Taste of Tech: Alternative Edible Reality, Optimized for Viscosity, Torque, and Texture

How the instruments industrial food technologists invent to measure food end up redefining it.

This Taste of Tech post is the second in a series exploring the science and technology of food in partnership with Gearfuse. Don't miss last week's speculation on breathable cacao, the strawberry genome, and designer glands by Matthew Battles.

I stumbled across Food Texture and Viscosity: Concept and Measurement, a 2002 title written by Malcolm Bourne and published by Academic Press, while trying to work out what on earth a Boucher Electronic Jelly Tester could possibly be. For those of you who would also like to know, all I can tell you is that it is no longer manufactured, but that in its place, Bourne recommends using a Stevens LFRA Texture Analyzer. Thus hooked, I read on, eager to learn more about these mysterious food measuring devices.

The LFRA Texture Analyzer, which is described at some length in a chapter on "Force Measuring Instruments," is apparently a "general-purpose tester for soft products" designed for use on "meat pastes, foams, various gels, and some fats." Its purpose is to measure the strength of food gels in terms of "the weight (in grams) needed by a probe (normally with a diameter of 0.5 inches) to deflect the surface of the gel by 4 mm [just over one eighth of an inch] without breaking it."

Further on, Bourne introduces the Maturometer (an Australian-designed instrument made to measure the maturity of green peas), the Penetrometer (originally developed to measure the firmness of bitumen, but now used to determine the yield point of butter, margarine, and other solid fats), and the Bostwick Consistometer, widely used to sample the viscosity of ketchup. (For example, the United States standard for tomato ketchup stipulates that Grade A and B quality "should flow not more than 9 cm [4.5 inches] in 30 seconds at 20°C [68°F] in a Bostwick Consistometer.)

I could keep going—the Haugh Meter, which measures albumen thickness in eggs; the Tuc Cream Corn Meter, used to measure the distance a semifluid food flows across a plate in a standard time; or the Mixograph, used to plot changes in torque as wheat dough is kneaded—but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, in the average home or restaurant kitchen, the only instruments available for measuring food—for understanding it on a scientific, quantified basis, rather than by relying on the vagaries of individual sensory perception—are measuring cups, scales, and perhaps a thermometer.

In other words, for the vast majority, our technical appreciation of food is limited to its size, volume, and temperature. Meanwhile, industrial food technologists maintain a battery of technical apparatus—machines that promise to deliver a wealth of rigorous, verifiable truth about food. And by use of those apparatus, they build an alternative food reality.

What I mean by that is that when you design an instrument to measure something, it has both a reflective and projective capacity—a feedback loop, of sorts. Such a device will help you understand the thing you use it to measure, but it also defines a particular model of reality, based on the assumptions, distortions, and blind spots of its maker.

So, while I'm lost in wonder at the ingenuity and potential embodied in the FirmTech2 or the Farinograph, it also seems to me that as food technologists re-learn and re-imagine food, using their tools to translate between human perception and an almost infinitely variable physical manifestation, they are also replacing one model of food for another. The food revolution, in this analysis, can be understood as the steady encroachment of the Ridgelimeter (used for measuring pectin sag) and its kin onto millennia of culture and sensory receptor evolution, replacing a more diffuse, personal, and holistic understanding of food with their stripped-down, single-unit metricization.

On the other hand, we can now optimize a bowlful of cherries for identical juiciness.

Thanks to Ed Keller for his reflections on the instrumentality of instruments, delivered as part of BLDGBLOG's Landscape Futures Super-Workshop.

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