrance company, to admit that other realms of knowledge are involved in shaping a commercially viable product. Advertising men, salesmen, "the container and label artist" — all these professionals contribute to the success of a new flavor or fragrance product. By refusing to share the details of his formula with them, or integrate their reports about consumer needs or desires into his working process, the Formulist dooms himself to obscurity and his product to obsolescence.

In contrast:

"Your real creative perfumer or flavor maker moves with the times. He rotates with his market. The development of one great success acts as an incentive to a series of accomplishments. If he cannot improve the odor or the flavor he casts about for a more agreeable color for it. He smells or tastes his formula with the nose or palate of the outsider. Approaching from that direction, he appreciates the inevitable fact that the world eventually tires of perfection itself. He borrows a leaf from the experience of the cigar maker, who knows that there is a certain important section of his public which prefers a new good smoke to an old better one."

This is one of the earliest descriptions I've found of the role of the flavor chemist in a flavor company, negotiating between the sensory possibilities of chemicals and the sensual desires of consumers. The meaning here is that a successful flavor cannot merely reproduce static, timeless nature. The successful flavor also must reflect consumer tastes, expectations, and, especially, fashions.

In other words, the flavorist is in a fashion business, and must constantly produce novel sensations, new variations for a public hungry for untasted fruits, unsampled pleasures, both low delights and high ones.

The real creative flavor maker appreciates the inevitable fact that the world eventually tires of perfection itself. There is no perfect. There is only the pluripotent new, perpetually refreshed by the stream of newly discovered synthetic organic chemicals.   

But even as the professional identity of the creative flavor maker begins to take shape within the ranks of specialized flavor and fragrance manufacturers, other, less exalted, ways persist of working with aromatic materials.

For instance, an 1927 Army Quartermaster Corps bulletin on the subject of flavoring extracts characterizes the trade as "chaotic," estimating that there were as many as 5,000 producers of flavoring extracts active in the United States at the time. Most producers of these products are not, but sidelines from other trades: spice-milling, coffee grinding, baking powder manufacturing.

The Quartermaster bulletin takes no note of any specialized knowledge, training, or experience that flavor makers might need. Instead, it says that flavoring extracts are "simple to manufacture," they don't require complicated or expensive machinery. You can get into the flavoring business with little capital investment.  

L.M. Hottle asks for miscellaneous formulae. From Bureau of Chemistry records, National Archives.

L.M. Hottle asks for miscellaneous formulae. From Bureau of Chemistry records, National Archives.

This idea of flavor making as an opportunity requiring small-scale, semi-skilled manufacturing is reflected in a series of remarkable Depression-era letters to the USDA that I found in the National Archives last summer.

Daniel Levine of the Bronx, an unemployed veteran, wrote to the agency in 1936 looking for information on how to get into the flavor business.

"I am writing this letter with the thought that perhaps you could send me the necessary information such as education and money needed to start a small flavoring extract business, else formulas, etc.

Not being able to find employment I thought of this business as not being over-crowded."

"Gentlemen," wrote L.M. Hottle in 1937, from the Hotel Cameron, in Cameron, Missouri, "Will you please send me the formulaes on the following articles:

Butter Color; Imitation Extract, Vanilla, Orange, Strawberry, and Banana, and Lemon; Embalming Fluid; Floor Wax; Anti-Freeze; Wall-paper cleaner; Perfumed Deodorizers; Harness Oil; Shoe Dye."

For these writers, and for many others whose letters filled the files of the Bureau of Chemistry, flavor-making was something folks could get into without too much trouble, with perhaps only a little training and little capital. Remarkably, the government answered these kinds of inquiries relatively promptly, usually not with formulas, but with referrals, bibliographies, and lists sources to consult.

Yet the 1930s was probably the last decade when this kind of happenstance manufacturing of artificial flavors was even imaginable as a commercial possibility. Professionalization, increasing complexity, and especially, increasing regulations would mean that people starting out making flavor additives in the 1940s and 1950s were almost always employed by specialized flavor and fragrance companies.  

But there's one realm where non-professional-flavorists are mixing chemicals, tasting and comparing, sharing and perfecting recipes for artificial flavors today: vape fluids for e-cigarettes, an area of commerce still largely unregulated.  

Better Living Through Sensory Design, or Sipping On Clouds at Le Laboratoire

Writing in the Perfumery & Essential Oil Record in 1958, Leo H. Narodny described an experiment investigating whether the scents of essential oils could induce creativity. He reminds his readers: "the smell of dried applies in a desk gave inspiration to much of Schiller's poetry. Richard Wagner found that the smell of roses and the sight of golden satin helped him to compose his operatic works." 

Recent research, he observed, seemed to indicate that these aids to composition may have been more than poetic proclivities. Although "the process of inventive thinking has remained inaccessible to introspective observation," neurochemistry "has opened up a new approach to the elusive subject of creative imagination." Newly discovered chemicals such as serotonin seemed to be the material substrate of mental states. If we could only determine the chemical "causes" of imagination, he wrote, "it should be helpful to artists and writers, and perhaps guide the thinking of scientists."

And while the ingestion of psychedelic drugs granted visions — here Narodny thumbs through Aldous Huxley — these substances also seemed to sap motivation. But perhaps all you needed was to inhale. "It may be possible," he speculated, "by inhaling certain odours, to influence creative imagination without endangering the whole brain by an excessive dosage of drugs." In other words, odors could trigger physiochemical changes in the brain, and could thus produce new, unprecedented thoughts.   

His willing guinea pig to test this hypothesis was the American textile designer Monica Scott. According to Narodny, her fabrics "feature distinct designs of real objects in bold earthy colors. Her style is a novel approach to reality." (In my cursory search, I wasn't able to dig up anything about her work or life, but if anyone knows anything about her, please let me know!) He describes some of her signature looks: swimsuits printed with schools of tropical fish; party dresses stamped with images of jewelry; candy-print garments for children. "What would be the effect of odors on her facile gift of creation?"

This was their methodology. For "a fortnight," Monica Scott sketched two designs each day: a control design in "normal room air" and the second made "after inhaling five litres of air saturated with the essential oil or odor under test."

This is your brain on bergamot. From Leo H. Narodny, "The Influence of Odors on Inventive Thinking," Perfumery and Essential Oil Record, February 1957.

This is your brain on bergamot. From Leo H. Narodny, "The Influence of Odors on Inventive Thinking," Perfumery and Essential Oil Record, February 1957.

These are the scents Scott breathes in: Bergamot; Vanilla (Mexican Prime Beans); Peppermint; (Chinese) Star Anise; Mysore Sandalwood; (French) Lavender; Bois de Rose (Brazil); Australian Eucalyptus; American Cedarwood; Arabian Olibanum (aka Frankincense); Dominica Citronella Grass; Dominican Bay and Lime Oils.

Although the sample size was too small for Narodny to properly calculate the "statistical significance of the effect of odors on inventive thinking," he did reach one conclusion with confidence. The inhalation of odors by Scott "caused a tendency to abstraction.... The symbolic response was a change from a normal 'thing' concept to an 'abstract' concept."

Bonbons become spectral parallelograms under the influence of Star Anise.

Bonbons become spectral parallelograms under the influence of Star Anise.

The "rounded realities" produced by ordinary air.

The "rounded realities" produced by ordinary air.

Compared against the "rounded realities" of the pictures produced in unscented air — "the maize kernels, the paper covered bonbons, the papi of milkweed, and the interlaced flowers" — Scott, under the influence of essential oils, tended toward "angular abstractions." Bergamot oil produced a jagged line resembling "the electroencephalographic records during sleep, or the diphasic nerve potentials of insects, the spontaneous nervous activity of the central nervous system, which occurs in bursts if measured longitudinally, and which resembles a human 'alpha' rhythm when measured laterally." Vanilla "suggested the acicular crystals of vanillin on some pods." Star Anise "an abstract series of diamonds." Peppermint the "angular designs of stars."

 

Acicular crystals of vanillin? The influence of chemical form on creative thought?

Acicular crystals of vanillin? The influence of chemical form on creative thought?

For her part, Scott seems to have found the experience pleasurable and useful. The odors produced changes in her mental and physical condition, arousing memories: "Bergamot had a soporific effect, and was reminiscent of the sickroom of my childhood," she testified. "With Vanilla I experienced a sense of release. I plan to use a collection of scents in my future work in fabric design."

As fantastic as these designs are, though, one can't help but feel that they are somewhat of a letdown, inevitable, perhaps, considering the gap between what was promised or hoped for (a direct through-line to the mental, material processes associated with creativity) and the more or less mundane objects of commerce produced as a result.  

***

I was reminded of Narodny and his experiment with odors last month in Cambridge, at Cafe ArtScience, where I attended an event called Sensorium.

Cafe ArtScience is a restaurant, "where culinary art, science, and design meet the sustainable future of food," according to its website. Located in Kendall Square, within the long shadow of MIT, it occupies the ground floor of a new glassy building, honeycombed with its partner institution, Le Laboratoire. According to David Edwards, the mastermind of this conjugation, these spaces comprise a "cultural laboratory," a "dream environment" for art-science-design experiment, innovation, and "dialogue." Le Laboratoire Cambridge is a recent transplant to these shores, a live cutting taken from the stem of the original, which was founded by Edwards in Paris when he cashed in his chips after developing a needle-free vaccine-delivery technology.  

Cafe ArtScience. Image from Slate, where you can also find a review.

Cafe ArtScience. Image from Slate, where you can also find a review.

Sensorium was billed as a multisensory dinner: five courses, each paired with a silent film, a scent, a cocktail. It was preceded by an intriguing lecture from Edwards, where he sketched out the history of the unusual institution and his vision for its works. I'm still trying to untangle my thoughts about Sensorium, about Le Laboratoire, and about Edwards and his project, so bear with me if and when this meanders.    

Edwards is charming, with a muppety thatch of ringlets crowning his noggin and thick-framed architect-glasses. He's eloquent, but not a particularly smooth talker; he speaks almost convulsively, delivering his ideas in quanta of enthusiasm.

He is a great believer in the transformative potential of the sensory experience — olfaction in particular — to improve health and enhance human life. Like Narodny, he expresses these beliefs in terms that are more medical and scientific than metaphysical, drawing on the language of engineering and design, rather than spiritualism or self-help. All the same, the ultimate goal is transcendental. As Edwards put it, "we are starting to understand how to control sensorial experience so that we can lead better lives." By attending to sensory design, we can surpass the apparent limits of human capabilities, generate truly new experiences, enrich existence.

The following quotes are all taken from my notes from Edwards' remarks: "We control things that enter into our body" through the FDA, yet these two categories of substances (food, drugs) seem to be at the root of much of our contemporary malaise. We "overdose" on food and drugs because we are looking for a "third thing: sensation." It is in this (yet?) "unregulated" realm of "sensorial experience," he said, that new possibilities lie for the enhancement and improvement of human life. 

In Paris, he had the idea of "creating sensations that are innocent," that could directly satisfy our cravings for sensation, untethered from metabolic consequences. This led to one of Le Laboratoire's signature in(ter)ventions, Le Whaf, a semi-recumbent decanter that nebulizes a liquid into a cloud that you can then sip through a specially designed straw, allowing you to sample its full flavor experience in a dose of only fifty micrograms.

Le Whaf is a peculiar instrument of knowledge, one that offers a route to food and drink connoisseurship without gourmandizing's elastic waistband. Edwards noted that Le Whaf is currently used as a tool by "expert tasters" — whiskey judges, coffee cuppers — to more efficiently evaluate the substances they are asked to assess, and also by forward-thinking chefs. (He mentioned someone, somewhere using it to produce a "cloud of sushi.")  

Anticipating Le Whaf, "innocent" sensations. image from Wired, which reviewed Cafe ArtScience here.

Anticipating Le Whaf, "innocent" sensations. image from Wired, which reviewed Cafe ArtScience here.

Other devices followed Le Whaf: a miniature version dubbed the WAHH; the oPhone, a "platform for olfactory communication"; edible containers (I've written about those before). Many of these things seemed "very far from being useful" at first, but now are finding purposes and brand partners.

But here's the thing. I wrote above that Edwards is not a "smooth talker." What I meant is that he didn't at all come across as someone who was selling a bill of goods; his manner had no hint of political or missionary slickness. (I should note here that I paid a couple hundred dollars for the Sensorium dinner, but Edwards' talk before of the event was free.) He was sharing a worldview still in development, speaking from the position of speculation and wonder rather than certainty and known success. Nonetheless, despite his repeated insistence that the work of Le Laboratoire was not product-development-oriented, he kept drifting back to speculative applications of these sensory technologies, justifying them especially in terms of health care outcomes. What emerged was an irreducible tension between the spirit of free play and non-goal-oriented exploration — what he described as a "willful innocence" of scientific discovery — and the more typical hyperbolic claims of start-ups.

For instance: "Olfaction may be really relevant to how we assess health and deliver health care," he told us during his talk. He wondered aloud: perhaps "health" itself could be "delivered through the air." But when asked to clarify what he meant during the Q&A that followed the talk, he invoked the now-familiar keywords of our VC-driven age: platforms, apps, data. Platforms will soon be introduced, he said, that will collect and analyze the data you generate through interactive apps, connecting variances in your odor sensitivity with changes in the state of your health, which can help assess your risk for ailments such as diabetes. In other words, more or less the same thing every other device we are burdened with is doing: monitoring, quantifying, assessing. Perhaps this is a better, more pleasant way of keeping track of our bodies for medical science; but it's not a revolution so much as a scented cushion.    

The big question for me is whether the free-wheeling, playful, non-commercial, improvisatory spirit that seems to drive Edwards' vision for Le Laboratoire can itself be sustaining, or whether it has to continually show its work, justify its purpose, make products to brand and buy.     

