Thursday, September 6

Recommended Reading: The Weird Science of Flavor

Glasses of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon ready to be smelled—and tasted. (Still from Joe York's film Asleep in the Wood.)
Confession: The New Yorker stresses me out. A lot. Here comes all of this fantastic writing, every single week, and how am I supposed to stay on top of it all? The answer is that I don't, in part because I don't want to turn into horror-show "Did You Read?" sketch from Portlandia. So although I'm not a subscriber, every now and then I'll spend a good hour reading a single article, and it turns out to be the best hour of my day.* This happened to me today with "The Taste Makers," a 2009 article by Raffi Khatchadourian. You can read the full text here if you have a NYer subscription, or here (on the author's website) if you don't.

In "The Taste Makers," Khatchadourian follows Michelle Hagen, a flavorist (yes, that's a job) at Givaudan, the world's premier chemist for flavors and fragrances. What he finds out is that—unless you are on some fabulous, Donna Karan-esque whole-raw-natural-pure-zen diet—most of what you taste in food and drink comes from a lab.

The story is part science, part philosophy, highly geeky, and totally fascinating.

To wit:

The consumption of food flavorings may stand as one of the modern era's most profound collective acts of submission to illusion. When you watch a movie or look at photographs or listen to an iPod, you tend not to forget that what you are taking in has been recorded and re-created for you in some fashion. Flavor additives are no less a contrivance; in fact, flavor re-creations typically have less fidelity than digital photography or MP3s. They more closely resemble paintings: subjective creations, made by people who work in competing styles. There are the hyperrealists, who strive for molecular-level precision; the neo-primitivists, who use centuries-old palettes of extracts and essential oils; the Fauvist types, who embrace a sensually heightened sensibility. Placed in the context of art history, the flavor industry today would be in its modernist phase, somewhere in the waning days of Cubism, for even the most outlandish flavor concoctions take direct inspiration from the real world.

Read, taste, smell—and never look at Kiwi-Strawberry Snapple the same way again.

*Until cocktail hour