Alumna Profile: "Sniffing Around Brooklyn"
Note: This story originally appeared in the Chatham University Spring 2016 Recorder alumni magazine.
As with so many New York stories— at least in the movies—it began with a gun. A 3,200-pound custom-built breakfast cereal-puffing gun, in fact, that traveled the city demonstrating how grains get puffed into cereal. It was a mobile exhibition called BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Cereal, the year was 2013, and the gunslinger was the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). In 2014, MOFAD moved into a space in Brooklyn, began thinking about onsite exhibitions, and hired Catherine Piccoli, a 2012 graduate of Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies program, as program associate.
For Catherine, a social and cultural historian who focuses on food, it’s an ideal match. She would be the first to tell you she’s felt that click before. After completing a bachelor’s in social and cultural history at Carnegie Mellon, her next steps weren’t clear. “I had been thinking and reading deeply about food,” she says, “but neither culinary school nor working in a restaurant appealed to me. I didn’t know what the other options were. One day I saw a newspaper ad for the food studies program, and it was like a light bulb—this is me, this is what I want to do. I can study food and continue to focus on history and social and cultural phenomena.”
In the food studies program, Catherine focused on writing and communication and explored the interplay of food and history through culture. She completed internships at the Heinz History Center, at an environmental radio show, and at a community food pantry.
During the program I was constantly challenged,” she says. “Things that I had thought were constantly being blown open. Not just about food, but about cultures, poverty, and social justice. I know it’s cliché to say, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. History, culture, science and technology, production, commerce–because of the Food Studies program, I feel like I can speak knowledgeably about all of these things, and I’m confident bringing them into my job.”
In the summer of 2012, Catherine moved to Brooklyn. She began contributing her research skills as a volunteer at MOFAD, and the rest is history—the history of food and culture that Catherine researched, documented, and helped craft into MOFAD’s first on-site exhibition, Flavor: Making It and Faking It. Flavor: Making It and Faking It is a collection of interactive stories and experiences that build toward a holistic understanding of the modern flavor industry. It’s a huge topic that has been thoughtfully calibrated to the space available—a cavernous, one-room, 3000-square foot former car park.
The exhibition starts with a short video about how the nose and mouth work together to produce flavor. Taste refers to what we perceive through the tongue; flavor refers to the interplay of taste and smell. In fact, most flavor comes from the aroma of food when it’s in your mouth. As you chew, aroma molecules drift toward the back of your throat, up an airway that connects to your nose, and are processed and received by receptors in the brain, just as though they had been inhaled through your nose.
EXHIBIT: LEARNING TO FAKE IT: VANILLA AND THE BIRTH OF THE FLAVOR INDUSTRY
“Initially, you could only get vanilla from the bean of the vanilla orchid, grown primarily in Mexico, which flowers for only one day,” says Catherine. She gestures at a vanilla orchid under a glass bel and introduces Vanessa the Vanilla Orchid. “Taking care of her is one of my duties,” she says. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with Larry at Larry’s Orchards in Michigan.”
In the 1870s, two German chemists realized that vanillin—the chemical that gave vanilla its aroma—could also be made from pine tree bark. And from wood pulp, from clove oil, from paper pulp, and, from coal. That meant that vanilla had gone from being a rare and carefully cultivated substance to something that could be mass-produced. The exact same chemical compound is found in the vanilla bean and produced in the lab. Today it’s the most popular flavor in the world.
The exhibition also features a large tablet-making machine, of the sort that MOFAD used to make small tablets of different flavors that are available in tablet-dispensing machines throughout the exhibition. Visitors can sample and compare a vanilla bean-based tablet with a synthetic vanillin-based tablet. “Lots of people prefer the synthetic one, because it’s what they’re used to,” says Catherine.
EXHIBIT: UMAMI: SEAWEED AND THE DISCOVERY OF A NEW TASTE
Umami is the most recently identified primary taste whose Japanese name translates to something akin to deliciousness. A Japanese chemist discovered MSG (monosodium glutamate) as he was trying to replicate the flavor of an edible seaweed. “Glutamate intensifies the savory taste of food,” says Catherine, and beginning in the 1920s, MSG was marketed to food manufacturers and cafeterias as a way of adding flavor back to foods post-processing.
The Japanese army was also interested in using it to make bland, nutritious food taste good. “This is the moment in our story when the flavor industry and the food industry start becoming inseparable,” says Catherine.
EXHIBIT: TASTE MAKERS: THE ART & SCIENCE OF FLAVOR CREATION
Along the back wall of the exhibition is one of its biggest draws, the Smell Synth—a kind of control panel where visitors can create and experience combinations of smells. It’s a simplified version of the kind of machine that allows olfaction scientists to mix and sample new smells. MOFAD asked David Michael, a Philadelphia flavor company, to choose no more than 20 compounds that visitors could use to create as many smells as possible. Because the compounds have names like “ethyl acetate” and “gamma hexalactone,” Catherine helped come up with user-friendly descriptors of how the compounds smelled, including green, leaf; cheesy vomit; earthy, hazelnut; and boozy.
The Smell Synth houses 19 glass containers, each of which contains a scent chemical compound. When you press a button, the machine opens a valve and blows scented air through a pipe to your nose. Pressing several buttons at once allows you to combine aromas to mimic a common smell. Above the control panel are “recipes” for aroma chords (Maple, brown + butter, sweet cream = pancakes). Catherine helped to “write” these recipes, too.
Through the lens of flavor, the exhibition invites us to consider broader concepts. In this historical and cultural moment, it’s easy to decry the artificial as inferior to the organic, but the synthesis of vanillin brought the sweet, beloved taste of vanilla to people all over the world. We’re also invited to consider the divide between what is “natural”and what is “artificial,” and how those concepts might relate to what we call “real.” “I think there’s a lot of confusion around food,” Catherine says. “Chemicals is not a scary word. Chemicals make up the sky, my mom, soup! The same chemical is the same chemical, whether it’s found in a food or in a test tube.”
Chatham’s Master of Arts in Food Studies in the Falk School of Sustainability emphasizes a holistic approach to food systems, from agriculture and food production to cuisines and consumption, providing intellectual and practical experience from field to table.