Material Culture

The Factory and the Rose Fields: A Visit to the Schimmel Library in Miltitz

The autumn air smells faintly like lollipops.

It's late November, and I’m passing through the main gates of Bell Flavors & Fragrances’ European headquarters in Miltitz, just outside of Leipzig, on my way to visit the Schimmel Library, possibly the largest collection of flavor- and fragrance-related books in the world. I walk sniffing the air, bunny-like, trying to pin names on spectral fruits. But the atmosphere keeps changing. I catch a whiff of something sharp and sulfurous, like the burnt residue at the bottom of an office coffeepot crossed over by a skunk. When I sniff again, it’s gone, and there’s only a faint earthy odor, a mushroom’s dank gills – impossible to say whether it emanates from ground beneath the row of ashen birch trees, sopped with the morning’s drizzle, or from the low white building behind them, blank and garlanded with HVAC ducts. I keep walking. The molecules in the air continue to rearrange themselves. As I push in the ornate wooden doors of the building that houses the library, I once again inhale only fruitiness.     

 Schimmel Library front desk, with librarian Ricarda Bergmann, a real star. The inscription above her head reads: "Among these books sat scientists, scholars and Nobel prize chemists dedicated to discovering the mysteries of nature as it relates to essential oils, flavors, fragrances, and aroma chemicals. To the pioneers of the future who follow in their footsteps those of the past send their greetings." 

Schimmel Library front desk, with librarian Ricarda Bergmann, a real star. The inscription above her head reads: "Among these books sat scientists, scholars and Nobel prize chemists dedicated to discovering the mysteries of nature as it relates to essential oils, flavors, fragrances, and aroma chemicals. To the pioneers of the future who follow in their footsteps those of the past send their greetings." 

This land, and the library I am visiting, once belonged to Schimmel & Company, one of the first flavor and fragrance companies. Since purchasing Schimmel in 1993, Bell has restored the library, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair during the decades when Leipzig was part of the DDR (East Germany), and Schimmel was a state-owned enterprise. This is now a thoroughly modern flavor and fragrance manufacturing facility. The grounds are silent, the odors in the air are muted. In this little sketch about my visit to the Schimmel Library last month, I want to raise some of the ghosts of the past, paint a picture of what it was like to make flavors and fragrances in Miltitz in the years immediately before the First World War.   

The company that would become Schimmel & Co. was founded in Leipzig in 1829 as Spähn and Buttner, a drug-maker at a time when many medicines were derived from botanical materials. The company quickly passed through several owners and name changes, but by the 1870s, it was known as Schimmel & Co. and was solely in the hands of the Fritzsche family. During this time, it shifted its focus from the manufacture of pharmaceuticals to the production of essential oils. Under the Fritzsches’ leadership, Schimmel & Co. grew rapidly, pioneering scientific analysis and production methods. The company established the first research laboratory in the essential oil business, and incorporated several foreign branches, including Fritzsche Brothers in New York, to manufacture and distribute its products globally.

In the early 1880s, Schimmel began manufacturing its own rose oil in mass quantities, supplementing and improving upon traditional sources in Bulgaria. Rose petals are fragile, and must be processed as soon as possible after harvest to retain their evanescent fragrances, with gentler steam rather than high heat. The company purchased dozens of acres of land in Miltitz, a town about six miles west of Leipzig, on the path of the Thuringian railroad. There, it cultivated German and Bulgarian roses in tidy, thorny rows. "It goes without saying that here the crudities of the Bulgarian process are not tolerated," wrote Edward Gildemeister, Schimmel chemist, in his description of the company's methods in his foundational 1899 monograph on essential oil chemistry. "Owing to the greater care exercised, the odor of the German oil is far superior to that of the Bulgarian."

 Harvesting rose petals to make rose oil in Miltitz. From  The Volatile Oils , the english translation of Gildemeister and Hoffmann's  Die Aetherischen Oele,  the first scientific monograph on essential oil chemistry, first published in 1899. Gildemeister was a chemist at Schimmel & Co., and much of the information included in the book was based on research conducted at the company. 

Harvesting rose petals to make rose oil in Miltitz. From The Volatile Oils, the english translation of Gildemeister and Hoffmann's Die Aetherischen Oele, the first scientific monograph on essential oil chemistry, first published in 1899. Gildemeister was a chemist at Schimmel & Co., and much of the information included in the book was based on research conducted at the company. 

 Images of rose fields and rose field workers, from the small exhibit of the company's history displayed in the atrium outside the Schimmel Library.  

Images of rose fields and rose field workers, from the small exhibit of the company's history displayed in the atrium outside the Schimmel Library.  

I don’t know how many people worked in those fields, plucking petals off roses in bloom, who they were, or what their labor was like. But this should suggest the scale of the project: one kilo of rose oil required five to six thousand kilograms of flowers. Roses were also quite fussy to cultivate. A cold night in early June 1911, when the temperature fell below freezing while the flowers were still in bud, destroyed that entire season’s crop.  

In 1900, Schimmel & Co. left Leipzig behind and relocated to Miltitz, raising a large complex of factories, workshops, and laboratories amidst its fields of roses.  By the beginning of the First World War, Schimmel & Co. owned around 300 acres of land in the town. It had its own post office, power plant, printing shop, water purification system, and sewer network. It also built a model village for its workers and managers to live in, just across the street from the walls of the factory complex, surrounded by gardens and rose fields.   

 Zeppelin's-eye view of Schimmel & Co. in Miltitz, from the April 1914 Schimmel & Co.  Semi-Annual Report . The twin smokestacks correspond to the two boiler-houses, which supplied steam for distillation to the complex. The model worker's village is to the right of the factory complex. the town of Miltitz lies behind the factory. Railcars on the Thuringian railway can be seen in the mid-left margin of the image, approaching or receding along a diagonal. Rose fields stretch across the foreground and border the worker's village.  

Zeppelin's-eye view of Schimmel & Co. in Miltitz, from the April 1914 Schimmel & Co. Semi-Annual Report. The twin smokestacks correspond to the two boiler-houses, which supplied steam for distillation to the complex. The model worker's village is to the right of the factory complex. the town of Miltitz lies behind the factory. Railcars on the Thuringian railway can be seen in the mid-left margin of the image, approaching or receding along a diagonal. Rose fields stretch across the foreground and border the worker's village.  

At this time, Miltitz, on the fringes of Leipzig, in the middle of Europe, on the cusp of the First World War, became a central collection and redistribution point for a world’s worth of fragrant, pungent, and aromatic stuff.  In addition to the roses and other aromatic herbs cultivated in the surrounding area, the Schimmel factory processed hundreds of raw materials imported from foreign and colonial sources: sandalwood, patchouli, orris, and cedar; lavender, eucalyptus, and jasmine; animal musks and ajowan seeds; camphor and turpentine; ginger roots and caraway. (Ten tons of caraway seeds a day in 1908, according to one source.)

