Sensations

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THOMAS JEFFERSON SAID ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL BUT HE HAD NOT TRIED THESE CRYSTALS

TASTE TESTS SHOW PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT

OUR WORLD IS WHAT OUR SENSES TELL US

EACH LIVES IN A DIFFERENT WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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...


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...  

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.

How to become an expert: Cigarette edition

I listen to a lot of "old time" radio - especially mysteries and detective shows - in part to satisfy my insatiable appetite for narrative while up to my sudsy elbows in the dishwater of history.  The other day, I heard an episode of "Mysteries in the Air," starring Peter Lorre, with his quavering syllables and his lightning-speed mildness-to-mania transitions.

The show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, and the version I listened to kept the sponsor's message intact in the broadcast. Smokers are notoriously brand-loyal. They're not like consumers of other stuff, switching from Charmin to Quilted Northern on a whim or a spree. They'll ask for their pack of Luckies or Reds or Virginia Slims every time, without fail, no hesitation. You smoke what you've always smoked. But how do you get people to switch? How do you get people to believe that their choice is their own to make, and not somehow compulsory? Here's a complete transcript:

[Cymbal-clash] "Voice of God"-type voice, distorted as though through a PA speaker, intones: Experience is the best teacher.

"Average Joe": Remember the wartime cigarette shortage? Who doesn't! One thing about it though - smokers who went through it really learned a lot about cigarettes. They had first-hand experience with many different brands.

Dame: [Giggles] How true! Goodness, we certainly smoked whatever brands we could get in those days. I smoked so many brands I'm practically a walking encyclopedia about cigarettes. Well, I'm a Camel smoker now, and believe me, I know Camel is the cigarette for me because I've compared so many brands.

Joe: Yes, smoking whatever brands they could get during the wartime cigarette shortage made people everywhere experts on judging the differences in cigarette quality. That experience convinced a host of smokers that they preferred the rich, full flavor and cool mildness of Camels. The result:

PA-speaker Voice of God: More people are smoking Camels than ever before.

Joe: Experience really is the best teacher. Try a Camel yourself.

The ad is interesting to me because it tries to make a conditioned, manipulated, somewhat arbitrary choice -- the choice of what brand of cigarette to smoke -- seem like a reasonable one, made with deliberation and informed judgment. These people, we are told, are experts about smoking, walking encyclopedias. Hey, thanks to the war, you're an expert! The wartime cigarette shortage created a circumstance that never exists in civilian life - you had to smoke what you could get. This wasn't privation; it was a de facto tasting panel. You developed the capacity to judge the differences in cigarette quality. Informed consumer, you can now choose your brand based on the exercise of your newly cultivated expertise. You base your choice on taste, not habit or nostalgia, nor are you a puppet of advertisers. But it's not just individual judgment that's definitive here - there's a consensus. After all, "More people are smoking Camels than ever before." Does your judgment concur with the multitude, or is there something different or perhaps defective about your powers of discernment? 

In my own research into flavor and taste, I've become increasingly skeptical about the claims of sensory expertise even as I recognize the capacity to refine sensory discernment. Objective Methods in Food Quality Assessment, a textbook published in 1987, describes the lengths that sensory scientists go to create "objective" data about food preferences and sensibilities. The first chapter, with the perhaps over-insistent title, "Sensory Evaluation Can Be Objective," advises: "since humans are being used as measuring instruments, every effort must be made to control the effect of the environment on judgment." The testing room should be slightly higher pressure than the exterior, in order to eliminate the introduction of non-relevant odors. The temperature and humidity should be rigidly controlled. Colored lights might be useful, to make color differences in foods invisible. In the author's laboratory, they place tasters in an individual "domed hatch," where they can press a button to indicate when they are ready for a new sample. This way, they eliminate any possible influence introduced by the technician who delivers the sample. The taster is in a pod, isolated from all direct human contact, with a color-indeterminate cube of stuff to decide about.  

Sensory science tries gamely to create "objective" data, staging tasting tests where all potentially corrupting stimuli are stripped away, and the individual is "independent" of outside influence and exercises only her or his own sensory judgment. That is, a situation that is never like actual consumption, where we look everywhere for cues about whether something is delicious, disgusting, valuable, cheap, good to like, bad to like. It's an impossible task - a dream of a science that believes it can exist outside of the social, with laboratory as a space that maintains a cultural cordon sanitaire, sanitized from social factors. 

Which is not to say that one cannot prefer a brand of cigarettes or whiskey, or be a walking encyclopedia about tobaccos or wines or ice cream. Just that in a certain way, perhaps, our choices about taste are not only our own.