***

After the talk, as we dutifully stood in line to take our little sips of cloud, clutching our special notched straws, the scene illustrated one of the stubborn challenges of exhibiting non-visual, non-aural sensations. Namely, this: you and I are never sipping a cloud together. Nor are we sniffing the oPhone together. We each wait our turn. And then, after we've taken a sip, or a sniff, we find that we have little we can say about it.

The man ahead of me bent to sip, and came back up again. "Is it very subtle?" he asked the attendant operating Le Whaf. The attendant furrowed her brow. "Not really..." she said. "Let me see your straw." She checked to make sure he was sipping from the right end, and invited him to try again. "Just inhale it into your mouth," she instructed, "like a cigar. Don't draw it all the way down into your lungs."

He gave it another shot. "Hmm." I could tell he was still not sure he was doing it correctly. He turned to me, and shrugged. "Interesting."

He did not know whether or not he had experienced the thing he was supposed to have experienced — whether he had, in fact, experienced anything at all.  

He probably hadn't gotten the full effect, because when I took my sip, watching as cloud in the glass chamber narrowed into the channel of my straw, the sensation was powerful enough that I almost coughed.

I believe the one we were trying was "Metal" — described as a mixture of tea and grappa — and it had a kind of sharpness, a floral brightness, that I would agree was metallic (though I perhaps would not have thought it so, if the name had not suggested it). (The others we sampled were Stone Fruit, Jasmine, Rhum Agricole, and perhaps one other that I neglected to write down.)

But still, even as a person who spends the better part of her days trying to figure these things out, when I turned to my husband after he had his turn, we found we had little to say to each other about it besides, "Wow." And, "Did you like it?" We agreed that it was "really interesting."

Is this linguistic poverty about scent (and flavor) one of the things Le Laboratoire's work could address? Do gadgets like this (and Le Whaf really is a gadget, in the classic sense) owe their appeal to their novelty, and thus forego the chance of becoming commonplace and routine (in the lives of those of us who are not pro coffee-cuppers, at least)? Or is this envisioned as a potentially quotidian technology, one that could find a place in already crowded kitchen cupboards, as a mechanism for the delivery of guilt-free sensory indulgences? Simone Weil famously wrote that "the great sorrow of human life is knowing that looking and eating are two different operations." Heaven, for her, was a place where looking and eating were one, where you can have your cake and eat it — ie, where knowledge can be had without loss. (Weil, a kind of saint, starved herself to death.) Is part of the difficulty in understanding the potential place of Le Whaf that we don't yet have the social and cultural frameworks to situate this kind of experience, that all our pleasures have to be reckoned as a line-item in our moral accounting? Or is my frothy, boiling-over brain missing the obvious: it's just for fun, Nadia, relax.   

Rachel Field demonstrates the oPhone. Image from Wired, where you can read more about the oPhone here.

Rachel Field demonstrates the oPhone. Image from Wired, where you can read more about the oPhone here.

This brings me to another device we were given a chance to sniff at: the oPhone. The oPhone was described as a "communications platform," which allows for interpersonal messaging via odor; ie, you can send a smell to the one you love. It's conceptually very clever, undermining the conventional understanding of odor as a "proximity" sensation; spooky smell action at a distance happening here. The oPhone, as an object, includes a base and two columnar tubes, which look a bit like the cooling towers on nuclear reactors. You sniff at the top of one of the columns to receive the scent. The effect is not general — this is not like one of those Glade plug-ins that makes your bathroom smell like orange potpourri — but personal, close-range, intimate. You program the scent you are sending with an accompanying app, keyed to the particular notes contained in cartridges called oChips. More than 300,000 scent combinations are currently possible.   

It seems to me that the most exciting thing about a gadget like the oPhone is not that it might allow us to be more articulate about odor, but more articulate with odor. Just as emoji are not decadent nonsense, not a decline from actual language, but a new expressive resource for communication, the oPhone could also be a way to expand the things we are able to express, the meanings we can conceive of and convey.  

And also that it could permit communication that is intensively personal and inscrutable to outsiders: the meanings and associations you and I develop with this toolkit, with this set of odors estranged from objects and abstracted from causal circumstances, can develop into precise units of meaning between you and I, which no one else can really guess at, a machine to create and court unspeakable sensations.   

***

In 2012, the Museum of Art and Design in New York hosted an exhibition entitled "The Art of Scent: 1889-2012." Curated by Chandler Burr and designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (of Blur Building, Boston ICA, and Highline renown), the exhibit presented a dozen perfumes from Guerlain's Jicky (1889) to Untitled (2010) by Daniela Andrier for Margiela.

The exhibition space was dimly lit and spare. There was a polished wood floor and a white wall marked by a series of depressions, as though a giant, gentle thumb had been pressed into soft clay. Next to each of these depressions, an explanatory paragraph was beamed, naming the perfume and saying a bit about its creator, its elements, its meaning in the history of modern scent.

Exhibition view, "The Art of Scent."

Exhibition view, "The Art of Scent."

To smell the perfume, you half-ducked your head into the concavity, triggering the release of a puff of odor from a cleft at the base of the hollow. As you inhaled, the explanatory text faded away, signaling to other visitors that that station was in use, but also leaving you, for the moment, to your own senses. You could not also be reading about what you were smelling as you were smelling it. 

The mechanics of sniffing.

The mechanics of sniffing.

There was also something delightfully, irresistibly lewd about lowering your head and flaring your nostrils toward the cleft, and hearing that little gasp of perfume releasing. It added a top-note of indecency and decadence that paired well with the austerity of the space, and that brought out the tension between the intimacy of smelling and the public circumstances of doing so.   

"The Art of Scent" was organized to advance a particular argument: that the introduction of synthetic chemicals into perfumery transformed what was a craft into an art. When perfumers were limited to natural ingredients, they were more or less limited to the goal of "realistically" recreating odors found in the natural world. Synthetics "radically transformed the medium, by expanding the perfumers' palette and range of artistic expression." (I'm quoting here from the exhibition booklet). No longer were perfumers limited to recapitulating known scents; they could now produce unprecedented sensations, sensory abstractions, emotional phenomena, new ways of being in the world, that aligned with contemporary developments in visual art.

These new synthetic chemicals, "The Art of Scent" proposed, made possible new kinds of actions and reactions, new thoughts, new feelings.

More concretely, however, they made possible new luxury commodities, at once intensely personal ("my signature scent," not at all like the tuberose that old ladies dust their kerchiefs with, but enigmatic, penetrating, dazzling; unfamiliar now, but soon you'll come to associate it with me, and the memory of me) and proprietary, branded. A new kind of thing to buy that can eloquently tell the sniffling world who I am, without sparing a word.

***

Each course of the five-course Sensorium Dinner came under a thematic heading:

Metal :: Cedar :: Land of Promise :: Jasmine :: Golden Fruit

Each dish was paired with a drink, with a silent film, and with an oPhone odor. These pairings were engineered by Rachel Field, chef Patrick Campbell, and bartender Todd Maul, who also provided the unobtrusive soundtrack for the evening.

The menu of sensations at the Sensorium Dinner, June 10, 2015.

The menu of sensations at the Sensorium Dinner, June 10, 2015.

The oPhones waited on pedestals, behind the round tables. At the beginning of each course, the oPhone would emit what was described as the olfactory equivalent of "silence," to wipe clean the sensorium's slate.  

Conversation around the tables was lively, strangers becoming instant comrades, and the food was delicious. Nearly a month later, I can still vividly call to mind the taste of the brown buttered popcorn emulsion, an unctuous glob the color of hay that ornamented the slab of smoked trout in the second course.

But it was unclear, deliberately so, how to integrate the concurrent events of the dinner.  In particular, the social choreography of visiting the oPhone was tricky. Should you stand up, at a lull in conversation, and wander over to the oPhone? Smell, look, eat, talk? There was a lot going on, and it was at times a bit overwhelming.

On reflection, though, this lack of integration was one of the strengths of the event. Your experience was not directed or controlled, but you were left to your own devices in a pleasure-scape replete with sensory stimuli, a place where the density of experience was deliberately increased. Aside from the sequence of courses, there was no plan or pattern, no key to unlocking the connections between one element and another, just talk and action and sensation, altogether. Edwards had talked about his project at Le Laboratoire as a kind of "experiment," by which I take it he meant that there was no foreordained or hoped-for conclusion.     

This meant that the event was, in a way, liberated from the kinds of concerns that have come to attend the sort of self-concious foodie-ism that I sometimes indulge in. Am I doing this right? Am I as sophisticated as these other people here? Am I saying the right thing about this wine, or do I like drinking wine way, way too much to bother with talking about it? What is this going to do for me, how is this going to improve me, enrich me, make me better?

Set all that aside. This was not eating towards self-improvement. It was free play, with food and old movies, and it was disorienting, deranging, and excellent.

***

In the 1930s, the US Chamber of Commerce promoted a program of "sell by smell," recommending that manufacturers add pleasant aromas to dry goods in order to stimulate flagging consumption and motivate Depression-era Americans to buy, buy, buy. An example: identical stockings, some unscented, some scented with narcissus, were offered to Utica shoppers. The narcissus-scented stockings far outsold their odorless twins, and housewives judged them to be of far finer quality. 

"Sell by smell" is a moment where the conception of the rational consumer — who can be convinced by reasonable arguments about the material virtues of a product, its durability, its excellent price — gives way to the seduce-able, susceptible consumer, the consumer whose unconscious drives and motivations must be mapped, tapped, exploited.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the lingering suspicions that attend scents and flavors. Their actions upon us are compulsive, undetected, and out of our control, often leveraged against our better interests to profit some large entity. The fear that our senses command us.   

Yes, and also: in the present moment, innovation, creativity, "disruption" are all virtues of the highest possible value. And these are virtues that are associated with a kind of transcendence of mere rationality. We typically understand creativity as compulsive, out of our direct control, produced, in fact, by scaling back control. Our myths of innovation emphasize the sudden, unannounced insight — the eureka from the bathtub. How do you induce the state of mind necessary for invention to take place? How do you make yourself more creative?

Odor, understood as exerting a kind of direct-action on the brain's unplumbed reaches, an unconscious and powerful agent that produces a spectrum of emotional states, fits neatly into popular intuitions of how creativity happens. This is where Narodny's experiment comes from, and where, I think, Edwards derives his fascination with scents. (There are many senses in the sensorium, after all, but the projects of Le Laboratoire seem oriented around one of them.)  

And it's right here, I think, that the central tension in this story, lies: between control and its opposite, between what can be comprehended scientifically and what exceeds those boundaries.

I go back to one of the first things that Edwards said in his talk: "We are starting to understand how to control sensorial experience so that we can lead better lives." Or Narodny speculating on the tremendous value of understanding the neurochemical conditions underlying creativity. 

Is the potential here in the improved control, in commanding our senses, or in the liberation from known limits that sensory experience seems to make possible?

And moreover, what kind of scientist gets drawn into this realm? What sort of person does odor attract?

This whole time, I've been dying to tell you more about Leo Narodny, who I first encountered in the pages of Perfumery & Essential Oil Record, where he was a frequent contributor in the 1950s.

This is what I've managed to piece together about him: his mother was a lieder singer. His father was some sort of Estonian art-critic-bon-vivant who changed his last name to Narodny ("Of the People") after befriending Lenin in St. Moritz (those were the days), but fled to America in 1905, ultimately betrayed by Communism. Young Leo, born in New York, 1909, a graduate of Horace Mann and Columbia, trained as an optical physicist, but bought a vanilla plantation in Dominica in 1941, and appears to have resided in the Caribbean for much of his life. He held multiple patents for photography, holography, and information technologies, and turns up in the annals of the International Atomic Energy Agency, where he is thanked for loaning a device called the "Narodny Ion Accelerator" to a lab in Manitoba. At some point in the 1970s, he produced a weekly science series on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation's version of "60 minutes," where he championed the "small is beautiful" ethos, promoting local technological improvisations and practical tinkering. In the early 1990s, writing in Leonardo from a place called "Enchantment" (Barbados), he proposes a "quantum mechanical theory" of observation to explain how the presence of an audience stimulates artists and scientists to produce their finest work. He claimed to reliably know who was calling before picking up the phone; perhaps some vibration in the telephone wire? Apparently, he also once investigated ESP in insects, trying to discover how ants learn of the death of a distant queen. He died in 1999.

This guy was not a kook, though he did some kooky things. He was a scientist, an engineer, but impelled toward studying elusive, intangible, and unmeasurable conditions of perception and consciousness, of invention and performance.

I know much less about David Edwards' background, but like Narodny, he seems to be someone most comfortable between disciplines and realms — hence the hybrid ArtScience of the cafe's name — but also between ideas and practice, materiality and immateriality. Le Laboratoire has without a doubt whipped up some cool gadgets, but it's clear that Edwards sees his mission as something more transformative than the production of a set of clever and delightful toys. I think what he wants is for Le Laboratoire pioneer a new way of making not just technological change, but cultural change. Despite some of the unresolved contradictions I've gone on about here (at excessive length, surely), that's what's truly exciting about this whole delectable mess, and what is most elusive and unpredictable about it.    

Got Plenty Imitation But There's None Like Mine: Heavenly NuGrape

The NuGrape Twins' recorded output is tiny: four songs in praise of the Lord, two in praise of NuGrape.

Like NuGrape, the twins are from Georgia. According to the Internet, their names were Mark and Matthew Little, born 1888, in Tennille, sort of in the middle of the state. NuGrape incorporated in Atlanta in 1921. Matthew and Mark Little apparently died in the 1960s, but you can still find NuGrape in stores.

The NuGrape Twins' "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the B-side of "There's a City Built of Mansions") was listed in this catalog. 75 cents.

The NuGrape Twins' "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the B-side of "There's a City Built of Mansions") was listed in this catalog. 75 cents.

