Flavor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bananas!

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

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

Have you heard? Bananas are going extinct!

Don't worry; this has happened before.

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

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

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

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

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

Good old New England Confectionery Company chewy banana splits 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who's Afraid of the Whiskey Trust?

So the context for this Eve of All Hallow's Eve blog post is the Whiskey Trust, a monopolistic coalition of alcohol distilleries that accounted for nearly all the alcohol produced in the US in the 1890s, and the relationship between the industrial production of alcohol and the manufacturing of synthetic flavoring additives. But there's so much more. This story's got it all. Congressional hearings! A ruthless corporation! The virtuous and honest traveling salesman who helps bring it down, only to be later exposed as an unscrupulous villain! A million dollar lawsuit! Naked short selling! Lots of and lots of alcohol!  

Just a little reminder of the importance of moderation, from the prints & photo collection of  Library of Congress . 

Just a little reminder of the importance of moderation, from the prints & photo collection of Library of Congress

Before I get into the story, though, I need to explain some things about whiskey and how you'd make it, if you were in the business of making whiskey, rye, or bourbon, circa 1893. First, you'd get some grain: most often corn and rye here in the US. Then you'd malt it, to convert starches to sugars; then, allow it to ferment, converting sugars to alcohols with the assistance of some hungry yeasts. You'd then distil this odorous slurry, to separate the alcohol from water and other materials in the fermented mash.    

What you've got at this stage is a solution that is mainly ethyl alcohol, but also a mixture of higher alcohols that goes by the name of "fusel oil." The concentration of fusel oil in this "raw" distilled product not only gives it a nasty flavor, it has some pretty nasty effects on the human body. These are the chemical compounds that trigger hangovers, and worse — blind by bathtub gin, dead by moonshine.

How do you turn this somewhat grody distillate into something drinkable, desirable — into whisky? In the late nineteenth century US, you've basically got a choice between two processing methods. You could call them rival methods, as each associated with different interests, technologies, economic calculations, and forms of labor.  The products of these methods are sold under different names: "straight" whisky or "rectified" whisky.

Option one: the distilled grain can be aged in charred oak casks, typically for one to ten years. Chemical changes during this period convert much of the objectionable fusel oil into pleasant tasting, less noxious compounds — organic ethers, mainly. Tannins and other compounds also leech out of the oak casks, adding flavor. This is known as "straight" whisky.

Technologies such as Coffey's Continuous Still greatly facilitated large-scale alcohol manufacturing.

Technologies such as Coffey's Continuous Still greatly facilitated large-scale alcohol manufacturing.

Alternately, you can put your raw whisky through further distillations and through a process known as rectification to eliminate the higher alcohols, resulting in increasingly pure ethyl alcohol. By the 1890s, various material and design improvements in distillery equipment have made this process faster, cheaper, less labor-intensive than ever before, and more efficient at producing large quantities of near-pure ethyl alcohol.

The problem is that in removing these harmful and undesirable impurities, you're also removing the molecules that contribute to flavor and aroma, not only the fusel oil but also essential oils and other compounds from the grain and malt. You end up with neutral spirits — pellucid, insipid — which have a market in manufacturing, medicine, and scientific research, but which are decidedly not recognizable as whiskey — and not a consumer product. So how do you get your whiskey back?

This is where a group of people known as "rectifiers" come in.  Licensed rectifiers, who often acted as liquor wholesalers, were permitted to blend neutral spirits with aged whiskey or rye, to produce a swill that was often cheaper, and sometimes also better in some regards, than the "straight" goods. (Witnesses at the Whiskey Trust hearings testify that blending produced a smoother, more consistent product, and one that caused fewer headaches — because of the lower concentration of fusel oil. Kentucky Rye and Bourbon, one Whiskey Trust distiller says, "remain too high flavored for use" even after aging, "and the use of spirits which is absolutely pure is what makes them more palatable.")

Or, instead of mixing spirits with straight whiskey, rectifiers had another option: they could add flavoring, coloring, and other additives to the neutral spirits to give it the desired taste, aroma, and appearance.

By 1893, rectifiers were using flavoring additives to transform spirits into a full range of alcoholic beverages, not only whiskies but also "domestic" gins, brandies, and rums. A late nineteenth-century catalog and manual from Alexander Fries & Brothers, Cincinnati chemists who were one of the largest domestic manufacturers of flavoring additives for spirits, lists seven variations on "Bourbon Essence": Bourbon Essence no. E, Bourbon essence no. 2, Cynthiana, Harrison County, Kentucky, Paris, and sour mash. The catalog lists a similar number of Rye Essences, including Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Monongahela, and Robertson County. Likewise for various gins (Old Tom, Holland Gin, Schiedam Schnapps, London Dock), Rums, Brandies, and wines.

These lists of flavorings gives a sense of the variety of liquors that were available, and of the distinctions that had some commercial significance. Because these flavorings claimed to reproduce the particular sensory qualities that distinguished each of these varieties, they allowed rectifiers and wholesalers to tailor their offerings to local tastes and drinking preferences — and also to quickly shift the character of their inventory when necessary.    

Different whiskey labels from Jack High and Clayton Coppin's article, "Wiley and the Whiskey Industry: Strategic Behavior in the Passage of the Pure Food Act," Business History Review, Summer 1988.

Different whiskey labels from Jack High and Clayton Coppin's article, "Wiley and the Whiskey Industry: Strategic Behavior in the Passage of the Pure Food Act," Business History Review, Summer 1988.

So, whether flavored with aged whiskey or with whiskey essences, the spirit-based product was known as "rectified" whiskey, or sometimes as blended or compounded whisky. By the beginning of the 1890s, rectified whiskey comprised about half of the whisky consumed in the U.S.

Which brings us to the Whiskey Trust investigation. In 1893, the House Judiciary Committee launched an investigation into the business practices of an Illinois corporation known as The Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company.  The Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company (aka and henceforth, the Whiskey Trust) produced only neutral spirits for rectified whiskey — not "straight" whiskey. By the time of the investigation, they dominated the market. More than ninety percent of the alcohol sold in the United States was manufactured in their distilleries.   

The main question before the House Judiciary Committee was whether the Whiskey Trust was engaging in anti-competitive practices. I won't go into the details here, but basically, the Trust controlled a large network of distilleries, and was using a system of rebates to compel wholesalers and merchants to buy exclusively from them in order to drive competitors out of the market and exert a monopolistic control over prices. The Congressional inquiry had little effect — it was unclear whether they had the authority to break up the corporation — though the Trust itself filed for bankruptcy in 1895, and subsequently reorganized in a less market-dominant form.       

But inextricable from this investigation of commercial practices was an inquiry into the substance of the product they were manufacturing, whether there was something suspect or against public interest inherent in the very nature of rectified whisky. Indeed, many in Congress wondered repeatedly whether it could rightfully be called whiskey at all.  

There appeared to be a connection between the (allegedly) illicit profits of the Whiskey Trust, and the specious flavor of ready-made whiskey — both seemed unearned, dubious, untethered from solid virtues and values.  

The Judiciary Committee hearings kicked off with a bombshell witness, James Veazey. Born in 1854, in Hamilton County, Ohio, Veazey had worked as a traveling liquor salesman since 1878, peddling whiskies, brandies, gins, and other spirituous liquors for a half dozen companies in Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois. This included three years working for Alexander Fries & Brothers, chemists, of Cincinnati, where, he became privy to "what is known as the 'secrets of the liquor trade.'"  He assures the Judiciary Committee: "I became acquainted with its entire manipulation."

But after ten years of this, as the 1880s drew to a close, he had some sort of crisis. "Broken health compelled my return to Cincinnati," he testified. He was off the road for two full years, and appears to have only worked intermittently, resigning his most recent position on the first of January.

Over two days of testimony, Veazey let Congress in on the "secrets of the liquor trade," showing them exactly how a dealer could produce "any kind of liquor that you want" with "five minutes' notice." The transcripts record a man unspooling an easy, confiding patter:

"Say an order comes in for any class of goods, say Jamaica rum; Jamaica rum essence is put into [spirits] and it is colored with burnt sugar and the name branded upon it as the law requires it shall be stamped, and away it goes. Say another order comes in for gin, and the spirits is filled out of the same tub, flavored with gin essence, colored with sugar, sirup, or glucose, and away that goes. Yes, sir; anything you want, and it is generally in use, and represents to-day one-half of the liquor business of this country."

