2000s Archive

My Father the Formulator

Originally Published February 2000

My dad was fresh out of grad school with a degree in biochemistry when he found himself up to his elbows in white powder. It was 1952, and he had joined a team of scientists at International Minerals & Chemicals (IMC) charged with manufacturing monosodium glutamate from sugar-beet sludge, a process that promised greater profits than starting from scratch with seaweed, as the Japanese had done since 1908.

I remember the pilot plant, a two-story affair on the campus of IMC’s corporate headquarters, in Skokie, Illinois, where the massive administration buildings were referred to as the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Heavy hooks hung from the plant’s ceiling, and dizzying metal stairways spiraled upward. The pungent smell of MSG permeated the air. My dad showed me a toolbox deeply dented by a falling piece of equipment that had almost killed a fellow researcher; then he bought me a bottle of Coke from a nearby machine. It cost a nickel.

IMC got a pretty good payoff for its investment in MSG. Ac’cent hit the market in 1954 in a soon-to-be-familiar stunted jar with a red plastic screw cap, the odd punctuation mark necessitated by a shampoo already in stores called Accent. Soon after my twin brothers were born, in the fall of 1955, an article appeared in Reader’s Digest extolling “the amazing white crystals that accentuate flavors without changing them &. It makes steaks seem juicier and vegetables taste more succulent.” A few months later, my maternal grandfather called to report that he was shaking Ac’cent on boiled eggs and dill pickles and swallowing a spoonful every morning to improve his outlook on life.

But marketing MSG as a consumer condiment was only the beginning. Soon manufacturers like Campbell Soup Company were dumping it into their products, and demand soared in the food industry. A handful of conglomerates, including IMC, raced to develop further glutamate derivatives, along with inosinates, guanylates, hydrolyzed proteins, and other additives with a variety of objectives, some less than admirable. As Reader’s Digest put it about MSG crystals: “They improve the taste of leftovers which have lost flavor in the refrigerator. On steam tables in restaurants, the crystals keep foods from getting that overcooked taste.” Foodwise, we stood at the dawn of the chemical age.

No wonder the formulator—the person who transformed these compounds, derivatives, and additives into food—was an all-powerful figure. This was the scientist who stood at the center of an army of chemists, technicians, and home economists, dreaming up products and then supervising the development of industrial recipes.

My father, Jacob Sietsema, became a formulator in 1959 for Pillsbury. His area of responsibility in those days was frostings and angel food cakes. In the morning he would think up a potential product and make a list of ingredients and instructions. He’d go to the statistical clerk, who would take his list and prepare a grid showing differing proportions of ingredients. This chart would then go to chemists in the pilot plant, who would prep and measure constituents, then to bakers, who would create a series of cakes following the instructions on the chart.

At the end of the day, my dad would saunter into the home economics area, where there was a tall shelf with 20 or so pigeonholes, each of which held a slightly different version of the cake he’d thought up that morning. He’d examine, poke, and taste each one, all the while speaking into a Dictaphone. A night secretary would type up the notes and they’d be on his desk the next morning.

My father never touched a utensil or an ingredient, yet he was responsible for all the products under his development. Between the morning’s recipe and the evening’s taste-o-rama, he’d go around to all the labs, test kitchens, and taste panels that were evaluating his products. If problems occurred, he would solve them the next day with a new set of formulations.

During the 1960s, he developed creamy frostings, fluffy frostings, pudding cakes, angel food cakes, “confetti” cakes with little bits of candy in them, an “Aunt Jane” piecrust enhanced with eggs and vinegar (released from a chemical powder when the crust was heated), au gratin potatoes, and a line of powdered beverages with sophisticated flavors for adults.

But his most memorable Pillsbury product, a project he took over soon after it was initiated, was Funny Face drinks. Unlike Kool-Aid, whose vulnerability was the need to stir stupefying quantities of white sugar into cold water, Funny Face, a heady chemical cocktail of saccharin, sodium and calcium cyclamates, and artificial flavors, dissolved instantly. I remember my seven-year-old brothers sitting at the kitchen table trying to think up names for the flamboyant fruit characters that decorated the packages. The original 1964 flavors were Goofy Grape, Freckle Face Strawberry, Loud Mouth Lime, Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry, Chinese Cherry, and Injun’ Orange—though the last two were hurriedly changed to Choo-Choo Cherry and Jolly Olly Orange. The cyclamate scare of the late 1960s caused Pillsbury to replace the artificial sweeteners with sugar, and the product line was eventually sold to another company. I remember its last days, when some of it was given away free at service stations with the purchase of gasoline.

With all the attention my father was paying to nuances of flavor, you might think that our home dinner table must have been a gourmet’s paradise. Far from it. While James Beard and Julia Child were busy reinventing American food in the French mold out East, and M.F.K. Fisher was savoring every last garden-grown bite in the West, dinner for most of us in the Midwest was a predictable cycle of meat loaf, well-done roast beef, pot roast, spaghetti with meat sauce, baked chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, frozen halibut steaks, and the ubiquitous fish sticks. And even though our neighborhood in suburban Minneapolis could be called multicultural, it was fervently assimilationist. Most kids didn’t even know what their ethnic category was—let alone its favorite dishes.

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