Day 1,006: Sciencey Foods

Yesterday I started off writing an article, then thought I’d next-level the fucker by drinking some egg in an otherwise fine beer. This was an act of creative hubris on my part, somewhat inspired by the weirdness of how I spent my 2020: celebrating every damn National Whatever Day I could track down. That meant trying haggis, making my first mint julep, and even slapping together a Baked Alaska just because I thought I could.

Last year’s adventure taught me one solid lesson: it’s the writing I love. Cooking is fun, eating even more so, but I am only equipped to pour my brain-parts into the written word. It’s a fantastic leap from writing about people foolish enough to chug back eggs in their beverage to actually becoming one of those people.

So today I’ll withhold any brash indulgences and stick to words. Words about food. Words about people who have plunged their vocational hands up to the wrists in food, and developed some of the science that improved on Mother Nature’s tragic shortcomings. These are winners of the Stephen S. Chang Award for lipid science.

We’re going to start with Rex Sims. Actually, I’m going to start by prefacing all of this by reminding everyone that I am not a scientist, and my eyes will gloss over sentences like “When hydrogen is absorbed on the catalyst surface dissociation into H* and H* occurs which allows for both saturation and isomerization to occur.” I’m sure that’s 100% accurate, but I do not know what it means, nor do I plan to learn what it means and explain it in my folksy, lovably Canadian-Jewish fashion. But I will point out that Dr. Sims’ work with General Foods (he was a fat & oil man) paved the way for frozen dairy products.

We would not have Cool Whip if it weren’t for Dr. Sims. He worked on emulsifiers, and also came up with the magic behind Stove-Top Stuffing, Shake ‘n Bake, and Tang.

Damn, this guy’s work went into space. I just scrolled through the other recipients of the Stephen S. Chang Award, and no one else has a resume as bodacious as Dr. Sims. I think we’ll look a little closer at him and ditch those other wannabe food-science celebs.

Dr. Sims may have provided the science, but Ruth Siems (similarity in name purely coincidence) actually invented Stove-Top. The magic of Ruth’s work lay in figuring out how big to make the dehydrated crumbs. Too small and you’ll have a gooey, lumpy slog of spice. Make ‘em too big and you’ll end up with little rocks of unpleasant crunch.

Ruth was not a scientist; she earned her degree in home economics. And once General Foods threw that stuff onto shelves in 1972, households had a new option besides potatoes or rice for an easy side dish.

If this were yesterday, I might have been foolish enough to try eating some Stove Top raw out of the box. Fortunately, I have learned and grown since then.

Next up, good ol’ Shake ‘n Bake.

I have nothing to say about Shake ‘n Bake. It’s a product, it tastes fine, and it’s no substitute for real fried chicken. I’m sure it’s a healthier alternative, and has been since its introduction in 1965, but I’ll take a crispy slab of Crisco-soaked white meat over something that has danced around inside a bag then got tossed in the oven.

Look at that pitiful drumstick up there. That sad little gam that once hoisted up the torso of its host body as it plunked through what was likely a tiny cage. It was eventually hacked off and sent to its destiny, only to be ineptly battered and undercooked, its flavor potential squandered because some lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to do it right. Then they took a photo and posted it online.

People are weird.

“Tang sucks.”

Those were the words of Buzz Aldrin in 2013, reflecting upon one of the lesser high-points of his career with NASA. I mean, he’s not wrong. Tang may be a palatable form of powdered sugar-water, but it’s no Kool-Aid. Its main claims-to-fame were that astronauts drank it in space, and it inspired a Wu sort of Clan in the hip-hop world of the 1990s. I feel like this article has once again shifted to me crapping all over the fine work Dr. Rex Sims contributed to the world of food science.

Instead we’ll shift the discussion over to Bill Mitchell, the General Foods chemist who took Dr. Sims’ work and turned Cool Whip and Tang into actual products. Bill was an innovator, and if General Foods hasn’t named a wing of their head office after the guy, then they are fools. Actually, they are nothing – General Foods was absorbed into Kraft years ago.

But Bill’s coolest move might have been as he was attempting to create self-carbonating soda.

Packed with delicious and noisy carbon dioxide, Pop Rocks were invented in 1961 but not sold until 1975. This was likely because either the General Foods marketing people found the stuff too terrifying to sell, or maybe because the suits in the boardroom just didn’t have the foresight to know how badly kids want candy that virtually explodes in their mouths. By 1983 they’d yanked them back off the shelves. How could they be so cruel to my generation? It’s no wonder no one my age shed a tear when Kraft took them over.

Maybe Pop Rocks disappeared because of that old urban legend, the one that says that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials perished when he guzzled too much Coke and Pop Rocks one afternoon. It seems the combination made stomachs explode. Or at least it seemed that way until the first episode of Mythbusters demonstrated that not to be true.

The one thing all of these deliciously chem-treated foods has in common is Dr. Rex Sims and his brave forays into making processed food for all of us. Every one of these foodstuffs comes bundled with longevity and popularity, even if they lack any nutritional value.

All things considered, I’d take any of them over another glass of Egg Beer though.

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