I was strolling through the neighborhood (East Williamsburg) a few weeks back when I spotted a row of Bacon flavoured potato chips prominently featured in the window display of the local vegan provisions shop. I did a double take inspired by both desire and confusion. The woman at the counter assured me that the chips contained synthetic bacon flavor and were entirely vegan. Huh, maybe I could go vegan afterall. Not likely!
The experience left me intrigued about chemical flavoring though. Growing up in the States I semi-unknowingly consumed artificial flavors in snacks from a young age. I was familiar with the concept of artificial vanilla, but the existence of a bacon flavor never entered my consciousness. I was able to dive into this world at the recently opened Museum of Food and Drink ( MoFAD ) lab in Brooklyn, the temporary space for the museum concept until they can secure a permanent home. The show on view Flavor: Making it and Faking it, playfully exposes the history of the chemical flavoring industry starting with the advent of artificial vanilla flavoring: vanillan. I learned that vanillan has been produced from various materials including animal dung ( this one wasn’t vetted for sales), paper pulp, clove oil and yeast. There were even candy dispenser-like machines that dosed out tablets of vanilla and vanillan so I could compare them. The coolest part of the exhibition has to be the assortment of artificial flavor experience, or “smell-synth,” stations dominating the room. My favorite was a coca-cola themed station based on a few known flavor components in the drink. You could smell the scents of lime, cinnamon, orange, and vanilla, each indiviually by pressing a button. Or, press all four buttons at once and voila! Coke!
The show uses video, hands-on experience and graphics-rich texts to immerse you in the deliciously bizarre workings of taste technology that quietly flavor our world.
MoFAD lab is allegedly just the first step of the MoFAD experience, but I liked its small, uninstitutional scale. It’s currently housed in a lofted open space comparable to a commercial garage. What could be next? A space where you could potentially help orchestrate an ancient Roman meal? That’s the plan!
[ words by our special guest Inger-Lise McMillan ]