In Miltitz, these substances were reduced to their essences, analyzed, purified, concentrated, standardized, and packed into uniform bottles, ready to be incorporated into a diversifying range of consumer goods: perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, disinfectants, medicines, and flavorings for liqueurs, sodas, candies, and other manufactured foods. The mechanical and chemical processes perpetrated upon raw materials at Schimmel & Co. made a growing number of new sensations available to expanding circles of people. In some regards, this was a kind of democratization of luxury — the otto of roses that once perfumed the silks of a wealthy lady, now wafted from the handkerchief of the girl at the factory —  but the effect was more than simply making rare things more common, or costly things cheap. What was made in Miltitz were the building blocks of a new sensual order, based in chemical technologies, which permitted sensations to be reimagined as discrete and manipulable molecular arrangements.

The French historian Alain Corbin has called the nineteenth century an era of deodorization. Cities had always stunk, with their concentration of bodies, animals, excrement, and garbage, but around the beginnings of the industrial revolution, people began minding the stench. Governments took up large-scale hygienic projects — subterranean sewers, water treatment facilities, slum clearance — and passed laws regulating insalubrious odors from workshops and factories, with the related goals of improving public health and minimizing obnoxious smells. (The relocation of Schimmel & Co.’s factory from Leipzig to its outskirts was likely part of this process, removing a smelly factory to a place where it might bother fewer people.) Meanwhile, personal habits and norms changed concerning bathing and cleanliness, body odors, underwear, and laundry.

The technological and cultural processes of “deodorization” didn’t leave behind odorless places and unscented bodies. The world that industrialization produced — both deliberately and incidentally — still smelled, just different. (I think Melanie Kiechle writes about this in her new book, The Smell Detectives.) You can think of it as a redistribution of the planet’s olfactory potentials. Certain kinds of aromas multiplied, attaching themselves to bodies, clothing, cleaning products, living spaces, public spaces, just as other odors were suppressed, scrubbed away, deemed offensive.

Schimmel & Co.’s business was at the center of this large-scale re-scenting of the industrial world. This enterprise required an immense concentration of raw material, energy, resources, and labor. In 1912, the factory employed more than 100 clerks, around 250 workmen, 16 analytic chemists, and 20 technicians. In 1908, the factory used about 880,000 gallons of water a day, comparable to a town of 50,000 people. In 1912, it burned through 45,000 tons of coal. Industrial waste and sewage was carried away by pipes “to distant irrigation fields, covering some 7 acres.”    

 From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908.

From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908.

There are two detailed English-language descriptions of Schimmel & Co.’s Miltitz works, published in 1908 and 1913, and the figures, quotes, and some of the historic images here come from those (I’ll include links to sources at the end, if you’re curious). Both make it clear that transforming blossoms, leaves, woods, seeds, resins, and other botanical stuff into essential oils and aromatic chemicals was a noisy, smelly, messy business.

The largest building in the complex was where essential oils were manufactured. Its second floor was filled with a variety of “disintegration machines,” each specially designed to reduce specific raw materials to the form from which their essence could be most effectively extracted. The pounding, sawing, crushing, and pulverizing machines was “deafening,” filling the air “with the incessant roar and screech of ceaseless, throbbing energy — a veritable symphony of modern labor.” Nets shrouded the room, to catch the dust.

Once “disintegrated,” raw materials funneled down through the floor to custom-built distillation stills on the ground level, where they were separated and concentrated under carefully controlled conditions of heat and pressure. “Here we are met by the hissing, the roar and the rush of the steam.” This was a vast space with 26-foot ceilings and huge arched windows that let in the light and vented out the odors and the heat. “An all-pervading cloud of mysterious and indefinable perfume permeates this great hall,” the thick confounding mixture of aromas from everywhere.  

Elsewhere, in an adjacent building, some of these essences were further disintegrated into molecules, or reconfigured into new substances of value. Pure menthol was isolated from peppermint oil; thymol from ajowan seed oil; eugenol from clove oil. These were sold as basic chemicals, or were starting points for further synthetic processes such as the production of vanillin from eugenol, or lilac-scented terpineol from turpentine. Geraniol, a chemical component of rose oil, was synthesized from Citronella oil under a Schimmel-patented process, and combined with true rose oil, to produce an "artificial" rose oil (sold as Rose-Geraniol), which gave the sensory effects of the genuine product for a lower price. In this way, the natural and synthetic were intertwined in the molecular realm.    

There was also a dedicated research building, where chemists toiled in “seven large, light and airy work rooms, each for two or three chemists.” This building is where the library was originally located, stocked with several thousand volumes, including chemical journals and dissertations, an international collection of pharmacopeias, and botanical encyclopedias. Other kinds of reference materials were also available: botanical specimens, chemical samples, and “many objects of ethnological interest.”

 Research laboratory, site of the original Schimmel Library. From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908. 

Research laboratory, site of the original Schimmel Library. From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908. 

In the research building, chemists analyzed essential oils, identifying chemical components and establishing physical constants, standards of identity, and methods of detecting adulteration. They also worked out ways of manufacturing valuable chemical compounds synthetically. Methyl anthranilate, the chemical used in artificial grape flavor in the U.S., was first identified at Schimmel in neroli (orange blossom) oil, and first produced synthetically there. Chemical analysis was a service that Schimmel & Co. offered, for free, to any clients or potential clients. Send in a sample of a lavender oil or aromatic chemical that a merchant was trying to interest you in, and Schimmel chemists would evaluate it, gratis: exposing adulteration, low-quality materials, or misleadingly labeled goods.

 The printing presses in a moment of serenity. From  Schimmel & Co.'s Works , 1908.

The printing presses in a moment of serenity. From Schimmel & Co.'s Works, 1908.

At Schimmel, the production and distribution of scientific knowledge was intrinsically connected with the production of essential oils and aromatic chemicals. In addition to price lists and catalogs, beginning in 1886, the company published the Schimmel Semi-Annual Report, which compiled the latest scientific, technical, and market news from around the world relating to aromatic chemicals and essential oils. These reports were not just advertising Schimmel’s expertise, they were instrumental in the invention of essential oil chemistry as a scientific field – designating its scope, detailing its methods, and certifying its standards. Nearly 20,000 copies of each issue of the Semi-Annual Reports were printed, in German, French, and English language editions. These and other printing needs kept the four “modern high-speed printing presses” in the company print shop in frequent use, “fill[ing] the air with the hum of restless energy.”

The Schimmel complex in Miltitz was more than a manufacturing and research facility; it was a community, a model social organism. The company provided its employees with on-site health care, opportunities for healthy recreation, and subsidized housing.

 Semi-detached cottages for workmen. From  Schimmel & Co's Works,  1908.

