Degustibus non est disputandum

December 13th, 2011

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I’ve been attending the Science & Cooking lecture series at Harvard this fall semester. Mostly I enjoy the introductions and sometimes full lectures by food science dreamboat Harold McGee (author of the unrivaled On Food and Cooking, the science and lore of the kitchen), but other speakers included David Chang from Momofuku (he came instilled with a fear of Harvard which rendered him incapable of speaking frankly, so instead of ‘I was hungover and decided to eat a bunch of slow-poached eggs on a bed of black truffle covered in caviar and smothered in dashi, it was awesome now it’s featured in my restaurant’ there was ‘um I’m nervous, um, you probably all think I’m dumb, sometimes I think about microbiology, um, here try some of my miso!’), Nathan -I’m Pedantic, and of the TED edutainment school of thought- Myrvold, who wrote the exorbitantly-priced high-speed-photography-filled trophy cookbook-cum-reference Modernist Cuisine (apparently NM-the-patent-troll DID patent some of the techniques in the book… so in case you’re thinking of using his methods to make french fries, take into consideration his licensing fees when you draw up the budget), Dave Arnold, hysterical potty-mouthed food guru with a tech problem, and Dan Barber from Blue Hill (which is not in Blue Hill ME), whose lecture I’m going to talk a little more about now, interspersed with some Annemarie Mol fandom and some ranting about the over-appreciated units degrees Brix.

Dan Barber is a chef and restaurant owner, operating the Blue Hill restaurant in NYC ($40 entrées, yowser), and to some extent it seems also the Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, MA. He’s apparently served Mrs. Obama as part of her campaign of better food and health (see this), and on his website claims he advises on some executive branch food and farming policy. He’s also oddly skinny for a chef.

He spend the first hour of his cooking lecture talking about dirt. No joke. He even drew a picture of a SUPERNEMATODE eating other nematodes (not super) on the blackboard, to illustrate the infinite possibilities of flavour production in the ecology of topsoil.

The main point he made with his ode to dirt was that without an entire ecology providing a variety building blocks (like flavonoids and flavonols?) for plants to grow from, the plants would grow flavourless and undesirable. If used to then feed animals, those animals would also grow up to flavourless and undesirable. While the development of synthetic fertilizers and the work done during the green revolution for increasing crop yields and thus preventing famine was utilitarian, Dan Barber claims that the green revolution was also the downfall of flavour. Subsequently, lack of flavour and overfarming high-yield soy, corn and wheat crops leads to our unhealthy relationship to food.

Now I shall pause the chef-talk for an interlude with Annemarie Mol, an amazing researcher/professor (hoogleraar, en haar oratie wordt op donderdag in de UvA aula gehouden) at the University of Amsterdam. Some of her previous research was focused on the social practices of healthcare, and now she is researching food and the body. She is the principle investigator of the research project ‘Eating bodies. The eating body in Western practice and theory‘, which encompasses four subcategories:
(1) the eating body’s health: limiting calorie intake versus maximising satisfaction;
(2) the eating body’s sensitivity: on tasting in various practices;
(3) the eating body and other eaters: on different ways of relating individual and collective;
(4) the eating body and its environment: on absorbing food, excreting waste and different bodily boundaries.

In Tasting Food: Tasting Between the Laboratory and the Clinic, Mol questions how the function of taste relates to the relevance of taste. In fact, whether researching the function of taste would lead us to understanding its relevance at all. Mol discovers that according to ‘taste scientists’ (observed on their now seeming defunct website flavour is more than taste, and flavour can guide our eating bodies positively or negatively, thus helping us either enjoy the food or find out if it is poison. But where, asks Mol, can one find eating bodies (especially in the targeted Western regions) that are confronted with poisonous food? Especially often enough to be able to identify poisonous flavours? Mol suggests that much of the research that backs up these utilitarian findings on the function of flavour are based on laboratory experiments using models of human bodies– those models being rats. And indeed, that rats are astute test-tasters, but perhaps not so closely tied to common social practices of western eating bodies.

In the paper Good Taste: The embodied normativity of the citizen-consumer she contrasts citizens ’serving common good’ to consumers ’seeking pleasure’. Instead of taste being cultivated by bodily concerns such as avoiding disease or gaining enough nutrients, taste is now a construct of desire shaped by advertising and society. She proposes that instead of allowing the consumer-citizen to be shaped by the questionably developed notion of ‘bodily pleasure’, we acknowledge the shaping of taste and interfere with how it is currently done.