Veazey dutifully and colorfully answers the Congressmen's questions, providing documentation at times, but drawing dramatic authority from his personal experience. For instance, asked whether the flavoring essences are poisonous, he replies: "I am not a chemist, but I have been warned when in the employ of these people not to take the crude material in my mouth."

On his second day of testimony, Veazey added some show to his big tell. He brought in two demijohns of spirits, as well as "a number of bottles containing essential oils, essences, etc." and stirred up a full bar's worth of libations for the Judiciary Committee.

Beginning with neutral spirits, he added a drop of Jamaica rum essence, some coloring, some simple syrup, and passed out tumblerfuls for the members to sample. "Does it smell like rum and taste like it?" he asked. I picture the tippling congressmen nodding in affirmation, all except the most teetotal of the bunch, who perhaps deigns only to stick his long and disapproving nose into his tumbler to take a long and disapproving sniff. Veazey then demonstrates the effect of another additive ("bead oil") that doctors a watered-down rum to make it run thicker, like full-strength liquor. He mixes up some rye whiskey, then "ages" it with other essences, prune juice, and raisin oil, to imitate successively older bottlings — three year, five year, and even "velvet" whisky, aged 30 years in oak casks.  

Throughout his testimony, he underscores that the ultimate dupe is the consumer. "The average man... is unable to protect himself, not understanding these imitations... at the time of purchase... falsely represented to him."

But what, really, makes the imitation so deplorable? Consider that the persuasiveness of Veazey's demonstration depended on the undetectability of the imitation, on the high quality of the flavoring. If whisky, rum, cognac made from alcohol and flavoring essences were bad imitations, then they would be less of a problem; frauds could be sniffed out, unscrupulous agents and manufacturers driven out of the market if substantially inferior to the real thing.

From the perspective of the chemists who manufactured flavoring essences, their products were directly related if not chemically identical to the compounds that gave "straight" liquors their flavors. Entered into the Congressional Record of this investigation is the complete text of a Manual for Compounders, published by Fries & Brothers — a handbook for users of their flavoring essences — which I've already quoted from above. "All natural old liquors (straight goods) contain certain odorous compound ethers arising from fermentative processes and slow oxidations," instructed the manual. But these sluggish processes can be abbreviated by chemical reactions, producing ethers that are "the synthetical reproduction of those manufactured in nature's laboratory." Moreover, chemists who manufacturing flavoring essences often began with a raw material sourced from alcohol distillation — fusel oil, those higher alcohols, removed during distillation and otherwise a waste product. The question is whether the transformation of an undesirable waste material to a pleasant and valuable one would be effected by the oxidative effects of time, or the directed and deliberate efforts of the manufacturing chemist.

When mixed with high-quality pure spirits, Fries & Brothers claimed that its flavoring essences would give "the most perfect imitation of the natural products." "Say Fina... Exactly As Good As the Best!" From Ed Ruscha's Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. 

When mixed with high-quality pure spirits, Fries & Brothers claimed that its flavoring essences would give "the most perfect imitation of the natural products." "Say Fina... Exactly As Good As the Best!" From Ed Ruscha's Twenty Six Gasoline Stations. 

In other words, if the way that whiskey changes as it ages in the barrel can be comprehended as a chemical process, then why not reproduce that process more efficiently, and thus more cost-effectively? Is this not one of the imperatives toward improvement that drives innovation? Yet this argument failed to be persuasive to many of the Congressional inquisitors and witnesses, who seemed to accept that there was something inherently inferior about whisky produced this way.

But you may be asking — Hold up, wasn't the problem here that these flavoring additives were perceived as harmful or dangerous? While this was certainly an issue of concern to some, the investigation concluded that they were not harmful, based on the testimony of none other than Harvey Wiley, chief of the Bureau of Chemistry and one of the driving forces behind the Pure Food & Drugs Act. Wiley gave a lengthy account to the Judiciary Committee about the chemistry of whisky production and flavoring essences. He stated repeatedly, and pretty conclusively, that the compounds used in flavoring essences are unlikely to be harmful in the quantities they are used: "All ethers employed by manufacturers of essences are undoubtedly not poisonous in the quantity so used. In fact, ten to fifteen times the amount employed could have no harmful influence." Coming from the man behind the "poison squad," this means quite a bit. (He would later take an explicitly oppositional stance against rectified whisky, but his shift in position was likely due to the coalition politics of getting his act passed.)

Even though he has a chemist's outlook on these matters, Wiley can't shake the belief that there's just something better about cask-aged whisky. Asked by a Congressman whether a doctor's prescription for whisky (remember, whisky was not just fun, but also medicine!) would be as effective if filled by "six-minute-old whisky" as the "real article of whisky," Wiley begins: "Well, I should say it would produce the same physiological effect." But then he hedges. "If I was a patient I would not like to have the spurious goods given to me, and in fact, I should want to be treated in a better way, but as far as the physiological stimulating effect is concerned, I do not think there is a difference, provided, of course, it is a good imitation."

Setting aside the question of what makes a "good imitation," Wiley did not manage to produce any solid evidence for his preference. His final explanation relies on the persistent uncertainties of medicines, whiskies, and their modes of therapeutic action. "While the mixed goods" — ie, the flavor-added spirits — "do not contain injurious bodies, they may not contain and do not contain all the beneficial bodies which the natural goods do contain." What these beneficial bodies might be is left unstated.   

Back to Veazey, though. Reading his testimony, I became increasingly intrigued by the man. Who was this guy? What was he all about? What were his motives?

I imagined the life circumstances of an itinerant liquor salesman in the boom-and-bust late nineteenth century, going from town to town in Ohio and Kentucky, with each little town looking like a Currier & Ives print: clear and mellow weather, a horse-drawn carriage, a forest, a smokestack or steam engine to indicate the recent arrival of the future. In order to sell his wares, a salesman must first sell himself; trustworthiness, reliability were precisely the qualities that he had to persuade his customers that he possessed in order to make the sale. Smooth-talking Veazey, on the stand before the Judiciary Committee, seemed a natural-born salesman. But yet there was something amiss, as well, and not just because of his (unelaborated) pang of conscience, or whatever it was that caused him to reveal the secrets of his erstwhile business. Why did he change employers so frequently? What was behind his "broken health"?

Digging further through the documents, it turned out that Veazey was selling Congress a story. His testimony was not a total sham, but an inflationary account, and one designed to provoke a market recoil from which he had schemed to skim some profit.

The backstory began to unfold in newspaper headlines almost exactly seven years after Veazey showed Congress how simple and quick a job it was to turn plain spirits into old whiskey.

"J.M. Veazey's $1,000,000 Stock-Jobbing Congressional Tip Suit Thrown Out," ran the headline on the front page of the February 20, 1900 Washington Weekly Post. "Persecutes Trust for Gain: Plaintiff Loses Action to Recover Share in Stock Exchange Profits," read the Omaha Daily Bee's headline of his subsequent loss on appeal in February 1903.

The articles explained that Veazey had lost his suit to recover $1 million dollars from Henry Allen & Company, New York stockbrokers. In his court filings, Veazey laid out the whole racket. He claimed to have instigated the Judiciary Committee investigation of the Whisky Trust in collusion with Allen & Company, as part of a short-selling scheme to cause the price of Distilling & Cattle Feeding Company stocks to plummet.

In the 1890s, Veazey seems to have been way, way down on his luck. He'd only just gotten back on the road again, only to find the viability of his traveling salesman gig hamstrung by the Whisky Trust's practices. He seems to have been grumbling widely about how the Trust did business — this was a moment when Americans were extremely anti-monopoly, riled up against the depredations of large corporations, vast new capitalist entities. Fatefully, in the autumn of 1892, Veazey met a certain Mr. Flagg in New York, who listened to his gripes and saw a business opportunity. Flagg told Veazey that there would be "an opportunity to make considerable money out of the decline of the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company's stock" if the practices Veazey described were publicly exposed, "and he thought it would be well for [him] to see and consult with some broker here in New York."

