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. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Neroli to NuGrape: Methyl Anthranilate

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messing with the Senses

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skunkiness, Coffee Chemistry, and Naturalism in Flavor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did this foul chemical become a commercial product?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U-All-No and How We Won the War

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

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

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

But what is it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all about the tins.

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

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

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

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

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

U All No tin black and white.jpg


Keep it Fresh, Keep it Real, Orange Juice

We don't tend to think of freshness as a flavor, at least not in the same way that we think of "orange" or "vanilla" as flavors. "Freshness" is supposed to indicate something about a thing's material condition, its temporality: its recentness to the world and to us. The life history of a fresh food is assumed to be reassuringly direct: there were few intermediaries, few machines intervening, as it made its way to us. Fresh foods are also by definition not stable -- nothing can be fresh forever -- and so always at risk of becoming not-fresh, stagnant, rotten, stale.

There's something uncanny about a fresh-seeming food that is really an old food -- like the changeless McDonald's hamburger in Supersize Me, or those legendary Twinkies from decades ago, still plump and gleaming in their wrappers -- something reflexively repulsive. It brings to mind succubus myths, old women who make themselves appear young and nubile to seduce enchanted knights. Those stories certainly deserve some full-strength feminist revisionizing, yet remain among the purest expressions of the grotesque in our culture.

At the turn of the 20th century, one of progressive reformers' most potent accusations against food manufacturers was that they hired chemists to rehabilitate and deodorize rotten meat and rancid butter, to restore them to the appearance of freshness. This is a deceptive practice -- akin to running back the odometer on a used car -- but pure food advocates also largely opposed chemical preservatives, which didn't run back the meter so much as slow its rate of progress. Part of their opposition came from the claim that these chemical additives were harmful, but I think some of the horror of it was that preservatives made the question of freshness beside the point. Some foods were fraudulent by passing themselves off as something they weren't: margarine for butter, glucose for maple syrup. What chemical preservatives were doing was faking freshness.  

The problem isn't so much that the food is rotten or dangerous, but that you can't tell the difference between fresh and not-fresh, and that difference matters to us. Time changes food; and food unchanged by time seems somehow removed from the natural world, indigestible.

Yet why does freshness matter so much? (We don't always favor new-to-the-world foods, of course. Sometimes time increases value: think of old wines, caves of teeming cheeses, dry-aged beef, century eggs).

What we call freshness is not an inherent condition of a food, but an interpretive effect. We read it from cues including color, taste, aroma, texture, as well as the contexts of consumption. This is what I'm arguing here: freshness is a cultural or social category, not a natural one.

As a case in point, consider the story of store-bought "fresh-squeezed Orange Juice," as described in the April 2014 Cook's Illustrated feature somewhat luridly titled:

The Truth About Orange Juice

Is the sunny image of our favorite breakfast juice actually just pulp fiction?

Cook's Illustrated -- one of my all-time favorite magazines, by the way -- assembled a panel of tasters to evaluate various brands of supermarket orange juice. With the exception of two low-cal samples, all the juices list only one ingredient on the label -- orange juice.

Nonetheless, as Hannah Crowley, the article's author, extensively illustrates, orange juice is a processed food: blended from different oranges, pasteurized, packaged, shipped across continents or over oceans, and required to remain shelf-stable and "fresh tasting," at least until its expiration date. Orange season in the US lasts three months. But we want orange juice all year long.

Part of the challenge of producing commercial name-brand OJ is consistency. How do you get each container of Minute Maid to taste the same as every other container, everywhere in the world, in May or in October? Coca-Cola, the corporate parent of Minute Maid and Simply Orange, uses a set of algorithms known as "Black Book" to monitor and manage production. As an article last year in Bloomberg Businessweek put it: "juice production is full of variables, from weather to regional consumer preference, and Coke is trying to manage each from grove to glass." In all, Black Book crunches more than "one quintillion" variables to "consistently deliver the optimal blend," the system's author told Bloomberg, "despite the whims of Mother Nature."

Sure, but how do you reproduce the experience of freshness? Preservation is not enough. In fact, the means used by OJ producers to arrest decay and rancidity in order to allow them to "consistently deliver" that optimal blend -- pasteurization and deaeration -- actually alter the chemical profile of the juice, in ways that makes it taste less fresh. Pasteurization can produce a kind of "cooked" flavor; deaeration (which removes oxygen) also removes flavor compounds.

