Monday, 11 April 2016

Are shrubs the hipster scented candle? Shrubs and Fermentation, part 2 of 2

As I should perhaps have explained in my prior essay struggling through the social justice implications of sugars and flavorings, shrubs are intense extractions of aromatic compounds from plant matter, contributing a much wider and more idiosyncratic flavoring of beverages. They are often extracted by the combination of fruits, herbs, and spices with sugar and cider vinegar, the active bacterial cultures of which continue to ferment the sugars and fruits, creating novel but recognizable flavors—often from produce that might otherwise have spoiled, such as softening fruits.

Given contemporary interest in mixology, shrubs represent a rediscovery of longstanding folk foodways, such as making switchel (highlighted in the haying scene featured in my childhood copy of the Little House on the Prairie cookbook, for example). They are often also used to perform claims about the tastes of place, taking advantage of locally characteristic flavors and preserving them in relatively storable — and marketable — ways.

Shrubs are also an excellent example of what are often characterized as hipster approaches to consumption and production, emphasizing artisanal craft and unique and intense experience, particularly in the mundane materiality of everyday life. As part of a recent project exploring the uses of edible signal species of climate change, I have been learning about shrubs, and experiencing their intensity has led me to pose this question about whether they represent something like a hipster version of scented candles, a question I think is interesting beyond the superficial similarity of enjoyable aroma.

As a person who has always avoided artificial scents because of unpleasant effects such as headache and respiratory tract pain, I have often been dubious about the appeal of cinnamon-scented stores, smelly candles and fruity personal care items, and air fresheners in general. (And research on the effects of phthalates and other substances used in these scented products reinforces my concern and suggests that people with heightened chemical sensitivities to such substances may well be providing coal-mine canary services to the broader populace.) However, the half hour I spent sniffing at my first shrub once it had brewed (when I had rescued impulse-buy strawberries and some leftover parsley) gave me a sudden appreciation for the sensory pleasure that scented candles must provide for others less punished by them!

Recognizing the joy and beauty of this sensory enjoyment — whether it's a more protected and less acute one, or a more sensation seeking version — makes me also recognize some of the social dynamics caught up in the celebration of the invitation to inhabit a particular place through the senses, or the deriding of poor taste around someone else's scent preferences. As with the precious approach to many food and "lifestyle" choice, things like scent can be used not only for enjoyment, but to perform that enjoyment in ways that signal class positioning as well as empathy for other (as with sugar boycotts). Implications for the ways we craft narratives of of the senses may include more attention to the way we invite others to share or explore our experiences of sensory delight, without dismissiveness or judgment and with attention to the embedding of privilege in foodie preciousness. (A wonderful film treatment of taste this evokes is The Taste of Others!)

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