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.  


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:

You can also find many copies of the Schimmel Semi-Annual report on the site:

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 Oils

"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. 


A Taste of Futures Past: The Rise and Fall of Spun Soy Protein

(This post is based on "Space-Age Flavors and Population Bombs: Flavor Research, Synthetic Foods, and Technologies of Abundance in Cold War America," a paper I presented at the end of April at "The Invention of Food," a conference hosted by the Institute for Historical Research at UTAustin.

Blog! It's been so long! So much has happened since I last ruminated within these margins! I finally finished my dissertation, and defended it at the beginning of May, so Doctor Berenstein is officially in, and ready to address all sorts of metaphysical and spiritual ailments related to flavor, its authenticity, or its absence. 

In my first post-PhD-in-flavor blog post, I wanted to visit one of the food stories I didn't get to tell in my dissertation, a story from the period of time dubbed the "era of flavor" by one postwar food technologist: the 1960s. The arrival of the "era of flavor" depended, in part, on things without flavor — on bland materials and insipid food subtrates that were, quite literally, made to be flavored.  

This post is about one of those bland materials, a new kind of high-tech substance: spun soy protein. In the late 1960s, spun soy protein was a "food of the future," one of a new generation of textured vegetable proteins, developed as a delicious solution for a world that seemed on the verge of a catastrophic protein shortage. But although the spun protein future never quite arrived, its legacy is still with us today.   

Does this proteinaceous soybean gauze hold the potential to save the world, without sacrificing deliciousness? Read on to find out!

Make Way For the Soymobile

This story really begins in the 1930s, with Henry Ford, automaker, soybean believer, chemurgist. "Chemurgy" was a sort of technocratic alliance between agriculturalists and industrialists, a movement that perceived America’s farmland as a source not only of food, but also of raw materials for modern industry. Chemists devised new uses for agricultural surplus and farm wastes: wallpaper and glue from peanut shells; synthetic rubbers from soybeans and corn; ethanol fuels from corn, barley, sweet potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes; milkweed-stuffed life preservers. These new industrial markets were supposed to keep farmers afloat during the lean years of the Depression, while also providing a foundation for national self-sufficiency and continuing prosperity in a world that increasingly seemed on the brink of another war.  

From a 1934 issue of  Science and Mechanics.  Image source:  Treehugger blog.

From a 1934 issue of Science and Mechanics. Image source: Treehugger blog.

“Everything pertaining to an automobile has its origin in the earth,” explained one newspaper article in 1936, describing the Ford Motor Company's chemurgic research efforts. “There is no need, as Mr. Ford sees it, to exhaust the mines and forests if the material required can be grown on the farm.” Ford envisioned efficient farm-factories, where renewable materials could be grown, harvested, and processed into plastics, synthetic rubbers, and fuels, a future where his company would one day be in the business of “growing cars out of the ground.”

In particular, Ford placed a big bet on soy. Soy had been grown commercially in the U.S. since the 1920s, largely as a source of oils and animal feed, but Ford was particularly interested in its uses in phenolic plastics. The scientists at the soybean research laboratory at Ford's vast industrial compound in Dearborn, Michigan were tasked with developing new uses for soy oils and soy meals: in plastics, resins, lubricants, and fuels. Ford automobiles in the 1930s increasingly used soy-based materials in paints and shock absorbers, and featured soy-plastic buttons, knobs, and seats. This project culminated with the “soybean car,” a 1941 prototype whose chassis was (allegedly) made entirely from a soy-based plastic resin. Although the focus was on industrial research, Ford did not entirely ignore the edible potential of the soybean. A vegetarian, Ford was an avid believer in the vital powers of soyfoods. A smorgasborg of soyfoods — including soybean “steaks,” soy milk, and soybean coffee — accompanied the soybean car’s debut.

Robert Boyer (left) and Henry Ford, with the soybean car. Is Boyer crinkling his nose at its mortuary smell? 

Robert Boyer (left) and Henry Ford, with the soybean car. Is Boyer crinkling his nose at its mortuary smell? 