Freshness is an effect that is deliberately produced by professional "blend technicians," who monitor each batch, balance sweetness and acidity, and add "flavor packs" to create the desired flavor profile in the finished juice.  Flavor packs are described by Cook's Illustrated as "highly engineered additives... made from essential orange flavor volatiles that have been harvested from the fruit and its skin and then chemically reassembled by scientists at leading fragrance companies: Givaudan, Firmenich, and International Flavors and Fragrances, which make perfume for the likes of Dior, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift." The only ingredient on the label of orange juice is orange juice, because the chemicals in flavor packs are derived from oranges and nothing but oranges. Yet orange juice production also has something to do with the same bodies of knowledge and labor that made "Wonderstruck" by Taylor Swift possible. (There are in fact multiple class-action suits alleging that the all-natural claim on orange juice labels is inaccurate and misleading.)

In other words, this isn't just about "adding back" what has been unfortunately but inevitably lost in processing, restoring the missing parts to once again make the whole. The vats of OJ, in a sense, become the occasion for the orchestration of new kinds of orange juice flavors, that conform not to what is common or typical in "natural fresh-squeezed orange juice" (whatever that may be), but to what we imagine or desire when we think about freshness and orange juice. As Cook's Illustrated puts it: "what we learned is that the makers of our top-ranking juices did a better job of figuring out and executing the exact flavor profile that consumers wanted." These flavors don't reproduce nature; they reproduce our desires. But how do consumers know what they want, exactly, and how do manufacturers figure out what this is?  

I can't really answer either of those questions now, but I think one of the consequences is a kind of intensification of the flavor dimension of things. Consider: consumers in different places want different things when it comes to OJ. Consumers the US, according to Cook's Illustrated, especially value the flavor of freshness. One of the volatile compounds present in fresh orange juice is ethyl butyrate, a highly volatile compound that evaporates rapidly and thus is correlated with the newness of the OJ to the world, so to speak. Simply Orange, Minute Maid, and Florida's Natural juices -- all juices "recommended" by the Cook's Illustrated tasting panel -- contained between 3.22 and 4.92 mg/liter of ethyl butyrate. But juice that's actually been squeezed at this moment from a heap of oranges contains about 1.19 mg/l of ethyl butyrate. The equation here is not as simple as ethyl butyrate = fresh flavor, so more ethyl butyrate = megafresh flavor. (One of the exception on the panel's recommendations - an OJ with an ethyl butyrate content more in line with that of fresh-squeezed juice - was actually produced in a way that permitted seasonal variations, was not deaerated, had a much shorter shelf life, and depended on overnight shipping to make its way to stores.) But there is a kind of ramping up, somehow, that seems to both correlate with our desires and recalibrate them.

Dying at the Bench: The Hazards of a Chemical Career

Some days I seem to come across very few actual people in the parched wilderness of trade journals, biennial census reports of manufacturers, and bulletins of chemical societies  -- the archival terrain where I'm currently wandering. But of course, all of these things are full of people, even if they're very deliberately not raising their voices. It's a hazard to mistake all the statistical tables and formulas and price lists as things that have somehow shaken themselves free of human beings, that represent the effortless interactions of chemicals, the frictionless relations of markets.

But then, sometimes, I'll be on the trail of a name -- some minor analytical chemist, or some voluble manufacturer, who seems to hold a key or serve as a connection between things or ideas -- when, unexpectedly, I trip across the obituary and realize that I've been compiling a dossier on an actual person. Shaken, I realize that the person has taken on the same tone as the tables and graphs, has become one of my "historical actors," etiolated, unresistant, a pawn that I move around my paragraphs in service of my arguments. 

For the past couple of weeks, I've been researching methods for manufacturing synthetic vanillin around the turn of the twentieth century, especially processes that rivaled the patented techniques of the leading French and German manufacturers. And that's how I came across a small notice about Edward C. Spurge's premature death -- in the laboratory -- overcome by toxic fumes from his own chemical experiments. A reminder that, as with the fatal "dissection wounds" of nineteenth-century medical students, or Mme. Curie's radium-martyrdom, the pursuit of scientific knowledge can take its toll.

From  The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904.  Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

From The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook, Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, MO, 1904. Published by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

E.C. Spurge was one of first vanillin manufacturers in the US. Born in Essex in 1875 (or possibly 1874), a graduate of the Bloomsbury College of Pharmacy with a B.S. from London University, Spurge was a working chemist who specialized in what were sometimes called "fine chemicals." After putting in time with pharmaceutical and perfumery companies in England and Paris, he emigrated to the US in 1904. Two years later, he patented a method for synthesizing vanillin from isoeugenol (derived from clove oil), and founded the Ozone-Vanillin company in Niagara Falls around the same time to put his ideas into action.

