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Flavor Makers

Former factory workers discuss the mysteries of flavor science.

by Amy Balkin & James Harbison, from Lackluster | Issue #23

AMY BALKIN: So why don't you introduce yourselves?

MANALO MORAGON: I'm Manolo Moragon, M-a-n-o-l-o. M-o-r-a-g-o-n. He's Christopher McGrath.

CHRIS McGRATH: C-h-r-i-s-t-o-p-h-e-r M-c-G-r-a-t-h.

MORAGON: About six years ago, when I was in college, I worked at a place called Berwick Company. So did Chris. It was owned by a division of Flavor Companies. They made flavors for industrial purposes, vanillas, and color applications. We got the job because my mom was a secretary. She started off as a secretary but ended up running the place. Kind of fluky how we all sort of fell into the flavor.

JAMES HARBISON: You had no ambitions of being a flavor tester?

MORAGON: No, it's just a job.

HARBISON: Well, once a flavor tester, always a flavor tester. I mean, do you pick up a Dorito and think, "Blue No. 7"?

MORAGON: No. We didn't deal with food. We didn't even taste things.

McGRATH: We'd get formulas. The formulas would either be faxed or Xeroxed to us by one of our affiliates, Globe Extracts, and I guess before that Andy Berwick was a chemist. Berwick eventually sold the company to Knudsen and they bought Globe. Knudsen makes milk, yogurts, and they have flavors, which makes sense. We would make the stuff in the bottom of the yogurt that makes it taste like blueberry. But it's not like you dip your finger in it and "Mmmm! Blueberry!"

BALKIN: It wouldn't taste like blueberries until you added it to yogurt?

MORAGON: Well, we'd make a flavor that was so strong, it wouldn't even taste like blueberry. If you dropped a couple drops in a big vat of whatever, you'd make it taste like blueberry.

McGRATH: You know, it's a concentrate.

HARBISON: So did you know whether it was right just by smelling it?

McGRATH: We went mainly by the formulas.

MORAGON: Yeah, it was like cooking.

McGRATH: If you do the steps wrong, you screw it up.

MORAGON: Either it would be cloudy, or there would be little crystals forming in it or something.

McGRATH: So we'd have to pour it out and start over.

MORAGON: It was like we were doing chemistry without actually doing all the math.

HARBISON: Sounds like the kind of job that might inspire some experimentation.

McGRATH: Well, but we've never been like "Oh, instead of two, let's take 16 ounces of blueberry oil and use half as much propylene glycol as we should use." I mean, you never do that to the actual product. And we actually never did it as tests because we didn't want to waste it.

MORAGON: If you look at deodorant, you'll see one of the main ingredients is propylene glycol. We've added so much of that in so many things, you wouldn't believe!

BALKIN: What is it?

MORAGON: It's like a clear petroleum-based product you can add to food products, or shampoo--look at your shampoo.

BALKIN: It's a base?

McGRATH: Yeah, it's a base, like a neutral base.

MORAGON: If you stuck your hand in it, it gets warm like those sex oils and stuff, 'cept it would taste like cinnamon if we added a little cinnamon flavor to it.

HARBISON: Did it come in huge drums?

MORAGON: Fifty-five gallon drums. With forklifts and huge tanks and stuff.

McGRATH: Propylene wasn't super expensive, not compared to the oils or certain powders.

MORAGON: At Chinese restaurants, you'll notice things look really bright orange. We used to make this stuff called egg shade flavor, and we'd sell it to companies.

BALKIN: What's it called?

McGRATH: Egg shade No. 2. It was like imitation color of an egg yolk. Bright red color was big around the holidays, too.

[ NOTE: Images used for this interview appear only in the print version of Stay Free!, which you can purchase right here. ]

BALKIN: So did it smell really strong where you worked?

McGRATH: The plant smelled like whatever we were working on. Normally it smelled like vanilla.

MORAGON: If you went to a certain area in the plant, it would smell like peanut butter. We had different rooms where we kept certain things under refrigeration, like a lot of the Aldehyde C-18, almond flavor. Pure peppermint oil--if you get that on your skin, it burns.

BALKIN: I was wondering about that, about getting injured.

