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.   

Real Mayonnaise v. Fake Mayo: Some Historical Background on Hellman's v. Just Mayo

Line your lairs with slices of white bread: the great mayonnaise wars have begun!

You may have heard the news that Hellman's, a subsidiary of Unilever, is suing Hampton Creek over a rival product, Just Mayo. Their claim? Just Mayo is a phony trying to pass itself off as the real thing. As one of Unilever's VPs told Businessweek: "They're nonmayonnaise and are trying to play in the mayonnaise side."

At issue are FDA regulations that officially define what can legally call itself mayonnaise in this country. These regulations decree mayonnaise to be an emulsified semisolid food that must contain three things: vegetable oil, an acidifying ingredient (vinegar, lemon and/or lime juice), and egg yolks (or, technically, an egg-yolk-containing ingredient).

Hellman's: It tickles the menfolks!

The regulations also specify a suite of optional ingredients that can be included in without mayonnaise sacrificing its legitimacy -- salt, MSG, crystallization inhibitors such as oxystearin, etc. -- but the egg yolks are the sticking point here.

My name is 'Mayonnaise,' emulsion of emulsions

Look upon my yolks, ye mighty, and despair!

Hampton Creek makes a vegan, entirely plant-based product. There's a joke that goes: "How do you know if someone is a vegan?" "Don't worry. They'll tell you."***


Hampton Creek is not that kind of vegan. Josh Tetrick, the company's CEO, told the Washington Post: "We don't market our product to tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco.... We built the company to try to really penetrate the places where better-for-you food hasn't gone before, and that means right in the condiment aisle of Walmart." It's evident that Just Mayo doesn't want to get pinned as some hippie "health food," a carob also-ran trying to compete with actual chocolate. It claims to be as delectable as the thing itself. It even features an egg-like ovoid on its label, for some reason.  

The media, along with its celebrity chef auxiliary corps, has generally taken the side of the underdog here, chiding Unilever for bullying the start-up and generally acting like the soulless multinational corporation that it is. (There have also been some subsequent ironies -- Hellman's had to change the wording on their website to account for the fact that some of their products, including their olive oil mayonnaise, don't count as mayonnaise either under the FDA's regulations -- like Miracle Whip, another nonmayo, they are  technically "dressings.")

But in making this a story about big and little brands fighting over shelf space at the supermarket, the historical dimension of this spat is being ignored.

For that, we'll have to turn to the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, and the law that it amended and expanded, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

The 1906 law is probably best remembered as landmark public health legislation, creating the infrastructure to inspect food and drugs and safeguard their safety. But it also gave the federal government the authority to intervene in preventing fraud by regulating how foods and drugs were labeled and advertised. It was no longer permissible to call your product "Olive Oil" if it was mostly vegetable oil, with a drizzle of olive oil for flavor, or "Strawberry Jam," if its flavor and color came from synthetic chemicals and not actual fruit. These would have to be labeled "imitation" or "compound," black marks against them, in marketer's estimations.        

But this did not stop manufacturers from giving fanciful or "distinctive" names to their products, avoiding an explicit claim while making the similarity as implicit as possible. Calling the oil "Spanola--For Salads," for instance, and selling it alongside similar-looking cans of genuine olive oil. This jam-like substance may look and taste a lot like jam, but it's not jam, it's "Bred-Spred"! By the 1930s, a growing number of these novel, fabricated foods were appearing on supermarket shelves, the new self-service stores where consumers were doing more and more of their grocery shopping, making their own choices about what to buy, unaided by clerks or shopkeepers. Note that the issue here was not that these products are dangerous or harmful, but that they seemed to be taking advantage of consumer ignorance -- deceiving well-intentioned housewives into unwittingly buying cheap substitutes for real things

The notorious Bred-Spred is on the right; the other foods shown here are an imitation vinegar and an imitation peanut butter, all sneakily seeking to avoid having to bear the stigma of "imitation" by using "distinctive names." Image courtesy the   FDA History Office.   

The notorious Bred-Spred is on the right; the other foods shown here are an imitation vinegar and an imitation peanut butter, all sneakily seeking to avoid having to bear the stigma of "imitation" by using "distinctive names." Image courtesy the FDA History Office. 

The 1938 law dealt with this apparent problem in several ways. First, it gave the FDA the authority to create and enforce food standards -- official definitions of the constituents and components of staple foods, such as olive oil, or jam, or mayonnaise -- that foods would have to meet in order to be legitimately sold as such on the market. Foods that did not contain the ingredients required by the established standard of identity, or that included components that were not officially permitted as "optional" ingredients, would be declared "misbranded" or "adulterated" and seized by FDA agents.

Second, the law also took action against any food that "purports to be or is represented as a food for which a definition and standard of identity has been prescribed" when it didn't meet the requirements of that standard. This essentially meant that substandard "imitation" foods would no longer be allowed on the marketplace -- everything that acted like jam had to meet the fruit and sugar requirements of jam, and would be prohibited from including additional ingredients (flavor chemicals, for instance) not listed in the standard. The "purports to be or is represented as" phrasing is key here. This is how the FDA took action against foods like Spanola or Bred-Spred. These foods would no longer be protected by their "distinctive names." FDA agents would look at the sales context, label and package design, and intended use of the product to evaluate whether it was attempting to pass itself off as some other, more lovable food. For foods where no standard of identity existed, products would be required to list and disclose all of their ingredients on their label.

