January 17, 2007

Fishing in shallow waters

Reading the first of David Foster Wallace's stories in Oblivion,"Mister Squishy", all the usual David Foster Wallace sensations overcame me. It's a funny, hugely dense, over-written, verbiage-laden goose chase. As always, there's lot of attention given to the language and thought structures of a highly technical sub-specialty of modern work, in this case the field research efforts which support the marketing of a new packaged snack cake.

But having come across this paper in the Journal of Food Processing Preservation, I can see that the background work for a Foster Wallace story is easier than it looks. For those not inclined to browse lengthy PDFs describing snack food production research, the gist is this:
* lots of Americans eat snack foods, and it's only going to get worse
* we're all professionals here, so let's not pretend snack foods have any nutritional value
* catfish have a bit more nutritive potential than your average grain/styrene based snack
* it turns out you can process, extrude and puff catfish mince into exactly the same sort of shapes popular in other snack foods and they don't taste fishy either
* let's make snacks out of catfish.

But the true joy of the paper is in its language. The title, 'Extrusion of Minced Catfish With Corn and Defatted Soy Flours For Snack Foods', is just a hint. Try some of this from the abstract for taste and texture: "Response surface methodology (RSM) with a rotatable central composite design was used to determine an extrusion condition that would produce extrudates of a maximal expansion ratio from blends of catfish flesh"; "The snack food made with the aforementioned combination and 74.74% corn flour in feed was slightly less dense than malted milk balls and much less hard than cocktail peanuts, according to a trained sensory panel"; or "No fish flavor note was perceived in any of the extrudates".

The main problem we have with snack foods is that we think of them as foods, when they're really industrial products susceptible to the same kinds of process control, materials technology and user experience-derived design techniques as hard goods. This shouldn't be thought of as an irony. "Consumption", the term used to describe the act of buying things or paying for getting things done, is a dead metaphor - we don't fully recognise its former connotation of taking in, especially with regard to food. Once consumption is cleansed of its food contexts, is it any wonder that our literal consumptions are cleansed of their origins?

posted on January 17, 2007 at 01:13 PM by darren.