Flagg introduced Veazey to Allen, the stockbroker, on January 5. At the time, there was no investigation of the Whisky Trust pending or proposed. Veazey agreed to go down to Washington and "stir up this question," sharing damning information about the Trust to "any member of Congress who could introduce a resolution for an investigation of this." The goal was to provoke enough attention and outcry to cause a drop in the share price of the Distilling and Cattle Feeding Company. Astonishingly, Veazey does seem to have played a big role in making the investigation happen. He got Congressman Burrows of Michigan hooked on his story, and during the investigation, he actively conferred with the Judiciary Commitee chairman, provided witnesses and lists of questions, especially those that could most effectively undermine the Whisky Trust's president.

So how exactly was this supposed to net any money? Essentially, Allen & Co. would sell shares of the company's stock that they did not technically own on the bet that the price of the equity would drop in the future, when they would actually purchase the shares that they had sold — naked short selling. The firm's profit was the difference between the price of the shares at the beginning of the contract, before Veazey's provocation of the investigation, and after Congressional action caused the share price to fall. Allen & Co. contracted to share these profits with Veazey. The transaction involved 3000 shares, and Veazey received nearly $6,237.81 for his efforts.

But he felt that he had been defrauded out of much, much more. Hence the million dollar lawsuit, which was not for damages, but for his fair share of profits. Here's a good point to note that Veazey may have been a bit delusional, a bit unhinged.

Veazey appealed, twice — though Appellate Court and the New York State Supreme Court reaffirmed the earlier judgment, which declared the contract invalid because it was counter to the interests of public policy and public morality. The court rulings spared to harsh words in condemning Veazey's actions. He was a scoundrel, manipulating public policy for his own personal benefit, not that Allen & Co. was much better. Not only did Veazey not get his settlement, he was forced to pay all the stockbroker's legal fees.

So what can we learn from this tangle of conflicting interests, claims and representations?

A central, driving motif of life in late nineteenth century America is growth. Not only is the nation experiencing a tremendous economic, demographic, and territorial expansion, this is accompanied by a sort of hypertrophic elaboration of the material and social possibilities of life.  The world is crowded with novel technologies, consumer goods, sensations, pleasures, but also new ways of adding and extracting value, of deriving a profit, of making one's way in the world. But this growth and expansion is inextricably bound with concerns about fraudulence, adulteration, speculative bubbles, fake currencies. The verso of the self-made man is the confidence man. Is the growth all just illusory? Is it mere inflation, puffery, hot air? Are these multiple new pleasures empty, or worse, are they actual garbage?

Understanding the meaning of flavoring additives to American consumers in the waning years of the nineteenth and dawning years of the twentieth century means recognizing this prevailing context. This fretting over the relationship between apparent qualities and actual value. And in the case of whisky, what makes its flavor legitimate? Time or chemistry? Was the source of flavor the years the whisky spent mellowing in oak casks? Or was flavor a chemical effect that could be summoned from chemical reactions? And if the aged whisky, which gets its flavor "honestly," is reflexively valued above the "good imitations" of firms like Alexander Fries, then what grounds are there to value the skilled work of the manufacturing chemists, whose expertise is revealed and hidden by the undetectability of these imitations? 

Far from being settled in 1893, the fundamental questions here continue to be unresolved.

I'll close this with the earliest trace of James Veazey that I've found, from 1873, before his furious lawsuits, before his star-turn before the Judiciary Committee, before his broken health, before he went on the road peddling liquors. An article in the Pacific Rural Press from March of that year recounts a meeting with a man from Covedale, Ohio, at the previous summer's Cincinnati Exposition. This man had news of a remarkable new fruit: "a crystal white blackberry." It had a "peculiar and delicious flavor." It was "very juicy." And it grew on a hardy bush that never failed to produce a crop.

Luther Burbank's iceberg blackberry, perhaps related to that Ohio crystal varietal...

Luther Burbank's iceberg blackberry, perhaps related to that Ohio crystal varietal...

According to the Pacific Rural Press: "He found the fruit would sell for three or four times as much as the black kinds. When taken to the Cincinnati markets it created such an excitement on account of its beauty, extra quality and rarity, that it sold readily for one dollar per quart." Even better, it grew prolifically and dependably, on bushes unsundered by the blights that ruined other blackberries. 

The man touting the news of this remarkable, profitable, beautiful and delicious fruit was James Veazey, of course. And I'll let you decide: was what came after coherent with this first glimpse, or was it a departure?  

Got Plenty Imitation But There's None Like Mine: Heavenly NuGrape

The NuGrape Twins' recorded output is tiny: four songs in praise of the Lord, two in praise of NuGrape.

Like NuGrape, the twins are from Georgia. According to the Internet, their names were Mark and Matthew Little, born 1888, in Tennille, sort of in the middle of the state. NuGrape incorporated in Atlanta in 1921. Matthew and Mark Little apparently died in the 1960s, but you can still find NuGrape in stores.

The NuGrape Twins' "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the B-side of "There's a City Built of Mansions") was listed in this catalog. 75 cents.

The NuGrape Twins' "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the B-side of "There's a City Built of Mansions") was listed in this catalog. 75 cents.

The exact nature of their twin-ship is obscure and probably lost to history (identical? fraternal? spiritual? promotional ploy?), but their voices are quite distinct. In "I've Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape," listed in a 1926 catalog of "the latest blues by Columbia Race Stars," one twin sings in a tinny, determined countertenor, which, at moments, thins to wispiness; the other provides a shuffling baritone accompaniment, sometimes lagging a beat behind:

I got a NuGrape nice and fine

Three rings around the bottle is a-genuine

I got your ice-cold Nugrape

 

I got a NuGrape nice and fine

Got plenty imitation but there's none like mine

I got your ice-cold NuGrape

 

NuGrape may (or may not) be imitation grape, but that doesn't mean that NuGrape doesn't have a valor, and identity, of its own — that it doesn't have its own pretenders and imitators. There are a-genuine grapes, and there is a-genuine NuGrape. 

Of course it would take twins to sing a hymn to NuGrape, grape's arcane twin. The relationship of NuGrape to "actual" grape is in a certain sense staged by the twins' performance. Just as their voices pass in and out of phase, harmonize, joining together in the wordless, hummed refrain, so NuGrape passes now closer, now further, from grape.

For these unsanctioned claims of kinship with actual grapes, NuGrape came under regulatory scrutiny twice in the 1920s.

The first time was in 1925. The Federal Trade Commission, which prosecuted violations of the Pure Food & Drug Act that had to do with misleading marketing, alleged that NuGrape deceptively represented itself as made from grapes and falsely claimed that its flavor came from grapes.   

The FTC trotted out evidence of NuGrape's deceptive practices, including things like the cluster of grapes that were embossed on glass NuGrape bottles, and various slogans and images from advertising campaigns. (Note to fellow historians of these matters: FTC rulings are full of great information, such as sales data, manufacturing information, and advertising.) Here are some of the advertising slogans:

"NuGrape is made from the purest of pure Concord grapes"

"NuGrape has a way about it — makes you forget the heat and humidity, and remember only those luxuriant days when Concord grapes ripen on the vine and all the air is honey-sweet"

"It's just that sort of flavor, a mysterious something, born of plump Concord grapes and sunshine"

"NuGrape is as full o'Health as the rich, full-flavored joy of the grapes from which it is made"

"It is in no sense 'just a grape drink.' It is more"

Government chemists determined that a bottle of NuGrape was, in fact, both more and less than a "just a grape drink." It contained less than two percent grape juice; the rest was sugar syrup and carbonated water. What small fraction of grape juice it did contain was not enough to give the beverage "its characteristic flavor." "Said flavor," the chemists concluded, "is due principally to other and artificial sources." Flavor additives that NuGrape was required to, but had failed to, disclose.  

On these grounds, the FTC ordered NuGrape to cease and desist using images of grapes or grape vineyards in its advertising or marketing material, and to emblazon on all NuGrape labels, caps, and advertisements with the confession:  "Imitation grape — not grape juice."

For several years, NuGrape complied. But by the time the NuGrape came to the FTC's attention again, in 1929, the company had stopped doing this.