McGRATH: There was spearmint oil, which smelt really good, but don't touch it. Don't get it on your hands.

BALKIN: What happens if you get spearmint oil on your hands?

McGRATH: Uh, actually it wouldn't burn so much. It would be this sort of chill feeling.

MORAGON: You know that stuff they make pepper spray out of? We had that in big jugs and you'd make barbecue flavor out of that. I remember once I was washing a drum out and it had some of that resin in there. It was stuck to the side 'cos it was really gooey. I sprayed some steamy water on it, and--"shhhh"--maced myself.

McGRATH: It was corrosive.

HARBISON: I was gonna ask you about cleaning up.

MORAGON: We had a big step ladder and a huge tank. We used to make three hundred gallons at a time. I remember one time I was on the ladder standing over this thing with all this alcohol and these vapors; it had heating coils on the inside and a big propeller that would stir it around. When I was getting down, I almost passed out [mumbles something to the effect of]… lots of industrial accidents, but I don't want to… you know, they're bankrupt now. I don't want to get them in trouble.

BALKIN: So you worked mostly with natural flavors or mostly with chemicals?

MORAGON: Mostly chemicals. We'd have to mix our own food colorings. Food coloring came in two forms: powder and granulated. You had big warning labels on it saying "CONTAINS LEAD AND ARSENIC!" Supposedly it was a byproduct of burning coal, this fine ash.

McGRATH: Yeah. A lot of the times when it's granulated it looks like those rocks you see on lawns, only more broken down, like pebbles.

MORAGON: Sort of like Fruity Pebbles, but clumped together more.

HARBISON: Let's say you had a little vanilla left over in the trough bucket. Did you have a big stump hole to dump out toxic waste?

McGRATH: We would save it. It was worth money. Most of it wasn't refrigerated. We'd put it in the gallon bottles, unless it was an orange or strawberry. If it was a fruit flavor, then we would usually put it in the refrigerator.

MORAGON: We did a lot of flavors for yogurts.

McGRATH: Blueberry, boysenberry…

MORAGON: Mother's Cookies, Otis Spunkmeyer, what else? That pink stuff, Wright's Pink Popcorn, that shit that you see at the ballpark. We made the pink shit that holds it together. That was us. It's pretty much powdered sugar and food coloring and a little bubble gum flavoring.

HARBISON: Did you get any symbols of appreciation from manufacturers? Any T-shirts? Any free products?

MORAGON: The company did, but we never got anything. I mean if we had degrees in chemistry, we would have made forty-thousand a year, but we didn't.

HARBISON: Doing the same work you did?

MORAGON: Yeah. We were just college students.

BALKIN: So why'd you quit?

MORAGON: I got bored. And it's kind of a toxic job, really.

BALKIN: Did you ever get your hands stained?

MORAGON: You'd blow your nose in the shower, see green or yellow come out. It was pretty nasty.

McGRATH: Yeah. You spit blue. [Laughter.] Imagine what your lungs look like.

HARBISON: So you were doing it how many days a week?

MORAGON: Almost every day, I think. I would work from eight to ten or eleven or twelve, depending on my college schedule, 'cos my mom worked there. At first I started out part-time in the warehouse. I hurt my back doing warehouse work so then I got into making flavors. And we used to make 'em bootleg-style over the sink. It was crazy. You know those sinks: you'd press the floor and wash your hands. They were circular, we'd get our water from there 'cause we really weren't set up to make flavors, we were in limbo. We'd get a special order from really good customers and we had to come through 'cos they'd only order maybe one gallon a year and we'd ream 'em for that. Or four gallons a year and we'd ream 'em like a hundred dollars a gallon.

McGRATH: I ended up accidentally four-folding 96 gallons of Vanilla 3124 one time and it turned out the formula was old. We would add BHA.

BALKIN: Oh, BHA, BHT?

MORAGON: Yeah. It's that kind of stuff.

BALKIN: Well that's not too poisonous, is it?

MORAGON: It's not too good for you. I'd have to read the Cal OSHA manual now to really get the gist. We had a Cal OSHA manual but I don't think we ever looked up stuff.

McGRATH: We didn't want to know. It was like "Oh, get the formula, make the flavor."

