I spent part of this week at a workshop on theorising secrecy and transparency. Based on a variety of readings – on a range of subjects, from drone warfare to the world’s first biometric money, and from women Free Masons in Italy to Wikileaks – we discussed how secrecy and transparency can only exist in relation to one another; how we need secrets in order to function socially; how transparency tends to pertain only to information and not knowledge; and what do we mean by discretion, and privacy?
And so, perhaps inevitably, my thoughts turned to food. We are all fairly familiar with the idea of the secret recipe. KFC markets its chicken as being flavoured with eleven secret herbs and spices. The contents of Worcestershire Sauce and Coca-Cola are closely guarded secrets. Such is the intensity of people’s curiosity around these products, there is now a cottage industry dedicated to discovering just what goes into Seven-Up or Dr Pepper.
One of my favourite episodes of This American Life attempts to recreate what is, apparently, the original, true recipe for Coke. The formula for the syrup on which Coca-Cola is based – called Merchandise 7x – is a very carefully guarded secret. However, the producers of the show managed to track down what seems to have been one of the first recipes for Coca-Cola, in a 1979 edition of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Asa Candler, who founded the company in 1892, did not invent Coke. That person was a chemist, John Pemberton, who, in 1882, created Coca-Cola to sell alongside other drinks and patent medicines. Famously, its name derives from the fact that it contained extract of coca leaf. (Coca-Cola removed cocaine from its recipe in 1903.) After his death, the recipe circulated among other chemists – and it is this formula which was printed in 1979.
It is this formula which Ira Glass asks two people from Jones Soda in Seattle to recreate, but with not particularly encouraging results. They describe it as tasting like Froot Loops, or medicine, or aspirin. After refining the recipe and their ingredients (which include lemon and coriander oil, vanilla, lime juice, and lots of sugar) they arrive at something which approximates Coke so closely that they – and others – find it virtually indistinguishable from the ‘real’ product.
What is so interesting about this investigation is that it suggests that there were once several recipes for Coke circulating around Atlanta and, secondly, that the recipe itself has changed over time. In fact, one of the best indicators of this is the popularity of Mexican Coke. Many claim that it tastes considerably better than the American variety, and this is probably due to the fact that Coca-Cola made in the US now contains corn syrup – which is cheaper – rather than the original cane sugar.
It is unsurprising that manufactures of processed food would want to advertise their products on the grounds that they’re based on fixed, never-changing ‘secret’ recipes. This adds to the ‘specialness’ of the sauce, drink, or seasoning and, most obviously, suggests that these cannot be made at home. In fact, this is probably true: foodstuffs made in factories contain ingredients, and are put through processes, unavailable to the domestic kitchen. Also, unlike home cooking, manufactures are able to claim – despite evidence to the contrary – that these products will – apparently – always be absolutely uniform. One bottle of Worcestershire Sauce is supposed to be exactly the same as the next.
Current campaigns to force food companies accurately to label their products are partly a manifestation of suspicion of the contents of Big Food’s secret processes and recipes. This insistence on transparency is not particularly new, though. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Heinz – one of the first, and now one of the biggest – food companies in the world distinguished itself from its competitors by selling its sauces and condiments in clear glass bottles.
As concerns about food contamination grew in both the US and elsewhere, Heinz argued that its clear bottles proved to shoppers the purity of their products. Unlike their competitors, they didn’t add lead, chalk, arsenic or any other contaminants to their merchandise. Partly as a result of this, Heinz could ally itself closely to the pure food movement in the US – linked to temperance organisations – as the best example of what an ethical food producer should look like. This made exceptionally good business sense. HJ Heinz was able to exert some influence over the committee responsible for writing the landmark Food, Drink, and Drugs Act of 1906. Although this legislation was designed to end food contamination, it worked to create a uniform, nation-wide set of regulations over the production and marketing of processed food.
Transparency – literally in the case of Heinz – actually enabled food companies to grow their markets across the United States. But although technology and industrialisation change the ways in which we understand and define transparency and secrecy, these have existed in the food world long before the nineteenth century. Chefs and cooks guarded their recipes in the same ways as other artisans and tradespeople protected knowledge about their skills.
I’ve been reading Bill Buford’s fascinating account of a journey through restaurant kitchens and butchers in New York and Tuscany. One of the themes running through Heat is secrecy: in an age where it’s ever-easier to share information, and where chefs are compelled to produce recipe books at regular intervals, how to keep iconic dishes – the food which defines restaurants – secret?
But secrecy is most important for three chefs in Italy and, significantly, all of them women. Intent on learning how to make pasta ‘properly’ (like an Italian, in other words), Buford gets in touch with the best pasta cooks he knows. Firstly, he calls Miriam Leonardi who runs Trattoria la Buca near Parma, and asks to spend some time in her kitchen, learning from her:
She panicked. ‘What are you talking about? A month? I never let anyone into my kitchen – ever.’ (She made a funny sound. Was she having trouble breathing?) ‘I don’t know what to say. Are you crazy?’ She was very angry.
Next he tries Valeria Piccini, whose response is similar. This time, though, Buford realises why: ‘was it because she didn’t want to share her pasta secrets?’ He finally manages to secure a place in a small restaurant run by Betta Valdiserri in Poretta. It was here that Mario Batali learned Italian cuisine, and Buford, having spent a year in Batali’s restaurant Babbo, is accepted because of his connection with Batali.
Miriam is, though, as loath to share her secrets, and particularly for tortellini. While she does eventually divulge her recipe, she does so over a period of time, so that Buford needs to make a series of return visits to learn each step in the process of making tortellini:
It was, I concluded, a test of my promise that I wouldn’t reveal the recipe to Mario: if enough time had elapsed and she got no reports of her tortellini on the Babbo menu, she could assume the coast was clear.
For all three of these women who have managed to be successful in an industry which is male dominated and frequently sexist, and within a profoundly patriarchal society, keeping secrets becomes a way of claiming power. Their recipes are what define them, as Buford explains:
For Betta, pasta was crucial to how she thought about herself. ‘Mario,’ she said, is now a great success, and I am not. Mario is now rich, and I am not. But he was never very good at making pasta. He was never as good as me. I am very, very good.’
So although secrecy (and the pretense of transparency) is useful for big food companies, it is also a strategy useful for women negotiating a place within a world often designed to thwart their ambitions.
Bill Buford, Heat (New York: Vintage Books,  2007).
Gabriella M. Petrick, ‘“Purity as Life”: HJ Heinz, Religious Sentiment, and the Beginning of the Industrial Diet,’ History and Technology, vol. 27, no. 1 (2011), pp. 37-64.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.