Why Niagara Falls? The ozone-generating machines necessary for the process to work needed a reliable electric current, and Niagara Falls, the center of the electrical and electrochemical industries in the U.S., was just the place.

In the wake of the 1906 Pure Food & Drugs Act, the ambiguous status of synthetic vanillin -- chemically identical to the compound that gave "real" vanilla its prized odor and flavor, yet legally declared an adulterant of "vanilla extract," an "unlike substance" -- meant that, even while demand increased, the prestige of the chemical was questionable. A triumph of synthetic chemistry, but disparaged as a "coal-tar" flavor by many pure food advocates. The Ozone-Vanillin Company tried to distinguish itself from its competitors -- and define its position relative to genuine vanilla extract -- by emphasizing the immaculateness of its product.

Take this advertisement from a 1914 issue of Simmons' Spice Mill:


"Ozone-Vanillin is not an imitation of nature, but an absolute reproduction of the natural aromatic principles of the vanilla bean by the combination of the very same elements which have hitherto been found only as blended in Nature's own laboratory.

Our method of manufacture is an improvement upon approved methods, so that we obtain a snow-white and absolutely pure vanillin by a harmless electro-chemical process."

Snow-white and absolutely pure! 

But Spurge was not alive to see this advertisement run. He died two years earlier, November 6, 1912, "at the bench" -- in the company laboratory, felled by fumes of hydrocyanic acid while working on a series of experiments to present at an upcoming meeting of chemists. Hydrocyanic acid is a solution of hydrogen cyanide and water; hydrogen cyanide was the chemical that would be used in Zyklon B. At the time of his death, Spurge was 37 years old. Several obituaries noted that he was survived by his wife, whom he had married earlier that year. 

Spurge was a practical chemist, a manufacturing chemist -- not an academic chemist. The honorific that he appended to his byline, F.I.C. -- Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry -- indicated "professional competence," not "full training." Nonetheless, his professional identity and the success of his synthetic chemical business were tied up with research, with continued experimentation, as was his collegiality with fellow chemists.

Who found his body? In 1908 testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee on vanillin imports, Spurge argued that American manufacturers needed tariff protection because of the scarcity of professional chemists in the US; instead, there were intelligent but unskilled workmen, who needed to be trained. Did one of these "intelligent but unskilled men" find his boss's body, in a small room full of precise glassware and toxic fumes? What exactly was Spurge working on?  What did he hope to prove? And what about the fate of his vanillin factory, on the American side of the falls, catalyzed by ozone, "the cleanest and most agreeable oxidizing agent known"?

The first mention of using ozone to synthesize vanillin from isoeugenol that I've found dates back to 1895, when two French chemists, Marius Otto and Albert Verley, received a patent to cover this method of production. I also found a remark about a Parisian factory -- I assume Verley's -- producing several kilos of vanillin a day this way. But the ozone-generating machine did not work properly, the yield was inconsistent, profits drooped, and they soon were forced to cease production. Spurge's method was intended as an improvement upon this original electrochemical method, but although his company survived him, it did not outlast him for long. A 1923 article in the journal Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, reconsidered the processes used by Ozone-Vanillin, lamenting that "after expensive experiments, the method was abandoned, even as it seemed on the verge of success."

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

(Probably) Albert Verley, synthetic perfumer, student of Satie

Albert Verley, one of the men who held the original patent, has another claim to distinction: he was Satie's only composition student. According to this, as a young man, Verley had dreamed of a career in music, but trained as a chemist; then a serious accident in the lab gravely damaged his right hand. (The hazards of a chemical career!) And so he parted from his piano, and instead devoted himself fully to chemistry.

He did well for himself as a manufacturer: he owned a factory outside of Paris that made synthetic perfume materials, including a renowned version of jasmine that he had developed. Satie's brother Conrad was a chemical engineer, and he may have been the one to make the introduction to the composer. Satie appears to have taken on this pupil mainly for money, not love, but Varley was not, apparently, without talent. Satie strongly recommended Verley's "strange piece" -- L'Aurore, which Satie had orchestrated -- in a 1916 letter to Varése. Verley also composed a ballet inspired by Edgar Alan Poe, Le Masque de la Mort Rouge, The Mask of Red Death, and launched the career of the young conductor, Vladimir Golschmann, by bankrolling a series of concerts of new music. 

