Caleb Leisure

A CHANGE IN TASTE Notes on the Obsolescence of Food and the Advancement of the Artificial Nose

After the Age of Slow Food came the Age of the Molecule. The cuisine of tomorrow moved from the bustling kitchens of restaurants and culinary schools to sterile, well-lit laboratories; from stovetop savvy to the scientific method; from one white coat to another. Familiar, once-ubiquitous kitchen items vanished into nostalgia and the must of antique shops. The chinois, for instance, a centuries-old straining device, was replaced by the vacuum waterjet pump, which by comparison delivered an astonishingly pronounced taste to tomato consommé and rendered meringues almost impossibly light and airy, as though sundered from the sky. The convection oven gave way to the efficient and precise Tri-laser model. In the early twenty-forties, when I was a boy, I recall my mother exhuming a food processor at a dinner party she was hosting. She blew out dust that sent her into a sneezing fit, slammed the cumbersome machine down on the dinner table, this relic of a cruder civilization, and they all had a terrific laugh. Technology, it seems to me, is forever making comedy of the past. At this time the landscape of food was rapidly changing, shaped by the tectonic movements of science. Flavor was imparted to food by reorganizing chemical reactions: green notes of olive oil were enhanced with hexanal; desserts of all ilk benefited from beta-ion-one, which rewarded with that violet aroma so difficult to seduce from a flower in the wild. Textural additives restructured meats—myosin proteins turned tough, undesirable cuts into tender, quick-cooking filets. Calories were reduced without compromising taste. Ice cream never melted. Kitchens were stocked with sodium chloride, triglycerides, acetic acid, ethanol; cookbooks learned these new, bulky words. Science, it was agreed, had its place in our mouths. I was witness to these sordid beginnings, and, initially, not immune to their intoxications. My generation, what is left of it, is unique: we are the last to universally remember a time before the obsolescence of food. It was a gift most of us wasted. As the Western palate evolved into wild territory, and the tongue grew greedy, newfangled institutes with long, distinguished acronyms sprung up in Spain, in Austria, in mountain ranges that straddled nations. A generation of young chefs commanded attention. They were arrogant, secretive, and disdainful of the past. They considered themselves both artists and scientists. They spurned the title chef: too confining a label. Although the precise origin is unclear, this group came to be known as the GastroCreationists. Some of these chefs pushed the boundaries of gastro-chemistry to dangerous arenas, much to the delight of the Eaterati, the thrill-seeking diners. There was a sudden proliferation of gelling agents and laboratory emulsifiers, risks unknown. And for every strawberry engineered to be tart, every squash blossom engineered to glow with a firefly gene, there was a toxin or allergen scare, reports of sudden paralysis, death. The restaurant experience evolved. It wasn’t uncommon that these exclusive eateries employed a kind of elegant spittoon, which served the dual purpose of ridding material that might be poisonous to the body and minimizing caloric intake. A boon, certainly, for the chronic dieter unable to resist the likes of a Chantilly chocolate emulsion and all of its homogeneous perfection. I remember the shock of seeing this for the first time: a porcelain-boned woman at the table adjacent to mine taking a bite of her hydrocolloid-enriched liver mouse, proclaiming its brilliance to her lover, and then excusing herself for a moment, letting a ball of masticated food roll softly from her tongue into the silver spittoon with a not unpleasant dong. Among the GastroCreationists the one most audacious was the one without a face. He allowed only his hands to be seen or photographed. A man made of speculation and rumor and inimitable talent. He served his food in a sensory-controlled chamber in the Pyrenees, a nameless eatery, and required that each guest sign a waiver. Commentators called it perverse, fetishistic—to risk death in one of the fundamental acts of sustaining life. When one critic compared it to erotic asphyxiation, the name of the recluse-genius rose to the tips of tongues worldwide. He called himself Bèlê, after the birthplace of renowned French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The first time I heard his name, in San Francisco, it was pronounced to me, in ignorance or in jest, as Belly. It was at this time that the FDA implemented its Danger Score, compulsory on all menus. It would come to be known as the Bèlê Rule. Controversy aside, critics were enamored with his bold and inventive cuisine (his discovery of a gustatory papillae receptor linked to the elusive fifth taste—umami—led to some particularly groundbreaking meat and seafood preparations) and the public were enamored with his mystery. I cannot pretend to be above this. A popular theory arose that Bèlê had burned his face in an experiment with liquid nitrogen. That he had no features. Another: that he had mutilated himself, gouged his eyes and soldered his ears to enhance taste and smell. His celebrity grew with the