Semi-detached cottages for workmen. From Schimmel & Co's Works, 1908.

 Detached villa for officials. From  Schimmel & Co's Works,  1908.

Detached villa for officials. From Schimmel & Co's Works, 1908.

Across from the factory was the “model village,” homes available to Schimmel employees at below-market rent. (For workmen, annual rent amounted to about ten weeks’ pay.) The residences were scaled in accordance with the status of the inhabitants. Families of ordinary workmen lived in semi-detached cottages. Company officials lived in grander, detached villas, with ornate architectural features. Every residence had a large garden, “sufficiently large to provide the families fully with vegetables and fruit.” Additionally, “everyone has the option of a piece of land of about 2000 sq. feet, free of charge, for growing potatoes, cucumbers, beans, etc.”

I don’t know enough about the Fritzsche family, or about German industry and labor politics in the late nineteenth century, to feel entirely confident speculating about the motives behind this corporate paternalism. But part of it was likely the need for securing a stable, skilled workforce outside of a city. Evidently, it was also an effort to correct insalubrious personal habits, and encourage sober and responsible family life by offering positive incentives and opportunities. “At 8 AM the men are given coffee and milk gratis,” according to one of the accounts of worklife at Miltitz, “on the condition that they drink no spirits during working hours.” Workmen could return home for lunch, and enjoy a warm meal with their families, strengthening those bonds of affection. The bucolic location also removed workers from the dissolute temptations of city life. “Instead of spending a considerable portion of their leisure time in the public house, as is otherwise only too often the case, the men are here for nine months out of the twelve occupied in their gardens in the midst of their families.” The houses, the gardens, the annual holiday bonuses, were part of a social project to produce better workers and more virtuous citizens.

Schimmel & Co. was not typical; it was exemplary — and it meant to be. The company deliberately represented itself as a standard-bearer not only for the essential oil industry, but also for the progressive force of chemical knowledge upon the historical trajectory of mankind. What better symbol of the benefits of “progressive chemistry” (as it was sometimes called) than the scientific flavor and fragrance industry, which promised not only to expose false and fraudulent substances — to guarantee authenticity and purity — but also to multiply, by technical means, pleasure-giving molecules? As the world hurtled toward the cataclysm of war, the Schimmel & Co. factory complex and its model village projected a fantasy where all human needs were met, where the rewards of progress were fairly distributed.

The homes still stand today, across the cobblestone street from the factory. (Amazingly, the taxi driver who drove me on the first day of my visit lived in one of them.)

 Schimmel Worker's Village, 2017. 

Schimmel Worker's Village, 2017. 

And the original brick factories, laboratories, and warehouses are still standing, largely intact, though shuttered and silent.  

 Chemical manufacturing building on the right. The main essential oil manufacturing building is the large one further back. I think the structure between them was a smaller auxiliary distillation building, where much of the herbs and flowers grown in Miltitz (including roses, hyssop, wormwood, and lovage) were distilled.

Chemical manufacturing building on the right. The main essential oil manufacturing building is the large one further back. I think the structure between them was a smaller auxiliary distillation building, where much of the herbs and flowers grown in Miltitz (including roses, hyssop, wormwood, and lovage) were distilled.

 Main factory building on the left. The building on the right was one of the boiler-stack buildings. The smokestack was demolished in the early 1990s, after Bell bought the property.

Main factory building on the left. The building on the right was one of the boiler-stack buildings. The smokestack was demolished in the early 1990s, after Bell bought the property.

 How it looked in 1913. From "A Visit to the Works of Schimmel & Co., Miltitz, Near Leipzig," from  American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review , May 1913. 

How it looked in 1913. From "A Visit to the Works of Schimmel & Co., Miltitz, Near Leipzig," from American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review, May 1913. 

Bell’s current offices, the library, and manufacturing buildings stand where rose fields once spread. (I was not permitted to photograph them.) Much of the land immediately west of Miltitz remains agricultural. A resident of the town told me that they grow corn, wheat, and strawberries.

I hadn’t anticipated that the material in the Schimmel Library would thin after 1948, when the company was nationalized under the East German regime.  Once a hub in the global exchange of fragrant substances and chemical knowledge, Cold War geopolitics sealed Schimmel off from many of its business and scientific colleagues. The publication of the Schimmel Annual Reports, which had become irregular during National Socialism and the Second World War, ceased completely. At a time when American flavor and fragrance companies were rapidly expanding their research and development operations, the Schimmel Library in Miltitz was stunted by politics. The factory continued to operate, supplying the eastern bloc and Soviet client states with : orange flavor for Cuban toothpaste, cheap floral perfumes for East German ladies, as well as the flavor for Vita Cola.

 Some of stuff containing Schimmel & Co.'s flavors and fragrances produced in the DDR. 

Some of stuff containing Schimmel & Co.'s flavors and fragrances produced in the DDR. 

vita cola.jpg

Vita Cola was the DDR’s answer to the Coca-Cola and its smooth inducements to global capitalist hegemony. I’d like to buy the world a Coke… Vita Cola gave East Germans an alternative way to quell their thirst and their desires for refreshment. Originally imagined as a caffeinated lemonade, Vita Cola provided liquid pep to sustain industrial toil and lift sluggish spirits. It had a distinctive citric tang, and was less sweet, than its Western rival.

 Vita Cola advertisement in Hungarian that I found on Pinterest. Wish I had more info on this...

Vita Cola advertisement in Hungarian that I found on Pinterest. Wish I had more info on this...

Apparently, Vita Cola is having a moment right now, at least around Leipzig. It is the number one cola beverage in Thuringia, making the region one of the only places in the world to favor a local cola over Coke's global hegemon. The craving for Vita Cola is generally related to what's been called "Ostalgia," a nostalgic longing for the symbols and quotidian artifacts of life in East Germany -- a phenomenon that points to kitsch's emollient power to soften and heal, but also perhaps to the wish that another kind of world were (still) possible. (It is.)  

The production of Vita Cola was suspended after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but it reappeared in the early 1990s. Its essence is still made in Miltitz, though now under the auspices of Bell Flavors and Fragrances (the lollipop scent in the air?) 

A bottle of Vita Cola stood waiting for me when I visited the Schimmel library, effervescent with the past and with the welcome chemical boosters of sugar and caffeine.  

BIBLIOGRAPHIC LINKS:

A 1908 English-language booklet that offers a virtual tour of the Schimmel Works at Miltitz from the University of Wisconsin Madison library is digitized, searchable, and fully viewable at Hathi Trust: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007453174

You can also find many copies of the Schimmel Semi-Annual report on the site: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000675259

The American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review published a similar (but not identical) account of the Schimmel works at Miltitz in its May 1913 issue, but it was an unpaginated insert, and doesn't seem to be included in digitized copies of that publication available online. 