One of the chemists working at the soy research laboratory in Dearborn was Robert Boyer. Boyer had developed a method for using protein extracted from soy meal— gritty, cakey stuff left over after the production of soy oil — and spinning it into fibers, which could be woven into textiles. Ford sometimes wore a suit made from this soy-wool blend — though the fabric, apparently, had a tendency to split. (If you bend over in a soy-wool suit, do so carefully.) The fiber was more practical in haberdashery; felted soy-rabbit fur supposedly made an excellent toque.

Ford died in 1946, and the Ford Model Soy never made it to production — derailed first by the Second World War, then by petrochemical-based plastics. (And also, perhaps, by its indelible “mortuary smell,” traces of formaldehyde that lingered in the resin.)

Boyer’s soy fibers, however, did persist — not as fabric, but as food.

Henry Ford in his soy-blend suit, seated carefully on a haystack.  Image from Greg Grandin's book,  Fordlandia  . 

Henry Ford in his soy-blend suit, seated carefully on a haystack. Image from Greg Grandin's book, Fordlandia

Continuous Ribbons of Pure Protein

Boyer continued to work on spun proteins after the war, hoping to find a way to create a nutritious edible fiber from material destined for livestock feed or the trash heap. First, though, there was the problem of taste. Earlier attempts to make human foods out of defatted protein-rich soy meal had faltered; traces of soluble carbohydrates and other compounds gave the substance a disagreeably bitter “beany” flavor, and contributed to its unfortunate reputation for causing digestive distress. The introduction of highly refined food-grade soy protein isolates in the 1950s made it possible to produce spun soy fiber without the bitterness or the farting. Purified soy protein isolate produced fibers which were pale, bland, odorless, and highly digestible, an edible blank canvas primed for the application of flavor effects.   

Boyer received a patent for his protein-spinning process in the early 1950s, which he then licensed to various food manufacturers. The first taker was Worthington Foods, an Ohio company that made vegetarian foods primarily for Seventh-Day Adventist communities. Worthington introduced the first commercial spun soy protein product: Fri-Chik, chicken-flavored pre-cooked heat-and-serve patties that were available frozen or in cans.  

Larger food manufacturing and agribusiness companies, including Archer-Daniels-Midland, Swift & Co., and General Foods, licensed Boyer’s patent. But no company invested as much in the potential of spun protein as General Mills, which put Boyer's method at the heart of its synthetic foods research program. At its peak in the 1960s, General Mills’ Isolated Protein Research & Development Program employed more than 50 scientists and technicians, working on ways to scale up spun protein production and develop new kinds of commercial products. 

General Mills' protein-spinning plant in Cedar Rapids. Image source:  Progress Thru Research,  vol 24, no 2, 1970-1. 

General Mills' protein-spinning plant in Cedar Rapids. Image source: Progress Thru Research, vol 24, no 2, 1970-1. 

In 1969, General Mills opened a new, multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art spun-protein plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Iowa was the nation’s largest soybean producer, and Cedar Rapids was a hub of advanced technical knowledge. Collins Radio, the principal supplier of radio and navigational equipment to the military and to NASA, had its headquarters in the city. The same community of highly trained electrical and mechanical engineers who produced the machines that guided satellites and spacecraft were invited to find jobs at the General Mills plant, designing, assembling, and maintaining the systems that would weave the foods of the future from humble defatted soymeal.

This description of protein-spinning that follows is based on accounts of General Mills’ operations.  First, refined soy protein isolate was blended into a proteinaceous slurry with the viscosity of honey; this was called the “dope.” The dope was then “spun”: pumped through a spinneret — a plate dotted with tiny holes — in an acid bath, which coagulated the proteins into fibrils. These fibrils were then stretched, becoming finer and stronger, to form continuous ribbons of protein.     

These ribbons were edible, but they were not yet food. At this stage, the fibrils were blended with fats, supplemental nutrients, colorings, flavorings, binders, and stabilizers, and molded into their final form: slices, crumbles, cubes, or chunks. These could then be dehydrated, giving them an almost limitless shelf-life; or incorporated into packaged “convenience” foods, frozen or canned, ready to heat and serve.

