What the Heck Is a Superfood Anyway?
A two-part reflection on blueberries, fast fashion, and the enduring question: "Who wore it first?"
One conversation, two ideas.
On Tuesday, I published a podcast conversation with David Tortolini, an incoming graduate student at Purdue University who studies food and digital spaces. Our talk touched on a lot of different themes that are sort of incongruous, but which felt equally interesting to me.
I decided to take a page from some of my favorite Substack publications, which publish roundups on two different topics in one post. I’ll break this article into sections, dissecting two of the most salient topics that came out of Tuesday’s episode:
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🫐 A Blueberry by Any Other Name 🫐
Here’s a little secret: The episode I recorded with David was actually our second take (about 10% of all BB episodes are second recordings, FYI). One thing we stumbled upon in our first recording—and something both David and I were keen to include in our second—was the idea that blueberry is a common flavor descriptor in coffee, and one that many folks who are new to coffee describe as transformative:
David: And then the big, almost music-in-the-background kind of moment was when I had Tandem Coffee’s—they had this coffee with a blueberry note and I tasted blueberries and I was like, “Wow, this is so complex, more than I could ever even have imagined.”
Ashley: It's funny you mentioned the tasting note of blueberries, because I feel like if you took a poll of different coffee folks and their aha moment or their, “Wow, this is something totally different that I didn’t expect” [moment], I bet you at least half of them would say that blueberries are part of that journey. I know for me it is.
Blueberry is a flavor that carries across categories: It’s a common artificial flavoring in candy and sweets, but it’s also been spun as a “superfood” containing antioxidants and promising other health benefits. (That said, it seems those “antioxidant” properties might have been purposely obscured and overhyped.)
Blueberries can be used in both savory and sweet applications, and can temper heat well (blueberries are commonly paired with some of the hottest peppers, like habanero and ghost peppers, in hot sauces). They’re distinct from other berries in color, and are notably sweet. In 2020, Firmenich, a company that makes flavors and fragrances, named blueberry the “flavor of the year.” “Blueberry flavor provides a dependable and stable foundation to build on, making it a perennial favorite within the flavor community,” their website states. “It not only pairs well with other flavors, it also stands up on its own.”
Firmenich notes that blueberry consumption has increased dramatically across the globe. “Agricultural production of blueberries in the U.S. has increased fivefold since 2007 and has more than doubled worldwide in that same time period.” They’re also inexorably tied into North American culture: Blueberries were first formally cultivated in the United States in the early 1900s, and the U.S. is still the world’s largest grower of blueberries globally.
While blueberry is a flavor note both David and I found distinct in our early coffee-drinking experiences, it’s likely that it wouldn’t translate everywhere, however.
The folks behind Ārāmse talk about this: David mentioned them in our conversation, but they’re a platform that curates coffee subscription and runs a YouTube channel. Along with publishing one of my favorite coffee newsletters, they appeared in a guest video on James Hoffmann’s YouTube channel and discussed different ways to decolonize coffee—one of those ways being through flavor.
In coffee, many folks rely on the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) flavor wheel to articulate the range of flavors they taste in the cup. This wheel is the result of exhaustive research. The first iteration of the flavor wheel came out in 2005, and according to the SCA, “In 2016, this valuable resource was updated in collaboration with World Coffee Research (WCR). The foundation of this work, the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon, is the product of dozens of professional sensory panelists, scientists, coffee buyers, and roasting companies collaborating via WCR and SCA.” The wheel has been translated into a handful of languages including Italian, Spanish, Korean, and Traditional and Simplified Chinese.
The wheel is broken into sections, and, predictably, blueberry is one of the fruits that shows up. However, as Raghunath explains in the video (he’s one half of Ārāmse, which he runs along with his wife, Namisha), not all the flavor notes on the wheel are available globally, and flavors that are prized in other parts of the world are often lumped together in categories with other less-than-enticing descriptors.
“One example that stands out,” Raghunath says, “is the tasting note ‘earthy.’ In spite of it being quite sought after in the Subcontinent [India], seeing it nestled between ‘moldy’ and ‘phenolic’ makes one almost embarrassed to admit they enjoy it.”