emergence of a group called the Coalition for Honest Eating and Wellness (CHEW), who challenged the ethics of GastroCreation and warned against the dangers of hedonism and the violation of natural law. Bèlê’s dining room was dark as ink and heavily oxygenated, an environment designed to isolate smell and taste. I admit, in spite of myself, to a certain dizzying exhilaration when I entered my first and only time. It could have been the air, but, more likely, it was the euphoria at the zenith of anticipation. Talking was forbidden. Waiters wearing infrared lenses delivered food to the mouth in perfect silence. The sensory experience was profound. Behind a tinted glass wall was the kitchen itself, through which, if fortune kissed, you might catch a flash of the famous hands swiping through the darkness, illuminated by the glow of flame or the phosphorescence of chemical burn. By the time the name Bèlê became culinary royalty, gastronomy still relied on the organic, volatile compounds of what was called Food. He had already spearheaded the use of Supertaster implants in the taste regions of the tongue; he had engineered two new sapid molecules that expanded the number of tastes from five to seven; and he now feared a culinary impasse. It was Bèlê who made the decisive plunge into gastro-telecommunication. Eight years after the opening of his famed eatery, he closed its doors. At press conference held within the tomb-dark space, a smooth voice with a shapeshifting accent washed over a crowd of reporters—their pencils and pens dumb in the blackness—and transfixed them. Transcriptions of the address are fragmentary, inconsistent, distorted through translation. The following is the most widely accepted version: We have only five senses with which to metabolize the workings of this world. These are our irrevocable limits… Whether we aim to brush ourselves against the divine or to know what it is to eat an apple, we are circumscribed by stingy biologies. And so we build upon the five. We bend them… Recall if you will the boom that classical music underwent [in the late nineteenth century], when any soul with access to a telephone could live in the virtuosity of the greats… Sound moving faster than sound. At this time the transmission of visual images was utopian fodder, but only a few years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his landmark device Paul Nipkow was awarded a patent in Germany for an apparatus that could transmit such images. Witness the birth of the television. And at this very moment we are in the midst of perfecting the transmission of tactile stimuli with piezoelectric crystals that register and exert pressure. We can experience the touch of a lover from thousands of miles away… or the sensation of your mother’s fingers through your hair, decades after she has passed. There is but one realm of communication left to conquer. Teleofaction and telegustation. Smells. Flavors. The pleasures of consumption. The delay has been a source of tremendous frustration for those who seek greater adventures of the palate. Imagine the ability to pinpoint the origin of a particular oyster along the French coastline, a particular truffle in the woods of Alba. This is not the stuff of miracles, no. This is divinity by way of science. This is my aim. To borrow a phrase from a great epicurean [Brillat-Savarin], gastronomy without bravado is like a beautiful woman missing one eye. Although not immediately understood, Bèlê had, with this address, freed gastronomy from the compounds of organic matter. It was unclear exactly what change was coming, but it was clear that it was on its way. Food had begun its curious journey toward obsolescence. The first artificial noses were not noses at all, but snarls of wires and nodes and contacts blitzing the orifices of the head. The concept was simple in theory: encode the electrical activity produced by the brain stem and the olfactory bulb in the temporal lobe into a series of signals, and transmit these signals to a receiving brain. Taste and smell. Bèlê’s first model required two individuals, an eater and a receiver. After a tempestuous bidding war for the privilege of being the inaugural subjects, one spring evening a pair of spinster sisters, clad in matching floral dresses, were fitted for the transmission before a rapt international television audience. A chance for immortality, a first step on a new culinary planet. Sister Eat and Sister Receive were positioned on opposite sides of an amber-lit warehouse, each with her own team of waiters to monitor the complex equipment. The pair gazed at each other from across the concrete floors, a conversation in blinks. Bèlê’s absence—rather, the hope that he might appear—added another layer of drama. The food was delivered to Sister Eat by a young woman with stern lips. A classic Steak Au Poivre with herbed frites. A cut into the rare flesh, a stab of the fork, blood on the tongue. Biologically, psychologically, there is no word for what happened next: the violent rejection of disembodied sensations. Sister Receive—accosted by what she later called an “ungodly” touch—tore herself from the electrodes and spun to the floor in the tangle. Her cries, interrupted by fits of vomiting, soldered into berserk machine bleeping. The episode was perceived as a gastronomical