Third, the law included a broadly written clause [Section 402(b)] prohibiting manufacturers from adding any substance “to make the product appear better or of greater value than it is… or create a deceptive appearance.” So -- any additives to enhance flavor, color, texture, and so on were suspect.   

I won't go into the longer history of the enforcement of this law here -- though if you're interested, read up on the so-called Imitation Jam Case, which scaled back some of its prohibitions -- but I will note that these sections of the federal code were intended to be in the consumer's interest, to ensure that shoppers got what they paid for. They also protected some manufacturers' interests, those who felt that their "genuine" products were being undercut by cheaper substitutes.

It's worthwhile to think about the ideological underpinnings here. The law presumes that imitations products are inferior, but also that consumers can't readily tell the difference. Any modification of a food -- any departure from the standard -- is considered to be to a food's detriment. Additives to improve the flavor or appearance of a food are cast under suspicion, inherently deceitful. When it comes to food, technology is assumed to diminish quality and value rather than enhancing it.  

The food industry increasingly criticized the law on the grounds that it straight-jacketed innovation, entombed foods in restrictive standards, and disincentivized progress and improvement. In industry meetings and trade publications, they rolled out a litany of cases that purported to show the absurdity of the regulations. Quaker Oats Farina, fortified with vitamin D, could not be sold as Farina, because it contained added vitamin D, but it also could not be sold as fortified Farina, because it didn't contain other additives required for that standard -- so it couldn't be sold at all! Canned asparagus must be packed in water, the standards stated. So a canner who wanted to pack his spears in natural asparagus juice would be violating the law!

Although the FDA apparently enforced this statute with considerable vigor, by the late 1960s, the agency's position was coming under increasing fire, in part because of the growing awareness of a pair of diet-related health crises: obesity and heart disease. 

Riffling through the FDA files on this subject at the National Archives this past summer, I came across a highlighted copy of a May 1970 article from the Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal. In "New Foods and the Imitation Provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," William F. Cody, a member of the legal department of CPC International [né Corn Products Company], argued that the FDA's regulations were delaying the introduction of low-fat, lower-calorie foods that could substitute for the fat- and calorie-dense foods that were contributing to overweight and coronary disease.  He gave two examples: a low-calorie margarine and a "dehydrated egg" that he claimed had been processed to diminish saturated fat and cholesterol without minimizing the beneficial nutritional components or altering the flavor. According to the FDA, he said, these products should legally be labeled "imitation margarine" and "imitation dried eggs." But, he said, calling these goods "imitation" because they did not conform to standards was actually harmful to the consumer as it "conjured up an image of something highly synthetic or cheapened, and generally discourages broader consumption of these useful products."

The fundamental issue, he argued, was that the context of food manufacturing had changed since the 1938 law's passage. The law assumed that imitation foods, or foods that substituted standard ingredients, were inferior to traditional foods, or at least had lower production costs. That the only motivation for making a substitution would be to reduce costs. Instead, new fabricated foods were not "imitations" in the law's intended sense, trying to find another way to provide the same characteristics to customers at a lesser cost. They were different in critically important ways -- for instance, by being lower fat, or lower calorie -- and marketers emphasized the differences rather than concealed them. They might even cost more to produce, or to buy, than the traditional product. In other words, at least to some consumers, these imitations were superior to the original. 

Memos appended to this documented suggested that FDA officials agreed with Cody's arguments.

Which brings us back to Just Mayo. Just Mayo is an imitation of traditional mayonnaise, but one that claims to be superior to the real thing -- it's healthier, it's made "sustainably," it's somehow both a comforting reminder of your mom's favorite pale semisolid emulsion sandwich spread, while also being more sophisticated, somehow, more natural.

To be clear, I don't have a dog in this fight -- I'm one of those people who really does not like mayonnaise. But what interests me about this is how two exceptional examples of processed foods -- reflecting the collaborative efforts of food technologists, engineers, chemists, factory workers, and marketers -- seem to be on opposite sides of the scale of virtue, depending on where you stand. And how a law whose stated purpose was to protect consumers from fraud and deception -- from being bamboozled by the efforts of chemists and manufacturers who could make the fakes seem too convincing, too indistinguishable to the credulous palate -- is now used as a cudgel by a huge manufacturer of perhaps the archetypal processed food, to advance its claim that Hellman's is traditional, is "real," unlike -- I suppose, the surreal fantasy in the key of mayo proffered by its eggless rival.     


***I'm iffy on this vegan joke; I justify its inclusion here as cultural context, proof of the ambivalence about what counts as a legitimate reason for eating "good" food. Consumers are supposed to have a sort of political power, but being too "strident" about your reasons for making certain choices makes you the butt of a joke. The fact that Hampton Creek feels like it has to hide its vegan-ness from the mass consuming public makes me think that vegans should actually be more vocal about the reasons underlying their beliefs and actions.


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."