Almost every aspect of spun protein foods could be designed and shaped at will. By manipulating the thinness and length of the fibrils, as well as their orientation in the warp and woof of the food matrix, texture, tenderness, and chewiness could be calibrated to deliver the desired “bite.” Advances in flavor chemistry in the 1960s had illuminated the compounds that contributed to the distinctive flavors of raw and cooked meats; these new insights into the molecular relations of savoriness were incorporated into the flavorings that added sizzle and smoke to Kosher "bacon" and roastedness to Lenten "chicken." The nutritional profile and calorie count of spun protein foods could be tailored for different dietary requirements, such as those of diabetics, people with high cholesterol, or those on other special medical diets.

Bontrae manufacturing flowchart. Bontrae was General Mills' proprietary name for their spun protein substance. [Click to expand.] Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues: A New Food Concept," Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly, August 1966. Odell headed General Mills' Isolated Protein research program at their Minneapolis R&D center. 

“Boyer’s process makes it possible for the first time to fabricate food products according to a pre-set specification,” explained one marketing expert in 1969. This was food as plastic — moldable, malleable, versatile, made to spec, and shaped into virtually any imaginable form to suit any imaginable need. All that, and at a price (somewhat) below that of meat.

But spun protein’s plasticity and absence of inherent qualities also raised fundamental questions about its identity. What, exactly, was it? Was it imitation meat, meatless meat? Or was it an entirely new category of food, something unheralded? These were critical questions at a time when the FDA’s primary tool for regulating the food supply was by enforcing standards of identity, which minutely dictated the contents of food products and the names under which they could be sold.

The varied guises of spun protein foods. Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues — A New Food Concept,"  Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly , August 1966.

The varied guises of spun protein foods. Image source: A.D. Odell, "Meat Analogues — A New Food Concept," Cornell H.R.A. Quarterly, August 1966.

General Mills was, accordingly, cautious about how they referred to their new product. On the one hand, if the meat industry perceived spun soy protein as a threat, they could potential mobilize Congress and government agencies to force them to label their products “imitation,” which would doubtless affect both its reputation and sales. On the other hand, General Mills did not necessarily want to advertise that their product was made from soy, which had a less than appetizing reputation among postwar American consumers. Americans associated soy with animal feeds, not human foods, and the dispiriting memory of wartime soy-meats was still nauseatingly vivid for many.  “Abortive attempts in the past to market soy to the fickle U.S. consumer have caused food companies, despite their optimism, to move cautiously,” warned the marketing expert in 1969. “One or two fumbled marketing efforts could petrify consumer resistance.”

Advertisement and coupon for Bontrae from Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal, August 14, 1975. [Click to expand.] The advertisement emphasizes the savings, convenience, and health benefits that made Bontrae a better choice than actual meat, while promising consumers that they would not be sacrificing flavor. "They taste so much like real chicken and ham, we're willing to bet only your wallet can tell the difference." 

General Mills ultimately invented a name for their spun protein fiber, "Bontrae" — charmless pseudo-Latin cleansed of every hint of soy, utterly unsuggestive, perhaps deliberately. For a time, the company (unsuccessfully) petitioned the FDA to recognize Bontrae as a new kind of substance, rather than an imitation of other foods. “Bontrae foods technology creates products which have considerable similarity to traditional foods, such as meat, but these products are, in the truest sense, neither synthetic nor imitation,” explained William Reynolds, General Mills' Vice President for Technical Development, in 1969. To require Bontrae foods to be labeled "imitation" would be misleading. Neither synthetic nor imitation, Bontrae was Bontrae, and Bontrae could be anything.

In practice, however, General Mills used Bontrae in two distinct categories of products: as "meat analogs," and as meat extenders. 