NuGrape had changed its formula. Fritzsche Brothers, a flavoring and fragrance company then located in Brooklyn, had started supplying NuGrape with something called "Merchandise No. 25" also known as "Fritsboro True Grape Aromatics, New Process."

This "true grape" flavoring, Fritzsche claimed, was derived entirely from grapes; it was not an imitation. Accordingly, NuGrape changed its label. It no longer admitted that it was "imitation grape -- not grape juice," but instead explained itself this way: "artificial color NUGRAPE SODA, containing in addition to grape juice, simple sirup, tartaric acid, and water."  

NuGrape: containing grape juice, sugar, water, tartaric acid, certified artificial color. This dates from after the addition of Fritzsche's Merchandise No. 25, but before the 1931 FTC ruling requiring the company to reinstate "imitation" on their labels.

NuGrape: containing grape juice, sugar, water, tartaric acid, certified artificial color. This dates from after the addition of Fritzsche's Merchandise No. 25, but before the 1931 FTC ruling requiring the company to reinstate "imitation" on their labels.

But what exactly was "Merchandise No. 25"? Government agents needed to know.

Fritzsche Brothers explained that they started with a vacuum-concentrated grape juice shipped to Brooklyn from California. To bring this 4:1 concentrate to the 8:1 strength they needed, they added "aromatic grape concentrate made from grapes by our own secret process." The aromatic grape concentrate used Concord grapes (foxy with methyl anthranilate), but beyond that, the company would say no more. A production specialist at Fritzsche "refused to give any further information about their so-called secret process on the ground that it would be disclosing trade secrets," and so chemists at the FDA (then the Food, Drug & Insecticide Bureau) investigated Merchandise No. 25.

They found that the flavor of NuGrape syrup"is derived chiefly from added tartaric acid." Tartaric acid is "not found as such in grapes or grape juices." It is "obtained from crude argols, commonly called wine lees, by-products, or precipitates, obtained in the treatment of grape juice or the manufacture of wine." In other words, there is a way that you could reasonably claim that tartaric acid is made from grapes.

(If you've got a container of cream of tartar stuffed in the back of your cupboard somewhere, it might just have an image of a barrel on it. That's a wine barrel, a now almost inscrutable gesture toward the substance's origins.)

In the eyes of regulators, however, there was too much distance between grapes and tartaric acid; what was grape about the grape had been transubstantiated, turned into a chemical. NuGrape's label already disclosed that tartaric acid had been added to the beverage. However, that was not sufficient. NuGrape, artificially colored, flavored with materials once derived from grapes but grapes no longer, was in the eyes of the law an imitation. The FTC's ruling, handed down in 1931, required the company to change their labeling and marketing to reflect that the product "is an imitation, artificially colored and flavored."

What underlies this chemical judgment is a value judgment: that the flavoring chemical was made, essentially, from garbage — from the wastes of other industries.  Although it dates from a decade later, this October 29, 1941 letter from P.B. Dunbar, assistant commissioner of Food & Drugs, to the chief of the central regulatory district, substantially reflects the agency's attitude and policy toward flavoring additives:

"Heretofore on products of vague identity offered to food manufacturers we have felt that the requirement for the labeling of the ingredients by their most informative names was a means by which the buyer could determine the worth, if any, of these often glorified addition substances. In other words, the mere recitation that the product is a few cheap chemicals and water takes out all the mystery."

The "products of vague identity" are the flavor additives produced by flavor and fragrance companies. The FDA, by requiring flavor additive manufacturers to reveal their ingredients, wants to demystify these "glorified" and overvalued additives. For Dunbar and the agency, flavoring additives are not innovative products developed by skilled workers, but "a few cheap chemicals and water." 

Underlying this is a more profound anxiety: that consumers won't be able to tell the difference between — for instance — grape and NuGrape unless "Imitation" is branded on the label. If there is a world of difference between the pastoral orchard and the chemical leached from the lees, then shouldn't that difference reveal itself at first sip? If the distinction between "real" and "fake" is somehow no longer self-evident, then what are the prospects for the continued persistence of the real?  

But is NuGrape best understood as an "imitation," as a cheaper substitute for actual grapes? Or is there a way that NuGrape can be genuine without being imitation? NuGrape's early advertising material claimed that the beverage could deliver the essence of the experience of grapes to the parched but orchard-less masses — to bring the pastoral within one's (mnemonic) grasp. Yet later promotions — including those intoned, probably without remuneration, by the NuGrape Twins — hint at other all the things that foods begin to be able to do in modernity.

One advertisement cited in the second FTC complaint was a poster featuring a tennis player grasping for a bottle of the drink. The slogan:

 

"When you were never so thirsty in your life! Reach for NuGrape" 

 

NuGrape delivered genuine refreshment to the body depleted by leisure, not labor. A healthy, modern, exhausted tennis-playing body. And the flavor of NuGrape was attuned to the amplifications and new intensities of experience in modernity, new modes of being in the world. There were appetites, perhaps, that the orchard could no longer satisfy.

 

As the NuGrape Twins knew well, NuGrape was also a substance that could lift depressed spirits:


When you're feeling kinda blue

Do not know what's ailing you

Get a NuGrape from the store

Then you'll have the blues no more...


Or pacify the rage of a termagant wife:


If from work you come home late

Smile and 'prise her with NuGrape

Then you'll sneak through in good shape...


Or serve as a love-charm, a token of otherwise inexpressible ardor:


Sister Mary has a beau

Says he crazy loves her so

Buys a NuGrape every day

Know he's bound to win that way


As Burgin Mathews wrote of "I Got Your Ice-Cold NuGrape" (the Twins' "masterpiece") in the All Music Guide to the Blues, the song is "a simultaneous hymn and jingle that advertises the soda as a cure for any earthly or spiritual ailment." 

To be clear, none of these things are necessarily more grandiose or remarkable than what foods could do to bodies in the early modern era, when food could treat and cure diseases, temper imbalanced humors, and recalibrate one's relationship with the actual cosmos.

In the final accounting, however, there is something heavenly about NuGrape.

"Is there no change of death in paradise?" asked Wallace Stevens. "Does ripe fruit never fall?" "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens," according to the Talking Heads.

For NuGrape to become "the flavor you can't forget," it must conform itself not to the flavor of grapes hanging heavy on the bough, but to prior memories of NuGrape. To the bodily, social, and spiritual array of pleasures, comforts, and gratifications that affiliate themselves with the sensations that NuGrape provides. Like the unchanging fruits of heaven, NuGrape must always resemble itself.


All the way from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico

From the Atlantic to the calm Pacific shore


NuGrape is the best friend yet

So try a bottle of NuGrape

The flavor you can't forget 


From Neroli to NuGrape: Methyl Anthranilate

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

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

NuGrapeFlavorYouCantForget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"A Joy to Jaded Appetites": MSG circa 1930

After my blog post last week about MSG, one of the fantastic archivists here at Chemical Heritage Foundation unearthed this incredible artifact. "15 Delightful Recipes Prepared in a New Way," a cookbook and extended advertisement for Aji-No-Moto, a monosodium glutamate seasoning manufactured in Japan by S. Suzuki & Company.

AjinomotoMSG1930.jpg

There's no date on this, but — based on what I know about Aji-No-Moto, on comparable advertisements, and from the lady's outfit in the cover illustration — I'm fairly sure it's from the early 1930s.  At that time, the consumer market for monosodium glutamate in Japan was booming; Suzuki wanted to find a similarly vaunted place for Aji-No-Moto in the U.S. home kitchen.

Aji-No-Moto was the most popular brand of MSG in Japan, but the product and the chemical would have been utterly unfamiliar to the vast majority of US shoppers. So, Suzuki not only had to introduce Americans to Aji-No-Moto, it also had to educate American consumers about how to use it. The advertising pamphlet-cookbook was a common tactic of food manufacturers -- you've probably seen some examples of these with recipes for Jell-O, Crisco, or Fleischmann's Yeast in used bookstores or antiques shops -- and this is a pretty typical example of the form, interlarding practical recipes with expository advertising copy and other inducements.   

In addition to how to use Aji-No-Moto, consumers needed to know why. Every new product has to make its pitch, provide a narrative motive for buying by describing (or creating) the problem it's going to solve, the intervention and improvement that it will make in the one and only life of the consumer.