The exact nature of their twin-ship is obscure and probably lost to history (identical? fraternal? spiritual? promotional ploy?), but their voices are quite distinct. In "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape," listed in a 1926 catalog of "the latest blues by Columbia Race Stars," one twin sings in a tinny, determined countertenor, which, at moments, thins to wispiness; the other provides a shuffling baritone accompaniment, sometimes lagging a beat behind:

I got a NuGrape nice and fine

Three rings around the bottle is a-genuine

I got your ice-cold Nugrape

 

I got a NuGrape nice and fine

Got plenty imitation but there's none like mine

I got your ice-cold NuGrape

 

NuGrape may (or may not) be imitation grape, but that doesn't mean that NuGrape doesn't have a valor, and identity, of its own — that it doesn't have its own pretenders and imitators. There are a-genuine grapes, and there is a-genuine NuGrape. 

Of course it would take twins to sing a hymn to NuGrape, grape's arcane twin. The relationship of NuGrape to "actual" grape is in a certain sense staged by the twins' performance. Just as their voices pass in and out of phase, harmonize, joining together in the wordless, hummed refrain, so NuGrape passes now closer, now further, from grape.

For these unsanctioned claims of kinship with actual grapes, NuGrape came under regulatory scrutiny twice in the 1920s.

The first time was in 1925. The Federal Trade Commission, which prosecuted violations of the Pure Food & Drug Act that had to do with misleading marketing, alleged that NuGrape deceptively represented itself as made from grapes and falsely claimed that its flavor came from grapes.   

The FTC trotted out evidence of NuGrape's deceptive practices, including things like the cluster of grapes that were embossed on glass NuGrape bottles, and various slogans and images from advertising campaigns. (Note to fellow historians of these matters: FTC rulings are full of great information, such as sales data, manufacturing information, and advertising.) Here are some of the advertising slogans:

"NuGrape is made from the purest of pure Concord grapes"

"NuGrape has a way about it — makes you forget the heat and humidity, and remember only those luxuriant days when Concord grapes ripen on the vine and all the air is honey-sweet"

"It's just that sort of flavor, a mysterious something, born of plump Concord grapes and sunshine"

"NuGrape is as full o'Health as the rich, full-flavored joy of the grapes from which it is made"

"It is in no sense 'just a grape drink.' It is more"

Government chemists determined that a bottle of NuGrape was, in fact, both more and less than a "just a grape drink." It contained less than two percent grape juice; the rest was sugar syrup and carbonated water. What small fraction of grape juice it did contain was not enough to give the beverage "its characteristic flavor." "Said flavor," the chemists concluded, "is due principally to other and artificial sources." Flavor additives that NuGrape was required to, but had failed to, disclose.  

On these grounds, the FTC ordered NuGrape to cease and desist using images of grapes or grape vineyards in its advertising or marketing material, and to emblazon on all NuGrape labels, caps, and advertisements with the confession:  "Imitation grape — not grape juice."

For several years, NuGrape complied. But by the time the NuGrape came to the FTC's attention again, in 1929, the company had stopped doing this.

NuGrape had changed its formula. Fritzsche Brothers, a flavoring and fragrance company then located in Brooklyn, had started supplying NuGrape with something called "Merchandise No. 25" also known as "Fritsboro True Grape Aromatics, New Process."

This "true grape" flavoring, Fritzsche claimed, was derived entirely from grapes; it was not an imitation. Accordingly, NuGrape changed its label. It no longer admitted that it was "imitation grape -- not grape juice," but instead explained itself this way: "artificial color NUGRAPE SODA, containing in addition to grape juice, simple sirup, tartaric acid, and water."  

NuGrape: containing grape juice, sugar, water, tartaric acid, certified artificial color. This dates from after the addition of Fritzsche's Merchandise No. 25, but before the 1931 FTC ruling requiring the company to reinstate "imitation" on their labels.

NuGrape: containing grape juice, sugar, water, tartaric acid, certified artificial color. This dates from after the addition of Fritzsche's Merchandise No. 25, but before the 1931 FTC ruling requiring the company to reinstate "imitation" on their labels.

But what exactly was "Merchandise No. 25"? Government agents needed to know.

Fritzsche Brothers explained that they started with a vacuum-concentrated grape juice shipped to Brooklyn from California. To bring this 4:1 concentrate to the 8:1 strength they needed, they added "aromatic grape concentrate made from grapes by our own secret process." The aromatic grape concentrate used Concord grapes (foxy with methyl anthranilate), but beyond that, the company would say no more. A production specialist at Fritzsche "refused to give any further information about their so-called secret process on the ground that it would be disclosing trade secrets," and so chemists at the FDA (then the Food, Drug & Insecticide Bureau) investigated Merchandise No. 25.

They found that the flavor of NuGrape syrup"is derived chiefly from added tartaric acid." Tartaric acid is "not found as such in grapes or grape juices." It is "obtained from crude argols, commonly called wine lees, by-products, or precipitates, obtained in the treatment of grape juice or the manufacture of wine." In other words, there is a way that you could reasonably claim that tartaric acid is made from grapes.

(If you've got a container of cream of tartar stuffed in the back of your cupboard somewhere, it might just have an image of a barrel on it. That's a wine barrel, a now almost inscrutable gesture toward the substance's origins.)

In the eyes of regulators, however, there was too much distance between grapes and tartaric acid; what was grape about the grape had been transubstantiated, turned into a chemical. NuGrape's label already disclosed that tartaric acid had been added to the beverage. However, that was not sufficient. NuGrape, artificially colored, flavored with materials once derived from grapes but grapes no longer, was in the eyes of the law an imitation. The FTC's ruling, handed down in 1931, required the company to change their labeling and marketing to reflect that the product "is an imitation, artificially colored and flavored."

What underlies this chemical judgment is a value judgment: that the flavoring chemical was made, essentially, from garbage — from the wastes of other industries.  Although it dates from a decade later, this October 29, 1941 letter from P.B. Dunbar, assistant commissioner of Food & Drugs, to the chief of the central regulatory district, substantially reflects the agency's attitude and policy toward flavoring additives:

"Heretofore on products of vague identity offered to food manufacturers we have felt that the requirement for the labeling of the ingredients by their most informative names was a means by which the buyer could determine the worth, if any, of these often glorified addition substances. In other words, the mere recitation that the product is a few cheap chemicals and water takes out all the mystery."

The "products of vague identity" are the flavor additives produced by flavor and fragrance companies. The FDA, by requiring flavor additive manufacturers to reveal their ingredients, wants to demystify these "glorified" and overvalued additives. For Dunbar and the agency, flavoring additives are not innovative products developed by skilled workers, but "a few cheap chemicals and water." 

Underlying this is a more profound anxiety: that consumers won't be able to tell the difference between — for instance — grape and NuGrape unless "Imitation" is branded on the label. If there is a world of difference between the pastoral orchard and the chemical leached from the lees, then shouldn't that difference reveal itself at first sip? If the distinction between "real" and "fake" is somehow no longer self-evident, then what are the prospects for the continued persistence of the real?  

But is NuGrape best understood as an "imitation," as a cheaper substitute for actual grapes? Or is there a way that NuGrape can be genuine without being imitation? NuGrape's early advertising material claimed that the beverage could deliver the essence of the experience of grapes to the parched but orchard-less masses — to bring the pastoral within one's (mnemonic) grasp. Yet later promotions — including those intoned, probably without remuneration, by the NuGrape Twins — hint at other all the things that foods begin to be able to do in modernity.

One advertisement cited in the second FTC complaint was a poster featuring a tennis player grasping for a bottle of the drink. The slogan:

 

"When you were never so thirsty in your life! Reach for NuGrape" 

 

NuGrape delivered genuine refreshment to the body depleted by leisure, not labor. A healthy, modern, exhausted tennis-playing body. And the flavor of NuGrape was attuned to the amplifications and new intensities of experience in modernity, new modes of being in the world. There were appetites, perhaps, that the orchard could no longer satisfy.

 

As the NuGrape Twins knew well, NuGrape was also a substance that could lift depressed spirits:


When you're feeling kinda blue

Do not know what's ailing you

Get a NuGrape from the store

Then you'll have the blues no more...


Or pacify the rage of a termagant wife:


If from work you come home late

Smile and 'prise her with NuGrape

Then you'll sneak through in good shape...


Or serve as a love-charm, a token of otherwise inexpressible ardor:


Sister Mary has a beau

Says he crazy loves her so

Buys a NuGrape every day

Know he's bound to win that way


As Burgin Mathews wrote of "I Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the Twins' "masterpiece") in the All Music Guide to the Blues, the song is "a simultaneous hymn and jingle that advertises the soda as a cure for any earthly or spiritual ailment." 

To be clear, none of these things are necessarily more grandiose or remarkable than what foods could do to bodies in the early modern era, when food could treat and cure diseases, temper imbalanced humors, and recalibrate one's relationship with the actual cosmos.

In the final accounting, however, there is something heavenly about NuGrape.

"Is there no change of death in paradise?" asked Wallace Stevens. "Does ripe fruit never fall?" "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens," according to the Talking Heads.

For NuGrape to become "the flavor you can't forget," it must conform itself not to the flavor of grapes hanging heavy on the bough, but to prior memories of NuGrape. To the bodily, social, and spiritual array of pleasures, comforts, and gratifications that affiliate themselves with the sensations that NuGrape provides. Like the unchanging fruits of heaven, NuGrape must always resemble itself.


All the way from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico

From the Atlantic to the calm Pacific shore


NuGrape is the best friend yet

So try a bottle of NuGrape

The flavor you can't forget 


From Neroli to NuGrape: Methyl Anthranilate

Oof! It's been a while since I've posted anything here. My excuse is that I've been writing, or pantomiming writing, or sitting in front of my laptop furrowing my brow and wondering, "what is it... to write?" I think this is a pretty common dissertation symptom. Writing ceases to be a series of deliberate actions and instead becomes a sort of misty tunnel that you enter and exit each day wondering, "What happened? What is happening? Is this real life?" But! I have a couple of other blog posts on the transom, "somewhat finished," and so I promise that there will be new material here more than semi-seasonally.

In the meantime, here's a preview of something that I might talk about next week at my Fellow in Focus lecture here at Chemical Heritage Foundation. (The lecture is free! So if you're in Philadelphia on April 2, come out and hear me talk about this stuff in real life!)

NuGrapeFlavorYouCantForget

The question I'm starting from is this: if you wanted to make a flavor additive, in or around 1920, what would it take? What would you need to know? What would you need to have access to?

The first thing to realize is the most obvious. Making synthetic flavors meant working with what was available -- in terms of both knowledge and materials.

When it came to knowledge -- that is, certain knowledge of the flavor chemicals actually present in foods -- for much of the first half of the twentieth century, there was little to go on. Even as other material components of foods -- proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins -- were chemically determined and quantified, flavor research lagged behind. There are several reasons for this. Usually, flavor chemicals are only present in tiny amounts in food -- parts per million or even less. In early twentieth-century chemistry laboratories, isolating and identifying chemicals present in such small quantities was tricky, and labor- and material-intensive. (For instance, USDA chemists in the early 1920s attempting to identify the chemicals that gave apples their aroma had to start out with nearly a ton of apples to get less than two grams of aromatic material for analysis). Complicating matters further, flavor chemicals are often volatile, unstable, and reactive. It took meticulous work to ensure that the chemicals identified in the final result were not artifacts created in the process of analysis. Which is all to say that identifying the chemicals responsible for flavor in foods is a very difficult problem, and, until the 1950s -- when powerful analytic technologies such as gas chromatography became available -- very few people attempted it.

E.J. Kessler's Practical Flavoring Extract Maker from 1912.

E.J. Kessler's Practical Flavoring Extract Maker from 1912.

So, in most cases, when a maker of flavoring additives circa 1920 was formulating an artificial "strawberry" or "pineapple" flavor, he (almost always he) was not pretending to reproduce the natural world on a molecular level. That is, he was not trying to synthetically replicate the actual chemical components of actual pineapples. He was working from standard chemical recipes gleaned from formularies, handbooks, or trade journals, or kept under lock and key as company secrets. He was also using his sensory and scientific knowledge of different chemicals, so that he could combine available materials in appropriate ways to obtain desired qualities (a "fresher" tasting peach, a strawberry flavor that was suitable for candy lozenges.)

Getting the raw materials for flavor-making meant shopping in the same chemical marketplace as perfumers, pharmacists, and soap and cosmetics makers. Supply houses such as Schimmel & Co., W.J. Bush & Co., Synfleur, and others typically sold both proprietary perfume and flavoring formulations and "raw materials" for the industry -- synthetic aromatic chemicals or purified isolates, natural essential oils, extracts and essences. Frequently, the same chemical would be put to work in different contexts, appearing in different types of products, producing distinct effects, acquiring different meanings.     

Which brings me to the story of exemplary chemical: methyl anthranilate.

By the turn of the twentieth century, methyl anthranilate was already an important chemical for perfumers. In the mid-1890s, it had been identified as a key component of neroli -- the essential oil of orange blossoms. Its presence was subsequently discovered in other natural essences: tuberose, jasmine, gardenia, ylang-ylang, and bergamot. In other words, methyl anthranilate was a frequent chemical denizen of the lush pleasure gardens of early twentieth-century floral perfumes, scenting a lady's handkerchief, or the bosom she held it to.    

I mentioned earlier how tough analytic organic chemistry could be? People in the essential oil and perfumery business needed to be well-versed in its techniques and methods, and to have a comprehensive analytical understanding of the chemical components of their materials. Essential oils are costly; they vary in quality; dealers can be unscrupulous. Careful chemical analyses could not only detect frauds, but also determine purity, and thus value. Knowing the chemical components and physical properties of essential oils was necessary to staying in the business.