Meat analogs were entirely fabricated products, complete on their own rather than ingredients in other foods. General Mills' first commercial Bontrae product — Bac*Os, introduced in late 1965 — is an example of a meat analog. Bac*Os was a hit, even if its substance remained something of a mystery. It also found its way into other products, such as Skippy Peanut Butter with Smokey Crisps, and Henri's Smokey Bits Salad Dressing — those smokey crisps and bits were spun protein. But Bac*Os was a condiment, not the cornerstone of a meal, and General Mills had bigger plans. In the early 1970s, General Mills introduced Bontrae chicken and Bontrae ham, urging consumers to look for these products at the fresh meat counter, and to use them in recipes instead of the real thing.   

Bontrae's second use was as a meat extender, blended with ground beef to reduce meal costs without diminishing nutritional value. Initially, the main market for textured protein meat extenders were institutions, not households. When the National School Lunch Program approved the addition of textured soy protein to meat dishes in 1971, it was a boon to spun protein manufacturers like General Mills and also makers of a competing product, extruded textured soy flours. (How many of my beloved elementary school sloppy joes were bulked with textured soy?) But a consumer market for these products was envisioned as well. When meat prices spiked in the early 1970s, leading to a consumer boycott in 1973 to protest high costs, textured protein-beef blends were test-marketed in grocery stores. If prices for the real thing continued to rise, General Mills hoped that shoppers would be willing to swap some of their beef for Bontrae.   

Let Them Eat Bac*Os

The production of spun protein foods was not just a commercial venture. It was presented as an urgent global necessity. Since the end of the Second World War, a growing chorus of scientists, leaders, and experts warned of an impending planetary crisis. The world's population was expanding exponentially, but its resources were only increasing arithmetically. The "population bomb," as it came to be called, would lead to the kind of catastrophic food shortages predicted more than a century earlier by economist Robert Malthus.

In particular, the global food crisis was depicted as a critical shortage of one macronutrient: protein. This aspect of the crisis was already evident in the developing world; in the early 1960s, it was widely reported that half the world's population was undernourished.  Images of brown and black children, bellies distended by the protein-deficiency disease kwashiorkor, became the familiar symbols of global hunger. 

Scientists at the 1948 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science fretted that technological advances . New York Times, September 15, 1948. 

Scientists at the 1948 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science fretted that technological advances . New York Times, September 15, 1948. 

New agricultural technologies, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, could only go so far, experts warned. And coercive population control measures were out of step with the liberal values that the United States aspired to project upon the Cold War geopolitical stage. For many who studied the problem, the best hope for humanity seemed to lie not in finding new land to cultivate, nor in increasing the yield per acre, but in developing new sources of food, and especially, new sources of protein. Chlorella algae farms, protein powders ground from the by-catch ("trash fish")of the Atlantic fisheries , proteins and fats synthesized from petrochemicals: all of these were considered as possible solutions. 

The technology of protein spinning was deeply embedded in this world-saving discourse; its versatility was crucial to estimates of its potential. Soy was not necessary; edible protein could be spun from the defatted meal of many oilseed crops, such as cottonseed, peanut, safflower, and alfalfa. “Indigenous, often wasted protein resources in technologically underdeveloped countries could be tapped and utilized,” explained A.D. Odell, the head of General Mills’ Isolated Protein Program, in a 1965 article.

In other words, protein spinning technology could be imported into countries where it was most needed, and adapted to the task of salvaging untapped local protein supplies. Even better, its products could be molded into the familiar guise of traditional foods. As C.G. King, the head of the Nutrition Foundation, explained in a 1961 speech to the food industry, when developing products for global food aid, “one has to be very sensitive to their flavor traditions, not our flavor traditions.” Fish protein concentrates, dried chlorella algae, and other supplemental nutritional aids were developed to deliver calories or protein, but encountered huge resistance when it came to their taste. This did not have to be the case with spun protein, which could be made to conform with cultural ideas of deliciousness. “Local taste preferences are readily met with," wrote Odell, "and acceptance would seem assured, due to the gustatorial gratification which they provide, as opposed to a powder or amorphous concentrate.” Unlike of a packet of goo or a fishy, protein-boosted flour, spun protein could offer both salvation and gratification.  