disaster, potentially ruinous for Bèlê and the fate of teleofaction. Criticism fired from every direction. CHEW called the technology inhumane, damaging, a gross manifestation of ego. Restaurateurs dismissed Bèlê’s efforts as dead-end whimsies. Even his most devoted supporters acknowledged that teleofaction had the look of a fad, if it had even earned that dubious label. New questions of Bèlê’s character arose. He was callous, self-interested, monomaniacal. There were rumors that he had gone mad. Others that he had ended his life. Fuzzy tabloid snapshots placed Bèlê in Peru, Dakar, the Florida Keys, Cologne. He became a composite of rumor and myth, an ethereal being. Once, in Turin, I am sure I saw the man reading a newspaper at a marble-topped café table, but I did not have the nerve to approach. He wore fedora that cast a shadow across his face, and he played with a gold ring on his right pinky. The newspaper I still have. There were also a few coins on the table. The dregs of a macchiato. As the years unwound and sophisticated palettes grew bored, Bèlê’s forecast proved true: the culinary world hit a flatline. His experiments were revived by others, quietly. Technologies improved. So it was that without a single earthly action or utterance, Bèlê saw his reputation restored. The initial reports of the Water to Wine Project sent the industry aflame. To Bèlê’s skeptics, this measured out as true progress. For the first time, Teleconsumption (the term surfaced alongside this project) was viable without a live intake brain. Test subjects, most with a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine title, gave harmonized accounts of Bèlê imparting ordinary spring water with the extraordinarily nuanced aroma and tastes of fine wine. They had been fitted with bulky, invasive semiconductors in the nostrils and under the tongue. The ES (Electronic Signature) of any one of thousands of catalogued wines could be transmitted from a computer, received, smelled, tasted. Transmissions were synched with the receiver’s consumption of water and subjects described the experience as eerie, otherworldly, beautifully corrupt. A flight of Vintage 1982 first growth Bordeaux, as nuanced as the real thing. The sensations were astounding and precise, save for the body of the liquid in the mouth. One elderly test subject, an Italian Master of Vellelunga, Sicily, was said to have sensed the presence of the Antichrist in the room and, upon his return to Italy, retreated into solitary penance and flagellation. When I went to seek him out for an article, knocking on wooden doors without numbers, I was turned away by mutters of diavolo, diavolo, the devil, the devil. Indeed, to some observers the project was a sign of the apocalypse; to others, it was the blush of a new dawn. Alcohol lovers were divided: here was the taste without the folly. Wineries panicked: rare, elite wines were suddenly, potentially, no longer rare or elite. Some journalists spun it as a grassroots movement, a leveling of elitism. New laws buzzed through legislature. Laboratories building on Bèlê’s work were plagued by a variety of picket signs. For gastronomy as a whole, the implications were even greater. Bèlê’s methodology made it possible to combine smells and tastes electronically. A kind of cooking. As Teleoconsumption technologies began to spill into the public domain and color everyday life, Bèlê kept silent. He grew grey and stiff in the dark. In the early years of the Consumption Catalogue the artificial nose was engineered to supplement prepared food. A simple herb-roasted chicken breast, for instance, could be coordinated with the ES of duck confit and a scaled-back signature of Hawaiian macadamia. Teleconsumption equipment was still unwieldy and less than comfortable. The experience was mostly limited to restaurants, although elaborate home systems grew in popularity and affordability. Many laboratories and kitchens dedicated themselves to expanding the Catalogue and giving the new wave of GastroCreationists greater creative freedom. Cataloguers travelled the world in hedonistic pursuits, seeking extraordinary signatures. They captured tastes as though wrestling exotic birds into cages. Food—rather, its organic, nutritive compounds—was slowly phased out from the culinary world. Teleconsumption offered such otherworldly flavors that even the most titillating food was rendered bland in comparison; resisting the technology was like choosing to walk when you had just been gifted with wings. Laboratories had for many years labored over cost-effective OSN (Optimal Supplementary Nutrition) formulas and when the tablets became readily available, food was no longer a necessity but a habit. The dreadful taste and digestive complications had all but disappeared from luxury OSNs, while cheaper alternatives proved a boon to those in lower income brackets. Teleconsumption units were ubiquitous in middle-class homes and many of the wealthy indulged in the first surgical implants, for which the slight facial disfiguration and mild magnetization was generally believed to be well worth the trouble. There were other setbacks to the procedure: the sensation of drowning; scrambled, mis-catalogued signatures; hacker-corrupted systems fouled with dog feces, vomit, rancid milk. All deemed, naively, to be