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Copyright © 1997
James D Thomas


"Stranger Than Non-Fiction"
May 1997 | Updated Monthly

I Love Ester

I've intentionally avoided _I Love Ester_ at the newsstand for nearly a year. Although this zine appeared to be well laid-out and professionally printed, the title -- and the fact that it's polybagged -- suggested that it was the product of someone's less-than-wholesome preoccupation with an aloof girl next door or some slickly airbrushed supermodel. However, at the urging of a friend I picked up the latest issue (Number 5: Winter '97) and was surprised.

Unfortunately for you stalker fans out there, the zine _I Love Ester_ is not about a woman. It's a zine about artificial flavors and smells: chemicals known as "esters."

Written by industrial food chemist Benning Brown (an alias), _I Love Ester_ alternates between goofy fun and technical detail that would daze a graduate student. However, despite the sometimes technical subject matter his prose is clear and often funny, and is peppered with the half-hearted cynicism of a man who loves a job that he knows everyone else finds upspeakably nerdy.

The issue I bought is entitled "Butter and Shoe Polish" and follows what appears to be a well-established format. The first section, four pages long, is devoted to "Lab Report." Here, he details new equipment his company (always refered to as "a Large Food Company") has purchased, and any new synthesis or anlaysis methods he's stumbled across.

In this issue, Benning gushes about his brand spankin' new "Fluid Data Excel V" gas chromatagraph as well as a new synthesis shortcut that -- I am led to understand -- reduces waste of certain expensive reagents.

For the budding amateur food-chemist this section may be invaluable, but to me, it is the least interesting section of the zine. You can tell he likes his job, but Benning's enthusiasm does not make the subject matter any more accessible. In fairness, I suppose that some of the panegyrics to hardware in computer magazines would sound equally dry to someone outside that field.

"Lab Report" is followed by several short historical essays about the triumphs and failures of food chemistry. We are treated to a page about the inventor of the flavor in Circus Peanuts (menacingly named "SP-51"). Having always had a soft spot for this underdog of the candy world, I especially enjoyed learning how this flavor came about. Not surprisingly, it was a failed attempt at synthetic bannana that was rushed into production in order to have a new candy for the Halloween season.

On a similar holiday theme, Benning tells us how a co-worker of his was responsible for the short-lived pumpkin pie-flavored Pez that was marketed during Thanksgiving of '86. Until these two essays, I had no idea that food-chemistry was so driven by seasonal market pressures.

In the third and final essay, Benning writes of the artificial flavors and smells that were used in the MREs ("Meals Ready to Eat") carried by U.S. soldiers during the Gulf War. This essay is the longest, and it is clear that he is proud of the work he did. The challange in this product was to create flavors and smells that would not only be palatable and "have a fine nose," but would be durable enough to last through months or years or storage, and months of desert heat.

The final section of _I Love Ester_ -- "Smell This" -- is it's crowning glory; the sparkle of genius that makes this zine worth buying. "Smell This" is a collection of scratch-n-sniff and "scratch-n-lick" patches covering the last six pages of this issue. Each patch is numbered and indexed to a postpaid card in the back. What Benning Brown wants you to do is smell (or taste) each patch and tell him what you think.

This issue's theme is "butter and shoe polish" but is only loosely followed. (And don't worry, none of the lickable patches taste like Kiwi brand bootblack.) Only eight scratch-and-sniff patches are butter or shoe-polish scented, while the others run the gamut from vaguely cinnamony all the way to noxiously floral. My favorite scent (#34) smelled remarkably like fresh wood.

Out of the total 34 patches, 25 are scratch-and-sniff and nine are lickable swatches of flavor. I found that I could lick each patch two or three times before it lost all flavor. Unfortunately, doing so made the pages of my zine stick together. There are no ugly surprises here, so don't worry about unwittingly getting a taste of of "Sun-bloated carp #3."

Benning Brown has put together something that is both experimental and entertaining. I've never before seen a science-oriented zine, and certainly didn't expect to see such a well-written one. With the caution you'd expect from a chemist, however, Brown makes no promises that his zine will last out the year. He does not offer subscriptions, nor does he trade-in-kind. So send your checks, get your back issues, and lick away, because "I Love Ester" -- like some of the confections produced by his lab -- may be too good to last.