Essential oil nerds may want to check out Gildemeister and Hoffmann's Volatile Oils (or the find the original, in German, if you can read it). The English edition was translated in the early 20th century by Edward Kremers, a professor of pharmacy at University of Michigan, a character who appears often in the debates around pure food and flavor additives, but who I don't know that much about. Volume I of Volatile Oils is entirely historical -- it includes a history of the spice trade, of particular oils and scents, and of methods and technologies for producing essential oils. Here's a link to Volatile Oilshttps://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001036302

"Here's how you can see how superior socialist consumerism can outmatch capitalist production." For those of you who want a place to start on your Vita Cola internet rabbithole. 

 

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?  

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

 

Green Appetites

I'm re-reading Regina Lee Blaszczyk's excellent The Color Revolution, a gorgeously illustrated history of how twentieth-century commodities got their colors, and how those colors were managed -- foretold, masterminded, coordinated -- by a new set of experts: men and women working for chemical companies like DuPont, across the fashion industries, or for manufacturers of products ranging from sedans to dinnerware.  Building on the work of World War I camouflage experts and early-twentieth-century color systems, expert color managers drew together scientific theories of color, consumer statistics, psychology, French couture, modern art (see, for instance, Georgia O'Keeffe's ads for Cheney Brothers' textiles), and considerable savvy about design -- to produce color palettes that enhanced the contentment of workers and stimulated the appetites of consumers.

No account of the backstage rigging and scrims of mass consumption would be complete without an appearance by Edward Bernays, Freud's nephew, founding genius of PR, and subject of this earlier post. Blaszczyk offers this incredible anecdote:

 Invitation to the 1934 Green Ball, from the Edward L. Bernays papers, Library of Congress. From Blaszczyk,  The Color Revolution,  161.

Invitation to the 1934 Green Ball, from the Edward L. Bernays papers, Library of Congress. From Blaszczyk, The Color Revolution, 161.

"Women wouldn't buy Lucky Strike cigarettes because they thought the dark green package clashed with their wardrobes. The chief executive refused to redesign the package, having spent millions of dollars advertising it. Enlisting the support of New York high society ladies, Bernays launched the Green Ball, a spectacular charity event at the Waldorf-Astoria, which made dark green the fashion sensation of 1934. His staff worked behind the scenes getting stores to promote green, mills to make green, and prominent women to wear green. The Green Ball evoked color as a status symbol, a fashion trend, and a money generator." (p. 160)

And all of this for Lucky Strike, which now, of course, has Op-Art red and white packages!

Here's an old ad for Luckies, pre-redesign, as reference:

LuckyStrikeDoctor.jpg



Meat Juice and Perfect Food

This alluring advertisement in the back pages of 1895 issues of The Manufacturer (a Philadelphia-area weekly industry newspaper from back in the day) caught my eye.

Meat juice extractor?! What is happening here! Luckily, I found an explanation in an earlier issue:

 All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

"The use of meat juice for medicinal purposes is a growing one, and is recommended for the aged, also delicate invalids, and for invalids, in all cases where complete nourishment is required in a concentrated form. The meat to be operated upon should merely be thoroughly warmed by being quickly broiled over a hot fire, but not more than to simply scorch the outside, and then cut in strips. The yield should be about six (6) ounces from one (1) pound of round steak. Only tepid water may be added, as hot water will coagulate the meat juice. Season to taste. The machine being tinned, no metallic or inky flavor will be imparted to the material used. The dryness of the pulp or refuse can be regulated by the thumb-screw at the outlet." (The Manufacturer 7, no. 26 (1894), 10)

 

Nourishment in concentrated form for the aged, delicate invalids, and (unqualified, presumably indelicate?) invalids! This reminded me of something that my mother once told me about one of her own childhood spells as a delicate invalid; she grew up in a little town on the Argentine pampas during the 1940s and 50s. I called her up and asked:

Me: Mom, what was that thing you once told me about how you had to drink meat juice...?

Mom: Oh, yes, when I was very sick with hepatitis. Nona would make this. She put a piece of filet mignon in the machine, and it would squeeze it, squeeze it, and the juice would fill a bowl. And the filet mignon afterwards was like a cardboard.

Me: And you would drink this??

Mom: No, you did not drink it raw! You warmed it in a bain marie, with some salt and pepper. Swirl it, swirl it until it is hot - and then you drink it.

Me: What was the machine?

Mom: It was like a press - it had two flat plates, metal.

Me: Where was this meat press machine? In the kitchen? Did Nona buy it specifically to make this?

Mom: Yes, she bought it specifically. It was very common. At this point, meat in Argentina was very cheap. It took two filets to make five ounces of liquid. You know how expensive that would be here!?

The machine my mother describes doesn't seem exactly equivalent to the Enterprise Manufacturing Company's model - which appears to be more like a masticating juicer than a "press." But the two seem similar enough, and they share a common purpose: the domestic production of a special restorative diet for the enfeebled.  

But why meat juice? How did this become a therapeutic food?

There's a long tradition of prescribing aliment as a treatment for particular ailments. Galenic medicine used food to recalibrate the body's four humors, whose imbalances were thought to cause disease. There's also a long tradition in the West of associating meat-eating with masculine vim and vigor. Some of this back-story certainly shapes the widely held belief that meat is "strengthening" and "restorative." But a steak is materially different than its liquid runoff. How did people come to believe that the liquid squeezed out of meat contains the vital essence of the food, and not the substantial stuff that's left behind? 

Part of the answer to this question can be found in the South American Pampas of 1865 -- specifically, Fray Bentos, Uruguay, home of Liebig's Extract of Meat Company. (You can find another version of this story at the Chemical Heritage Foundation magazine.)

The company bears the name and the imprimatur of Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), a Hessian, one of the pioneers of organic chemistry and of the modern chemical laboratory. Beginning in the Enlightenment, life processes (circulation, respiration, digestion) were investigated as physical and chemical processes, and one of the central questions for chemists was this: how does food become flesh? The answer to this was to be found not by alluding to some invisible vital force, but by careful analysis and quantification: calculating measurable changes in mass and energy, using tools like balances and calorimeters and conducting experiments with dogs and prisoners on treadmills. Chemists like Liebig engaged in a kind of nutritional accounting, identifying and quantifying the components of food that make life, growth, and movement possible.

This new way of thinking about food and bodies had consequences. It became possible to imagine a "minimal cuisine" - food that's got everything you want, nothing you don't. This was important and desirable for various reasons. The Enlightenment marked the emergence of the modern nation-state, which was responsible for the well-being of its population in new ways.  Industrialization displaced rural populations, creating desperate masses of urban poor who were not only pitiable, but were also potential insurgents. Modern wars and colonial ventures meant provisioning armies and navies. There was an urgent and visible need for food that was cheap, portable, durable, its nutritional and energetic content efficiently absorbed to fuel the calculable energetic needs of soldiers and workers.