This brings me back to Dan Barber. His conclusion was that we must SEIZE flavour by developing and using new ‘modernist farming’ techniques. To some extent they may look back at pre-green revolution farming, but mostly we must understand how to harness science and technology to support a teeming topsoil and genetically diverse foodcrop. At the end of his ode to flavour (with dirt prelude) he points to the leadership of the gallant foodie in restoring the importance of flavour and its healthful side effects.

It is difficult for me to separate Dan Barber’s story from all this heritage-breed heirloom-crop (which is often conflated with the sustainable-green-local movement) whole-foods expensive feel-goodery, even though he explicitly rejected conforming to the-past-was-better food critics. Both Dan Barber and places like Whole Foods declare they will save the western world from its staggering obesity and diabetic problems. Because obviously, the citizen-consumer is responding to the flavours of these alternate foods, which similarly obviously correspond to their health benefits. The citizen-consumer is certainly NOT responding to newly effective marketing, and that marketing is certainly NOT forming the desire and enjoyability of the citizen-consumer’s eating body.

But perhaps at times the obvious doesn’t seem as obvious as we might like, and heirloom/heritage/local farmers may decide to turn to science to solidify their claims. Thus the second interlude, visiting some units Dan Barber mentioned during his lecture: degrees Brix.

In his lecture, Dan Barber mentions working with one of his farmers on organic carrots, and going outside one February and measuring 17 degrees Brix in one of the carrots farmed in Blue Hill. He explains that degrees Brix corresponds to the sugar content, and we’re looking at a carrot that 17% sugar. Ecstatic, he then takes an organic Mexican carrot he’s using for stocks from the kitchen fridge and measures 0 degrees Brix. Then he concludes that his methods for farming are vastly superior. Hm. Before we get into the assumptions and methods used in this experiment, let us examine what exactly this degrees Brix is:

Brix scale n [Adolf F. Brix 1870: a hydrometer scale for sugar solutions so graduated that its readings at a specified temperature represent percentages by weight of sugar in the solution [Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary]

So a hydrometer is a little thermometer-looking thing filled with something of known specific gravity that you float inside another cylinder containing your sample to measure its specific gravity. The line on the hydrometer that then is at the surface of the sample is read off. The reading that will follow is a ratio: you are comparing e.g. grams per ml to grams per ml.

Degrees Brix is one of the tables used to compare these ratios to ratios obtained using samples with certain amounts of dissolved solids. Brix is mostly used in the grape juice/wine making industry, specifically for measuring sucrose solutions. Other common tables include the Plato scale, used for brewing, and the Baumé scale, used in pharmacology. As far as I can tell, they all seem to be almost exactly the same.

Apparently, it is now much more common for viticulturers to measure degrees Brix in their grapes by using a refractometer, and there is some conversion scale that allows you to go from the index of refraction to the degrees Brix. A refractometer is easier to use, because you can just take a drop of liquid (in the field) and measure its index of refraction on the spot.

But what we learn from all this is that the degrees Brix measured are only going to correspond to the dissolved amounts of sucrose if there is nothing else in the sample that is affecting its specific gravity. And that’s probably never going to happen with a bunch of juices produced by random plants. Or other random liquids. But it turns out to correspond kind of to sweetness in grapes, supposedly because the dissolved solids in grape juice are apparently mostly sucrose, glucose and fructose. But I actually haven’t found any studies that empirically back this up using different analytical instrumentation. And that effect (of degrees Brix somehow corresponding to ‘goodness’) is readily multiplied in many other food science studies. Here are are two of the many examples:

An evaluation of Brix refractometry instruments for measurement of colostrum quality in dairy cattle, Bielmann et al., Journal of Dairy Science, Vol 93, Issue 8, August 2010:

[…indicating an appropriate cut-off point of 22% Brix score for the identification of good quality colostrum. …]

Read: we randomly find that the milk of cows that have just given birth is best if it measures to have 22% dissolved solids.

Use of the refractometer as a tool to monitor dietary formula concentration in gastric juice, Chang et al., Clinical Nutrition, Volume 21, Issue 6, December 2002, pgs 521-525:

[…We found that distilled water, minerals, and vitamins had low Brix values of 0±0, 1.2±0.1, and 0.4±0.1, respectively. On the other hand, because carbohydrate (17 g/100 ml), protein (5.3 g/100 ml), fat (4.1 g/100 ml), and full-strength polymeric diet had high concentrations of dissolved nutrients, they also had high Brix values (12.1±0.6, 6.5±0.1, 6.0±0.1, and 23.5±0.1, respectively)…]

Read: water’s specific gravity is just like that of water! Also, when we dissolve things in water, the specific gravity goes up! Who would’ve thunk.