MSGjoytojadedappetites.jpg

Specifically, this was the problem for which Aji-No-Moto proposed itself as a solution: "jaded appetites."

This was a problem that afflicted women in particular:

To women who daily face the trying problem of having something different for breakfast, luncheon and dinner, or how to make left-over dishes more appetizing, the Orient now sends one of its rarest secrets.

Modern, middle-class women, the scientific managers of the household, were tasked not only with preparing nutritious and wholesome meals on a budget, but also with providing an appetizing and stimulating variety of dishes. Without endless novelty, there would be thankless drudgery. Aji-No-Moto makes it new.    

"Well, that sounds very fine indeed," the woman reader, circa 1930, might as well muse, wondering if this rare secret could help her turn the left-over roast beef congealing in her ice-box into something her fussy children and bratty spouse would not refuse to ingest. "But what exactly is Aji-No-Moto?" The pamphlet scrupulously evades this question. We are told that the name means "essence of taste," but there is no mention of monosodium glutamate, MSG, nor the raw material or industrial process by which it was manufactured. A closer look at the back cover reveals a pair of highly stylized wheat-stalks, cadmium yellow on red ground, enclosing within a mandorla a spare tableau of Aji-No-Moto box, glass bottle, and dainty spoon. This is crowned by an emblem, in cool blue, of an aproned Japanese woman. The twin ears of wheat refer obliquely to the wheat gluten origins of the seasoning; a Good Housekeeping (Bureau of Foods, Sanitation, and Health) Seal of Approval, as well as the assurance that "some of America's leading cookery experts... endorse" Aji-No-Moto "for its purity and wholesomeness" are meant to quell any possible misgivings about the product's safety.

Ajinomotomandorla.jpg

Aji-No-Moto is defined not by what it is, in a material sense, but by what it does -- its effect on foods, on eaters, and on the status of the cook herself.

First, it is a general seasoning, with "practically limitless" applications in foods. The pamphlet contains instructions and recipes for its use in soup, rice and noodles, vegetables, sauces, salad dressings, meat, fish, and eggs. It is simple to use, a kin to the most familiar seasonings: "use it just before serving as you would salt and pepper, or at the table."

But the "super-seasoning" does more than salt and pepper ever can. Aji-No-Moto not only improves the food; it also improves the cook. Aji-No-Moto collapses the difference between domestic cooking and fine cuisine, bringing the gourmet chef's refined effects within reach of the housewife and elevating her home cooking above the realm of the quotidian. We are told that Aji-No-Moto is "a zestful persuasive seasoning that immediately gives the most commonplace, every-day dish that indefinable something that makes one cook's meal a welcome surprise and another's 'Just something to eat.'" It "gives to every dish that rich, full-bodied flavor that forms the basis of the famous sauces, soups and other culinary triumphs of the foremost professional chefs." Moreover, it produces these effects as if automatically, without adding any drudgery or time to the process of cooking -- for instance, it "eliminates the laborious process of boiling down beef-stock in order to obtain a meaty flavor." In short: it increases joy, without sacrificing efficiency.

What is this "indefinable something"? How does it work? The pamphlet offers the following account of Aji-no-Moto's operations:

[It] is the only seasoning which reveals the 'Hidden Flavor' of food. Untasted in every dish you eat is flavor that makes food more tempting -- delicious -- appetizing, but whose presence is often unsuspected. Aji-No-Moto reveals and enhances this natural flavor and adds a mellow zest all its own.

Aji-No-Moto thus apparently has a transformative effect on foods and on diners. It transforms foods not by adding an additional, unfamiliar flavor component, but by inducing foods to reveal their "unsuspected" depths. It transforms diners by reeducating their senses and recalibrating their appetites -- by making them susceptible to the flavor they had been consuming all along without suspecting it, the natural flavor that had passed down their gullet untasted.   

The challenge of selling Aji-No-Moto to American consumers is in making the chemical comprehensible -- in balancing familiarity with novelty, but also balancing (scientific) modernity with enchantment and magic. This is why, I think, it Aji-No-Moto persists in being introduced as a "rare secret of the Orient," while also making every effort to appear westernized and domesticated, adaptable to a range of familiar Western dishes. Aji-No-Moto does not abjure its origins — converting itself into a deracinated chemical — but flaunts its Eastern mystique. And while the product's name may be transliterated into Latin script and its meaning translated into mystical English ("Aji-No-Moto means 'Essence of Taste'"), it retains Japanese lettering its packaging, a Japanese housewife on its emblem, and boasts of its endorsement by "The Imperial Household of Japan."

Aji-No-Moto did not take off with American housewives in the 1930s the way it had with their counterparts in East Asia. It appears that American home cooks came to think of it mainly as an Asian condiment rather than a general seasoning. Indeed, the only recipe from the 1930s using MSG that I've encountered so far comes from a 1933 Chicago Tribune column by food writer Mary Meade; she uses it in "sukiyaki," in a column about throwing a Japanese food party. Although Aji-No-Moto continued to be sold in the US throughout the 1930s and 1940s, it appears not to have been widely available. Its sale seems to have been restricted mainly to Asian groceries in large cities.

Despite its apparent lack of success in making a place for Aji-No-Moto in the American cupboard, this pamphlet is fascinating for the ways it prefigures future campaigns to sell monosodium glutamate to home cooks: its associations with professional cooking and plush gourmet qualities such as richness, savoriness, and fullness; its pitch to housewives seeking transcendence from the thankless drudgery of routine cooking; its promises of "inestimable delight," of untasted, unsuspected flavors, flavors that have been there the whole time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

thingsofsciencetasteenhancerspecimens.jpg

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

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

MSGthingsofsciencemuseumcard.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makesfoodflavorssing.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messing with the Senses

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

mysteryflavor.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skunkiness, Coffee Chemistry, and Naturalism in Flavor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did this foul chemical become a commercial product?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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."***

justmayoegg.jpg

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.     

realfoodfromunilever.jpg

***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.

 

Are Teeth Necessary? Chewing on the Food of the Future

There's been a cluster of recent articles about Soylent, the Silicon Valley open-source pap that is supposed to be the perfect fuel for knowledge-workers' ceaseless sedentary labors. "What if you never had to worry about food again?" is Soylent's slogan, and the product promises to resolve all our nagging food anxieties. Not only: what's for dinner? But also: is it good for me? Will it make me fat? Does it wreck the environment or exploit migrant farm workers?  Will it get crumbs on my keyboard, and make me look conspicuously sad and slovenly as I eat yet another meal at my desk? Soylent is a powder (either purchased from the company or DIY) that, when mixed with water and oil, forms a nutritious beige slurry - allegedly capable of providing sustenance for hours of uninterrupted, untroubled, supremely focused labor.

But in all the chatter about the resultant mephitic farts and "the end of food," I haven't heard much said about how Soylent revises the actual mechanics of eating. It is a chew-less food, and this places it in a particular tradition of techno-scientific "foods of the future." The company's name, of course, is an explicit (either ironic or ill-considered) reference to the eponymous edible in the film Soylent Green, a nutritious wafer allegedly derived from algae, but which we all know by now is people. But other, earlier science-fictional precursors to this kind of all-in-one food product are perhaps better models for Soylent's particular material ideology.  

Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

Gernsback demonstrating one of his many inventions, "The Isolator." "Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand."

For instance: Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. First serialized in the 1910s, Ralph gets hazed as one of the worst novels to have ever made it into print, and I suppose most people read it as a historical curiosity rather than with genuine relish. (Gernsback is the Luxembourgian immigrant credited with creating "science fiction" as a pulp magazine genre, which was initially a sideline to promote his radio-and-electrical hobbyist mail-order emporium. He's the guy the "Hugo Awards" are named for.)

Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph and Alice explore New York 2660 on tele-motor-coasters.

Ralph, the scientist-hero of the story, is one of literature's most dogged and unflappable mansplainers. A rudimentary damsel-in-distress plot serves as the occasion for him to take his lady-love, Alice, on a guided tour of future New York. Total weather control? Sleep-learning? Solar-powered generators wirelessly transmitting energy? "Alomagnesium" roller skates (er, "tele-motor-coasters") for smooth gliding over crack-less "steelonium" sidewalks? They've got all the mod cons. Earth circa 2660 is a place where the forces of nature have been entirely subdued, and where all matter (and ether) has been organized to facilitate a particular kind of human design: maximally efficient, maximally automated, where form always follows function, and where waste of all kinds is assiduously eliminated (eg, the lossless conversion of solar to electrical energy; the time we once wasted sleeping now a time for productive learning).