I have found no evidence that spun protein products were ever used in global food aid (which doesn't mean they weren't; my research into this is far from exhaustive.) In the 1960s, hunger and malnutrition was not yet widely recognized as a problem within the United States; its victims were elsewhere, distant receptacles of pity in the developing world. Yet the world protein shortage is repeatedly, insistently invoked, both in accounts of General Mills' spun protein research program and Cedar Rapids factory, as well as in the synthetic products it spawned. 

Advertisement for General Mills products, featuring Betty Crocker, trustworthy symbol of unfussy competence, touting Bontrae as "a food of the future made with vegetable protein." From  Woman's Day , March 1969.  

Advertisement for General Mills products, featuring Betty Crocker, trustworthy symbol of unfussy competence, touting Bontrae as "a food of the future made with vegetable protein." From Woman's Day, March 1969.  

Man: "What's Bontrae?"

General Mills: "It's General Mills' name for a food of the future made with vegetable protein."

Under the familiar gaze of Betty Crocker, a 1969 advertisement for Bac*Os explained Bontrae not in terms of its contents, but in terms of its commitments: “General Mills’ investment in this important new food is your assurance of another natural source of high quality protein for your children and their children and the world.”

Is this what it means for something to be a “food of the future"? A technological novelty, but also a necessity or even an inevitability; contributing to a better world while delivering convenience, value, and quality to the consumer.   

The homemaker sprinkling Bac*Os over deviled eggs or chicken-noodle casserole was thus at the leading edge of a wave of innovation that could, quite literally, save humanity. With each smoky, scarlet flake, she claimed her seat at the table of the new food future, one that encompassed not only her own family, but her children’s children, succeeding generations, and the children of the world.

The End of the End of the World

The spun-protein soyfood future did not arrive as planned. General Mills abruptly shut down its Cedar Rapids spun protein operations in 1976, after Bontrae sales failed to materialize. The company sold its protein spinning equipment to Dawson Mills, a Minnesota food processor, and licensed the Bontrae process to Central Soya of Illinois. Both companies would subsequently abandon spun protein manufacturing in the early 1980s.

I spoke with a former maintenance engineer at General Mills, who was involved in disassembling the spun protein production line and converting the plant to cereal manufacturing. (Honey Nut Cheerios, General Mills’ perennial best-seller, was first produced there in 1979.) Forty years later, he still marveled at the sophistication of the machinery that he had taken apart. The spinnerets were platinum, he recalled, and so finely perforated that they were translucent when you held them up to the light.   

He had had a chance to taste some of the Bontrae foods, and told me that the ham- and bacon- flavored products were actually quite good. Employees at the time blamed Bontrae’s failure on its use as a “meat extender,” blended with ground beef to reduce food costs without diminishing nutritional value. Perhaps inevitably, institutional food service customers — hospitals, nursing homes, and school dining halls — tended to ignore the recommended ratio and overload the mixture with soy, with dismal results for eaters and for the product’s reputation.

Although soy protein products continued to be manufactured on a large scale, most of these were textured soy flours, such as Archer-Daniel-Midland’s Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), produced by thermoplastic extrusion — cheaper to manufactured than spun protein, but also less versatile. (At some point, General Mills also began producing Bac*Os by extrusion, rather than using spun protein.) With few exceptions, textured soy flours generally did not aim for mass markets, but sought a foothold as unsung, imperceptible ingredients in other foods; as components of animal feed; or in niche vegetarian and health-food contexts.   

Despite its lack of commercial success, I think Bontrae (and spun protein) was a turning point, prefiguring the efforts of today's synthetic food purveyors, companies such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Hampton Creek. These are start-up-style ventures that fashion themselves not as infant versions of stodgy old-school food processors like General Mills, but as tech companies that just happen to make food. (In a certain sense, using their image as tech companies to launder their work as food processors.) But, as this story shows, food processors such as General Mills are also, perhaps fundamentally, tech companies. Bontrae was food as technology. 

