Mon Apr 28th, 2008 at 07:07:17 AM EST
The title of J's recent diary "Let Them Eat Cake," plus AA's diary on food flavourings, finally spur me to action; I've been meaning to transcribe this delightful (in a manner of speaking) excerpt from Bodanis' amusing little book The Secret House, for a couple of months now. Bon appetit! And don't even ask me about the icing :-)
Promoted for your lunchtime delight - Colman
If the serving of [corporate bakery] cake you present to your guests for dessert were divided into its components, the result would be a bowl of water with globs of fat floating in it. There would also be a coating of sugar, and, underneath the wreckage, a certain residue of flour. All cakes are like this, or at least all cakes you get from commercial bakeries are, for such cakes are not really food but just a way of taking ordinary water, mixing it with low-cost fats, and then disguising the result so it can be sold at a profit of several hundred percent over raw material cost.
The process begins with cake manufacturers collecting the lowest-cost fats they can. Olive oil is never used, because that substance has a pleasing texture and satisfying smell, and so can be sold at a high price on its own. The stuff shipped in tanker loads to commercial cake factories is less pristine in origin. There's usually a good deal of lard, a good deal of oil from compressed and over-aged fish corpses, and perhaps a little palm oil too. The fats and oils are mixed together, cooled until they're fairly stiff, and then the air is blasted in.
Blades the size of large airplane propellers force air into the fat chamber. Because lard and fish fat are so sticky, the air doesn't carry on through but gets caught up inside the mix, separating into little bubbles as it gets absorbed. When the fans are turned off what's left is a giant block of aerated pig and fish fat. This is not a substance that could be chopped into segments and successfully marketed as cake.
The first thing that has to be done to this cake precursor is to find some way of making it thinner. It's too heavy as it is, and anyway there's another advantage to making it thinner. The lard and fish oil were not very expensive to start with, but if they could be made to go twice as far, then whatever profit there might be in store could also be spread by two. For this diluting a substance known as GMS -- glycerol monostearate -- is mixed into the fat. It is chemically very similar to soap. With the GMS in there any water hosed into the room where the fat is will not bead up on the surface, as water tends to do on normal fats, but will instead be pulled in by the soapy GMS. GMS is so good at pulling water into fat that hundreds of gallons of water can be sprayed in for each ton of mixed fat waiting in the storage rooms to become a cake. The compact fat wedge swells as the water comes in, it grows and stretches and because the GMS does so good a job it ends up as a super-wedge, twice the volume of the original.
Once the water is there, something else has to be added to the mix: sugar. Crates and crates of refined white sugar are dumped on, stirred in, and left to spread. Since sugar dissolves in water it is taken up throughout the volume of the fat, wherever the GMS-assisted water has itself managed to spread. Sugar helps the fat and water concoction smell sweet, but mostly it's there to add weight -- important as the aerated water and fat mix is now too light! Sugar turns out to be one of the most inexpensive substances of substantial weight that is safe enough to be added to food. Gravel, logs, or cement might weigh more, but happen to be fatal if ingested in quantity; flour, protein and other nutrients are certainly safe to add to food but they're not as dense, and don't weigh as much. Sugar is the only substance that falls between the two, neatly replacing the weight the water took away. It sounds roundabout, but has its logic.
By this stage the proto-cake has 90 percent of the ingredients the finished product you eat will have. There's pig fat, oil from crushed fish, lots of water, and lots of sugar. It's not a very palatable object, being a pasty grey in colour, and oily as you might imagine a great hunk of old fats would feel, but with a bit more transformation all of these irritating lacks can be taken care of. First some flour is added. As it's masked by all the fat, sugar, and water, there's no need for an especially high grade of flour to be used. Often it's the reject from bread-making factories. Even so it's expensive stuff, or at least when compared to plain water and aerated fat it's expensive, which is why only a small amount is used. All it has to do is provide a thin filler to go into some of the fat sheets that have wrapped around the air spaces, and an addition equal to four or five percent of the total cake weight is usually enough for that. Sometimes the flour is dispensed with altogether and simple cellulose derivatives -- ground up wood chips -- are used in its place. These have zero nutritional value, but fill the fat membranes almost as well. Meringues especially are likely to get this substitute.
The GMS that was originally added to hold the water inside the fat now has another role to play. Left to itself the flour added in might crumble into small clots, and so give the cake lumps The soapy GMS oozes around those flour pieces though, before they can clot up. That keeps the cake-to-be even and free from lumps.
Ony a few faults are left now. The cake still looks pretty bad, and so is coated with coal tar colorants; it also tastes intensely objectionable -- soapy, oily and greasy despite all the sugar -- and is injected with some flavour to make it palatable, usually one of several hundred strong synthetic flavourings on hand.