An advertisement from 1899 for Schimmel's Synthetic Oil of Orange Blossoms, "identical with the oil distilled from Orange Flowers." Methyl anthranilate was a crucial component in this compound.

An advertisement from 1899 for Schimmel's Synthetic Oil of Orange Blossoms, "identical with the oil distilled from Orange Flowers." Methyl anthranilate was a crucial component in this compound.

Some, however, turned their analytic knowledge of the chemical constituents of essential oils to commercial use, by manufacturing synthetic versions of chemicals present in natural oils. This is how synthetic methyl anthranilate began to be produced and sold, as "artificial neroli oil." I'm still trying to figure out exactly how methyl anthranilate was manufactured synthetically, but according to an 1897 article in the Journal of the Society of the Chemical Industry, one way was to combine methyl alcohol with anthranilic acid under an inverted condenser, and then saturate it with gaseous hydrochloric acid.

In any case, in the first decades of the twentieth century, methyl anthranilate was sold by major perfume material supply houses such as Schimmel, Van Dyk & Co., W.J. Bush & Co., alongside both "synthetic" essential oil blends and natural materials.   

 But methyl anthranilate doesn't just smell like springtime and orange blossoms and fancy, old-fashioned ladies. Diluted, it has a distinct quality that many of us would find familiar: the odor of grape jolly ranchers, or grape soda, or any of the deep purple sweets of indiscriminate childhood.

The affiliation of methyl anthranilate with grape-flavored soda and candy dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when it became a widely available chemical material. People who worked with flavors began using methyl anthranilate in flavoring syrups used for grape soda pop, candy lozenges, and other grape-flavored things. They also used the chemical in in other fruit flavorings: banana, orange, and pineapple.

Let me underscore one point: when perfumers first used methyl anthranilate in their synthetic perfumes, they knew that the chemical could be found in actual neroli, jasmine, and so on. When flavoring manufacturers first adopted it for use in their fruit flavors, they had no way to make the claim that the chemical was an actual aspect of the "true fruits."

But, in addition to essential oil dealers, there was another group of chemists who were interested in analyzing and cataloguing the chemical contents of natural materials: government regulators at the USDA Bureau of Chemistry and in state health agencies, who were responsible for enforcing the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. In addition to monitoring the safety of the food supply, the law also aimed to protect consumers against fraud -- to protect them from being deceived by sophisticated chemical additives into taking "imitation" goods for the real thing. The law created a statutory distinction between "natural" and "artificial" in the food system. Foods that included synthetic flavor additives would have to bear on their labels the scarlet letter that declared their second-class status: ARTIFICIAL.

According to the law, the unannounced addition of synthetic chemicals like methyl anthranilate to soft drinks, jams, and so on constituted illegal adulteration. Violators faced a seizure of their goods, fines, and subsequent loss of business. But to enforce the law, regulators had to prove that the food in question contained a chemical additive.     

And this proved to be a problem. As the Journal of the Franklin Institute put it in 1922: "Inasmuch as methyl anthranilate in a dilute form possesses a decided grape-like odor, its detection in commercial grape juice appears to have led to the conclusion on the part of some of those engaged in the control of these products that in all cases of its occurrence an artificial flavoring agent has been employed."

But in fact, this was the wrong conclusion to draw. As researchers at the Bureau of Chemistry discovered while trying to develop official methods for proving that synthetic methyl anthranilate had been added to foods, the chemical was present not only in artificial grape flavoring, but also in actual grapes. Frederick B. Power, the head of the Bureau's phytochemical laboratory, and his lab partner Victor Chesnut, did not find it in Vitis vinifera grapes, the "old world" European varietals. But they did find it in the foxy, foxy Vitis labrusca and other grape varietals of the New World: Niagara, Catawba, Delaware grapes. Concord grape juice, in fact, contained the highest concentration of the chemical. So, in trying to find a way to determine the presence of a chemical adulterant, Power and Chesnut confirmed the chemical's presence in actual grapes.

So far, we've followed methyl anthranilate from its identification in "natural" Neroli oil, to its synthesis for use in synthetic perfumes meant to imitate this sensation, to its inclusion in artificial grape flavors, to the discovery -- by government regulators -- of its presence in actual grape juice.  

Part of what this story should suggest is the problematic distinction between "natural" and "artificial." Molecules like methyl anthranilate are discoverable in haunts throughout the natural and artefactual worlds, appearing in various guises, for various purposes. At different concentrations, in different contexts, they have different effects and properties. For instance, one of the current uses of methyl anthranilate is as a bird repellent. Asking whether something is "real" or "fake" tells you less about the thing in question, more about the social and cultural contexts in which that thing is evaluated and exchanged.  

(This is also, by the way, one of the reasons it's ridiculous to claim that a chemical shouldn't be in foods because it's also in yoga mats, or whatever. Its presence in both the edible and non-edible world has absolutely nothing to do with whether it's toxic, or good, or gross, or anything.)

My chemists -- the ones who prance through the pages of my dissertation -- will most likely tell you that a molecule is a molecule, that it's impossible to distinguish a molecule of methyl anthranilate within a Concord grape's glaucous globe from one produced in a laboratory by mixing chemicals under a condenser hood in the presence of hydrochloric acid gas.

But I'm not a chemist; I'm a historian. And even if there is no distinguishable chemical difference between two molecules -- one synthetic, one "natural" -- there are historical differences, and those differences have a meaning. Things have histories, things come from somewhere, and how they got here matters. Tracing the history of flavors means following the threads of all these material and sensory entanglements -- chemicals, workers, technologies, laws, markets, foods, consumers... 

Some people reading this might know that the origin of this whole research project started with grapes, or maybe with methyl anthranilate. The short version: once, I was tempted to try a dusky violet Concord grape at the Union Square farmers market. "Wow," I thought. "This totally tastes like fake grape." I wondered whether the Concord grape was more common back when "fake grape" was "invented."  "Maybe 'fake grape' was supposed to taste like real grapes, only these were the real grapes, back then." 

I've spent the past two years and change on the trail of this idea, mostly learning how to ask the right questions.      

On a final note, here's the excellent NuGrape song, recorded by the mysterious and beuatiful "NuGrape Twins" in 1926. I first heard it on the collection American Primitive, Vol. II, on Revenant Records, but you can listen to it here.

This is how it begins (lyrics transcribed by Michael Leddy):

I got a NuGrape mighty fine
Three rings around the bottle is a-genuine
I've got your ice cold NuGrape
 
I got a NuGrape mighty fine
Got plenty imitation but they none like mine
I got your ice-cold NuGrape...


"A Joy to Jaded Appetites": MSG circa 1930

After my blog post last week about MSG, one of the fantastic archivists here at Chemical Heritage Foundation unearthed this incredible artifact. "15 Delightful Recipes Prepared in a New Way," a cookbook and extended advertisement for Aji-No-Moto, a monosodium glutamate seasoning manufactured in Japan by S. Suzuki & Company.

AjinomotoMSG1930.jpg

There's no date on this, but — based on what I know about Aji-No-Moto, on comparable advertisements, and from the lady's outfit in the cover illustration — I'm fairly sure it's from the early 1930s.  At that time, the consumer market for monosodium glutamate in Japan was booming; Suzuki wanted to find a similarly vaunted place for Aji-No-Moto in the U.S. home kitchen.

Aji-No-Moto was the most popular brand of MSG in Japan, but the product and the chemical would have been utterly unfamiliar to the vast majority of US shoppers. So, Suzuki not only had to introduce Americans to Aji-No-Moto, it also had to educate American consumers about how to use it. The advertising pamphlet-cookbook was a common tactic of food manufacturers -- you've probably seen some examples of these with recipes for Jell-O, Crisco, or Fleischmann's Yeast in used bookstores or antiques shops -- and this is a pretty typical example of the form, interlarding practical recipes with expository advertising copy and other inducements.   

In addition to how to use Aji-No-Moto, consumers needed to know why. Every new product has to make its pitch, provide a narrative motive for buying by describing (or creating) the problem it's going to solve, the intervention and improvement that it will make in the one and only life of the consumer.

MSGjoytojadedappetites.jpg

Specifically, this was the problem for which Aji-No-Moto proposed itself as a solution: "jaded appetites."

This was a problem that afflicted women in particular:

To women who daily face the trying problem of having something different for breakfast, luncheon and dinner, or how to make left-over dishes more appetizing, the Orient now sends one of its rarest secrets.

Modern, middle-class women, the scientific managers of the household, were tasked not only with preparing nutritious and wholesome meals on a budget, but also with providing an appetizing and stimulating variety of dishes. Without endless novelty, there would be thankless drudgery. Aji-No-Moto makes it new.    

"Well, that sounds very fine indeed," the woman reader, circa 1930, might as well muse, wondering if this rare secret could help her turn the left-over roast beef congealing in her ice-box into something her fussy children and bratty spouse would not refuse to ingest. "But what exactly is Aji-No-Moto?" The pamphlet scrupulously evades this question. We are told that the name means "essence of taste," but there is no mention of monosodium glutamate, MSG, nor the raw material or industrial process by which it was manufactured. A closer look at the back cover reveals a pair of highly stylized wheat-stalks, cadmium yellow on red ground, enclosing within a mandorla a spare tableau of Aji-No-Moto box, glass bottle, and dainty spoon. This is crowned by an emblem, in cool blue, of an aproned Japanese woman. The twin ears of wheat refer obliquely to the wheat gluten origins of the seasoning; a Good Housekeeping (Bureau of Foods, Sanitation, and Health) Seal of Approval, as well as the assurance that "some of America's leading cookery experts... endorse" Aji-No-Moto "for its purity and wholesomeness" are meant to quell any possible misgivings about the product's safety.

Ajinomotomandorla.jpg

Aji-No-Moto is defined not by what it is, in a material sense, but by what it does -- its effect on foods, on eaters, and on the status of the cook herself.

First, it is a general seasoning, with "practically limitless" applications in foods. The pamphlet contains instructions and recipes for its use in soup, rice and noodles, vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, meat, fish, and eggs. It is simple to use, a kin to the most familiar seasonings: "use it just before serving as you would salt and pepper, or at the table."

But the "super-seasoning" does more than salt and pepper ever can. Aji-No-Moto not only improves the food; it also improves the cook. Aji-No-Moto collapses the difference between domestic cooking and fine cuisine, bringing the gourmet chef's refined effects within reach of the housewife and elevating her home cooking above the realm of the quotidian. We are told that Aji-No-Moto is "a zestful persuasive seasoning that immediately gives the most commonplace, every-day dish that indefinable something that makes one cook's meal a welcome surprise and another's 'Just something to eat.'" It "gives to every dish that rich, full-bodied flavor that forms the basis of the famous sauces, soups and other culinary triumphs of the foremost professional chefs." Moreover, it produces these effects as if automatically, without adding any drudgery or time to the process of cooking -- for instance, it "eliminates the laborious process of boiling down beef-stock in order to obtain a meaty flavor." In short: it increases joy, without sacrificing efficiency.

What is this "indefinable something"? How does it work? The pamphlet offers the following account of Aji-no-Moto's operations:

[It] is the only seasoning which reveals the 'Hidden Flavor' of food. Untasted in every dish you eat is flavor that makes food more tempting -- delicious -- appetizing, but whose presence is often unsuspected. Aji-No-Moto reveals and enhances this natural flavor and adds a mellow zest all its own.

Aji-No-Moto thus apparently has a transformative effect on foods and on diners. It transforms foods not by adding an additional, unfamiliar flavor component, but by inducing foods to reveal their "unsuspected" depths. It transforms diners by reeducating their senses and recalibrating their appetites -- by making them susceptible to the flavor they had been consuming all along without suspecting it, the natural flavor that had passed down their gullet untasted.   

The challenge of selling Aji-No-Moto to American consumers is in making the chemical comprehensible -- in balancing familiarity with novelty, but also balancing (scientific) modernity with enchantment and magic. This is why, I think, it Aji-No-Moto persists in being introduced as a "rare secret of the Orient," while also making every effort to appear westernized and domesticated, adaptable to a range of familiar Western dishes. Aji-No-Moto does not abjure its origins — converting itself into a deracinated chemical — but flaunts its Eastern mystique. And while the product's name may be transliterated into Latin script and its meaning translated into mystical English ("Aji-No-Moto means 'Essence of Taste'"), it retains Japanese lettering its packaging, a Japanese housewife on its emblem, and boasts of its endorsement by "The Imperial Household of Japan."

Aji-No-Moto did not take off with American housewives in the 1930s the way it had with their counterparts in East Asia. It appears that American home cooks came to think of it mainly as an Asian condiment rather than a general seasoning. Indeed, the only recipe from the 1930s using MSG that I've encountered so far comes from a 1933 Chicago Tribune column by food writer Mary Meade; she uses it in "sukiyaki," in a column about throwing a Japanese food party. Although Aji-No-Moto continued to be sold in the US throughout the 1930s and 1940s, it appears not to have been widely available. Its sale seems to have been restricted mainly to Asian groceries in large cities.

Despite its apparent lack of success in making a place for Aji-No-Moto in the American cupboard, this pamphlet is fascinating for the ways it prefigures future campaigns to sell monosodium glutamate to home cooks: its associations with professional cooking and plush gourmet qualities such as richness, savoriness, and fullness; its pitch to housewives seeking transcendence from the thankless drudgery of routine cooking; its promises of "inestimable delight," of untasted, unsuspected flavors, flavors that have been there the whole time.