Spurge certainly knew of Otto and Verley's method for turning clove oil into vanillin with ozone. He probably first learned of it while working as a chemist at the Societe Anglais-Francais des Parfums Perfecciones, in Courbevois, outside of Paris, the same town where Verley's operation was based. This must have been around the time, 1899, when Verley perfected his synthetic jasmine. What must it have been like, for Spurge, as a young man and a young scientist, strolling in the evening, outside of Paris, at the very coda of the nineteenth century, the suburban landscape faintly scented by the now-deathless odor of chemical jasmine?


IBM's "Cognitive Cooking" Food Truck

I'm not ashamed to admit that "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!" is one of my main sources of breaking news, and that's where I first heard that Watson, IBM's own Jeopardy champ, is running a food truck at South by Southwest. Of course, I had to look into it...

A joint venture between IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education, the food truck is an exercise in what IBM (rather bloodlessly) calls "cognitive cooking" -- a street-food demonstration of the practical applications of their "cognitive computing" system, aka Watson. Would you like to read an advertorial about it in Slate? Here you go. And here's IBM's promotional website about the cognitive cooking project. 

This is how you use it. You have to input three things: the main ingredient, the cuisine (eg, Indian, Azerbaijani, Canary Islander...), and the type of dish (eg, burrito, bisque, sandwich). (At SXSW, the type of dish was left up to a Twitter vote, and I suppose the other variables were supplied by IBM.)  Watson then reviews the vast universe of possible combinations, modeling the flavor chemistry of each component and its interaction with other flavor compounds, as well as the potential taste appeal of the final dish and how novel the combination is. It outputs a set of recipes comprising 12 to 14 ingredients, each with a rating based on its assessment of flavor interactions, likeability, and surprise. Just like on "Chopped," you're judged not only on taste but also on "creativity." The goal is to come up with something that's both "weird" and "good."     

[An aside: What is it about the times we live in that makes cross-cultural comminglings the apogee of "weird" cooking? "Indian turmeric paella," are the first words out of the advertorial's mouth. "Peruvian poutine," "Swiss-Thai asparagus quiche," "Austrian chocolate burrito" are all dishes featured in the cognitive cooking recipe archive. Are these combinations really so strange, or unimaginable without cosmopolitan Watson to liberate us from our parochial attachment to thoroughbred cuisines? This is not, I think, simply a retread of the 90s vogue for "fusion," which sought a diplomatic accommodation between US appetites and "exotic" (usually Asian) ingredients and techniques. All the borders have come down; materials and methods can be freely recombined without tariffs or translations; culture is just another seasoning. Should we call this "world markets cuisine," globalism's dinner plate, neoliberal gourmandise?]     

IBM's challenge is to prove to all of us that Watson isn't just some better sort of Google, a more refined filter for sorting relevant from irrelevant, signal from noise. What IBM wants to demonstrate is that Watson can provide creative or unprecedented solutions, things that don't just work right but also "feel right." As the Slate advertorial puts it, "A system that can generate new things the world has never seen before is a significant step in cognitive computing."

This is actually a rather tall order, especially as IBM is always careful to insist that "cognitive computing" is not a replacement for human creativity (the brain is "the most creative computer of all," in their words) but a tool to enhance it. The decision to use food -- and, specifically, the creation of unusual flavor combinations -- as a debut showcase for this technology is thus very deliberate, and taps into a longer history. Sure, the marketing team has festooned this with all the right merit-badges -- hipster foodies and their food trucks, Twitter crowdsourcing, SXSW, "the cloud" -- to gain likes and influence retweets in those zones of social media where knowing what's "trending" counts as connoisseurship. But the problem of meshing these two kinds of information about flavor -- what IBM refers to as "chemoinformatics" (ie, its chemical behavior) and "hedonic psychophysics" (ie, our sensory experience of it)  -- is something that has daunted the flavor industry since, at least, the mid-twentieth-century.

I've just been reading the proceedings of the 1961 Flavor Chemistry Symposium, hosted by Campbell's Soup at their old HQ in Camden, New Jersey. This was one of the very first scientific conferences devoted to this chemical subfield. (The Society of Flavor Chemists, the first professional organization, had been inaugurated less than a decade earlier; the American Chemical Society wouldn't create a flavor chemistry division until six years later.) The papers from this conference makes it clear how rapid progress has been in the field: more and more, the molecular structure of flavor compounds, their chemical precursors and interactions with other molecules during cooking and preparation, how they degrade, what influences them, and so on, are being quantified, verified, understood. As Carl Krieger, the director of Basic Research & Product Development at Campbell's remarks at the kick-off of the conference, there was a new "realization that the mysteries of flavor can be solved."

