Are you aware, and do you care about all those numerated and/or polysyllabic ingredients in processed food that makes it taste so good (e.g., thiamine mononitrate vitamin B1, Polysorbate 60, titanium dioxide, Red 40)? Stephan Eirik Clark is, and does.
“After I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, especially the chapter ‘Food Product Design,’ about food dyes and artificial flavoring, I started to wonder if I was eating chicken or something that tastes like chicken—that’s my fear,” says Clark, author of the short story collection Vladimir’s Mustache and a creative writing professor at Augsburg College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
That concern begat Sweetness #9, a sidesplitting sendup of the food flavor industry (and recently promoted on-air by Stephen Colbert, resulting in wildly augmented presales—a phenomenon known as the “Colbert Bump”). Clark began writing the book in 2001, shortly after 9/11, and envisioned something quite different from what it became.
“At that time, I thought the book was going to be fresh, was going to help educate people or guide people towards an epiphany, or a realization of how they should eat. But every time I tried to make the book didactic, or thought that I should present a good way and a bad way, or even include something educational, like about GMOs, I would see the culture race ahead of it,” he says. “Think back to 2001: the law for organics wasn’t even in place yet; farmers’ markets weren’t in not only every city, but in every corner of the city; and so much has changed in that time. Eventually I realized [Sweetness #9] had to be more about the story and the emotional connections, less a Michael Pollan book. I’ll let the nonfiction writers handle that. I just wanted to explore the anxieties we have about food.”
Enter David Leveraux, an anxious-yet-affable American immigrant with the aptitude to become a foremost flavor chemist. Fresh out of college, he’s drafted by megawatt flavor firm Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark. “It was the summer of 1973 and I too was doing my part to win the Cold War, for if anything other than an ICBM could clear the Berlin Wall, it was the taste of a smuggled Ho-Ho or Ding-Dong—flavors that suggested a life freer and more limitless than any possible under the grey yoke of communism,” Clark writes.
As a flavorist-in-training, David is living an American dream—including a marriage to pretty coed Betty (“someone I could pass a fork to at ethnic restaurants,” Clark writes)—that goes belly up when he’s assigned to pre-FDA-approval trials for a new artificial sweetener. Animals receiving the drug exhibit symptoms that will later (post-approval) be identified as Sweetness #9 poisoning: “anxiety, apathy, a generalized dissatisfaction with life” and “aphasias and impotence, rage disorders, dyspepsia, a forgetfulness that verges on panic,” he writes.
An attempted whistle-blowing lands David in the local mental hospital for a prolonged convalescence. He is rescued from obscurity by a powerful admirer, whose company is a rival of Goldstein, Olivetti and Dark, and goes to work with his head down.
“Perhaps memory is like a book written in ink that fades. Perhaps every time I thought back on what I’d observed in animal testing, I discovered another alarming passage had been removed, allowing me to pen a more hopeful one in its place. I’m sure the victims of any great trauma would agree it shouldn’t be any other way. For if not by forgetting, how else are we to recover and find peace?” Clark writes.
Reunited with Betty, the pair reclaim their picture-perfect life, now expanded to include two children, but it’s an incomplete peace. By the 1990s, daughter Priscilla is a nascent anti-additive activist and son Ernest, a prolific guzzler of artificial ingredients, seems to suffer full-blown Sweetness #9 poisoning—symptoms including the seeming inability to verbalize verbs.
David must decide whether and how to disclose his connection to “The Nine” in order to right old wrongs.
“I tell [people] Sweetness #9 is about a man who made a mistake,” says Clark. “He’s a failed whistleblower and he only realizes that he should have spoken out when his family starts to show all of the symptoms that he first observed while testing this artificial sweetener 20 years ago. We haven’t all worked in animal testing, but we’ve all made a mistake, and how to deal with that many years later is something I think about.”
Of course, Sweetness #9 doesn’t technically exist, so one need not worry about verbal impairment, per se. Still, readers may find the truths in Clark’s fiction to be a little too close for comfort.
“Are we eating strawberries, or are we eating just what they are telling us is strawberries? If people haven’t woken up to that, I’m afraid we could be consuming food items that aren’t really food, something that convinces us we’re eating but is not really nourishing. That’s the most important thing to be aware of—that’s the Matrix moment,” Clark says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.