With all these additions since the first air treatment was given to the fat mass, the cake is likely to be getting pretty compact again. Baking sodas have to be added to get it to rise, to get the fat-covered air bubbles to grow. The cheapest baking sodas leave washing soda in the mix as a byproduct, and as this in itself is pretty nasty tasting it is used only for cakes that will end up as chocolate -- a flavour that can be made strong enough to cover almost anything left inside. This is a general rule. In almost every commercial food-making process, a batch that gets spoilt will be flavoured with chocolate to get it through. For other flavours a slightly more expensive baking powder is used, which contains an acid capable of dissolving undesirable byproducts as it goes along. In both cases carbon dioxide is chemically generated inside the cake, and being caught in those flour-toughened fat membranes, swells them up. What started as a simple lard, fish oil and palm oil gloop is now an epicure's delight, airy, light, and tender to the touch.
There's a footnote on consumer psychology here. When the first home cake mixes using the GMS magic were marketed in the US, they did not sell well. Consumers felt that an amorphous substance that you just added water to and baked could not a true cake be. They were right, but that wasn't the issue. The manufacturers might have said that at least the powder was better than what you get in a factory cake, but that did not seem an attractive point, and anyway it was probably best to keep quiet about what went on in the factories. It looked like the product would have to be withdrawn, until an ingenious advertising man got the idea of saying that a fresh egg had to be added to make the mixture work. It didn't have to be added, the GMS chemistry worked fine without it, but it gave the housewife users a feeling of being in control, of creating a natural product, of doing good for their family: sales of cake mix went up.
My my, wasn't that appetising. I have not felt the same about the bakery section of any supermarket since reading it. Not that I felt a lot of warm fuzzy stuff for any section of a corporate supermarket at any time, but I now experience a particular frisson d'horreur as I pass the seductively lit, vanilla-scented bakery counters.
[BTW, the rest of Bodanis' book is equally amusing and a worthwhile light read. His comments on toothpastes and deodorants are delightful, as are his vivid descriptions of the lifeways of household and personal bacteria.]
So, not only do the capitalist bosses cry Let Them Eat Cake -- they cry Let Them Eat Fake Cake.
Which raises all kinds of disturbing questions. How much else of what ordinary people are eating is really industrial waste disguised as food? (Bodanis on corporate ice cream is another treat I'll leave for readers to discover for themselves.) How can we in "the West" (Gringolandia) pride ourselves on the ready availability of affordable food for all -- often bragged about as a selling point of the AWOL -- if much of it is not actually food, but pseudofood or food-like substances actually cobbled together from chemicals, "seconds," and offal? How did we become inured to fake food? Why is so much of the content of the average supermarket "food" rather than food, if you get my drift?
These questions are taken up more seriously by Mike Pollan in his latest book, In Defence of Food, which I highly recommend. Pollan gives us a lightning tour of the history of artificial food and what he calls "nutritionism" (as opposed to nutrition): the cult of quantification and reductionism that insists food is nothing more than a measured dose of protein and vitamins (the same Liebig-era mania that resulted in the great NPK bubble now in its death spiral of diminishing returns and unintended consequences).
Food labelling practises, industry shenanigans, diet fads, the "diseases of civilisation," it's all there in lucid, if sometimes a bit brief and hurried, prose (I got the impression somehow, as a reader, that his publisher was pushing hard for an early release date and the book ended up being a bit shorter than it might have been with more researching/writing time -- I'd have preferred the longer version).
I note that all the processes referred to in the riveting description of commercial cake-making above, are dependent on cheap energy and petroleum-based chemistry; from the factory trawling and processing that generates the tanker loads of rancid fish oil as a waste product, to the strong synthetic dyes and flavourings that conceal the ghastly quality of the base ingredients. Not to mention the factory-farmed flour and plantation sugar cheap enough to offer a 700 percent profit margin even after all the long haul transport.
Recently, on a visit to friends in the Outback of inland BC, I worked a hand powered grain mill to make fresh flour from hard red wheat. With local butter, eggs from the chicken house 40 feet from the farmhouse door, local honey and local fruit, we made an apple spice bread whose only long-haul ingredient was -- as in olden times -- the high-value, low-weight, low-volume spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It was possibly the most delicious cake I have ever eaten, though the good appetite generated by grinding flour may have added to its appeal :-) And it was very, very cheap to make -- cheaper than a box of factory cake mix from the nearest supermarket, I suspect (though perhaps not cheaper than some cake mixes marked down for occasional sale or found at Costco). I had just discovered this section of Bodanis' book at the time and was reading it aloud to my friends, to their mixed amusement and disgust, while the smell of our own apple spice cake filled the house. It was hard to understand at that moment, how the food-industrial-complex has pulled off this enormous, cruel, and highly profitable scam -- convincing people to eat industrial waste and petroleum distillation byproducts, under the guise of "cake".
I've long felt that when I walk into the average supermarket, I don't recognise most of its contents as edible. But I didn't realise how right I was until the latest round of exposés of the food industrial complex came out: Pollan and a small but vocal band of muckrakers have pulled back the curtain on what can only be called a crisis of adulteration, false advertising, corruption of government bureaux, etc.
Anyway, In Defence of Food is a fine followup to The Omnivore's Dilemma and a welcome addition to the growing library of what we might call the Real Food Movement. Also recommended (by me anyway): Nourishing Traditions by Fallon and Enig, Full Moon Feast by Prentice, Slow Food Nation by Petrini, The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Katz, and of course the various recent "limited radius" or locavore books.