Rob Rhinehart, the creator of Soylent, is but a stripling of twenty-five, yet his fixations seem to spring directly from this Progressive-era obsession with maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. The idea for Soylent occurred to him when he became frustrated by the time, labor, and expense necessary to feed himself adequately during the waning days of a failing start-up. An engineer by training, Rhinehart began to perceive food itself as inefficient, a poorly designed vehicle for the delivery of the chemical compounds that sustain life. As he puts it in Lizzie Widdicombe's fantastic New Yorker profile, "You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself... You need carbohydrates, not bread." Fruits and vegetables? Sure, they've got vitamins and minerals, but as a matter of fact they're "mostly water." And so he did research: streamlining life's necessities to a list of 35 essential vitamins and nutrients, and ordered the raw materials for his simplified, complete food off the Internet. It's got everything you need, nothing you don't.

For Rhinehart, food's inefficiencies begin at the source: agriculture. Farms, he explains, are "very inefficient factories" that require excessively strenuous and dangerous work from an impoverished underclass. Unlike slow-food advocates who prescribe a return to skilled, artisanal practices to restore dignity and meaning to farm work, Rhinehart believes that the solution is to increase mechanization and industrialization: "There’s so much walking and manual labor, counting and measuring. Surely it should be automated.” 

This is certainly a sentiment that Ralph would get on board with. Food in 2660 is grown in vast, machine-tended, accelerated-growth greenhouses, stimulated to rapid ripeness by artificial lights and electric currents. And when it's not grown, it's manufactured. Taking Alice on a tour of a synthetic food factory, Ralph proclaims: "Men of an inquisitive nature must have asked themselves the question for thousands of years, 'Why grow grass, let the cow eat the grass, digest it, and finally turn it into milk? Why not eliminate the cow entirely?'"  

But while I think Rhinehart would definitely be for eliminating the cow, he still concedes the social and emotional need for traditional meals, prepared with care, eaten in the company of others -- "recreational food," he calls this, arguing that Soylent actually makes these indulgences less fraught, heightens their pleasure and meaning, by taking the problem of mere sustenance off the table. Soylent provides everything you need, nothing you don't, so that when you do choose to chomp on larks and pavlovas, you needn't worry about ruining your diet. Your diet is taken care of.

In Ralph's world, on the other hand, the material consistency of food is as important as its nutritional composition. The future food in Ralph's world is exclusively chew-less. When Ralph escorts Alice to a "Scientificafé," he assures her, "I think you will prefer it to the old-fashioned masticating places." Crucially, the "scientific food" served at these restaurants is available exclusively in liquefied form. Chewing (or, as Ralph invariably puts it, "masticating") is just another inefficiency, one that technoscience has rendered no longer necessary.   

Let's accompany Ralph and Alice on their date at the Scientificafé, shall we? Before entering the dining room, they tarry in the Appetizer, "a large room, hermetically closed," where pages from humor magazines are projected on the walls. When Alice grows peckish, Ralph explains: "The air in here is invigorating, being charged with several harmless gases for the purpose of giving you an appetite before you eat -- hence its name!"

After being gassed into a proper state of hunger, they then proceed to the "main eating salon," white-and-gold luxe in international moderne style. There are no waiters, no attendants, and the room is silent save for a "muffled, far-off, murmuring music." The diners recline in leather armchairs, in front of a complicated silver board at whose side hangs a flexible tube capped by a silver nozzle, resting in disinfectant solution.

You feed through the tube. "Meat, vegetables, and other eatables, were all liquefied and were prepared with utmost skill to make them palatable." The silver board lists the day's offerings, diners push buttons to make their selections, and the food begins to flow. A red button controls the flow-rate, and other buttons and switches allow the diner to adjust the temperature, or add salt, pepper, and spices to the slurry. Between courses, the tube rinses itself out with hot water.

There's no need to labor over your meal with a knife and fork; no need to chew each bite until it can safely be swallowed. Ergo, the book's narrator concludes, "eating had become a pleasure."   

The only problem to the widespread acceptance of scientific food was getting people to overcome their repulsion at sucking their meals through tubes. "Masticating" is old-fashioned, and like all "inherited habits," difficult to shake. At first, Ralph explains, people rejected the new mode of eating, regarding it "with a suspicion similar to a twentieth century European observing a Chinaman using his chop-sticks." It seemed "unaesthetic," and  "devoid of the pleasures of the old way of eating." But once people understood the physiological benefits -- how chew-less food "did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills," how it made people "stronger and more vigorous" -- they abandoned their irrational, sentimental attachment to mastication.  

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For Ralph (and Gernsback), the chief virtue of "scientific foods" is not their refined flavor nor even their nutritional content, but their "digestibility." Many scientifically-minded Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered dyspepsia (indigestion) to be a genuine health crisis -- "the great American plague," to quote Henry Finck, whose 1913 book, Food and Flavor: A Gastronomic Guide to Good Health and Good Living, makes the epicurean case for chew, chew, chewing food to a proper liquefaction. Chewing each mouthful - up to a hundred times - was seen as an essential component of physical and mental hygiene. In the words of health reformer Horace Fletcher, "nature will castigate those who don't masticate," a gospel that was promoted widely during this period, including at John Harvey Kellogg's famous sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. 

Historian Christina Cogdell has chronicled the obsession with "smooth flow" in the Progressive era, showing how the Progressive virtue of frictionless efficiency manifested in different cultural realms: in concerns about the dangers of constipation, in the fad for streamlined design, and in eugenic policies and politics.

From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

From Ladies Home Journal, 1934. Image courtesy Duke University Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. 

Constipation was understood to be "a disease of civilization," caused by excessive consumption of excessively rich or highly flavored foods, by impurities and contaminants, and by the habit of hastily "bolting down" food rather than civil, deliberate chewing.  But the consequences of constipation were more significant than any one individual's discomfort and bloating; they undermined the very health of the polity. To Progressive reformers, a stagnant colon was at the root of both moral and physical degeneracy, causing "autointoxication" that enfeebled, enervated, and exhausted the nation's citizens. Food should flow smoothly and at a consistent rate, as though down a factory assembly line, from mouth to anus. Dyspepsia, constipation, indigestion -- all of these things made us, as a society, less productive, less fit, less suited to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of modernity.    

And though we've left Fletcherism and its gospel of mastication more or less in the past, functional foods like Soylent stage a sort of return to this dream of a food perfectly suited for frictionless productivity - a food designed for the steady satiation of needs without the distracting stimulation of appetites. By design, Soylent has no particular flavor - which Rhinehart sees as unnecessary ornament, a compromise of the compound's commitment to functionalism. (The New Yorker quotes him: “I think the best technology is the one that disappears.... Water doesn’t have a lot of taste or flavor, and it’s the world’s most popular beverage.”) On a steady diet of Soylent, Lizzie Widdicombe writes:

"As Rhinehart puts it, you 'cruise' through the day. If you’re in a groove at your computer, and feel a hunger pang, you don’t have to stop for lunch. Your energy levels stay consistent: 'There’s no afternoon crash, no post-burrito coma.' Afternoons can be just as productive as mornings." 

Who wouldn't want this? As a lady who sometimes (often) struggles to write, who owns not one but two copies of Getting Things Done, (neither of which I've read beyond the first chapter, naturally), and who, on the regular, postpones lunch for as long as possible, because of the sluggish lull of afternoon lackadaisy that always succeeds eating - this sounds pretty excellent. Like putting on Gernsback's isolator helmet, and concentrating "with ease at the subject at hand." And yet. And yet... Latent in this, I think -- and tracing back to at least some of those Progressive reformers, whose vigorous championship of rational design and smooth flow came from the most unimpeachable motives, produced monuments of exceeding beauty, but concealed some pretty ugly collateral -- is a suspicion of eating itself. A belief that food is somehow toxic, harmful, or impure -- and that our appetites and desires betray us rather than guide us toward well-being. That life's processes should be kept distinct from life's purposes, and to delight in one degrades the other. Who hasn't felt a pang of - something, maybe regret? - when encountering yet again the oft-cited fact, that we spend a third of our lives in bed? Food is a pleasure, but only the most shameless gourmandiser might calculate the amount of time spent eating, thinking about eating, talking about eating, getting ready to eat, resisting and indulging, without somehow feeling at a loss. Well, "enjoy every sandwich."

