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."
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.
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?