Things of Science and the Flavor of Nature: MSG in 1950

My brilliant fellow fellow here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Deanna Day, recently shared this incredible object with me:

“Things of Science” was a nifty subscription service created in 1940 by the nonprofit organization Science Service: The Institution for the Popularization of Science. Each month, subscribers — ahem, “Friends of Science” — would receive a treasure-box filled with materials and experiments, specimens and their meanings. These ranged from industrial materials (ball and roller bearings, synthetic rubber) to natural history objects (fossils, ferns, sea shells); from the sublime (stars and constellations, miniature flowers) to the mundane (poultry byproducts, highway safety) to the mysterious (soapless soap). (You can check out a semi-complete list of Things of Science on this page maintained by MIT professor George Moody.)    

Unit No. 116 — the “Taste Enhancers” Unit — was mailed out in June 1950. Intended to teach students about the use and manufacture of flavorings, the unit also delivers some fascinating lessons about how flavor was being transformed under the scientific and technical guidance of the US food industry. As the instructional booklet included in the package explained, while spices have played a role in human life since the dawn of civilization, shaping the wealth and destines of nations and driving voyages of discovery, in 1950, we stand at the advent of a new, American-led, era:

“The scientific control of flavoring is essentially an American specialty at the present time. The use of spices abroad remains an art rather than a science. The standardization of flavors in this country was necessitated by the tremendous progress in the development of the numerous branches of the processed food industry.”

Opening up the blue-and-yellow box, Friends of Science would discover five specimens of different “taste enhancers:” three glass vials containing seasoned salt, “soluble pepper,” and “cream of spice cinnamon;” a glassine envelope containing four tablets of an artificial sweetener (sucaryl sodium); and a printed cardboard envelope containing a plastic baggie of Ac’cent-brand 99+% Pure Monosodium Glutamate. Each specimen was accompanied by a corresponding “museum card,” for proper display in one’s personal collection of “things of science.”

thingsofsciencetasteenhancerspecimens.jpg

These five substances illuminated different aspects of the “control of flavoring” made possible by new scientific and technological knowledge about flavor, developed under the stewardship of U.S. food manufacturers. So, for instance, while “crude cinnamon sticks” and black peppercorns vary unpredictably in their flavoring potential, “cream of spice cinnamon” and “soluble pepper” are standardized, processed seasonings, reliably producing “the same flavoring strength and quality at all times.” The non-caloric sweetness offered by sucaryl sodium can be savored by diabetics, for whom sugar (and its comforts) is otherwise off-limits.

The monosodium glutamate (MSG) included in the unit is what I’ll be talking about here. MSG, a chemical largely unfamiliar to most ordinary consumers in the US circa 1950, had to explain itself and its uses more fully. I’ve recently been researching and writing about the "early history" of MSG in the US — in particular, tracing how the chemical was manufactured, marketed, and made valuable to food manufacturers and consumers in the late 1940s and 1950s. MSG's appearance in "Things of Science" is a remarkable artifact of the introduction of this substance to the American consuming public.

MSGthingsofsciencemuseumcard.jpg

The story of MSG as told by “Things of Science” follows the same narrative as its story of cinnamon and pepper: an old (Eastern) substance transformed and made new by the scientific and technical ingenuity of American industry.     

While “ORIENTALS [sic] HAVE USED MSG FOR CENTURIES” — all caps in the original — they only knew it in its “crude form,” as a substance of “low purity,” laced with other amino acids, which contributed to the false belief that the seasoning had a meaty flavor. But, by 1950, improvements to the heavy industrial processes used to manufacture MSG from wheat gluten, corn gluten, and waste products of beet sugar manufacturing meant that the chemical available on the US market was more than 99% pure. So while MSG may have its “origins” in Asia, “only when the pure product became available was its unique property of accentuating natural food flavors and eliminating undesirable qualities fully appreciated.”

This veers from strict accuracy on a few points. First, the presentation of MSG as an ancient Eastern seasoning is not really true. Certainly, soy sauce, fermented soybean paste, and dashi — ingredients common in Japanese and Chinese cuisines — are natural sources of glutamates, but by the same token, the free amino acid is present in all sorts of other foods, including Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese, which are hardly “Oriental.” The manufacture of MSG as a chemical food additive only began in the twentieth century, when Kikunae Ikeda, a German-trained Japanese chemist, succeeded in isolating monosodium glutamate from kombu dashi in 1908; it became a commercial product (initially under the trade name “Aji-no-Moto”) the following year. Getting Japanese consumers to adopt the new seasoning into their diets took several more years. (See Jordan Sand’s “Short History of MSG” in the Fall 2005 Gastronomica for more, including how Japanese manufacturers marketed MSG in China.) Moreover, it didn’t take American scientists to appreciate that the substance had “unique” properties. From the outset, Ikeda insisted that the sensation produced by MSG was distinct from the other four “basic” taste sensations (sour, salty, bitter, sweet); a sensation that he called umami.   

But what I want to focus on here is this claim: MSG’s “unique property of accentuating natural food flavors.” Or, as explained elsewhere in the booklet, MSG “modifies existing flavor without adding anything new.”

This is the key. This explanation of MSG’s utility — as a means of intensifying, enhancing, and improving a food’s existing, “natural” flavors — was central to its acceptance and proliferation in the US food supply in the post-war period.     

Earlier efforts to sell MSG in the US had fizzled. Attempts in the 1920s by Aji-no-Moto to sell MSG to American consumers had failed to gain traction, and initial plans to manufacture MSG in the US in the 1930s were intended to supply growing Asian demand, not to develop a domestic market for the chemical. As long as MSG was perceived primarily as an Asian product, its compatibility with American foods and tastes was not self-evident. As Warren Belasco describes in Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, many Westerners perceived Asian diets as bland, monotonous, impoverished, meat-poor; Asian cuisine seemed to represent the diminished gastronomic pleasures of the world after a Malthusian crisis. Understood as an artificial “meaty” flavor, then, MSG’s purpose in Asian foods seemed comprehensible — those poor people’s foods needed it. Some early major uses of MSG in the US reflect this understanding. During World War II, MSG was an important component in the dehydrated soups sent overseas as part of the Lend-Lease program — emergency food supplies for our allies; it also incorporated into US Army rations. MSG was seen as an economical fix for these low-cost, flavor-deficient foods.    

But in order to make a market for MSG in the post-war US, manufacturers had to redefine its status and recast its utility. No longer a chemical salve that made cheap, impoverished foods minimally acceptable, it was presented as a substance that had a place in the high-quality and plentiful foods of prosperity. In particular, MSG manufacturers advertised the chemical as a sort of scientific “white magic”: an industrial product that promised to erase the effects of industrialization on foods by restoring and enhancing “natural” “freshness.” It was not a scary and dubious new chemical, but an “old” seasoning, albeit one refined to white, free-flowing purity by American ingenuity. As a 1952 advertisement for Ac’cent (from the journal Food Technology) put it: “There are wonderful natural flavors already in the foods you process.” No longer would flavor need to be sacrificed to convenience, shelf-life, and price. The message to processors was: MSG added value by ensuring that nothing was lost. This is the context in which MSG appears as a “thing of science.”

The student-scientist encountering MSG for the first time in “Things of Science” was given a couple of “experiments” to perform with the sample of MSG. In the first, students were asked to take note of the persistent “mouth-tingling” sensation produced when a pinch of MSG was placed on the tongue, and the increased salivation that the chemical triggered. The second purported to demonstrate how that the addition of MSG intensified the perception of saltiness of a salt-and-water solution. But after these two simple tasks, the booklet defers to the sample of Ac’cent, directing students to consult the package for more ways “to experiment for yourself with its effect on various foods.”

Duly turning to the package of Ac’cent, the student was encouraged to “try this scientific magic in foods,” offering a series of “experiments” to demonstrate MSG’s effects:

Take two hamburger patties. Sprinkle one with 1/4 teaspoon of MSG a few minutes before cooking. Then “note the increased natural flavor” of the burger with pure MSG. Dust peas, green beans, or corn with 1/8 teaspoon of MSG; comparison with the same vegetables bare of the chemical will show how MSG “increased flavor appeal.” Add MSG to soup and you’ll surely notice a “pronounced improvement.” As for fish: “You will find that it brings out and intensifies the delicate flavors of this tender protein food.”

The results are foregone conclusions, and it’s no surprise to find these very same “experiments” in advertisements for Ac’cent that ran in Life magazine, the New York Times, and other consumer publications. The “scientific magic” of MSG was that it brought out “more natural flavors” in everything from appetizers to casseroles, without adding any flavor, aroma, or color of its own. Processing alienated food from its essence, flavor; MSG reconciled industrial processes with food’s “natural” origins.

Makesfoodflavorssing.jpg

But MSG’s effects went beyond that. As the slogan printed on the package crowed, Ac’cent “makes food flavors sing.”

Let that remarkable tagline sink in for a moment. It is as though, with the addition of a small amount of MSG, foods were induced to a state of flavorful self-expression, to irrepressibly sing out the aria of their most authentic selves. As a 1954 advertisement from the Wall Street Journal put it: “Chicken tastes more like chicken when you add Ac’cent!” Natural flavors: now in high-fidelity stereo. And, just as high-fidelity sound promised listeners the illusion of the orchestra in the living room, MSG promised the illusion of the garden on your plate.

From The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1954, p.7.

From The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1954, p.7.

Here I’ll quote another advertisement, which I’ve found so far in both in the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times in July 1951:

“You have the power to make vegetables taste garden-fresh. Just add Ac'cent, that masterly seasoning millions of cooks use to give back the just-picked flavor that vegetables, when they are even a day away from the garden, have begun to lose.”    

But turning back to the MSG in “Things of Science:” “Pure monosodium glutamate is good for you and your food,” the package proclaims. “It offers more food enjoyment for everyone.”

More happy love! More happy happy love! MSG emerges from this presentation as a chemical allied with both truth (authentic, natural flavors) and beauty (increased enjoyment, increased pleasure), with the natural and its superlative enhancement. The chemical's effects, then, aren’t just material — retaining the flavor quality of processed foods — but psychological — increasing the consumer’s enjoyment of them.  

So what was Ac'cent's MSG doing in “Things of Science”? The "Friends of Science" who received the unit were being courted not only as future food engineers who might one day use the product in food processing, but as potential vectors for the chemical into the home kitchen. MSG production capacity in the US doubled after World War II, and MSG manufacturers were eager to expand their reach into the lucrative consumer marketplace. In Japan and China, MSG was a successful consumer product — elegant glass bottles of Aji-no-Moto graced dinner tables — but in the US, Mrs. Housewife had not yet found a place for the “third shaker” on her table-top.   

The inclusion and presentation of MSG in this “Things of Science” unit was very clearly part of the marketing strategy for Ac’cent, whose parent company, International Minerals & Chemical Company, was the largest domestic producer of MSG at the time. Although the other specimens in the box were also contributed by manufacturers, none of the other containers were explicitly branded, much less covered with suggested uses, inducements, and advertising slogans. (Promoting MSG among students was also not an American innovation; according to Jordan Sand, between 1922 and 1937, Aji-no-Moto distributed samples of their product and a cookbook to all female college students in Japan at graduation.) And the marketing influence was not restricted to the packaging of the MSG sample. Large portions of the instructional leaflet text directly quote (without attribution) material on glutamate published by Stanley Cairncross and Loren Sjostrom, chemists at Arthur D. Little, Inc., the consulting firm hired  by International Minerals & Chemical Company to study Ac’cent’s market potential.

In my dissertation, I go on to talk about how efforts to account for and describe the “glutamate effect” produced by MSG shaped subsequent flavor research and development programs in the food industry. In particular, research into the properties of MSG by the Arthur D. Little, Inc. led its flavor laboratory to develop a novel technique for describing the sensory effects of flavor, the Flavor Profile Method, aspects of which were widely adopted by industry in product development. One of the new capabilities of this technique was that it allowed for a representation of total flavor “amplitude” — the intensity of flavor that a food delivered. That is, the things that MSG did to our perceptions of so-called "natural" flavor in food — boost, blend, amplify — were figured in this model as primary, desirable qualities for flavor in general. The question of flavor, then, became not only a question of what but of how much.  The success of MSG also sparked new physiological research into food chemicals — the search for other flavor “potentiators” (a term borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry), ingredients that affected the flavor of food by altering our sensations and perceptions.  

MSG didn’t cause these changes to occur — as with everything in history, it’s tied together with so many other technical, social, material, cultural changes — but it was a catalyst. Though never fully successful as a consumer pantry staple, its widespread adoption by the food processing industry was both a sign and a symptom of broader transformations in the relationship between Americans and their food, as well as their ideas of the sensory meaning of "natural." And so, the dawn of the so-called “Golden Age of Processed Foods,” this crucial chemical emerges, simultaneously a modern “thing of science” and a specimen of old “Oriental” magic, an industrial product that somehow enhanced natural effects.

Messing with the Senses

I'll begin with this: the "mystery" flavor of Dum-Dum lollipops. When I was a kid, I had a theory that mystery flavor was a factory mistake. All the lollipops that accidentally made it through the assembly line uncolored were swaddled in a "mystery" wrapper, spangled in question marks like the suit of the man who helps you get free government money. Which didn't actually help me solve the problem of what flavor, exactly, they were supposed to be. I always found them off-putting -- colorless, translucent globes of indeterminacy. (Googling it now, this article claims that the mystery flavor is a mixture of two other flavors in production, the mixed-up flavors that get produced between batches in the lollipop factory.) 

mysteryflavor.jpg

Almost everyone, in school science labs, has done some variation of this experiment: sipping tiny paper cups of colorless orange soda, or Sprite tinted to look like Coke, and then trying to guess at the flavor of these uncanny concoctions. The flavor of a soft drink -- something that seemed so obvious and familiar -- is revealed to be elusive, befuddling, difficult to pin down. Is it grape? Is it orange? Is it lemon-lime? Why is it so hard to tell?

And it's not only rubes who can't tell red wine from white without looking at the glass -- this is a common incapacity, even among snobby winos.

