Technology

Who's Afraid of the Whiskey Trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hellman's: It tickles the menfolks!

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

My name is 'Mayonnaise,' emulsion of emulsions

Look upon my yolks, ye mighty, and despair!

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

justmayoegg.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

realfoodfromunilever.jpg

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

 

Contents and Containers: Edible Meat Packaging, 1938

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U-All-No and How We Won the War

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

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

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

But what is it about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all about the tins.

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

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

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

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

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

U All No tin black and white.jpg

 

Addendum: The Masticating Ape

As summer winds down, I've been catching up on some old America's Test Kitchen podcasts, including one from June 6 that adds a little monkey business to my earlier musings on Soylent and chewless foods

cookingchimp.jpg

In the podcast, Christopher Kimball interviews Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham about the substance of his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (You can listen to the podcast here; the interview starts at the 16-minute mark.)

I'm not super wise to the latest theories in human evolution, but apparently the conventional argument is that meat-eating is key to explaining the emergence of modern humans. Wrangham argues that the shift to eating meat could not have occurred without cooking. Cooking is what makes the hunter-gatherer lifestyle possible, and all the things that go with it: bigger brains, gendered social structures, culture. A key part of his argument rests on the relationship between cooking and chewing.

 Lucy taking a break from chewing, apparently.

Lucy taking a break from chewing, apparently.

According to Wrangham, chimpanzees typically spend six hours a day chewing, and then another couple of hours in a post-prandial lull, digesting. It's not just the actual procurement of food that requires energy, it's the consumption and assimilation of it. All that raw plant matter has to be broken down by time, effort, and big guts. You can see the evidence of this in the anatomy of our plant-eating Australopithecene ancestors (hi, Lucy!): they have great big jaws, big teeth, and big guts.

On the other hand, modern adult humans spend less than an hour a day chewing – a figure that remains consistent, Wrangham says, despite regional, cultural, and economic differences. Unlike our Australopithecene forebears and our living primate relatives, we have relatively small guts, like carnivores, and relatively large and fuel-hungry brains. This anatomical shift is in evidence about two million years ago, with the emergence of another of our ancestors, a species we call Homo erectus.   

Homo erectus had small guts, like a carnivore, but did not have sharp carnivore-like teeth to tear meat off bones and consume it raw. Moreover, although meat was important to the Homo erectus diet, it would not have been consistently available year-round. But if Homo erectus meals varied seasonally between being meat-dominant and plant dominant, their small guts and small jaws would not have been sufficient to the task of effectively extracting a sustainable number of calories from plant matter.

Wrangham argues that cooking resolves these puzzles.  Cooking changes the material and chemical properties of food, which has two evolutionary advantages: it makes food softer, meaning that less time needs to be spent chewing and digesting, and it denatures proteins and breaks apart chemical bonds, making more calories and nutrients biologically available.

The days of our lives are numbered, as are the hours in each day. Less time spent chewing leaves "more time for other things – going to war, gamboling under a tree, writing poetry."   

To illustrate the increased caloric payload of cooked food, Wrangham describes an experiment with rats. One group of rats was fed hard pellets, the other group was fed the same pellets that had been aerated to make them soft and tender. Both groups of rats technically ate the same number of calories, but the rats eating soft pellets had 30 to 40 percent more body fat. (The correlation between softer foods and bigger bodies has also been observed in humans, and is cited as one of the possible explanations for increasing levels of obesity in the developed world.) 

Cooking was essential to the emergence of hunter-gatherer cultures because it indemnified against the inherent risks of hunting. Chimpanzees "love meat," Wrangham says, but rarely eat it, and only spend about twenty minutes a day hunting. Why? Because if they go out hunting all day, and fail, there is no way to make up that day's caloric deficit – there aren't enough hours in the day to hunt, fail, and chew leaves for six hours. Cooking meant that humans (men, according to this theory) could venture out and hunt all day, and even if they failed, they would still be able to consume and assimilate enough calories (dished out by women, or whoever else stayed near home base) to make up for the loss. 

For Wrangham, cooking is not only key to understanding the evolutionary history of the human species, it is also a uniquely human technology: harnessing external energy sources to improve and enhance the energy-providing qualities of food. Instead of using only our own biological, bodily resources and processes (chewing, digesting) to extract the energy and nutrients from food, cooking takes over some of the work that our hominid ancestors did with their gnashing teeth and their churning guts. 

So perhaps chewless foods – like Soylent, or like those Hugo Gernsbach imagined in Ralph – are a brave new stage in evolutionary history, and perhaps our descendants will only use their dainty teeth as ornaments and mementos of a chewier, tougher to swallow, past.

Are Teeth Necessary? Chewing on the Food of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

health!.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

 

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."  

Meat Juice and Perfect Food

This alluring advertisement in the back pages of 1895 issues of The Manufacturer (a Philadelphia-area weekly industry newspaper from back in the day) caught my eye.