acceptable sacrifices. In the late-seventies, with the gradual disappearance of food came the disappearance of many food-related problems. The risks of the earlier chemical and genetic enhancements were all but dead. Obesity rates, especially in the younger demographic, fell dramatically. Strains on health care were relieved. Food allergies became superstitions. Groups such as CHEW were caught in a conundrum of ethics; teleconsumption, however unnatural, had assuaged nearly every politically minded food anxiety: corn-fed methane-emitting cattle; trawler-caught monkfish; rainforest-clearing coffee farming in the Third World; inhumane slaughterhouse practices. The endangered species list dried up. There were, of course, drawbacks. Restaurants and farms and food corporations were wilting, but, again: acceptable sacrifices. On a piercing blue afternoon in Nice, an elderly woman collapsed and died on the warm terra cotta tiles of her veranda. Her body was emaciated, bones brittle as chalk, brain wired with teleoconsumption implants. The head—emitting a strong magnetic charge, as though the body’s last, lingering life force—was fixed to a wrought-iron railing. Cause of death was listed as heart failure, but larger issues went unwritten. Starvation, dependency. The mind had not been tampered like this since Walter Freeman’s ice-pick lobotomies in the mid twentieth century. Still, such cases were rare, and blame could be dispensed onto other medical problems, but the risks of Teleconsumption were emerging from the ether of hypothesis and hearsay. Voices of protest called for the hermit Bèlê, but our words fell harmlessly upon the ears of a public intoxicated by more agreeable sensations. Like fat into fire: the first portable devices exploded onto the market. A start-up in Silicon Valley called TYCHO—evoking the legend of the Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe, who as a young man famously had his nose severed in a drunken duel and thereon wore a nose cast from silver and gold—capitalized on the advancement sensor networks within ceramic substrate. Small, safe and cost-effective, ceramic allowed volatile compounds to be reversibly absorbed—recorded—while diminishing the electrical resistance of the semiconductor. The apparatus was called the Electrum, after the naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold. Users could not only pull from the vast, ever-expanding Catalogue at their whimsy, but also record, upload and share their own Teleconsumption experiences. The Electrum satisfied false hunger cravings, curbed caloric intake. The look was fashionable. Underwear models wore them on giant billboards. A nose plate, available in a variety of colors and customizable patterns, was externally worn. Two nearly invisible electrodes were planted on the temples and a nonintrusive lower mouthpiece was fitted along the inside of the gums. All operations were controlled with a handheld remote. I only had to try it once to know its seduction, its danger. Within a matter of years, surgical implementation had lost footing entirely (savvy doctors capitalized on costly reversal procedures) and the Electrum was a feature of every bustling crosswalk in every major city in the world. It was a statement. It said: I am awake to the new world. The hysteria propelling this technology moved faster than the machinations of business, politics, law. The consequences soon caught up. Restaurants shut their doors, papered their windows. Farmland was abandoned. Economies across the globe were whiplashed. The open source cataloguing led to epic legal battles. The family dinner, that staple of human culture, was all but lost. Severe troubles, yes, but not enough to sour the allure of the Electrum, not enough to sour the name of Bèlê, grandfather of taste, who, like myself, was believed to be in his seventies at this time. How could one go back after experiencing such things? The taste of pure, whole foods was forgotten. The shape of a tomato. It is at this point that food is believed to have vanished entirely from the mainstream, nearly unnoticed. On a humid summer day in New York City a young actress of some renown died on an uptown 4 train. She had been on her way to a birthday party. Lifeless on the floor, a mass of silver balloons raised her slight wrist several centimeters into the air. Her carnation pink Electrum II was as hot as her body was cold. That summer, in New York alone, a dozen such cases were filed. An exotic new strain of anorexia had taken form, slipped into the pulse of social pressures like a poison. In an age that venerated the unnaturally thin, the Electrum allowed one to taste the finest cuisine in the world without consuming a single, sinful calorie. One could fool the body into believing it was fed without food or supplement. The first deaths were of this variety. It would be several years before the first biological atrophy. Reliance on OSNs—on three to five simple swallows a day—lifted the terms Achalasia and Oropharyngeal Dysphagia into the common vocabulary. The esophagus was dying. These small capsules did little to engage the deglutition muscles; the body was forgetting how to swallow. Forgetting what it felt like to eat. My mother, elderly as she was, sustained by level-3 regenerated organs, did not die of old age, but of