Examples like these, of the profound effects of color on our perception and experience of flavor, are familiar to most of us now. Our present-day scientific understanding of how color is mixed up with flavor has its roots in the 1930s, when the industrialization of food systems made flavor a technical and scientific problem for food producers. Among other things, manufacturers needed ways to minimize and counteract the deleterious effects of processing on food quality; they needed standardized, stable, and consistently priced products; they needed foods with "flavor appeal" that would tempt "repeat buyers." This meant defining what, exactly, flavor is, and how it works to produce its effects. Even as chemists, food technologists, home economists, and other scientists got better at analyzing, identifying, and manipulating the molecular and material aspects of food that contribute to flavor, they recognized that flavor could not fully be described chemically, nor was it exclusively produced by the "chemical senses," taste and smell. As Ernest Crocker, who I've written about before on this blog, put it in his introduction to the landmark 1937 American Chemical Society Symposium on Flavors in Foods: "A new approach to the subject of flavor consists in attacking several of its many sides simultaneously, but especially the psychological and the chemical sides." Understanding flavor would mean not only studying its molecular aspects, but also the way perceptions of flavor were influenced by visual cues, social norms, personal history, present atmospheric conditions, and the vagaries of individual physiology. This is one of the points where two nascent fields -- flavor chemistry and sensory science -- are cross-hatched together.  

One of the first people to mess around with visual cues and flavor perception was H.C. Moir, a Scottish analytic chemist working at a baked-goods factory in 1930s Glasgow. Present-day sensory scientists cite Moir's 1936 article ("Some Observations on the Appreciation of Flavor in Foodstuffs"), published in the British technical journal Chemistry and Industry, as the first to document how the color of a food shapes our experience of its flavor. (For instance, this nifty article by Crossmodal Lab's Charles Spence touts: "ever since the seminal observations of Moir in the 1930s, researchers have known that changing the color of a food or beverage can change its perceived taste/flavour.")

Most scientists who cite Moir don't go into any detail about his experiments, and (just guessing here) probably haven't read his article. And, really, why would they? In the intervening decades, there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of studies published about the role of visual cues in flavor perception, using much more sophisticated techniques, producing much more formidable results. Scientific conventions prescribe preserving the honor of first discovery in the crowded footnotes, but there's no obligation to engage with this dustiest of data. (And Moir may not even fully deserve the credit he gets as pioneer. In his article, he credits Mr. Rendle of Chivers & Son -- a manufacturer of marmalades, fruit preserves, and jellies-- with developing the method of "testing 'palates'" that he describes.)

Stomping around in the bibliographic basement, however, can sometimes enrich our understanding of how we got to now -- the interlinked networks of interests, institutions, ideologies, technologies, materials, and living, working bodies that underlie the production of scientific facts.  

So, with all that said, who was H.C. Moir, and what exactly is his story?

It's rather difficult to find any solid information on Moir, but when he wrote his article, I'm fairly certain that he was the director and chief chemist at William Beattie, Ltd., a Scottish wholesale bakery. That is, he was not a psychologist, psychophysicist, or physiologist trained to observe and measure human sensory responses to stimuli. He was an industrial analytic chemist, and the research that he describes did not take place in the controlled setting of an academic laboratory, but rather on the factory floor, with workers in his bakery as his subjects.

Nor was Moir primarily trying to prove any basic hypotheses about the nature of sensory perception. Instead, he was dealing with a technical and commercial problem: he needed to find reliable tasters to evaluate the quality of his baked goods.

He writes: “My object in making ... these tests was to find within the factory" a group of individuals with a proven "discriminating palate... to whom questions of flavor could be referred." He wanted to have trustworthy "tasting panel" that could weigh in on new products, or detect whether something was going wrong with the production line.

And so he casts his net over the factory floor, drawing in sixty tasters -- managers, salesmen, "factory girls," bakers, "in some measure... a cross section of the consuming public" -- who are subjected to a series of tests in order to assess their sensory acuity.

Moir begins by having his subjects rank solutions of sucrose and citric acid in order of increasing sweetness and sourness. He then asks about their habits and preferences. Do you have a sweet tooth, or do you prefer savories? Do you take sugar in your tea? How many lumps? Are there any foods you particularly loathe -- olives, asparagus, pineapple?  

But the most dramatic part of Moir's investigation -- the part that still earns him citations from present-day sensory scientists -- comes when he serves up discordantly colored sweets. Recognizing that people are often "misled by their eyes" when identifying flavor, he decides to confound the senses of his subjects by serving them Chivers-brand "table jellies" -- ie, flavored gelatin, like Jell-O, I think -- in four distinct "good, true-to-type flavors," but with colors that were not typically associated with the added flavor. So:

  • Yellow Vanilla (I think we can assume that this was bright, bright yellow)
  • Green Orange
  • Amber Lime
  • Red Lemon

The tasters were assured that they were dealing with very familiar flavors -- nothing odd or exotic here -- and then asked to name them. If they really struggled to come up with anything, they were given the four possible options, and told to match them with the proper jellies.

The tasters performed terribly. Only one person out of the sixty got all the identifications right; most got fewer than half the questions correct on the test. And the guesses were all over the place. The vanilla jelly was identified as black currant, lime, apricot, lemon, orange, tangerine, strawberry, among other things. Guesses for the lime-flavored jelly included vanilla, pineapple, and apricot.   

What's more, Moir was astonished by the indignation that his tasters exhibited when told of their execrable performance: 

“Some of the least discriminating were the most dogmatic in their decisions. The majority of those who came below 50% went to great pains to assure me that they were considered by their wives or mothers, or other intimates, to be unduly fastidious about their food, and were invariably able to spot milk turning well in advance of any other member of the household.”

Some tasters insisted that their palates were fine, it was the test that was flawed. Others complained that the test was unfair to them because they personally disliked table jellies. “But of course, what I was anxious to find was those who were possessed of palates which could discriminate even that which they did not appreciate," grumbles Moir. "No one enjoyed the flavor of decomposed fruit... but on occasion one must detect, and if possible, identify it."  In other words, for Moir, a good taster and a gourmand are not the same. An accurate taster must be able to report his or her sensory perceptions without prejudice, dispassionately detecting and identifying the flavors that are present in a food regardless of personal preference.

Moir emphasized the egalitarian implications of his findings. Situational authority -- the power or expertise possessed by the foreman, the manager, the chemist -- does not confer sensory authority. Just because someone is in a position of power does not mean that he or she is "the right person to decide any point as regards the flavor of the products concerned." Indeed, Moir laments that chemists too often assume the accuracy of their sensory capabilities, with disastrous results for the business. "There is nothing to be ashamed of in the lack of a palate," he avers, "but there is something to be ashamed of in a chemist making definite statements on a subject in which he is unable to discriminate."

Even though the results of his investigation reinforce his suspicions that "in the majority of people the faculty [of perceiving flavor] was exceedingly dull," Moir counsels his fellow food manufacturers not to use the public's poor taste as an excuse to neglect the flavor of their products. Though the good tasters may be vastly outnumbered, he says, “the discriminating section of the public exercises an influence out of all proportion to its numbers on the non-discriminating section."

I originally tracked down Moir's paper because it's one of the earliest I've found that makes reference to a "tasting panel" -- a group of individuals selected for their sensory acuity, used by food researchers as a sort of laboratory tool for producing scientific information about flavor qualities. In the first twenty years after its publication, Moir's 1936 article was most frequently cited by researchers writing about techniques for assembling reliable laboratory taste panels. These studies are primarily concerned not with the operation of the human senses, but with accurately detecting and describing the qualities of foods.

The turn towards applying research about the workings of the human senses to the development of new food products would not come until at least the 1950s (at least that's what I've discovered in my research so far.)  Although sensory scientists now locate Moir at the dawn of crossmodal sensory research, reading his article, it is clear that he is not particularly concerned with the ways that multiple senses work together to produce the experience of flavor. Indeed, his color test is a way of weeding out people whose sensory judgment is deformed by visual evidence -- implying that, for him, the visual distorts, rather than contributes to, flavor. He does dish out some interesting tidbits: for instance, he observes that more intensely colored foods are often perceived to have stronger flavors -- a phenomenon that later research seems to confirm. However, he does not seem at all inclined to use this information to guide the development of baked goods -- eg, chocolate rolls that seem more richly chocolatey without any additional chocolate.  

This stands in marked contrast to trends and tendencies in the application of present-day sensory science. Charles Spence's article mentioned at the beginning of this post -- well worth reading -- reviews the manifold ways that senses other than taste and smell shape our expectations and experiences of food's flavors. Not only the color of food, but the pitch of the music playing over the speakers, the massiveness of the plate, the brightness of the overhead lights, influence our perception of the character and intensity of the taste and smell of the foods before us. This kind of thing is of real importance to food manufacturers, as it provides potential avenues for intensifying the sensory pleasures of foods while decreasing the need for costly flavoring ingredients. Spence also notes that an additional "area of intense commercial interest currently revolves around seeing whether the consumer's brain can, in some sense, be tricked into perceiving tastes/flavours without the need to include all the unhealthy ingredients that so many of us seem to crave."

So is this a perturbing manipulation of our perceptions -- turning our senses against us -- or is it a savvy application of scientific research, to the end of producing goods that can both gratify our sensory desires and satisfy our material and physical requirements (for cheaper foods, more nutritious products, more intense pleasures, etcetera)? Anecdotally, even people who are more or less okay with "processed foods" seem disturbed about this aspect of food research, which gets imagined as the hegemonic forces of big food reaching their creepy tentacles into your brain and occupying your appetites. The informed and empowered consumer, steadfastly reading labels and counting calories, dissolves and becomes a reflex machine, resistless against the compulsions of salt, sugar, fat.

One of the things I'd like to discover is where this horror story comes from. Fear of chemicals in foods has a long history, dating back to the nineteenth century, at least, and coming to the cultural forefront in various guises at specific historical moments -- for instance, in the Progressive era around the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, or in the 1960s with the countercultural critique of the food industry. But I'd like to also track down the prefigurations of this fear or suspicion of food's sensory qualities, and the new tenor that fear takes when science intervenes in producing those qualities. Definitely something to think about...  

Skunkiness, Coffee Chemistry, and Naturalism in Flavor

"Like flowers, but with garbage!" is how Roslyn, Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle, describes her favorite Swiss topcoat. "It’s like perfumey but there’s also something rotten and I know that sounds crazy, but I can’t get enough of it. Smell it, it’s true. Historically, the best perfumes in the world, they’re all laced with something nasty."

Don't stop sniffing your nails, Roslyn, because you're onto something. The notion that the pleasant has to be laced with the foul to achieve its full effect has a long history in perfumery -- the term of art here is pudeur. Mary Gaitskill, in her 2006 novel Veronica, writing about the Paris runways in the early 1980s, describes the effect this way:

"Thumping music took you into the lower body, where the valves and pistons were working. You caught a dark whiff of shit, the sweetness of cherries, and the laughter of girls. Like lightning, the contrast cut down the center of the earth: We all eat and shit, screw and die. But here is Beauty in a white dress."

There's a satisfying, counterintuitive logic to this, even as the sentiment has become kind of a platitude: Your flaws make you beautiful, baby.

But this idea -- the putrid grace note -- seems a bit less appealing when it comes to flavor. Could there be something rotten or excremental undergirding the savoriness of our savories? Does vanilla flavor really come from the anal glands of a beaver? This might seem like one of the points where the flavor and fragrance industries diverge, where the logics of "good taste" differ depending on whether you're considering the aromatic and the edible. The history of the flavor chemistry of coffee, however, offers a more nuanced spin.   

Imagine for a moment the gorgeous, plush aroma of coffee. Wafting from the percolator, it eases you into the morning, cushioning the cruel shock of awakening, bringing the clan together around the breakfast table. Morning! Comfort! Optimism!

Now imagine a skunk trotting into the breakfast room, tail aloft, trailing the fumes of his distinctive parfum.

Is there any similarity between these two smells, the fair and the foul? A skunkiness in the Stumptown Hairbender? An element of Caffe Verona in yonder fair skunk?

Okay, by way of an answer, here's my story: in 1949, Cargille Scientific, a chemical and instrument supply company in New York, began selling something they called "Coffee-Captan."

"A smell is being made commercially available for the first time," toodled the Associated Press in 1949. "It is described as an essential constituent of the aroma of roasted coffee that provides a new scent for perfume and flavors." Food Industries also ran an item announcing that quantities of the synthetically produced furfuryl mercaptan were available for the first time manufacturing and for research. "In addition to its many uses in the food field for enriching flavors and aromas, it should also be useful as an intermediate in organic synthesis." Maison DeNavarre, in the June 1949 iteration of his monthly "Desiderata" column in the American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review, squealed: "The recent announcement of the availability of alpha furfuryl mercaptan, one of the essential constituents of the aroma of roasted coffee, has probably been read by everyone." He thought the powerful chemical could possibly help make the scent of formulas for "cold wave" permanents less offensive. Meanwhile, Chemical and Engineering News (March 28, 1949) noted its potential as a polymerization agent,and an accelerant in rubber vulcanization.

But what is furfuryl mercaptan? Also known as 2-furanmethanethiol, it is a sulfur-containing compound, not present in the green coffee bean, but created during roasting via the Maillard reaction. At very low concentrations (like, one part per million), it has a pleasantly familiar coffee aroma. At higher concentrations, it provides a... different sort of experience. Cargille's "Coffee-Captan," Kiplinger's noted in 1954, "is powerful stuff, having to be kept under double seal because in concentrated form it gives the impression that there has been an explosion involving a skunk about the size of an A-bomb." One flavor chemist remembers an entire facility being evacuated after an someone accidentally broke empty bottle had once contained the chemical.

How did this foul chemical become a commercial product?