I won't go into to much detail about the chemistry (you can find a substantial account of the history of nutritional chemistry here), but Liebig, in the 1840s, believed that (Nitrogen-containing) protein was the key to growth; fats and carbohydrates did nothing but produce heat. In his monumental 1842 tome, Animal Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology, he analyzed muscle, reasoning that protein is not only the substance of strength but also its fuel. An extract that concentrated the nutritional virtues of beef muscle fibers, then, could be the perfect restorative food.

This led him to develop a formula for his meat extract -- a concentrated "extract" of beef that promised to solve the growing nutritional crises of modernity. Imagine how much simpler it would be to provision an army when 34 pounds of meat could be concentrated into one pound of virtuous extract, which could feed 138 soldiers! No more bulky chuckwagons or questionable rations of salt pork and hardtack! Plenty of concentrated food for the poorhouse! Moreover, Liebig certainly believed in the healing power of meat extract. When Emma Muspratt, the daughter of his close friend James, a British chemical manufacturer, fell ill with scarlet fever while visiting the Liebigs in Giessen in 1852, Liebig, desperate to restore the failing girl to health, spoon-fed her on the liquid squeezed out of chicken. She survived.

However virtuous, Liebig's meat extract was too expensive to produce in Germany. In a public gesture that was only partly an act of self-promotion, Liebig offered his idea to the world, vowing to go into business with anyone who could make it happen. It would be nearly twenty years before someone took him up on it.

This brings us back to the South American pampas, where the missing ingredients in Liebig's formula could be found: cheap land, cheap cows, and ready access to Atlantic trade routes. A fellow German (or possibly Belgian), Georg Giebert, wandering the plains of Uruguay noticed that the herds of grazing cattle rarely became anyone's dinner. Their valuable hides were tanned and turned into leather, but the carcasses were left to rot. Wouldn't it be great, Giebert wondered, if there were a way of using that meat, salvaging it by concentrating its nutritional value into easy-to-export extract?

Entering into partnership with Liebig, Giebert established a vast factory at Fray Bentos, where the meat was crushed between rollers, producing a pulpy liquid that was steam-heated, strained of its fat content, and then reduced until it became a thick, mahogany goo that was filtered and then sealed in sterile tins. Extractum Carnis Liebig - Liebig's Extract of Meat - first hit Europe in 1865 and was initially promoted as a cure for all-that-ails-you. Typhus? Tuberculosis? Heavy legs? Liver complaint? Nervous excitement? Liebig's Extract of Meat is the medicine for you!

Then came the skeptics. Chemists and physicians could find very little measurable nutritional content in Liebig's Extract of Meat. Dogs fed exclusively on Liebig's extract swiftly dropped dead. As British medical doctor J. Milner Fothergill thundered in his 1870 Manual of Dietetics: "All the bloodshed caused by the warlike ambition of Napoleon is as nothing compared to the myriad of persons who have sunk into their graves from a misplaced confidence in beef tea."

But this did not sink Liebig's extract of beef or the factory in Fray Bentos. (It would take a salmonella outbreak in the 1960s to do that.)

As Walter Gratzer notes in his book, Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition, Liebig changed his tactics in the face of his critics, downplaying the medical benefits of beef extract, and instead arguing that its use is "to provide flavor and thus stimulate a failing appetite."  "Providing flavor," then, was an essential functional component of the food. But this applied to more than just those with "failing appetites." Liebig's Extract of Meat was a success for decades not because of its consumption by "delicate invalids" and the enfeebled poor who needed cheap nutrition, but by ruddy Englishmen and other gourmands, who used it as an additive to increase the "savour" of their cuisine.

Beef extract provided what the 19th-century French gourmandizing scientist Brillat-Savarin dubbed "osmazome," and what we would call "umami": the glutamate richness that connoisseurs relished before science gave it a name. As Brillat-Savarin writes, "The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was."

And the Chemical Heritage Foundation reprints an ad for Liebig's from their collection which emphasizes the appeal of beef extract to the gourmet, rather than to the invalid:

"NOTICE: a first class French Chef de cuisine lately accepted an appointment only on condition of Liebig Company’s Extract being liberally supplied to him.”

Instead of becoming a "minimal food," fulfilling the nutritional needs of humans in the simplest and most efficient way, beef extract became a flavor enhancer - without, however, completely losing its hold on the health-giving and restorative benefits that it initially claimed. This is why the meat juice extractor was manufactured, and why my mother drank warm meat juice to recover from a bout of hepatitis. 

The question that haunts all of these investigations into minimal foods is the following: Is flavor a luxury, or is it a necessary component of foods? Some later nutritionists believed that the beneficial effect of meat extract was due in part to its flavor - or, more precisely, the effect the flavor had in "stimulating the appetite." In Dietotherapy, a 1922 nutritional textbook by William Edward Fitch (available free on Google), Fitch cites Pavlov's experiments as evidence that no substance is a greater "exciter of gastric secretions" than "beef tea."

As the blog for the (totally real, possibly not dystopian) "food" product Soylent puts it, "there is more to food than nutrition.... Even a product as minimal as Soylent must concern itself with the “hedonic” aspects of eating. These include, but are not limited to: appearance, taste, texture, and flavor / odor." (I'm definitely writing more about Soylent and flavor in a future post...)

Regardless of whether it is nutritionally adequate, lack of flavor or poor flavor can be a problem for food. The argument that prison loaf is torture is due in part to its total absence of "hedonic" qualities. However, not only can flavor preferences be debated, but the importance of flavor itself can be called into question. Many nutritional experts at the turn of the twentieth century prescribed mild, bland diets as the best for health and well-being; "highly flavored" foods, they cautioned, were hazardous, a cause of both obesity and its attendant diseases as well as emotional instability. And in our own cleanse-obsessed era, an appreciation of the bracing flavor of green juice or the intense bitterness of turmeric are signs of moral and physical enlightenment. Indeed, on the Soylent blog, the product's creators assure concerned readers that the inclusion of vanillin in the ingredient list is not to make "vanilla" soylent, but rather to offset the "bitter and fishy" flavors of other ingredients. The stated goal is to make the flavor of Soylent "pleasant without being overly specific." 

And on that note... enjoy this gorgeous collection of Liebig extract of beef chromolithographed trade cards.

I Want I Need

I watched Part I of Adam Curtis' fascinating and prickly documentary series, The Century of the Self, last night -- a sort of sociopolitical whodunit, where the crime is neoliberal consumer capitalism, and the culprit is the government-industrial-psychoanalytic complex. Go watch it! Even if you don't agree with all its arguments (I certainly didn't), it has the real satisfaction of a good conspiracy yarn -- unmasking the secret coherence behind the structures of social life.