Technology mediates all aspects of life in Ralph's world, from stimulating the desire to eat (that Appetizer room) to mechanizing the labor of chewing - once done by teeth, now done by liquefying machines. But Gernsback does not go so far as to imagine whether these new technological accommodations will result in bodily alterations, new human physiologies emerging adaptively in response to the technological reshaping of the edible world.

Other science fiction writers - HG Wells, JBS Haldane (in his exercise in speculative eschatology, "The Last Judgment," from 1927) - did take the opportunity to imagine future iterations of human beings as conspicuously toothless. In a 1893 article in The World, Wells argued that technoscience would make chewing obsolete, rendering teeth vestigial and maladaptive. He explained:

"Science gives [mankind] the knife and fork. There is no reason why it should not masticate and insalivate his food. Does it now digest it with all the pepsin compounds? Teeth will disappear....

In some of the most highly developed crustaceans, the whole alimentary canal has solidified into a useless cord, because the animal is nourished by the food in which it swims. The man of the year one million will not be bothered with servants handing him things on plates which he will chew, and swallow, and digest. He will bathe in amber liquid which will be pure food, no waste matter assimilated through the pores of the skin. The mouth will shrink to a rosebud thing; the teeth will disappear; the nose will disappear - it is not nearly as big now as it was in savage days - the ears will go away. They are already folded up from what they were, and only a little tip fast vanishing remains to show that ages ago they were long-pointed things which bent forward and backward to catch the sound of approaching enemies."

Wells imagined the man of the year one million as a toothless cranium, with huge saucer-eyes and teeny tiny limbs: 

HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

HG Wells' own depiction of the man of the year one million.

According to Bee Wilson in her recent Consider the Fork, technologies have indeed changed our dentition, though not in the way that Wells presumed. The widespread adoption of the fork, she claims, made overbites endemic. What made teeth optional, she says, was not forks and knives but stew-pots. A stew, simmering for days, softened up all tough bits so that even the toothless could get their share of calories.

Will our species ever be able to leave this toothy period of our evolution behind? There's something tempting about imagining it. Teeth are expensive and uncomfortable to maintain, and thus a sterling status symbol: indicators not only of wealth, but of deserving wealth (because they display the fastidious rigor of our self-care, or our self-denying willingness to submit to pain and discomfort in service of straightness, conformity, regularity, and impeccable whiteness; compare with the derision reserved for grills and tooth-jewels, racialized bling that seems to signify money but not wealth). If the protestant ethic still holds (settle down, Max Weber) straight white teeth could be considered one of the hallmarks of the elect.

So keep smiling, dentists; you've got a million years or so before teeth go out of fashion.

  

 

Keep it Fresh, Keep it Real, Orange Juice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth About Orange Juice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.  

 

Polar Seltzer and the Evolution of Flavor

Hello! It's been a while since I updated this blog, but now that other distractions (ahem, marriage...) are behind me, I'm back to hiking up that Sisyphean mountain (Ol' Dissertation) and hopefully will have more stuff to post up here.

One way to tell the history of flavor additives is to track their changing uses. In the early days of flavor extract manufacture, in the last third of the nineteenth century, flavor additives typically came packaged in syrups or in alcohol-based solutions. Soda-fountain operators and bottlers, ice-cream makers, makers of fruit preserves, and other food manufacturers would (presumably) purchase the kind of extract (alcohol, glycerin or sugar-syrup based) that seemed to suit their needs. Starting around the mid- to late-1940s, however, flavor additives are increasingly designed to operate as a component of processed foods -- flavors manufactured to withstand the particular rigors of processing, distribution, and the expanded shelf (or freezer) life of mass-produced, mass-consumed goods. Using an increasing stable of chemicals and manufacturing methods (such as spray-drying), flavor additives were engineered to deliver a wider range of flavor experiences to consumers at the point of consumption. 

Polar seltzer has been around for 130 years, making carbonated beverages with "natural fruit flavors." I pick on them here, because their seltzers are a great example of how flavor has changed even in cases where you'd expect the most continuity. 

I'm not a shill for the company, but, full disclosure, I am a long-time fan of their flavored seltzers. You can get them in NYC now, but until very recently, that was not the case. I remember calling their Worcester, MA headquarters four or five years ago and asking if I could find their vanilla seltzer anywhere in NYC; the lady on the phone told  me I was out of luck, but asked me if I was interested in becoming a distributor. I seriously considered it for a moment, though I probably would have gotten high on my own supply, if you know what I mean. 

Anyways, many of the Polar Seltzer flavors are, as far as I'm concerned, flavor masterpieces - and illuminate some of the ways that flavor additives operate to produce their effects. Is there anything in the world less like fudge cheesecake than sugar-free, calorie-free sparkling water? Nonetheless, Polar's Fudge Cheesecake flavored seltzer (one of their limited-edition winter 2013 flavors) marvelously evokes ... something about deli-style fudge cheesecake. As you move to take a sip of the seltzer, you get the aroma of bakery fudge - a little tinny, like the chocolate side of a black-and-white cookie from the bodega - and then, after you've swallowed, the aroma that reaches your nasal cavity from the back of your throat subtly recalls cheesecake's creamy notes. It's all aroma, there's very little actual "taste" to it, but the aroma is masterfully constructed, and the bubbles of the seltzer actually seem to amplify the effect - releasing more of the volatile molecules into the air, where they do their work.

What's the right metaphor for this relationship, between the flavor and the thing itself? Polar's seltzer has almost nothing in common, materially, with fudge cheesecake. Even if they do share some of the same characteristic flavor molecules -- that is, if the chemicals Polar uses to flavor its seltzer are the same as those found in fudge cheesecake, which is in no way a given -- this is a material resemblance only on the scale of parts per million. Yet we (most of us) accept that the seltzer and the fudge cheesecake are somehow related through the medium of a volatile chemical mixture that we call flavor. 

The fragility of this volatile chemical mixture is evident if you do something rash like adding stevia to the beverage. I haven't tried this with the fudge cheesecake seltzer, but when you add stevia to vanilla seltzer, the flavor vanishes. The stevia must react with the vanilla compounds in some way, rendering them less volatile.

To conclude, a list of my top favorite Polar seltzer flavors (in no particular order): 

  • Granny Smith
  • Vanilla
  • Toasted Coconut
  • Strawberry
  • Fudge Cheesecake
  • Ginger Lemonade
  • Georgia Peach

Print and Eat the Food of the Future

One of the best parts of the pseudo-Freudian space fantasy Forbidden Planet is when Robby the Robot obliges the poor space sailor who's been left to guard the ship with a heap of liquor. Robby scans and chemically analyses the spaceman's bottle of whiskey, and then duplicates it... and duplicates it... and duplicates it... until he has a lovely pile of whiskey bottles -- at least until the invisible Monsters from the Id come and annihilate his fun.

All matter is chemicals, after all, and all chemicals are elements, and elements are just atoms, and atoms are everywhere, so why not? Anything can become anything else; stuff can be made out of no stuff.

The wait is over (maybe): why cook, when you can print your food and eat it? Sadly, there's no gracious Robby to butler our meal for us out of thin air. This is basically a modified 3D printer, the "revolutionary" technology that keeps threatening to transcend mere novelty, one of these days, maybe. 

I mock, but this article on the print-and-eat food from the IEEE Spectrum is really fascinating. At first, 3D food printers were limited by the material it used: a paste that hardened into different shapes, pretty much the edible equivalent of the standard 3D printer's plastic. (yum!) 