Chemists had been trying to determine the constituents of the aroma of roasted coffee since the beginning of the nineteenth century. (There's a good technical account of this history in the textbook, Coffee Flavor Chemistry, written by two Firmenich chemists, Ivon Flament and Yvonne Bessiere-Thomas). Analyzing organic compounds was a painstaking and difficult process, demanding maximum skill and care. Chemists wondered: were the chemical changes that took place in green coffee beans specific to coffee, or were they common to other roasted things? Furthermore, was there a simple chemical "principle" that accounted for the smell of a substance -- a singular "essence" -- or instead, did a set of chemicals, interacting together in complex ways, produced what we recognize as an aroma?  

A minor tangent (file it under "Coffee, usefulness thereof"): In an 1832 article in the Leipzinger Zeitung entitled "Coffee Arabicae: Its Destructive Effect on Animal Emanations as a Protective Agent Against Contagion," the German chemist Christian Conrad Weiss described the power of roasted coffee aroma to neutralize stinks of all kinds: rotten eggs, putrid meats, animal musks, asafoetida. In an era before germ theory, when foul odors were thought to contribute to the spread of disease, Weiss believed that concentrated coffee extract or a pinch of finely ground coffee, burned in a lamp, could disinfect and purify a room for days. Coffee extract might also serve as a more pleasing alternative to the typical contents of the vinaigrette, the fashionable lady's dainty respite from intrusive odors. Weiss, however, did not make much progress in actually identifying the chemical components of roasted coffee aroma. At the beginning of the twentieth century, chemists had succeeded in provisionally identifying only ten volatile compounds in coffee.

The major leap in the understanding of the chemistry of roasted coffee aroma would have to wait until after the First World War. Starting in 1920, in a meticulous research project spanning more than a decade, two chemists working in Switzerland, Tadeus Reichstein and Hermann Staudinger -- both would later, separately, win the Nobel Prize -- definitively identified nearly thirty components in coffee that contributed to its aroma. One of these was furfuryl mercaptan, a previously unknown molecule. 

The Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I'm a fellow this year, has a 1985 oral history with Reichstein in its fantastic Beckman Center collection. In addition to kind of hilariously undermining his incendiary former PhD advisor Staudinger ("I didn't like his methods because... it's a kind of brutal chemistry. He liked everything which made noise and caused explosions. These were the things he liked." Whenever Staudinger worked in the laboratory, "afterwards everything was full of broken glass..."), Reichstein also pontificates about the role that small quantities of foul-smelling compounds play in flavor.

He tells the interviewer: "The sense for flavor is very delicate. If you have such a mixture and you take only one of the things out, the rest will go flat. For instance, what I realized at this time was that a very good smell in some flowers, jasmine or roses or violets -- the really good smell is only produced by some compounds present in very small quantities which smell awfully bad -- terrible -- if they are alone or concentrated. But without them, the good smell is not natural. It is like a cheap coiffure shop."

Producing a smell that was both "good" and "natural" was an important end goal of their research. Reichstein and Staudinger received funding from Kathreiner's Malzkaffee, a company that produced a sort of ersatz coffee from malted barley. After the miserable shortages of coffee (and other foods) in Europe during the First World War, Reichstein says: "they were interested because they thought they could add a little flavor to make their malt coffee smell like real coffee. They were very pleasant people. I worked through many tons of coffee to get only a few cubic centimeters of the flavor." Reichstein and Staudinger took out several patents in the 1920s in the UK and the US for their research, including for a "new or improved method of producing artificial coffee aroma."

After the coffee flavor project, Reichstein would go on to an illustrious career, doing important work on the synthesis of Vitamin C, and eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his work on the chemistry of cortisone and other adrenal hormones. Staudinger would nab his own prize three years later, in honor of his visionary work on macromolecules and polymers.

But the significance of their work on the flavor chemistry of coffee does not seem to have been widely recognized before the late 1940s. Indeed, once Reichstein and Staudinger caught wind of Cargille's "Coffee-Captan," they cried foul about the company's claim to offer this synthetic chemical for sale "for the first time." They called attention to their work and their earlier patents, claiming priority for their discoveries. Indeed, Flament and Bessiere-Thomas note that furfuryl mercaptan was already one of the components of a flavor additive, "Cofarom," manufactured by the German flavor and fragrance firm Haarmann & Reimer. (Reichstein and Staudinger's research was not completely unknown, as it was respectfully cited in a pair of articles on coffee flavor by pioneering flavor chemist Morris B. Jacobs, which ran in the March and April 1949 American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review.)

Why did it take so long for this work to catch on? Part of it may be that flavor companies prior to the mid-1930s were not in the habit of using basic research into the flavor chemistry of foods to fuel product development. (There are some exceptions to this.)  Furthermore, much of their research and development focused on isolating and synthesizing organic compounds of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen -- aldehydes, ketones, ethyls, alcohols -- or, more rarely, Nitrogen-containing compounds such as methyl anthranilate (you know this one as the smell of a grape Jolly Rancher, or a Concord grape). Stinky sulfur-containing chemicals seem largely to have been shunned. Indeed, Alois von Isakovics, the founder of Synfleur, one of the earliest synthetic fragrance and flavor manufacturers in the U.S. called sulfur-containing compounds the "enemy of the perfume or flavor chemist." In a 1908 lecture to students at Columbia University, he advised "eliminating from perfume substances even the smallest traces of constituents that contain sulfur."

These early products may have been "good," but they did not necessarily also produce an impression that could be called "natural." However, by the late 1930s, flavor manufacturers were more and more interested in reproducing the effects of nature, creating "blended" flavors that had depth, delicacy, and complexity. And, as Bernard Smith, of the flavor company Virginia Dare put it in a speech to the landmark "Flavors in Foods" American Chemical Society Symposium in 1937: “It is a well-recognized principle that in minute traces compounds of even objectionable flavor or odor may greatly assist in producing a finished product of superior excellence." With an increasing number of volatile chemicals produced by organic chemical research, flavorists and flavor manufacturers had a growing field of materials with which to tailor specific, "naturalistic," effects.

Compounds like furfuryl mercaptan illustrated the complex way that flavor chemicals operated in foods and on the senses. Chemicals that at full strength were unambiguously foul, could also be the key to producing effects that were not just pleasant, but convincingly, compellingly "natural" -- whether or not they were actually materially identical to the "real thing."  


"Eat the contents. Eat the jar."

Another entry in the strange and wonderful history of edible containers: the Fruitainer. Made by the Continental Fruit Company of Chicago, this "new taste treat" comprised orange honey jelly and citrus marmalade in an edible "natural fruit shell" made from the reconstituted, dried exocarps of oranges and grapefruits.  According to Food Industries  (May 1940, p. 62), it offered a "convenient and economical outlet for otherwise almost useless byproducts."

"Consumers like the package because it adds interest to the contents and solves the disposal problem," claimed Food Industries. I can't judge how much "interest" it adds, but you're still going to need a trash can: the Fruitainer itself is wrapped in cellophane, and rests upon a bed of tissue paper, nestled within a cardboard container. Instructions are included (and, apparently, needed). Bon appetit!

Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found here.

Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found here.

Real Mayonnaise v. Fake Mayo: Some Historical Background on Hellman's v. Just Mayo

Line your lairs with slices of white bread: the great mayonnaise wars have begun!

You may have heard the news that Hellman's, a subsidiary of Unilever, is suing Hampton Creek over a rival product, Just Mayo. Their claim? Just Mayo is a phony trying to pass itself off as the real thing. As one of Unilever's VPs told Businessweek: "They're nonmayonnaise and are trying to play in the mayonnaise side."

At issue are FDA regulations that officially define what can legally call itself mayonnaise in this country. These regulations decree mayonnaise to be an emulsified semisolid food that must contain three things: vegetable oil, an acidifying ingredient (vinegar, lemon and/or lime juice), and egg yolks (or, technically, an egg-yolk-containing ingredient).

Hellman's: It tickles the menfolks!

The regulations also specify a suite of optional ingredients that can be included in without mayonnaise sacrificing its legitimacy -- salt, MSG, crystallization inhibitors such as oxystearin, etc. -- but the egg yolks are the sticking point here.

My name is 'Mayonnaise,' emulsion of emulsions

Look upon my yolks, ye mighty, and despair!

Hampton Creek makes a vegan, entirely plant-based product. There's a joke that goes: "How do you know if someone is a vegan?" "Don't worry. They'll tell you."***

justmayoegg.jpg

Hampton Creek is not that kind of vegan. Josh Tetrick, the company's CEO, told the Washington Post: "We don't market our product to tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco.... We built the company to try to really penetrate the places where better-for-you food hasn't gone before, and that means right in the condiment aisle of Walmart." It's evident that Just Mayo doesn't want to get pinned as some hippie "health food," a carob also-ran trying to compete with actual chocolate. It claims to be as delectable as the thing itself. It even features an egg-like ovoid on its label, for some reason.  

The media, along with its celebrity chef auxiliary corps, has generally taken the side of the underdog here, chiding Unilever for bullying the start-up and generally acting like the soulless multinational corporation that it is. (There have also been some subsequent ironies -- Hellman's had to change the wording on their website to account for the fact that some of their products, including their olive oil mayonnaise, don't count as mayonnaise either under the FDA's regulations -- like Miracle Whip, another nonmayo, they are  technically "dressings.")

But in making this a story about big and little brands fighting over shelf space at the supermarket, the historical dimension of this spat is being ignored.

For that, we'll have to turn to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, and the law that it amended and expanded, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

The 1906 law is probably best remembered as landmark public health legislation, creating the infrastructure to inspect food and drugs and safeguard their safety. But it also gave the federal government the authority to intervene in preventing fraud by regulating how foods and drugs were labeled and advertised. It was no longer permissible to call your product "Olive Oil" if it was mostly vegetable oil, with a drizzle of olive oil for flavor, or "Strawberry Jam," if its flavor and color came from synthetic chemicals and not actual fruit. These would have to be labeled "imitation" or "compound," black marks against them, in marketer's estimations.        

But this did not stop manufacturers from giving fanciful or "distinctive" names to their products, avoiding an explicit claim while making the similarity as implicit as possible. Calling the oil "Spanola--For Salads," for instance, and selling it alongside similar-looking cans of genuine olive oil. This jam-like substance may look and taste a lot like jam, but it's not jam, it's "Bred-Spred"! By the 1930s, a growing number of these novel, fabricated foods were appearing on supermarket shelves, the new self-service stores where consumers were doing more and more of their grocery shopping, making their own choices about what to buy, unaided by clerks or shopkeepers. Note that the issue here was not that these products are dangerous or harmful, but that they seemed to be taking advantage of consumer ignorance -- deceiving well-intentioned housewives into unwittingly buying cheap substitutes for real things

The notorious Bred-Spred is on the right; the other foods shown here are an imitation vinegar and an imitation peanut butter, all sneakily seeking to avoid having to bear the stigma of "imitation" by using "distinctive names." Image courtesy the FDA History Office. 

The notorious Bred-Spred is on the right; the other foods shown here are an imitation vinegar and an imitation peanut butter, all sneakily seeking to avoid having to bear the stigma of "imitation" by using "distinctive names." Image courtesy the FDA History Office. 

The 1938 law dealt with this apparent problem in several ways. First, it gave the FDA the authority to create and enforce food standards -- official definitions of the constituents and components of staple foods, such as olive oil, or jam, or mayonnaise -- that foods would have to meet in order to be legitimately sold as such on the market. Foods that did not contain the ingredients required by the established standard of identity, or that included components that were not officially permitted as "optional" ingredients, would be declared "misbranded" or "adulterated" and seized by FDA agents.

Second, the law also took action against any food that "purports to be or is represented as a food for which a definition and standard of identity has been prescribed" when it didn't meet the requirements of that standard. This essentially meant that substandard "imitation" foods would no longer be allowed on the marketplace -- everything that acted like jam had to meet the fruit and sugar requirements of jam, and would be prohibited from including additional ingredients (flavor chemicals, for instance) not listed in the standard. The "purports to be or is represented as" phrasing is key here. This is how the FDA took action against foods like Spanola or Bred-Spred. These foods would no longer be protected by their "distinctive names." FDA agents would look at the sales context, label and package design, and intended use of the product to evaluate whether it was attempting to pass itself off as some other, more lovable food. For foods where no standard of identity existed, products would be required to list and disclose all of their ingredients on their label.

Third, the law included a broadly written clause [Section 402(b)] prohibiting manufacturers from adding any substance “to make the product appear better or of greater value than it is… or create a deceptive appearance.” So -- any additives to enhance flavor, color, texture, and so on were suspect.   

I won't go into the longer history of the enforcement of this law here -- though if you're interested, read up on the so-called Imitation Jam Case, which scaled back some of its prohibitions -- but I will note that these sections of the federal code were intended to be in the consumer's interest, to ensure that shoppers got what they paid for. They also protected some manufacturers' interests, those who felt that their "genuine" products were being undercut by cheaper substitutes.

It's worthwhile to think about the ideological underpinnings here. The law presumes that imitations products are inferior, but also that consumers can't readily tell the difference. Any modification of a food -- any departure from the standard -- is considered to be to a food's detriment. Additives to improve the flavor or appearance of a food are cast under suspicion, inherently deceitful. When it comes to food, technology is assumed to diminish quality and value rather than enhancing it.  

The food industry increasingly criticized the law on the grounds that it straight-jacketed innovation, entombed foods in restrictive standards, and disincentivized progress and improvement. In industry meetings and trade publications, they rolled out a litany of cases that purported to show the absurdity of the regulations. Quaker Oats Farina, fortified with vitamin D, could not be sold as Farina, because it contained added vitamin D, but it also could not be sold as fortified Farina, because it didn't contain other additives required for that standard -- so it couldn't be sold at all! Canned asparagus must be packed in water, the standards stated. So a canner who wanted to pack his spears in natural asparagus juice would be violating the law!

