Flavor Man

     Natural food – whatever that means – is big business these days. Many foodies regard artificial flavors as akin to pornography, though not as interesting. I have a different slant on it, because my stepfather was one of the world’s top flavor chemists.
     A very large, very well-known cola company paid Ira quite a bit of money to try to invent a flavor that did not exist in nature. He worked on it for more than a year, and decided it couldn’t be done. All the good flavors are already out there.
     Ira died last week, after taking care of my mom for 38 years. He had an interesting life. He told me about it on one of his last good days.
     Ira’s parents and grandparents came from Russia through Ellis Island, to escape the pogroms and the coming war with Japan. Ira joined the Navy during World War II, before he got out of high school. He joined through the V-12 program.
     American colleges were hurting for students then, because the young men were going to war, and most young women didn’t go to college then. So to help keep up enrollment, Uncle Sam paid for men to go to college for a year, through the V-12 program. After the first year, they’d go to basic training and the war.
     Ira trained to be a fighter pilot on aircraft carriers. He got his commission and was on a carrier heading to Japan when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
     After the war Ira finished college on the G.I. Bill. In those days the Quartermaster Corps was putting money into food science, because the Armed Forces wanted to know how to get decent food to troops in the wars everyone expected to come.
     The only kinds of preservation in those days were the old-style smoking and salting, and new-fangled freezing and dehydration. (Ira told me that of the first two kinds of food preservation that mankind invented, thousands of years ago, smoking has been linked to cancer, and salting to high blood pressure.)
     So Ira got a Ph.D. in food science and went to work as a post-doc at the University of California at Davis. It was the top ag school in the world then, and probably still is. Maynard Amerine was there, applying the closely controlled processing we use on dairy products to California’s wine industry. More than any other single man, Amerine was responsible for turning California wine into a high quality, multibillion-dollar business.
     Ira hated the faculty politics, but he loved the work. When he went out East one year to read a paper at a conference, a stranger asked if Ira wanted to work for him as a flavor chemist. Ira said he didn’t think so; he wanted to stick with academia for a while. OK, the guy said. Here’s my card; call me if you change your mind.
     Just for my information, Ira said, what would you pay me?
     Take whatever you’re making now and double it, the man said.
     So Ira became a full-time flavor chemist.
     He was good. He could unravel the chemical composition of food as he ate it. He was quite a guy to eat dinner with.
     Eating a piece of meat, he’d say, “Don’t you love those fatty esters?”
     I don’t know, I’d say. Do I? Ira said I was tasting carbon rings with esters at the end, and on and on …
     Ira was a big fan of classical music. He was convinced that the structure of flavors and aromas had something in common with the structure of music, but he never learned enough music theory to pin it down.
     No one knows exactly how we sense flavors and aromas, but Ira said the flavor molecules can’t be too big or too small, and a lot of it is determined by what’s at the end of the carbon chain.
     He told me grapes taste like grapes because of methyl anthranylate. Isn’t that interesting – whatever it means?
     Ira probably made a lot of the flavors you’ve eaten, but just because they were artificial doesn’t mean he made them up. He copied them from nature.
     Then gas chromatography was invented and made it possible for an engineer to heat up food, analyze the gases it emitted and decipher its chemistry. That was the beginning of the end for flavor artists, Ira said. It began a race to the bottom on prices.
     Engineers could stick one of Ira’s flavors into a gas chromatograph and copy it. So the big, integrated food companies with research divisions started shutting them down, and farming out the flavor-making to little companies that could undercut them on prices.
     You can’t patent a flavor, by the way, because they all exist in nature. It makes me wonder why you can patent a gene.
     Anyway, Ira lived a good life, he told me as he lay dying in Florida. When he quit the food business, he traveled all over the world as a consultant, with my mom. Right up to the end, he had a quality that all creative people need – the capacity to feel and express wonder, to unselfconsciously act like a kid again.
     I asked Ira what was the biggest change he’d seen in the world in his 84 years.
     Ira thought about it for a long time.
     World War II? I said.
     “The war?” Ira said. “No, the war was the most vulgar part of my life.”
     Then he said, “I’d say the biggest change I saw was the opportunity to get an education, to find out what people thought in other times and other places.”

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