asphyxiation. An entire generation, old enough to drive, had never experienced the sensation of natural consumption. CHEW pulled its efforts from the public domain, retreated into small communes in deserts, forests, riverbanks. Like a separate species, burrowing from an apocalypse. Electrum-related deaths could no longer sit in disguise. The risks were obvious, public. A healthy charge of panic set in. Humans, it seemed, were forever finding new ways to destroy themselves. The name Bèlê, already lofted and vilified to the point of abstraction, was exhumed. We called for him—viciously, hopelessly—as one at once curses and implores the name of a god. It was at this moment that Bèlê gave his only interview. This was, at least, what we were hoping the public would believe. I remember the pepper-haired reporter waiting in the sound stage, wringing his fingers. When he was greeted not by a single man, but by a group—a collection of elderly and young, men and women, all dressed in white—he lost his words. I know this because I was among them. We insisted on standing. In spliced sentences, interrupting each other every few words, we explained that Bèlê was not an individual; he was a collective, he was an idea. We renounced the culinary innovations for which Bèlê was famous; apologized to the public for the unfortunate eating epidemic; asserted that our actions, however misguided, were rooted in a deep love for food. We explained that the idea for Bèlê was born at a warehouse party in San Francisco by a gang of culinary students mired in debt, most of whom were now dead. The reporter found a foothold of composure, and began to shoot questions at us. We answered convincingly. Looking into the camera, voices clamoring over each other, we announced that we were disbanding. We announced that Bèlê was dead. I need to clarify: we did this to lure Bèlê from the shadows, to force him into the public light and to answer for his sins. Our motives were pure and just. But perhaps in the end we were no better than the clamoring, celebrity-crazed masses: we too wanted a glimpse of the god, and this is why we failed. The interview was dissected, freeze-framed, analyzed tirelessly. The deeper it was probed, the more convoluted it became. Some believed our claims. Others correctly labeled it as a hoax authored by members of CHEW. We retreated, waited for the man to surface. In the confused weeks that followed, a story emerged. First from tabloid chatter, then from more reliable sources. Bèlê, the man, was alive. Warm and rested in a Pyrenees dwelling, fighting biological corrosion with a technology called Total Sensory Communication. It was said that he had representatives—human satellites—scattered across the globe, harvesting and encoding the most exotic sensory experiences. In the dark, his elderly body surrounded by a maelstrom of wires and nodes and hissing machines, Bèlê could enjoy miraculous sensory facsimiles: a meal with a tribe on the Omo River; the ascent and summit of Everest along the North East Ridge; the feel of a Russian prostitute. This is how he resurfaced: not as a man, but, indeed, as an idea. A symbol of what was possible, of the blind faith that Next is better than Now. These many years later, I’m not sure what I believe. I’m not sure what is fact and what is fiction, or if it matters. But I find myself thinking often of Bèlê. I wonder if I have passed him, brushed one of his satellites hiking in the Cotswolds. I wonder if he has felt my touch. The culinary world would push forward, fed by new technologies. There would be a few enterprising souls, true Luddites who continued to resist with grassroots farming movements. But skills had been lost, knowledge spilled. We had forgotten how to treat the soil, when to plant the seeds, how to read the sun. We had forgotten how to slaughter a bird, how to cook an animal over fire. I hear that one morning in Rome, not too long ago, crates of vegetables dropped from the sky under swollen white parachutes. A stunt from one of these groups, no doubt. Inside were rotting onions, soft, stubby squash, potatoes swollen with bacteria. Passersby hunched over splintered crates, squinted to examine the strange artifacts. They toed them on the pavement. Pressed them to their noses. These alien things. Just the other day, resting in the shade of my garden, I watched a youthful couple walk the country trail that runs behind my home, they were shinless behind the ancient drystone wall. They walked with birch sticks. The young man saw me, stopped, and politely asked for directions, is this the way to Stow-on-the-Wold? He looked nervous, about to propose to his companion, if I had to guess. His forehead was glistening. There were small protrusions where implants had been buried. In the middle of his sentence, his face changed; I believe he had caught the scent of my heirloom tomatoes and was struggling to place it. He sniffed deeply. He licked his lips. What must have been spinning through his mind? A zoetrope of images—swollen, fragmentary memories that seemed to belong to someone else—flickering against the shape of that smell. For a moment it seemed that he was about to remember, that he felt it take life in his nose and his mind and his heart, but no, it had left, swallowed in the heat of must and stone.

Caleb Leisure