Although the FDA apparently enforced this statute with considerable vigor, by the late 1960s, the agency's position was coming under increasing fire, in part because of the growing awareness of a pair of diet-related health crises: obesity and heart disease. 

Riffling through the FDA files on this subject at the National Archives this past summer, I came across a highlighted copy of a May 1970 article from the Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal. In "New Foods and the Imitation Provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," William F. Cody, a member of the legal department of CPC International [né Corn Products Company], argued that the FDA's regulations were delaying the introduction of low-fat, lower-calorie foods that could substitute for the fat- and calorie-dense foods that were contributing to overweight and coronary disease.  He gave two examples: a low-calorie margarine and a "dehydrated egg" that he claimed had been processed to diminish saturated fat and cholesterol without minimizing the beneficial nutritional components or altering the flavor. According to the FDA, he said, these products should legally be labeled "imitation margarine" and "imitation dried eggs." But, he said, calling these goods "imitation" because they did not conform to standards was actually harmful to the consumer as it "conjured up an image of something highly synthetic or cheapened, and generally discourages broader consumption of these useful products."

The fundamental issue, he argued, was that the context of food manufacturing had changed since the 1938 law's passage. The law assumed that imitation foods, or foods that substituted standard ingredients, were inferior to traditional foods, or at least had lower production costs. That the only motivation for making a substitution would be to reduce costs. Instead, new fabricated foods were not "imitations" in the law's intended sense, trying to find another way to provide the same characteristics to customers at a lesser cost. They were different in critically important ways -- for instance, by being lower fat, or lower calorie -- and marketers emphasized the differences rather than concealed them. They might even cost more to produce, or to buy, than the traditional product. In other words, at least to some consumers, these imitations were superior to the original. 

Memos appended to this documented suggested that FDA officials agreed with Cody's arguments.

Which brings us back to Just Mayo. Just Mayo is an imitation of traditional mayonnaise, but one that claims to be superior to the real thing -- it's healthier, it's made "sustainably," it's somehow both a comforting reminder of your mom's favorite pale semisolid emulsion sandwich spread, while also being more sophisticated, somehow, more natural.

To be clear, I don't have a dog in this fight -- I'm one of those people who really does not like mayonnaise. But what interests me about this is how two exceptional examples of processed foods -- reflecting the collaborative efforts of food technologists, engineers, chemists, factory workers, and marketers -- seem to be on opposite sides of the scale of virtue, depending on where you stand. And how a law whose stated purpose was to protect consumers from fraud and deception -- from being bamboozled by the efforts of chemists and manufacturers who could make the fakes seem too convincing, too indistinguishable to the credulous palate -- is now used as a cudgel by a huge manufacturer of perhaps the archetypal processed food, to advance its claim that Hellman's is traditional, is "real," unlike -- I suppose, the surreal fantasy in the key of mayo proffered by its eggless rival.     

realfoodfromunilever.jpg

***I'm iffy on this vegan joke; I justify its inclusion here as cultural context, proof of the ambivalence about what counts as a legitimate reason for eating "good" food. Consumers are supposed to have a sort of political power, but being too "strident" about your reasons for making certain choices makes you the butt of a joke. The fact that Hampton Creek feels like it has to hide its vegan-ness from the mass consuming public makes me think that vegans should actually be more vocal about the reasons underlying their beliefs and actions.

 

Contents and Containers: Edible Meat Packaging, 1938

A recent America's Test Kitchen podcast on foods of the future featured the unflappable Christopher Kimball interviewing Harvard engineering professor and La Laboratoire mastermind David Edwards. Kimball seemed most taken with Edward's Wikifoods project – an edible packaging material that allows you to have your cake, and eat its container too. 

By creating a dense layer of electrostatically charged food particles, Edwards has produced an "edible skin" that seals food from its environment, just as the peel of an apple maintains the fruit's apple-y integrity. Right now, it appears that the only application of this is the  "Wikipearl": a glob of Stonyfield yogurt swaddled in a mochi-like envelope, available at selected Whole Foods. But there are bigger plans. For instance: What if you could eat your water bottle after drinking the water? In his interview, Kimball seemed in awe of this new way to expiate one of the sins of modern consumerism, the piles of trash we relentlessly leave behind.   

Edwards is an able pitchman for the novelty of Wikifoods. As he boasted to the Boston Globe"It's the first organic packaging ever." 

Not so fast, though. Reducing packaging waste by making the container part of the thing consumed seems awfully in line with current concerns about sustainability, and our faith in the ability of smart design to "solve" the flaws of our febrile and overburdened modern age. But I would be remiss in my job as a historian of technology if I didn't point out: it's been done before. 

Skimming through a 1938 issue of Food Industries, a trade journal for folks in the food processing business, I came across an item in their monthly "New Packages and Products" column titled: "Edible Package for Meat."

Anticipating Edwards by almost 80 years, I present for your edification "Gelafinish," from Wilson & Co, makers of of "ready-to-serve" meats, including 'Tender Made' boneless ham, liver loaf, sandwich loaf, spiced ham loaf, "etc." 

Gelafinish in action, from Food Industries, September 1938, p. 506. If you look closely, you can see the writing on the ham: Wilson's Tender Made Ham, Gelatin Dipped, Ready to Serve...

During processing, a thin transparent film of Gelafinish is lacquered over the surface of the meaty loaf. According to Food Industries, "this film becomes a part of the meat, sealing in flavor and natural juices."  It is also imprinted with the product's brand name, meaning you no longer have to guess about the maker of the liver-loaf; each slice proclaims itself on its glossy exterior. But "product identification on every slice, improved appearance and sealed-in flavor" are not the only advantages of Gelafinish. Because gelatin is a by-product of the company's meat-processing operations, Gelafinish reduces waste and recycles.

As a 1941 ad put it, Gelafinish "seals in all the juicy ham goodness" and "makes each slice sparkle on your plate." How could anyone resist?  

I point this out not to diminish the seriously cool work of David Edwards, and I am honestly looking forward to dining on unanticipated food stuffs at his new Kendall Square venture, Cafe ArtScience, the next time fate or archives lure me to Cambridge. But to overstate the disruptive novelty of edible packaging obscures how neatly this idea fits into the longer history of processed foods and food technologies. Finding an imprinted loaf of meat-and-meat-additives at Whole Foods seems nearly unimaginable, but what makes a Wikifood more attuned to that store's "green" sensibilities than Gelafinish? Wikifood may be "inspired by nature," but can it really be said to be more "natural"? Why does one product seem to us to be the corruption of food by technology, and the other to be its salvation? 

U-All-No and How We Won the War

U All No, from the Hidden City blog's post about the inscribed brick smokestacks of the Philadelphia area. 

I spend a lot of time on the Amtrak, shuttling between New York and Philadelphia, and one of the many delights of that stretch of the Northeastern rail corridor is this smokestack on the outskirts of Philly: 

There is something hauntingly defiant about this disused smokestack. From its cacographic "U" to its punning reduction of "know" to "no," I've always been cheered by its persistent spouting of this little bit of near-nihilism up in the Northern fringe of the city. 

But what is it about?

"U All No" was an after-dinner mint produced by the Manufacturing Company of America. It turns out that they played a critical role in the US war effort during the First World War. 

I'm not sure when exactly the Manufacturing Company of America started making the mints, but the company registered their trademark for the words "U All No" on June 5, 1906.  

Candy was a big deal in the Progressive era, as sugar consumption among Americans spiked, and as temperance activists promoted candy-eating as a sober alternative to the temptations of demon liquor -- or even as a substitute for it, satisfying the same cravings. As A.C. Abbott, Pennsylvania's state health commissioner, put it: "The appetite for alcohol and the appetite for candy are fundamentally the same." (For more on this, check out Jane Dusselier's essay on candy-eating and gender in the collection Kitchen Culture in America.)  

In the wake of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act,  modern candy makers emphasized the scientific purity of their products. "U All No" mints even made the 1907 Good Housekeeping Pure Food "Roll of Honor." The magazine noted: 

"Made in a peculiarly cleanly manner, mostly by machinery, from cane sugar and ingredients chemically tested for purity and uniformity. This firm maintains a specially equipped laboratory, in charge of a graduate chemist of the University of Pennsylvania, where critical tests are made of every material entering into the candy."

However, the reason these mints helped win the war was not because of their ability to divert Americans from the intoxications of booze to the intoxications of sugar, nor because of their invigorating freshness, nor because of the lab-certified purity of their production.

It was all about the tins.

When the US entered the First World War, they faced the problem of transporting American-factory-built fuses and detonators 4,000 miles or more, over land and sea, to the front lines. Fuses are fragile and persnickety. Moist air can cause a detonator mechanism to malfunction. As William Bradford Williams put it, rather ghoulishly, in Munitions Manufacture in the Philadelphia Ordnance District (1921)

"A dampened fuse when placed in a projectile results in a 'dud,' and a dud never raised the mortality rate of the German soldiery."

The Manufacturing Company of America had faced a very similar problem when they contrived to deliver their mints as fresh as the day they were made to the post-prandial candy-cravers of these United States, leading to the development of a box that was "absolutely air-tight and moisture-proof.... hermetically sealed against light, water, dust and air."

Good enough to suit the needs of Army Ordnance, and deliver minty-fresh fuses and detonators to the front.

According to Williams, the Manufacturing Company of America allowed the government to take over the production line at the U-All-No plant, modifying the process to built tins large enough to fit detonators for "high-capacity drop bombs" and fuses for Livens flame-throwers. They continued to made mints, though, for our boys in the army. Quoth Williams: "A large part of the firm's U-All-No After Dinner Mint was taken over by the government to supply the insatiable demands of our boys overseas for a few of those delicacies to which they had become accustomed at home." 

U All No tin black and white.jpg

 

Addendum: The Masticating Ape

As summer winds down, I've been catching up on some old America's Test Kitchen podcasts, including one from June 6 that adds a little monkey business to my earlier musings on Soylent and chewless foods

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In the podcast, Christopher Kimball interviews Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham about the substance of his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (You can listen to the podcast here; the interview starts at the 16-minute mark.)

I'm not super wise to the latest theories in human evolution, but apparently the conventional argument is that meat-eating is key to explaining the emergence of modern humans. Wrangham argues that the shift to eating meat could not have occurred without cooking. Cooking is what makes the hunter-gatherer lifestyle possible, and all the things that go with it: bigger brains, gendered social structures, culture. A key part of his argument rests on the relationship between cooking and chewing.

Lucy taking a break from chewing, apparently.

Lucy taking a break from chewing, apparently.

According to Wrangham, chimpanzees typically spend six hours a day chewing, and then another couple of hours in a post-prandial lull, digesting. It's not just the actual procurement of food that requires energy, it's the consumption and assimilation of it. All that raw plant matter has to be broken down by time, effort, and big guts. You can see the evidence of this in the anatomy of our plant-eating Australopithecene ancestors (hi, Lucy!): they have great big jaws, big teeth, and big guts.

On the other hand, modern adult humans spend less than an hour a day chewing – a figure that remains consistent, Wrangham says, despite regional, cultural, and economic differences. Unlike our Australopithecene forebears and our living primate relatives, we have relatively small guts, like carnivores, and relatively large and fuel-hungry brains. This anatomical shift is in evidence about two million years ago, with the emergence of another of our ancestors, a species we call Homo erectus.   

Homo erectus had small guts, like a carnivore, but did not have sharp carnivore-like teeth to tear meat off bones and consume it raw. Moreover, although meat was important to the Homo erectus diet, it would not have been consistently available year-round. But if Homo erectus meals varied seasonally between being meat-dominant and plant dominant, their small guts and small jaws would not have been sufficient to the task of effectively extracting a sustainable number of calories from plant matter.

Wrangham argues that cooking resolves these puzzles.  Cooking changes the material and chemical properties of food, which has two evolutionary advantages: it makes food softer, meaning that less time needs to be spent chewing and digesting, and it denatures proteins and breaks apart chemical bonds, making more calories and nutrients biologically available.

The days of our lives are numbered, as are the hours in each day. Less time spent chewing leaves "more time for other things – going to war, gamboling under a tree, writing poetry."   

To illustrate the increased caloric payload of cooked food, Wrangham describes an experiment with rats. One group of rats was fed hard pellets, the other group was fed the same pellets that had been aerated to make them soft and tender. Both groups of rats technically ate the same number of calories, but the rats eating soft pellets had 30 to 40 percent more body fat. (The correlation between softer foods and bigger bodies has also been observed in humans, and is cited as one of the possible explanations for increasing levels of obesity in the developed world.) 

Cooking was essential to the emergence of hunter-gatherer cultures because it indemnified against the inherent risks of hunting. Chimpanzees "love meat," Wrangham says, but rarely eat it, and only spend about twenty minutes a day hunting. Why? Because if they go out hunting all day, and fail, there is no way to make up that day's caloric deficit – there aren't enough hours in the day to hunt, fail, and chew leaves for six hours. Cooking meant that humans (men, according to this theory) could venture out and hunt all day, and even if they failed, they would still be able to consume and assimilate enough calories (dished out by women, or whoever else stayed near home base) to make up for the loss. 

For Wrangham, cooking is not only key to understanding the evolutionary history of the human species, it is also a uniquely human technology: harnessing external energy sources to improve and enhance the energy-providing qualities of food. Instead of using only our own biological, bodily resources and processes (chewing, digesting) to extract the energy and nutrients from food, cooking takes over some of the work that our hominid ancestors did with their gnashing teeth and their churning guts. 

So perhaps chewless foods – like Soylent, or like those Hugo Gernsbach imagined in Ralph – are a brave new stage in evolutionary history, and perhaps our descendants will only use their dainty teeth as ornaments and mementos of a chewier, tougher to swallow, past.