An interdisciplinary account of how flavor informs the boundaries of human identity, health, and behavior, my first book, Delicious: A History of Monosodium Glutamate and Umami, The Fifth Taste Sensation, is forthcoming from the University of California Press’ Food & Culture series (Fall 2021).
In Delicious, I follow the matter and meaning behind monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer commonly added to savory foods. Over the last 110 years, MSG has gotten around. It is the star in Doritos, instant ramen noodles, Campbell’s soup, and thousands of other processed and prepared foods. Since the late-1960s, it has been alleged by some critics to have a toxic effect on bodies, or to be a suspect ingredient used in Chinese-American restaurants. More recently, MSG has been discussed by chefs, food scientists, and foodies in the celebratory tones of gastronomy and culinary tourism. Its reputation has since the early 2000s been refurbished by the discovery of the molecular mechanism for a fifth taste sensation called umami (Japanese for “savoury deliciousness”)–the taste MSG’s inventor claimed the additive conferred more than a century ago.
The book breaks down MSG for the twenty-first century. In it, I explain how the additive’s history explodes our categories of food, drug, and toxin. I demonstrate how a flavor technology somehow came to code for race, nationality, political tribe, and class. Through extensive analysis of the state of research in sensory science, toxicology, and flavor design, I explore how flavor organizes our ways of being human, a star in emerging understandings of health, disease, and happiness.