Meat juice extractor?! What is happening here! Luckily, I found an explanation in an earlier issue:

 All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

All yours for the low, low price of $2.50

"The use of meat juice for medicinal purposes is a growing one, and is recommended for the aged, also delicate invalids, and for invalids, in all cases where complete nourishment is required in a concentrated form. The meat to be operated upon should merely be thoroughly warmed by being quickly broiled over a hot fire, but not more than to simply scorch the outside, and then cut in strips. The yield should be about six (6) ounces from one (1) pound of round steak. Only tepid water may be added, as hot water will coagulate the meat juice. Season to taste. The machine being tinned, no metallic or inky flavor will be imparted to the material used. The dryness of the pulp or refuse can be regulated by the thumb-screw at the outlet." (The Manufacturer 7, no. 26 (1894), 10)

 

Nourishment in concentrated form for the aged, delicate invalids, and (unqualified, presumably indelicate?) invalids! This reminded me of something that my mother once told me about one of her own childhood spells as a delicate invalid; she grew up in a little town on the Argentine pampas during the 1940s and 50s. I called her up and asked:

Me: Mom, what was that thing you once told me about how you had to drink meat juice...?

Mom: Oh, yes, when I was very sick with hepatitis. Nona would make this. She put a piece of filet mignon in the machine, and it would squeeze it, squeeze it, and the juice would fill a bowl. And the filet mignon afterwards was like a cardboard.

Me: And you would drink this??

Mom: No, you did not drink it raw! You warmed it in a bain marie, with some salt and pepper. Swirl it, swirl it until it is hot - and then you drink it.

Me: What was the machine?

Mom: It was like a press - it had two flat plates, metal.

Me: Where was this meat press machine? In the kitchen? Did Nona buy it specifically to make this?

Mom: Yes, she bought it specifically. It was very common. At this point, meat in Argentina was very cheap. It took two filets to make five ounces of liquid. You know how expensive that would be here!?

The machine my mother describes doesn't seem exactly equivalent to the Enterprise Manufacturing Company's model - which appears to be more like a masticating juicer than a "press." But the two seem similar enough, and they share a common purpose: the domestic production of a special restorative diet for the enfeebled.  

But why meat juice? How did this become a therapeutic food?

There's a long tradition of prescribing aliment as a treatment for particular ailments. Galenic medicine used food to recalibrate the body's four humors, whose imbalances were thought to cause disease. There's also a long tradition in the West of associating meat-eating with masculine vim and vigor. Some of this back-story certainly shapes the widely held belief that meat is "strengthening" and "restorative." But a steak is materially different than its liquid runoff. How did people come to believe that the liquid squeezed out of meat contains the vital essence of the food, and not the substantial stuff that's left behind? 

Part of the answer to this question can be found in the South American Pampas of 1865 -- specifically, Fray Bentos, Uruguay, home of Liebig's Extract of Meat Company. (You can find another version of this story at the Chemical Heritage Foundation magazine.)

The company bears the name and the imprimatur of Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), a Hessian, one of the pioneers of organic chemistry and of the modern chemical laboratory. Beginning in the Enlightenment, life processes (circulation, respiration, digestion) were investigated as physical and chemical processes, and one of the central questions for chemists was this: how does food become flesh? The answer to this was to be found not by alluding to some invisible vital force, but by careful analysis and quantification: calculating measurable changes in mass and energy, using tools like balances and calorimeters and conducting experiments with dogs and prisoners on treadmills. Chemists like Liebig engaged in a kind of nutritional accounting, identifying and quantifying the components of food that make life, growth, and movement possible.

This new way of thinking about food and bodies had consequences. It became possible to imagine a "minimal cuisine" - food that's got everything you want, nothing you don't. This was important and desirable for various reasons. The Enlightenment marked the emergence of the modern nation-state, which was responsible for the well-being of its population in new ways.  Industrialization displaced rural populations, creating desperate masses of urban poor who were not only pitiable, but were also potential insurgents. Modern wars and colonial ventures meant provisioning armies and navies. There was an urgent and visible need for food that was cheap, portable, durable, its nutritional and energetic content efficiently absorbed to fuel the calculable energetic needs of soldiers and workers.

I won't go into to much detail about the chemistry (you can find a substantial account of the history of nutritional chemistry here), but Liebig, in the 1840s, believed that (Nitrogen-containing) protein was the key to growth; fats and carbohydrates did nothing but produce heat. In his monumental 1842 tome, Animal Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology, he analyzed muscle, reasoning that protein is not only the substance of strength but also its fuel. An extract that concentrated the nutritional virtues of beef muscle fibers, then, could be the perfect restorative food.

This led him to develop a formula for his meat extract -- a concentrated "extract" of beef that promised to solve the growing nutritional crises of modernity. Imagine how much simpler it would be to provision an army when 34 pounds of meat could be concentrated into one pound of virtuous extract, which could feed 138 soldiers! No more bulky chuckwagons or questionable rations of salt pork and hardtack! Plenty of concentrated food for the poorhouse! Moreover, Liebig certainly believed in the healing power of meat extract. When Emma Muspratt, the daughter of his close friend James, a British chemical manufacturer, fell ill with scarlet fever while visiting the Liebigs in Giessen in 1852, Liebig, desperate to restore the failing girl to health, spoon-fed her on the liquid squeezed out of chicken. She survived.