Then there seems even to be pro-Brix propaganda. Here’s a pamphlet that seems to be targeted at farmers published by an organic fertilizer company:, which on its first page unambiguously states that BRIX=QUALITY. Further along it states in the same bullet list:

  • BRIX is a measure of the percent solids (TSS) in a given weight of plant juice—nothing more—and nothing less.
  • BRIX varies directly with plant QUALITY. For instance, a poor, sour tasting grape from worn out land can test 8 or less BRIX. On the other hand, a full flavored, delicious grape, grown on rich, fertile soil can test 24 or better BRIX.

So percent solids of plant juice varies directly with quality? A shriveled old grape will have a higher percent solids, corresponding to a higher Brix reading, but not necessarily be more delicious. Why are they trying to convince farmers otherwise? The pamphlet also includes 3 pages of tables of ‘good’ Brix values for different foods. What do these refractometer pushers think they mean? More importantly, why aren’t they showing what exactly is the Brix data they’re measuring?

Left: the cover of the pamphlet with the logo of the fertilizer company and an odd graphic of produce with a molecular structure overlay which seems to indicate it is the molecular structure of sugar? Right: an infographic depicting YOU taking refractometer measurements.

Then near the end of the pamphlet there is the calling out to the farmer/citizen-consumer:
YOU, not some scientist in a lab coat, can test the food you want to buy.
YOU can determine QUALITY at the point of sale.
YOU will gain back a little control over YOUR life.

Why are they trying to pretend that a handheld refractometer for measuring specific gravity is somehow magically going to give us control over the quality of produce we consume? Does their fertilizer increase the TSS of the plants that grow with them, and therefore would this show that plants grown with their fertilizer are much better? Are they really convolutedly trying to sell more of their fertilizer to farmers through with technobabble?

But I am getting carried away in this interlude, and will now return to chefs. Dan Barber also seems to be eating this proverbial dog food, and is probably encouraging refractometer use for Brix measurements amongst the farmers that supply his restaurants. Situated against a background of factory farming and highly optimised growing processes, it makes sense for small-scale farmers and citizen-consumers to reach for small-scale instrumentation to try to measure quality and optimise their crops/livestock. But so far we haven’t proven that we are optimising anything. We haven’t proven that the percent solids in plant juice is an indicator of flavour. We haven’t proven that flavour, as tasted by western eating bodies, is any indicator of the healthful qualities of food. While I’m in no way a proponent of the current bioindustry and its factory farming processes, I think we need to refine our argument.

What are types of small-scale analytical instrumentation that can be used to determine crop and livestock health? How can they be used by farmers in the field? How can we educate ourselves on healthful farming practices without having to piggyback on the marketing efforts of companies trying to sell products (like fertilizer)? How can we get more delicious produce and meats in supermarkets?

I think Annemarie Mol would try to bring the questions back to the western citizen-consumer, or the eating body itself. Can we modify ourselves by modifying the socio-material constructs that form our desires? I.e. can we counter advertising that has as a goal sales with an environment that forms the normative (healthy) foodie? How can we propagate knowledge and skills through a loosely interconnected network of farmers, citizen-consumers and restaureurs?

A different type of question from an admiring audience member at Dan Barbers talk still questioned the feasibility of only ‘modernist’ farming: “Dear Dan, Most of us cannot afford to be foodies. What do we do?”. And here is where Dan Barber managed an it-really-IS-better Bill-McDonough answer. He pointed to synthetic fertilizers and mentioned they were a petroleum product, and with current soaring crude oil prices, fertilizer was becoming more expensive, which was making livestock feed more expensive, which was making the copious amount of meat we eat more expensive. He mentioned that Pilgrim’s Pride (one of the world’s largest poultry farmers, NYSE: PPC) had been losing billions of dollars because of this.

I casually tried to verify the causality that Dan Barber was pointing to by comparing a chart of crude oil prices to the stock prices of Pilgrim’s pride, but I didn’t really see the inversely proportional relation I was looking for. In fact, it looks more like when oil prices are high, Pilgrim’s Pride stock is high too.


From with is by nadya peek. she'd love to hear from you.