It’s difficult for us now to imagine just how radical it was to conceive of Bontrae as a mass-market product, something that the average supermarket shopper pushing her groaning cart down the aisles of Kroger's or the A&P, circa 1973, may have paused to compare with livid lozenges of chicken breasts or cellophane-wrapped pork chops. Consider that for most of modern history, “fake” meats (and other “imitation” foods) were low-status, undesirable goods. They were associated either with the deprivations of war or of extreme poverty, or found limited sales among vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions. Bontrae as a meat extender fit into this conceptual model, a means of managing in straitened circumstances, making do with less.  

But Bontrae, as a meat analog, was made to be tasted. Its deliberately designed texture and flavor complemented its various functional advantages — its ease of preparation, alleged nutritional virtues, stability, and versatility. Its lower cost compared to meat, in this scenario, was a virtue that was also a weakness, an advantage that also confirmed the image of cheapness and lower quality that consumers were prone to suspect it of. 

In this way, Bontrae imperfectly embodied a way of thinking about synthetic foods that was just beginning to emerge — not as substitutes for traditional commodities, but as innovative technologies with distinct virtues and unique possibilities. As Odell, the head of General Mills' isolated protein program, put it in 1969: “There are almost no theoretical limitations to the scope of reproducibility or to the creation of new, never before considered categories for the future… Perhaps it is not too bizarre to speculate that a major future role of animal tissues will be as flavoring substances for vegetable derived tissues.”

One day, perhaps, meat would be nothing but a sort of seasoning, sprinkled like Bac*Os over a varied and limitless Bontrae cuisine, which offered unimagined pleasures and savory sensations to a world amply sustained by spun vegetable proteins. 

This line of reasoning did not prevail in the 1970s. Worries about the “population bomb” faded as the predicted cataclysm failed to materialize. American meat did not become rarer and more expensive; it became more abundant and cheaper. But even as the terms in which we understand the global food problem have shifted from "population" to "climate," we (meaning, Western, prosperous eaters) continue to be attuned to the possibility of crisis. General Mills had to connect the dots between its synthetic food product and the dwindling global supply of protein. Today, messages about the virtues of “sustainability” are inescapable, ornamenting shopping bags, reusable water bottles, and corporate and sincere swag, even as the White House has staked out a stubbornly unfashionable position on the matter.

The new generation of “meat analogs,” the burgers that bleed and the tender chickeny strips of pea protein, are Bontrae’s heirs. These meatless meats are not designed primarily for those who cannot or will not eat meat because of its cost or their scruples. As Patrick Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, told Quartz earlier this year: “Our definition of success is: we score zero points if a vegan or vegetarian buys our burger. The more of a meat lover they are, the more they are our target customer.” 

These exquisitely engineered technologies are foods of choice — and specifically, of the enlightened choice of economic elites. Perhaps one of the reasons that Impossible Foods and its ilk seem to be succeeding where Bontrae faltered is that these companies do not feel the need to undercut “real” meat on price. The value-add of the “socially responsible choice” is worth more to us now. We will pay for the luxury of moral righteousness, especially when we also do not have to pay a price in flavor.

The promise that connects Bontrae and Impossible Foods is this: we can have crisis without austerity. These foods of the future may be marked by necessity, but they aren’t the foods of last resort, the scraps we sustain ourselves with as we eke out our final days on a warming, crowded planet. These are foods designed for pleasure as well as sustenance, for convenience as well as survival.  


This only scratches the surface of soyfoods and textured vegetable protein history. This is a super fascinating topic, and I hope someone is working on a big beautiful book about it. For anyone who is interested in this (and why wouldn't you be?), there is an incredible online resource, the SoyInfo Center, the apparent lifework and labor of love of William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. These two assiduous and intrepid researchers have documented not only the cultural and agricultural history of soy cultivation and traditional soyfoods, but also its industrial and technological history. They have chosen to make a staggering amount of material freely available online, and I drew heavily on their work and documentation in putting this together. 

For those of you who are looking for a broader consideration of "foods of the future," as well as algae burgers, and the perennial threat of a Malthusian crisis, I recommend Warren Belasco's 2006 book, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. 


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

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

Have you heard? Bananas are going extinct!

Don't worry; this has happened before.

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

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

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

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

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 

"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.


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.


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.


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.

Messing with the Senses

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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