However virtuous, Liebig's meat extract was too expensive to produce in Germany. In a public gesture that was only partly an act of self-promotion, Liebig offered his idea to the world, vowing to go into business with anyone who could make it happen. It would be nearly twenty years before someone took him up on it.

This brings us back to the South American pampas, where the missing ingredients in Liebig's formula could be found: cheap land, cheap cows, and ready access to Atlantic trade routes. A fellow German (or possibly Belgian), Georg Giebert, wandering the plains of Uruguay noticed that the herds of grazing cattle rarely became anyone's dinner. Their valuable hides were tanned and turned into leather, but the carcasses were left to rot. Wouldn't it be great, Giebert wondered, if there were a way of using that meat, salvaging it by concentrating its nutritional value into easy-to-export extract?

Entering into partnership with Liebig, Giebert established a vast factory at Fray Bentos, where the meat was crushed between rollers, producing a pulpy liquid that was steam-heated, strained of its fat content, and then reduced until it became a thick, mahogany goo that was filtered and then sealed in sterile tins. Extractum Carnis Liebig - Liebig's Extract of Meat - first hit Europe in 1865 and was initially promoted as a cure for all-that-ails-you. Typhus? Tuberculosis? Heavy legs? Liver complaint? Nervous excitement? Liebig's Extract of Meat is the medicine for you!

Then came the skeptics. Chemists and physicians could find very little measurable nutritional content in Liebig's Extract of Meat. Dogs fed exclusively on Liebig's extract swiftly dropped dead. As British medical doctor J. Milner Fothergill thundered in his 1870 Manual of Dietetics: "All the bloodshed caused by the warlike ambition of Napoleon is as nothing compared to the myriad of persons who have sunk into their graves from a misplaced confidence in beef tea."

But this did not sink Liebig's extract of beef or the factory in Fray Bentos. (It would take a salmonella outbreak in the 1960s to do that.)

As Walter Gratzer notes in his book, Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition, Liebig changed his tactics in the face of his critics, downplaying the medical benefits of beef extract, and instead arguing that its use is "to provide flavor and thus stimulate a failing appetite."  "Providing flavor," then, was an essential functional component of the food. But this applied to more than just those with "failing appetites." Liebig's Extract of Meat was a success for decades not because of its consumption by "delicate invalids" and the enfeebled poor who needed cheap nutrition, but by ruddy Englishmen and other gourmands, who used it as an additive to increase the "savour" of their cuisine.

Beef extract provided what the 19th-century French gourmandizing scientist Brillat-Savarin dubbed "osmazome," and what we would call "umami": the glutamate richness that connoisseurs relished before science gave it a name. As Brillat-Savarin writes, "The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was."

And the Chemical Heritage Foundation reprints an ad for Liebig's from their collection which emphasizes the appeal of beef extract to the gourmet, rather than to the invalid:

"NOTICE: a first class French Chef de cuisine lately accepted an appointment only on condition of Liebig Company’s Extract being liberally supplied to him.”

Instead of becoming a "minimal food," fulfilling the nutritional needs of humans in the simplest and most efficient way, beef extract became a flavor enhancer - without, however, completely losing its hold on the health-giving and restorative benefits that it initially claimed. This is why the meat juice extractor was manufactured, and why my mother drank warm meat juice to recover from a bout of hepatitis. 

The question that haunts all of these investigations into minimal foods is the following: Is flavor a luxury, or is it a necessary component of foods? Some later nutritionists believed that the beneficial effect of meat extract was due in part to its flavor - or, more precisely, the effect the flavor had in "stimulating the appetite." In Dietotherapy, a 1922 nutritional textbook by William Edward Fitch (available free on Google), Fitch cites Pavlov's experiments as evidence that no substance is a greater "exciter of gastric secretions" than "beef tea."

As the blog for the (totally real, possibly not dystopian) "food" product Soylent puts it, "there is more to food than nutrition.... Even a product as minimal as Soylent must concern itself with the “hedonic” aspects of eating. These include, but are not limited to: appearance, taste, texture, and flavor / odor." (I'm definitely writing more about Soylent and flavor in a future post...)

Regardless of whether it is nutritionally adequate, lack of flavor or poor flavor can be a problem for food. The argument that prison loaf is torture is due in part to its total absence of "hedonic" qualities. However, not only can flavor preferences be debated, but the importance of flavor itself can be called into question. Many nutritional experts at the turn of the twentieth century prescribed mild, bland diets as the best for health and well-being; "highly flavored" foods, they cautioned, were hazardous, a cause of both obesity and its attendant diseases as well as emotional instability. And in our own cleanse-obsessed era, an appreciation of the bracing flavor of green juice or the intense bitterness of turmeric are signs of moral and physical enlightenment. Indeed, on the Soylent blog, the product's creators assure concerned readers that the inclusion of vanillin in the ingredient list is not to make "vanilla" soylent, but rather to offset the "bitter and fishy" flavors of other ingredients. The stated goal is to make the flavor of Soylent "pleasant without being overly specific." 

And on that note... enjoy this gorgeous collection of Liebig extract of beef chromolithographed trade cards.

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.

Print and Eat the Food of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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