Also, it added another knot to my knotty pile of modern entanglements (e.g. Samuel Beckett chauffered Andre the Giant to grade school). Did you know Freud's nephew was the Great Caruso's press agent! (And also, apparently, the agent for the Ballet Russes on their North American tour -- can you imagine seeing Nijinsky in Wichita in 1915?). 

 A young Edward Bernays with an admirably dapper mustache.

A young Edward Bernays with an admirably dapper mustache.

So, Part I of the documentary is about this nephew of Freud, Edward Bernays, a U.S. citizen who coined the term "public relations" and who, through his consulting work, revolutionized the tactics and techniques of public persuasion. Before Bernays, the documentary claims, products were promoted based on their functional virtues -- buy these durable pants! Buy this suitable cutlery! It's made to last!

After Bernays, advertisers (and politicians, and anyone who wants to sell a bill of goods to the mass public) made a play for the emotions -- and especially the unconscious libidinal drives that were presumed to motivate our actions. This car will make you feel like a real man. Smoking these cigarettes will make you a liberated woman (literally, because you now have your own torch-like phallus). (Or perhaps: This car will make others see you as a real man. Smoking will tell the world that you're liberated, lady!)

In other words, where marketers previously appealed to people's "reason," after Bernays, they tried to tap into their unconscious, and fundamentally "irrational," minds. In part aided by Bernays' flacking for his uncle "Siggy's" books, these ideas about the irrational unconscious permeated culture far beyond the world of advertising. This theory seemed to be less about individuals than about the mentality of crowds, and, to its adherents, it pointed to a fundamental flaw in democracy itself. If the mass public is basically irrational, how can a democratic form of government persist without collapsing and cancelling civilization? 

For business, however, it represented an opportunity. The documentary quotes the recommendations of an analyst (from Lehman Brothers!) in the 1920s: "We must move from a need-based culture to a desire-based culture."

The implication is that needs can be met, but desires are never satisfied -- and only desire can drive the constant consumption necessary to avoid crises of overproduction and keep a mass-market economy ceaselessly humming along.

So. Here's where I come in. A central part of my dissertation project is about desire -- how flavor chemists and others in the flavor industry create chemical compounds that tempt our appetites and gratify our palates. Flavor chemists and food technologists are manipulating molecules, not deploying psychoanalytic tropes. But, explicitly or not, just like marketers of cars and clothes and cigarettes, they are charged with making their products -- irresistible. In other words, my story is about how food fully becomes a part of consumer culture by becoming delicious.

But the statement about transforming a need-based culture to one distracted by desire -- one of the primary indictments made by the documentary against Bernays and his fellow propagandists, a category in which Curtis pointedly includes Goebbels and the Nazi party -- presumes that there is a clear, bright line between desire and need. And that in manipulating people's desires -- stimulating insatiable appetites, arousing powerful emotions -- you also divert them from recognizing and acting upon their real interests.

This is, I think, the argument that Michael Moss makes in Salt, Sugar, Fat (I haven't read it yet) -- that food companies have gotten so skillful at servicing our desires (for salt, sugar, and fat) that they no longer create products that fill our (nutritional) needs.

But I believe that the line between desire and need isn't as simple as that, nor is the distinction between "authentic" desires and those that are "artificially stimulated" an entirely coherent or useful one. (Of course, the idea of an "authentic self" that "expresses itself" through things like consumer choices is one of the notions that Bernays et al. promulgated.) What is good for us, what is not, and who decides? How do we come to want what we want? What is the relationship of pleasure, or even happiness, to the fulfillment of our needs, the gratification of our desires? Possibly, advertising works on us in ways even now not entirely understood. Certainly, malnutrition is real, obesity is real, and the baleful effects of vast areas of the globe turned over to corn and soy monoculture are real. But Curtis' documentary stumbles, I think, in drawing an intractable binary between "active citizen" and "passive consumer."  

Listen, for instance, to this fragment of an interview with Bernays himself -- about selling the virtues of a "hearty breakfast" to the American public on behalf of his client, the Beech-Nut Packing Company, a food processor that sold canned and vacuum-packed foods.

The problem for Beech-Nut is that most Americans ate a light breakfast, which was a shame because the company wanted to sell more of its prepared breakfast foods. So, in order to change American habits, Bernays solicits the authority of a medical expert:

"We went to our physician and found that a heavy breakfast was sounder from the standpoint of health than a light breakfast because the body loses energy during the night and needs it during the day."

They then asked the physician whether he would write to 5,000 physicians and ask whether they shared his opinion. "Obviously," Bernays intones, "all of them concurred that a heavy breakfast was better for the health of the American people than a light breakfast."

Crucially, Bernays and his firm didn't run paid advertisements, they publicized this "fact" in the media -- newspaper headlines across the country described the consensus of 4,500 physicians that heavy breakfasts -- including, crucially, bacon and eggs -- were better for people's health and strength. Bacon sales went up, Bernays said - he has the numbers to prove it.

 Beech Nut Packing Company c. 1946 Courtesy  Penn State Special Collections

Beech Nut Packing Company c. 1946 Courtesy Penn State Special Collections

Which is this? Desire, or need? Or desire and need tangled up? Did Bernays believe this claim about bacon being good for you? Did the doctors who endorsed it believe it? Were Americans duped, or did they actively and conscientiously make a choice that they thought would improve their health and their childrens' health -- and fortify the nation's strength? In other words, was the choice to eat a heartier breakfast that of "passive consumers," duped by what we all agree (for the moment, at least, or some of us) is fallacious medical advice, or that of "active citizens," fulfilling a civic duty towards better health?

EDITED TO ADD: I've ruminated on this a bit more, and realized it's probably not the best example of what I'm trying to say. I'm not trying to say that consumer choice is a move commensurate with political action or real structural change, and this example shows how thoroughly immured the consumers are in the system Bernays is buttressing -- eating bacon and eggs not even for their own pleasure, but to fortify the state, egads. What I'm trying to say is that desire and need are not mutually exclusive, that consumers are not thoroughly passive, and that consumer culture produces not only new appetites, but new varieties of discernment, new sensibilities, maybe. And that desire and longing also have a place in a (more egalitarian) state.   

My other quibble with the documentary has to do with the historicization of the changes Curtis describes. I know that this kind of media makes its claims on viewers' attention by insisting that what it's showing us are the real turning points of history, man, but still. Perhaps the explicit invocation of the psychoanalytic/libidinal element is new to Bernays and his followers, but the evocation of consumer desire (in excess of mere need) predated him by at least a generation. The phantasmagoric allure of manufactured stuff begins in the nineteenth century -- the Crystal Palace exhibition, the Paris arcades, the department store -- if not before. Think of that unforgettable scene in Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) where the Countess de Boves, a respectable and somewhat austere member of the petty nobility, is found with yards and yards of the finest Alençon lace crammed up her sleeves:

"She would steal for the sake of stealing, as one loves for love's sake, driven by desire, in the neurotic sickness that her unsatisfied desire for luxury had earlier produced in her through the huge, crude temptation of the department stores."

