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."  

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."  

I Want I Need

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

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

A young Edward Bernays with an admirably dapper mustache.

A young Edward Bernays with an admirably dapper mustache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mint Chocolate Polar Seltzer: Awesome

I have an addition to the top Polar seltzer flavors list I made here. Friends! I implore you. Search your grocer's aisles for: Mint Chocolate Polar Seltzer. It is one of their "limited edition" winter flavors, and it is amazing. It reminds me of eating mint chocolate chip ice cream from Baskin-Robbins with my dad after he picked me up from ballet class, before he figured out that he was lactose intolerant. Memories!   

Mint chocolate polar seltzer, animal pants

Mint chocolate polar seltzer, animal pants

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.