I wrote an article recently about how orange wine is a bad tasting note, and I think that discussion—of esoteric flavor notes being exclusionary—hits on some of the same themes that Raghunath’s talk discusses. He proposes making the flavor wheel more inclusive by localizing descriptors, and taking flavors that are hard to find in particular regions and replacing them with commonly available fruits and foods.
Flavor notes are not objective: They carry class, ethnic, and cultural significance based on who is crafting the notes and deciding which flavors are desirable (and which are not), and they have the power to make people feel included—or excluded.
I think what really drives this point home is that blueberries weren’t even a commonly eaten fruit until just over 100 years ago. Coffee has been consumed for centuries, so if anything, blueberries taste like coffee, not the other way around. Take that!
The 🤖 Digitization 🤖 of Power Dynamics
Blueberries aside, the primary reason David and I first got together to record this episode was to discuss digital spaces. Last year, he gave a talk about how Instagram is used to convey values within the coffee industry—from individuals to coffee shops to national brands—and I wanted to follow up with him on some of the big themes of his lecture:
The premise of that talk was I was spurred by my friends in the specialty coffee industry and their reaction to the murder of George Floyd. I was spurred on by looking at how—because I’ve taken digital media classes, I was spurred on by looking at how scholars like Dr. Christian Fuchs and Dr. Safiya Noble talk about how places like Instagram, TikTok, and even Google are always gonna be inherently zones of power struggles.
How can community be built, destroyed, and rebuilt essentially in these digital places where power isn’t equally shared? We always want power to be equally shared online, but power isn’t.
I didn’t really understand what that meant, so I asked for more context. David shared an analogy about the influence hoarded by larger accounts and online entities that really hit home for me:
I use this analogy of the high school cafeteria … When the really cool, really popular kid in the school wears this avant-garde shirt from a band that they discovered from a friend of a friend, but the band is something like, I wanna say LCD Soundsystem, my favorite band.
But then you have this skater punk or this indie kid who’s been wearing that same LCD Soundsystem shirt for the last two years every other day. But everybody’s like, “Oh yeah. Now you’re copying the cool kid.” And this kid’s like, “No, this is the shirt I’ve been wearing for the last two years.”
But everybody’s like, “No, no, no, the cool person’s wearing it. So you’re following them.” And that’s the kind of power struggle I think of.
This dynamic is playing out in real time with fast-fashion brands like Shein and ASOS, who are often accused of stealing designs from small, independent designers. But it also plays out in more subtle ways. Recently, I wrote an article for Standart (which is available now) about The Hipster Barista, a meme that circulated the internet in 2011 featuring a cisgender white man with tattoos and a beard as a Very Serious Barista.
The internet had a field day with it, but the proliferation of this meme completely transformed the idea in our collective understanding of what a barista can and should look like. If you Google “barista,” pictures that look like the person in the meme still show up.
In both instances, power dynamics are at play—both overtly (Shein and ASOS are huge companies) and indirectly (the meme has become a widely understood stereotype). But those indirect engines of online power dynamics (think recommendation pages, search engines, and algorithms) need to be seriously looked at: Their invisibility makes them difficult to scrutinize, but they significantly alter how we view the world, and how stereotypes about the world are normalized.
In an excerpt from her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, published on Time.com, Dr. Safiya Noble (who David references in his discussion) writes that, “What we need to ask is why and how we get these stereotypes in the first place, and what the attendant consequences of racial and gender stereotyping do in terms of public harm for people who are the targets of such misrepresentation.”
I think that’s what makes David’s point about power in digital spaces really interesting. Algorithms run by huge companies are difficult to fight; how do we struggle to take back our own slice of the internet and craft it to address issues of inequity and discrimination?
Truthfully, David acknowledges that issues of online ownership don’t have any clear answers. (The cool kid who wore the LCD Soundsystem shirt two years later may choose to credit the person who wore it first, but there’s no guarantee anyone will believe them, or care. And as you extrapolate outward to huge corporations, it’s easy to hide behind a wall of silence and just litigate—or ignore—the issue.) But it does seem like there’s worth in acknowledging the power you have over your own digital footprint, and using it to promote deserving causes and preserve the dignity of others.
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