Monsieur Mouret, who owns the department store Au Bonheur des Dames -- the Ladies' Paradise -- is, in Zola's novel, a visionary of spectacular displays, who arranges his store to showcase the inexhaustible plenitude of consumer goods. Fountains of shimmering silks in all colors, towers of different laces unspooling in puddles of white and cream, overcoats and china pots and umbrellas and children's hats. Everything is here, and so much of it, and constantly changing. A dynamic that highlights both abundance and evanescence. Zola describes the department store literally as a machine for selling, a machine whose product is desire.

Wine bottles and wine snobs

It's the new year, I'm taking a little break from imbibing spirituous liquors, and so have been reading a lot about wine (instead of just guzzling it.) One of the things that I admire about wine snobbery is its claim to make time and place sensible to the palate: the terroir of the grape and its vintage. Reading up on the history of wine, I came across a nice example of how the emergence of wine connoisseurship depended on the most humble of technologies: the cylindrical glass bottle. 

(I'm basing all the below (mostly) on tidbits gleaned from the all-you-can-eat buffet of interesting facts that is the Oxford Companion to Wine (highly, highly recommended) under the entries: "bottles" and "aging.")

So -- the ancient Greeks and especially the Romans enjoyed old vintages, but for the thousand years after Rome fell, people in Europe mostly stopped drinking aged wines. This wasn't just because they lived in the dark ages and didn't know any better. Vineyard production had largely shifted to Northern Europe, and the kinds of wines that were customarily made there had to be drunk fresh, or else they got sour. So how was the European wine snob reborn in modernity?

Enter... the cylindrical glass bottle.

The thing contained is always somehow shaped by its container. What changed in the 18th century was: glass. Although glass existed in the ancient world (think of the Egyptian pulled glass bottle in the shape of a fish), the spread of new glass-making technology in the 17th century made it possible to produce glassware in commercial quantities. But before the 1730s, wine bottles were not the familiar cylinders that we hoist around today; instead they varied from bottle to bottle, and were usually squat or onion-shaped or bulbous. The Oxford Companion speculates that these were buried in beds of sand for storage. Then in the 1730s, this happened:  

"While it was known that some vintages of wine were better than others even in prehistory, their keeping and consequent maturing qualities were not realized until the introduction of binning, the storing of wine in bottles laid on their sides.... All this was achieved by the abandoning of onion-, bladder-, and mallet-shaped bottles in favour of cylindrical ones which stack easily."

Cylindrical bottles meant stackable bottles, stored in wooden bins in the cool dark subterranean cellars of urban wine merchants. This standardization of the container allowed for the biochemical processes of maturation to occur in the bottle, revealing a world of nuance and difference in the thing contained. Wine merchants didn't set out to find a way to bottle-age wine. It just happened. Maybe it happened in the hold of ships as wine was transported from one place to another (as was the case with vinho da roda, a kind of Madeira that had made a cross-Atlantic round trip through the tropics). But once it happened, bottle-aging become part of the process of production and consumption for many kinds of wine.

One of one of the best things about doing history is how it shakes your faith in straightforward causality. The closer you look, the less history seems like "one damn thing after another," the more it seems like big messy clots of phenomena getting pulled into relationships -- and then suddenly everything has changed. So, if I were to claim "cylindrical bottles made wine snobbery possible" it would not only be an oversimplification; it would violate (I think) the spirit of good history. Because it wasn't just cylindrical bottles that made modern connoisseurship possible, but the whole social and technical system in which they were enlisted and put to use: the wine merchants who needed a convenient storage solution for their increasingly crowded urban cellars, merchants who also kept systematic records, which allowed them to evaluate wines and value them differently -- and to discover that they could create value (and profit) with time. And none of that could have happened without customers -- the growth of a consumer economy and the emergence of a market for wine where people were willing to pay more for vintages and varietals that they perceived to be better or more prestigious. Which in turn depended on people who believed that money spent tastefully was money well spent. And there we have it: the bottle in the cellar is all tangled up in the story of the history of capitalism. 

Turning back to the Oxford Companion:

"Demand for mature wines transformed the wine trade. Aside from a few wealthy owners, most vine-growers could not afford to keep stocks of past vintages. Only merchants could do that, and their economic power and hold over the producers increased during the 18th and 19th centuries. This was most demonstrably the case in Bordeaux, Beaune, and Oporto, where merchants amassed huge stocks, vast fortunes, and powerful reputations."

A change in the shape of wine bottles -- and the new appetites that it makes possible -- is a crucial element in reshaping the agricultural and economic landscape of Europe, the set of social relations between merchants and producers. And out of this welter, the wine snob, fastidiously training his (or her) senses to discern the distinctions between vintages, to name those differences, to place a new kind of value on time, to enrich (if not prolong) the fleeting sensation of flavor.  

 

How to become an expert: Cigarette edition

I listen to a lot of "old time" radio - especially mysteries and detective shows - in part to satisfy my insatiable appetite for narrative while up to my sudsy elbows in the dishwater of history.  The other day, I heard an episode of "Mysteries in the Air," starring Peter Lorre, with his quavering syllables and his lightning-speed mildness-to-mania transitions.

The show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, and the version I listened to kept the sponsor's message intact in the broadcast. Smokers are notoriously brand-loyal. They're not like consumers of other stuff, switching from Charmin to Quilted Northern on a whim or a spree. They'll ask for their pack of Luckies or Reds or Virginia Slims every time, without fail, no hesitation. You smoke what you've always smoked. But how do you get people to switch? How do you get people to believe that their choice is their own to make, and not somehow compulsory? Here's a complete transcript:

[Cymbal-clash] "Voice of God"-type voice, distorted as though through a PA speaker, intones: Experience is the best teacher.

"Average Joe": Remember the wartime cigarette shortage? Who doesn't! One thing about it though - smokers who went through it really learned a lot about cigarettes. They had first-hand experience with many different brands.

Dame: [Giggles] How true! Goodness, we certainly smoked whatever brands we could get in those days. I smoked so many brands I'm practically a walking encyclopedia about cigarettes. Well, I'm a Camel smoker now, and believe me, I know Camel is the cigarette for me because I've compared so many brands.

Joe: Yes, smoking whatever brands they could get during the wartime cigarette shortage made people everywhere experts on judging the differences in cigarette quality. That experience convinced a host of smokers that they preferred the rich, full flavor and cool mildness of Camels. The result:

PA-speaker Voice of God: More people are smoking Camels than ever before.

Joe: Experience really is the best teacher. Try a Camel yourself.