BALKIN: So you made fruit flavors. Did you ever make beef flavor?

MORAGON: Very rarely. Every now and then you'd get a cat food company and they'd want you to make liver flavor.

McGRATH: Make it out of emulsion.

MORAGON: Butter was pretty bad.

McGRATH: Something you don't want to have spilled on you: tuna emulsion. You go into McDonald's, people are like, "What's that smell?"

MORAGON: Everyone's smelling their pits and you're going, "Hmmm, I hope nobody notices." It's pretty nasty.

McGRATH: There was this flavor that was really brutal to work with--Butter 20--and there was this one ingredient, diacetyl, that, if you inhaled it, would make you vomit.

MORAGON: You know those movies where they have little metal bottles that people put things in and cap 'em? It came in a bottle like that. But you wouldn't want to get that shit on you. You can't describe it, it smells so bad.

McGRATH: Yeah, you'd put a few drops of diacetyl for twenty gallons of Butter 20 and then mix it with egg salads and butter derivatives, which is clumpy buttery half-liquid. It looked like runny cottage cheese and smelled horrible. If you had the dry heaves, that would do it.

MORAGON: But that diacetyl stuff. One tiny little drop on your clothes and you stunk. Like I said, I was going to school, I got a tiny drop on my shoe, and I swear, everybody at the front of the room was like, [sniff] "Who's got the popcorn?" But if you sat next to me, it'd be like "Ugh! Who stepped in shit?"

HARBISON: Did you wear uniforms?

MORAGON: We wore smocks, like a printer's smock, and we had hair nets and goggles and gloves and respirators, but most of the time didn't use all that stuff. We should have had an eye bath.

McGRATH: We just had sinks. I remember a time when Manolo was making almond extract and you spilled Aldehyde C-18 in your eye and screamed. I thought you lost your eye.

MORAGON: You have to rinse for 15 minutes.

McGRATH: Otherwise, there goes your cornea.

BALKIN: So did you ever work with Blue No. 2?

MORAGON: Oh yeah. Red 40, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 5. All that stuff.

McGRATH: Blue No. 1, mostly.

BALKIN: Aren't some of those colors banned?

McGRATH: Yes, Red No. 3. We worked with that.

MORAGON: We did Red No. 40, mostly. Yellow 5, Blue No. 1, and--

McGRATH: Green No. 3.

MORAGON: And we would make colors from those colors, black and red and different tones.

McGRATH: Purple from Blue No. 1 and Red No. 40 combined.

BALKIN: So did you guys ever make smoke flavor?

MORAGON: Yeah, you'd use birch tar oil. Really strong stuff, I hear it's pretty bad for you, too. Cancerous.

McGRATH: That's the kind of stuff you wouldn't want to get on your hands.

MORAGON: That's when we wore gloves. We almost always wore gloves. There's certain flavors I couldn't make. I don't like bananas, so I couldn't make banana flavors. You know that goopy stuff that comes out of a tube and you can blow bubbles with it?

McGRATH: Super Elastic Bubble Plastic.

MORAGON: Yeah, remember that smell? It was really strong. It'd go right up your nose. Well, we had flavors that smelled like that. Like strawberry. It would "scheeoo" right up your nose, that's how concentrated it was. It was a Carmi flavor. They were the worst. And you'd use those a lot for hard candy and stuff like Jolly Ranchers, Now and Laters.

HARBISON: I have a question. When I was a kid, my mother was very cheap, so she'd buy us generic popsicles in summer. They didn't pretend to be cherry flavor or anything like that, they would say RED. Do you think that's more honest?

MORAGON: I still drink Kool-Aid, you know. I love artificial flavors, and I know what they're made of. If it is bad it wouldn't be legal, right? Hopefully somebody tested it somewhere.

HARBISON: Like you?

MORAGON: I don't think they put that much money into testing, personally. I drink a lot of Kool-Aid and it's got the worst thing for you as far as bad food colorings go--I mean it took me three brushes to get the red out. But I'm still here, you know? And I didn't pee red, so it's all good.

Know anyone in "south central" Brooklyn (Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill) with an unusual job? Stay Free! is looking for good people to interview for our gigs column. Email us with any suggestions. Thank you very much.