But then a breakthrough: Daniel Cohen, a grad student at Cornell, had the idea to treat the printer's materials as a set of miscible components, the way the three RGB printer cartridges in a color printer can produce a full-color reproduction of a multi-hued image. That is, he proposed a standard basic palette of food materials, reimagining food's basic components as though there are edible equivalents to the primary colors, which can additively produce any hue in the visible spectrum. This itself is not a novel idea: sensory taxonomers from Linnaeus to Arthur D. Little Consulting Company (and many more) have proposed systems that attempt to break the smellable-tastable world into irreducible elements. However, It's important to note that the color spectrum is a metaphor; it translates imperfectly unto the much different (chemosensory, multisensory) system of flavor perception.

Jeffrey Lipton, the article's author and an engineering student intimately involved in the development of commercial 3D-printing technology and its applications, is concerned with making the food printer's products not only palatable but desirable. The "uncanny valley" of "mushroom shaped bananas" is too "artificial", and thus likely to be rejected by the "home cook." He also dismisses proposals to use 3D food printing as a sort of hedge against a Malthusian crisis (by making palatable foods -- like "steak" -- out of cheap or repulsive proteins -- such as insects) as off-trend: today's savvy consumers reject "highly processed foods." (Incidentally, in my research on the history of flavor additives, I've found this "socially useful" application of flavor additives cited by the flavor industry starting in the 1950s and 1960s -- that synthetic flavor chemicals will help forestall a malnutrition crisis by making cheap nutritive substances (combinations of carbs-proteins-fats manufactured, perhaps, from industrial waste) edible and acceptable). 

Instead of working from basic components, Lipton says, they've taken a "top down" (rather than "bottom up") approach with the printer, working with chefs to produce fried scallops shaped like space shuttles and Austrian cookies with writing on the inside. (How this addresses purported consumer desires for "less processed" foods is not really clear...) The most exciting result is a new form of fried corn dough, impossible to achieve without a 3D printer; the dough forms "a porous matrix that allowed the frying oil to penetrate much deeper into the food. The result was something delicately crispy and greasy, like a cross between a doughnut, a tortilla chip, and raw ramen noodles."

In this incarnation, the 3D printer becomes an exquisitely refined tool for the production of highly processed food. A tool that doesn't just replicate what already exists in the world from a basic color palate, the way a camera reproduces visible reality, but something that makes new, unforeseen things possible -- maybe. Can we use this to imagine and create new flavors, or just to dress up familiar things in fancy, unfamiliar, space-ship forms?  

 

Kasugai Mangosteen Gummies, or, What is a New Flavor?

How do you describe a flavor to someone who has never tasted it before?

Most of us would probably first reach for an analogy: there's a reason "it tastes like chicken" is a cliché to describe things like alligator or rattlesnake or other "weird" meats. Almost everyone (in the US, at least) can be assumed to have eaten chicken; it's a cute way of downplaying the allure (or disgust) of the exotic. But this statement only works because we can't adequately explain what chicken tastes like. It, like most of the foods that we are familiar with, has become a cipher.

And really, what is a new flavor? Are there any really unprecedented flavors still out there?

IMG_1897.jpg

As a case study, I offer this bag of Kasugai Mangosteen Gummy Candy, purchased for $3.59 at the Japanese bodega.

What is a mangosteen? I can tell you what it looks like if you've never seen one. It fits in the palm of your hand; it has a leathery purple peel capped by a crown of three or four tough green leaves; the fruit itself is segmented like an orange, milky-colored.  

But what does it taste like?

The package offers few clues:

"The Mangosteen has the perfect balance of sweet and sour taste, known as the 'Queen of Fruit'. Enjoy its delicious flavor in Kasugai Mangosteen Gummy Candy."

R.W. Apple confronted the problem of describing the taste of the mangosteen when he wrote about it for the New York Times in 2003. Apple is an enthusiast, a lover, an avid apostle for mangosteen. His readers, however, must be presumed largely ignorant of the fruit, its flavor, and its reputation. At that point, mangosteens were forbidden fruit in the U.S. Native to Southeast Asia, the fruit was host to a pernicious type of fruit fly that the USDA wanted to keep away from American crops.  

How does Apple confront the problem of describing the mangosteen's flavor? He writes: "I could tell you that the flavor reminds me of litchis, peaches and clementines, mingled in a single succulent mouthful, but words can no more describe how mangosteens taste than explain why I love my wife and children. Merely typing the name makes my mouth water. Whenever in my travels I spot a mound of those precious orbs in a marketplace, my heart pounds."

Does Apple tell us what a mangosteen tastes like? Instead of giving us a portrait of the flavor, he describes the effect it has on him and on other people; he provides us with the evidence of its value. A chef he knows bursts into tears at her first taste of mangosteen. Queen Victoria pledged to knight anyone who could bring her a mangosteen, ready to eat (no one was able to meet this challenge). Apple himself claims to prize a mangosteen above even a hot fudge sundae. Simply listing the things the mangosteen tastes like does not do justice to the experience of the fruit; what vouches for its deliciousness is its desirability, its valuation above all other fruits (of which it is the queen) and other delectable things.

When I read this article way back in 2003, the mangosteen seemed to me the most marvelous thing I could imagine. I wanted it as much as Rapunzel's mom wanted the cabbage from the witch's garden; I would trade a baby for one, no question. Robbie and I searched for a source online, coming across all kinds of other fascinating fruits, such as miracle berries - but no mangosteen. In Chinatown, we bought the mangosteen's co-regent, the spiky durian, "king of fruits," and one memorable evening, split it open and managed to eat only a few spoonfuls of its custardy flesh - which reeked of corpses, oniony sweat, and gasoline - before we threw it out with the trash.

Not long after, we did indeed find mangosteen, quite by chance. We were in Victoriaville, a small town in Quebec, for the annual festival of "musique actuelle;" the sweet smell of cow manure pervaded the landscape. Shopping for provisions at the chain supermarket in this unlikely locale, we discovered a pyramid of mangosteens displayed unassumingly besides bananas in bunches and fat green pears from Chile. We were with two American friends, who were singularly unimpressed by our discovery; they had traveled in Southeast Asia and dined on fresh mangosteen at outdoor markets. Robbie jumped up and down; I wept among the produce. We bought a half-dozen at a nearly extortionary price, and hurried to our rented house to tear open the purple hulls and taste the jewel-like white fruit inside.

But the flesh was livid grey and mushy, its flavor was sour and musty. There was nothing delicate about it. No litchis, no tangerines, no alpine strawberries. The thick rinds left a unpleasant maroon residue underneath my fingernails, the color of old blood.  

We had mangosteen in Victoriaville, but we did not taste its flavor. This disappointing experience couldn't be the flavor of mangosteen, precisely because it was sour and soft and kind of gross. A mangosteen is by definition delicious, exceedingly delicious, the queen of fruits.    

Subsequently, I noticed that mangosteen began to feature in nutritional supplements and in energy drinks. Along with goji berries or acai, it was touted as a new "superfood" with an antioxidant payload that would annihilate the toxins of industrial living. (It's interesting that potency, enhancement, comes from elsewhere - either "exotic" parts of the world, or the past ("traditional knowledge") - realms that have "escaped" modernity.)

But these supplements don't promise the flavor of mangosteen. What they offer is some other virtue of the fruit, another way of having it without tasting it.

More recently, now that mangosteen (imported from Puerto Rico, or from Southeast Asia irradiated against fruit fly pests) has been available for import, I've seen some sorry looking specimens at supermarkets, for sale at an astronomical price per pound. The fruit seems hardly worth it: their purple husks dented, their bonny green crowns dingy, a rind of white fuzz where the fruit was separated from the tree. Evidently much the worse for wear from their long voyage from the antipodes. I have not splurged on any of these specimens.

So, what do the Kasugai mangosteen gummies taste like? And do they taste like mangosteen?

In three days, I have consumed more than half the bag, but the more gummies I eat, the less specific the flavor becomes. The gummies are sweet. They are a little sour. They are monotonal. Maybe a bit like pineapple?

mangosteen gummy.jpg

Am I learning what mangosteen tastes like, what is meant by mangosteen flavor, by eating them? Or will it change my experience of "real" mangosteen, when the day finally comes that I get to eat an perfect fruit, at the peak of its flavor? Will it be like Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, where when he was told that it looked nothing like her, he replied, "Ah, but it will"? Will it just taste like Kasugai mangosteen gummy?