Saturday, July 15, 2017

Secrets of Flavor

In Hidden Scents, I downplayed the clandestine nature of the flavor and fragrance industry, but it is a big part of the language of smell. This was actually one of the things that motivated me to write the book. Not only is smell (and flavor) inherently evasive to language, but the industries that work with these senses are required to keep their work under wraps.

Well, I guess they aren’t required to keep it secret, but they do, and because of the way this particular industry works. Food, as well as fashion, is not protected by copyright law. If you want to make a song, you can be sure that your hard work will pay off, because your song will be protected by copyright, which means that nobody else can say it’s theirs, and only you can reap the benefits. In flavor, fragrance, and fashion, that is not the case. You can’t copyright the Bernardo sandal (surely, they would have). So how else do you protect your hard work? You keep it a secret.

On a side note, I was in the Firmenich flavor plant in Newark, NJ, and our tour guide says that they have research facilities all over the place (primarily NJ, since this is the artificial flavor capital of the world), but that nobody knows where they are, and that you wouldn’t even notice if they were right next door, and in fact even he doesn’t know where they are.

So in short, these experts are expected to be secretive about their work; they have to. Still, it is one of the main obstacles in learning about the language we use to describe these flavors and fragrances – if we can’t even know what it is, how can we describe it? And as I’ve pointed out before, there are public arts funds for visual art and for music, but none for flavor/fragrance.* This guarantees that our public knowledge and public discourse about these topics are mediated by the commercial industry and not by our own personal, social experiences with them.

Flavorists, Experts in the Field of Natural and Artificial Flavoring, Work in Top Secret New Jersey Labs

“It’s a pretty secretive industry,” says Steve Ruocco, president of the Society of Flavor Chemists and a master flavorist at Maryland-based McCormick, the spice company. “You can’t disclose who your customers are,” because secret flavor formulas are often the bread and butter of the food and beverage manufacturers that hire flavor houses to innovate or improve their products. The formulas are what separate Hunt’s ketchup from Heinz and Skippy peanut butter from Jif.

*I would never neglect the only exception to this, the Institute for Art and Olfaction, based in Los Angeles. Started by the inimitable Saskia Wilson-Brown, the institute experiments and educates with scent to allow the public access to a world that is completely taken over by consumerism, and thus off-limits to those without the money to participate.

Can’t talk about this topic of artificial flavors without mentioning Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, 2001. Great way to get inside the hi-tech flavor game (I say hi-tech, knowing the book is almost 20 years old; I’m sure there’ve been lots of developments since).

The Bernardo sandal? Yes, this thing which I assume everyone takes for granted as having been a part of “fashion” for as long as people had two feet, is actually credited to Bernard Rudofsky and Berta Rudofsky. He was an architect and wrote the book, Are Clothes Modern, after curating a show at the MoMA by the same name. She was a teacher at the Black Mountain College, a school focused on the arts, and one known for producing influential people (Buckminster Fuller was a big name) in the art world and beyond, despite its short life. One summer they came up with this sandal, and it has completely taken over the world of open-toe footwear ever since. Perhaps, like Jonas Salk with his penicillin discovery, they may have given it away for free, as in, “how do you patent the sun?” But who knows. Bottom line, they couldn’t do it if they wanted, because you can’t copyright fashion.

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