Container for the Thing Contained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Eat the contents. Eat the jar."

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

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

Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found  here.

Consuming the Fruitainer. Image found here.

Contents and Containers: Edible Meat Packaging, 1938

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U-All-No and How We Won the War

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

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

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

But what is it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all about the tins.

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

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

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

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

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

U All No tin black and white.jpg


Wine bottles and wine snobs

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

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

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

Enter... the cylindrical glass bottle.

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

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

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

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

Turning back to the Oxford Companion:

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

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