Except. Except that "the physiology and psychology of taste, odor, and flavor" are still vast unknowns. Krieger ventures that only by making positive identifications of flavor chemicals "will it be possible to describe flavors in universally meaningful terms" (ie, by their chemical names) rather than the subjective terms of experience -- "metallic," "stale," "rancid," -- "which, I must confess, seem to me to be pure gibberish." Thankfully, Krieger concludes, their conference will not focus on perception of flavors, but their chemistry - "something that I believe all of us feel is more amenable to direct experimental study." 

Okay, that's all well and good for Krieger to say, but knowing what the flavor compounds are doesn't answer the million-dollar question: "Will people like it?" That's a big missing piece of the puzzle -- the gap between the chemoinformatics, so to speak, and the hedonic psychophysics. Flavor companies -- and the US government, especially the army -- labored to make flavor evaluation "objective," to standardize descriptive vocabularies, to train tasters and impanel consumers to supply their opinions before a product hits the market. But these studies always involved human beings, unruly instruments on their best days, and their subjective responses are, by definition, not generalizable -- do not produce the "universally meaningful terms" that Krieger claimed chemistry did.

And this, fundamentally, is what IBM claims is different about its "cognitive computing" model, and what it's trying to show with this food truck project. We're quite used to claims like "chefs can only consider combinations of two or three ingredients at a time; computers can contemplate quintillions" -- yes, computers can outfox even the foxiest human thinkers. This system doesn't just crunch numbers, it makes judgments about subjective sensations. As the IBM advertorial tells us, it "understands why thousands of different recipes are appealing, what people prefer." Here's the crux of the claim: "It understands, learns, and considers not just big data but also human perception."

These two things -- big data, human perception -- continue to be held at arm's length from each other. But isn't the promise of this technology, in fact, that it successfully converts human perceptions into data, data that the machine-system can "consider" and that are susceptible to the same tools and techniques that guide the collation and analysis of other forms of 'big data'? The dream realized here is that we will finally be able to bring subjective experience into the same table that we use to calculate agricultural yields or profit margins.

What is supposed to make Watson different, I think, is that it claims to formalize the bodies of knowledge that have so far resisted formalization. Things like intuition. Experience. What we in the STS biz call "tacit knowledge" -- the kinds of things you learn by practice, by doing -- like how to make fine adjustments to instruments, or to hone a curve on the form of a chaise lounge, or to add a new ingredient to a recipe. Not just the look of things, but what we felt at what we saw. But Watson enters a crowded field, because our "personal technologies" increasingly aspire to recognize and cater to our subjective preferences. Like when Netflix deduces your taste in movies, not merely spitting out a list of other black comedies, but synthetically tailoring for you an array of "Dark GLBT Comedies with a Strong Female Lead." Or the new music data venture that scans Twitter for early "flickers of excitement about a fledgling band," "the kinds of signs music scouts have always sought." The Watson system isn't just about helping General Foods design new crazy flavors of potato chips; IBM promises that the applications for cognitive computing are in all fields that rely on "design and discovery." This isn't a technology that competes with Google; it's technology that competes with technicians and so-called knowledge-workers -- designers, flavorists, A&R divisions, R&D folks -- highly skilled workers whose refined, intuitive knowledge of their fields are supplemented (or supplanted) by "cognitive computing."

But fear not! Our cherished celebrity chefs won't be driven to extinction by our new networked overlords. "Cognitive computing is a sous-chef working alongside seasoned professional chefs." Right, it's not Emeril's job that's at stake, but those of his unnamed assistants, who will surely still be required to slice and dice -- Watson, after all, doesn't have hands to get dirty -- but perhaps less entrusted with the fine adjustments and refinements, with the knowledge side of technical work. (Similar, for instance, to what Deborah Fitzgerald calls the "deskilling" of farmers after the introduction of genetically modified hybrid corn.) Or maybe not. Maybe systems like this really do foster innovation, break down the barriers that have hitherto prevented us from dreaming up a Swiss-Thai quiche, an Indian paella.  

I should wrap this up on a less lugubrious note. So I'll add that, the consensus on the internet seems to be that Watson's food was pretty good and somewhat novel, though some were disappointed that it was prepared by humans and not robots. Brillat-Savarin said it, and I believe it: "The discovery of a new dish, which excites our appetite and prolongs our pleasure, does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star." The question, I suppose, is how you define "new," and what you mean by "discovery."  

Meat Juice and Perfect Food

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

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

All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

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


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

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

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

Me: And you would drink this??

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

Me: What was the machine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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