The ad is interesting to me because it tries to make a conditioned, manipulated, somewhat arbitrary choice -- the choice of what brand of cigarette to smoke -- seem like a reasonable one, made with deliberation and informed judgment. These people, we are told, are experts about smoking, walking encyclopedias. Hey, thanks to the war, you're an expert! The wartime cigarette shortage created a circumstance that never exists in civilian life - you had to smoke what you could get. This wasn't privation; it was a de facto tasting panel. You developed the capacity to judge the differences in cigarette quality. Informed consumer, you can now choose your brand based on the exercise of your newly cultivated expertise. You base your choice on taste, not habit or nostalgia, nor are you a puppet of advertisers. But it's not just individual judgment that's definitive here - there's a consensus. After all, "More people are smoking Camels than ever before." Does your judgment concur with the multitude, or is there something different or perhaps defective about your powers of discernment? 

In my own research into flavor and taste, I've become increasingly skeptical about the claims of sensory expertise even as I recognize the capacity to refine sensory discernment. Objective Methods in Food Quality Assessment, a textbook published in 1987, describes the lengths that sensory scientists go to create "objective" data about food preferences and sensibilities. The first chapter, with the perhaps over-insistent title, "Sensory Evaluation Can Be Objective," advises: "since humans are being used as measuring instruments, every effort must be made to control the effect of the environment on judgment." The testing room should be slightly higher pressure than the exterior, in order to eliminate the introduction of non-relevant odors. The temperature and humidity should be rigidly controlled. Colored lights might be useful, to make color differences in foods invisible. In the author's laboratory, they place tasters in an individual "domed hatch," where they can press a button to indicate when they are ready for a new sample. This way, they eliminate any possible influence introduced by the technician who delivers the sample. The taster is in a pod, isolated from all direct human contact, with a color-indeterminate cube of stuff to decide about.  

Sensory science tries gamely to create "objective" data, staging tasting tests where all potentially corrupting stimuli are stripped away, and the individual is "independent" of outside influence and exercises only her or his own sensory judgment. That is, a situation that is never like actual consumption, where we look everywhere for cues about whether something is delicious, disgusting, valuable, cheap, good to like, bad to like. It's an impossible task - a dream of a science that believes it can exist outside of the social, with laboratory as a space that maintains a cultural cordon sanitaire, sanitized from social factors. 

Which is not to say that one cannot prefer a brand of cigarettes or whiskey, or be a walking encyclopedia about tobaccos or wines or ice cream. Just that in a certain way, perhaps, our choices about taste are not only our own. 

The first fragrance insert?

According to this fascinating article, fragrance inserts in magazines -- the scented matte strip that, when unhinged, releases a waft of Coty's Chypre or White Flowers or whatever -- first appeared in in the 1940s, with microencapsulation technology developed by the National Cash Register Corporation (soon after to play a big role in the history of computing).

Looking through old trade journals at the Hagley, I found an example of this technology in use three decades prior to the 1940s, implying that it was first in use in 1910. From the May 1912 The American Perfumer & Essential Oil Review:

Rose Aldehyde C Fragance Insert.jpg

I did obligingly smell the circle, but alas, the odor of Rose Aldehyde C has been lost to time and history...

 

Print and Eat the Food of the Future

One of the best parts of the pseudo-Freudian space fantasy Forbidden Planet is when Robby the Robot obliges the poor space sailor who's been left to guard the ship with a heap of liquor. Robby scans and chemically analyses the spaceman's bottle of whiskey, and then duplicates it... and duplicates it... and duplicates it... until he has a lovely pile of whiskey bottles -- at least until the invisible Monsters from the Id come and annihilate his fun.

All matter is chemicals, after all, and all chemicals are elements, and elements are just atoms, and atoms are everywhere, so why not? Anything can become anything else; stuff can be made out of no stuff.

The wait is over (maybe): why cook, when you can print your food and eat it? Sadly, there's no gracious Robby to butler our meal for us out of thin air. This is basically a modified 3D printer, the "revolutionary" technology that keeps threatening to transcend mere novelty, one of these days, maybe. 

I mock, but this article on the print-and-eat food from the IEEE Spectrum is really fascinating. At first, 3D food printers were limited by the material it used: a paste that hardened into different shapes, pretty much the edible equivalent of the standard 3D printer's plastic. (yum!) 

But then a breakthrough: Daniel Cohen, a grad student at Cornell, had the idea to treat the printer's materials as a set of miscible components, the way the three RGB printer cartridges in a color printer can produce a full-color reproduction of a multi-hued image. That is, he proposed a standard basic palette of food materials, reimagining food's basic components as though there are edible equivalents to the primary colors, which can additively produce any hue in the visible spectrum. This itself is not a novel idea: sensory taxonomers from Linnaeus to Arthur D. Little Consulting Company (and many more) have proposed systems that attempt to break the smellable-tastable world into irreducible elements. However, It's important to note that the color spectrum is a metaphor; it translates imperfectly unto the much different (chemosensory, multisensory) system of flavor perception.

Jeffrey Lipton, the article's author and an engineering student intimately involved in the development of commercial 3D-printing technology and its applications, is concerned with making the food printer's products not only palatable but desirable. The "uncanny valley" of "mushroom shaped bananas" is too "artificial", and thus likely to be rejected by the "home cook." He also dismisses proposals to use 3D food printing as a sort of hedge against a Malthusian crisis (by making palatable foods -- like "steak" -- out of cheap or repulsive proteins -- such as insects) as off-trend: today's savvy consumers reject "highly processed foods." (Incidentally, in my research on the history of flavor additives, I've found this "socially useful" application of flavor additives cited by the flavor industry starting in the 1950s and 1960s -- that synthetic flavor chemicals will help forestall a malnutrition crisis by making cheap nutritive substances (combinations of carbs-proteins-fats manufactured, perhaps, from industrial waste) edible and acceptable). 

Instead of working from basic components, Lipton says, they've taken a "top down" (rather than "bottom up") approach with the printer, working with chefs to produce fried scallops shaped like space shuttles and Austrian cookies with writing on the inside. (How this addresses purported consumer desires for "less processed" foods is not really clear...) The most exciting result is a new form of fried corn dough, impossible to achieve without a 3D printer; the dough forms "a porous matrix that allowed the frying oil to penetrate much deeper into the food. The result was something delicately crispy and greasy, like a cross between a doughnut, a tortilla chip, and raw ramen noodles."

In this incarnation, the 3D printer becomes an exquisitely refined tool for the production of highly processed food. A tool that doesn't just replicate what already exists in the world from a basic color palate, the way a camera reproduces visible reality, but something that makes new, unforeseen things possible -- maybe. Can we use this to imagine and create new flavors, or just to dress up familiar things in fancy, unfamiliar, space-ship forms?