Let’s Drink to Paper!

Every time I travel, I can’t help but notice that the most popular drink on an airplane seems to be the Bloody Mary. It’s not a drink one usually sees people drinking regularly in one’s neighborhood bar (not that I pay an awful lot of attention, or that I live Dylan Thomas’ life), but the vodka, tomato juice, and Tabasco concoction seems to be largely the purview of the air traveler. And there could be a very good reason. I recently came across a study, published in 2015, that found some scientific basis for preferring a Bloody Mary on a plane: it tastes better there than anywhere else.

We all know that our five senses don’t operate independently of each other, and, specifically, how important the sense of smell is to the sense of taste. We know this intimately because food tastes awful, if we can taste it at all, when we have a cold.

Interestingly, the sense of hearing is also involved in taste; sound can affect the taste of food. In study conducted by Cornell University’s Department of Food Science, it was found that when noise levels reach about 85 decibels, such as that found inside an airplane cabin, sensitivity to sweet tastes was diminished, and while saltiness, sourness, and bitterness were generally unchanged, the fifth taste, savory or umami, was enhanced. As a result, at this decibel level, people tended to crave tomato-based products, like a Bloody Mary. It also explains why airline food gets a bad rap as being bland and tasteless; it may actually taste much better on the ground or in a quiet cabin. The dryness of the cabin also desiccates airline food, especially meats, which is why they are inevitably served in sauces and gravies. Then again, I almost always fly Southwest, which doesn’t serve meals, so my memory may be faulty. Anyway, the flavors in things like tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes tend to be enhanced while aloft. Lufthansa once found, in a study of its own, that airline passengers ordered tomato juice as often as beer.

Speaking of airplanes, did you know that the paper airplane was invented about 2,300 years before the airplane itself? Not that anyone called it a “paper airplane,” of course. Until the advent of aviation in the 20th century, it was known as a “paper dart,” and is still occasionally called that. No one is entirely certain when the first paper-based flying objects were invented, although origami and the art of paper folding — using paper for religious and other ceremonial rituals — were among the first uses for paper in ancient China. (Kites, by the way, have been traced back to fifth century B.C.E. China, but they were originally made of silk stretched over a bamboo frame rather than paper.)

As for when paper itself was invented, that’s a bit difficult to pin down. The oldest piece of true paper ever found dates from 252 B.C.E. and was from Lu Lan, China.

You have to admit, as Mark Kurlansky points out in the prologue to an excellent new book called Paper: Paging Through History, paper isn’t the most obvious invention. Even today, creating it is a fairly complicated, counterintuitive process. (Cut down a tree, boil it into muck, filter the muck through a screen, and let it dry? Who does that?) Originally, though, it was the end of a natural progression of using plants as writing materials. After stone and clay, leaves and bark were used by early civilizations as writing surfaces, which were much easier to carry around (provided you removed the leaves or bark from the tree, of course) and the Egyptians took things a bit further with their processing of the papyrus plant into a remarkably paper-like material. So perfect was papyrus as a writing surface at the time that Egypt sold their papyrus to other countries, becoming the first “paper” distributor. Although papyrus plants grew throughout the Middle East, those grown in Egypt were of the best quality, so the Egyptians pretty much cornered the market on the stuff, and it had become the de facto writing material throughout the civilized world. All the books that were being collected by Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt, for the great library at Alexandria, were written on papyrus. (This was Ptolemy I Soter I, c. 367 B.C.E.–283/2 B.C.E., successor of Alexander the Great and founder of the Ptolmaic dynasty, and not to be confused with Claudius Ptolemy, famous for his star charts.)

Interestingly, as Kurlansky relates, Eumenes, who ruled the Greek city of Pergamum, also wanted to build a big library. This did not sit well with Ptolemy, who wanted the only whopping great library in the world, so he refused to sell Eumenes any papyrus. Eumenes, not to be deterred, tried to find an alternative writing material. It took more than a century, but the Pergamumians (Pergamese?) figured a way to make a good quality writing material out of animal hides. This material was named for the city, pergamum, which over the centuries evolved into the English word parchment.

Over the years, various materials have been used as, or even specifically called, “paper,” but to be considered proper paper, the substance needs to composed of a network of cellulose fibers — that is, derived from plant matter. Although various civilizations used the occasional plants and grasses for papermaking, for centuries — until the 19th century — papermakers obtained cellulose fibers secondhand from discarded clothing and other textiles like flax and cotton derived originally from plant matter. Papermaking used to be a smelly, disgusting business, as this was long before people were as fastidious about (or even cognizant of) personal hygiene as we (hopefully) are today, so sorting through discarded underwear as a prelude to pulping was not one of society’s glamour professions, and was also a good way to catch all manner of diseases, such as the Plague.

The basic building block of paper — cellulose — itself wasn’t discovered until 1838, when French chemist Anselme Payen (1795–1878) first isolated and named the substance. Payen also co-discovered the first enzyme, diastase, which he named after the Greek word διάστασις (diastasis, meaning “parting, separation”). Payen and his colleague Jean-François Persoz heated a beer mash (a mixture of barley and water), and found that it was the presence of diastase that converted the starch in the barley seed into soluble sugars. Payen and Persoz also began the convention of naming enzymes such that they ended with -ase, which continues today.

Papermaking had been witness to a few technological innovations over the course of its development (the transition to wood-based paper is the subject of a separate essay). One particular technology that caused no small amount of friction was the introduction of the Hollander beater, developed by the Dutch in the mid-1600s. The Hollander beater was, essentially, a more efficient way to chop up rags into paper pulp. (It was the advent of the Hollander beater that made Holland a major player in the international paper market in the latter half of the 17th century.) It was faster, and as a result produced cheaper paper — cheaper in price, not necessarily in quality, despite the early insistence by some that it produced inferior paper. It spread throughout Europe, especially when paper mill owners realized that, by some estimates, using the Hollander beater could cut paper manufacturing costs by as much as 75 percent (Roseband, 2000).

As you would imagine, not everyone was happy about this new technological innovation, and when one French paper company installed it, it became the site of a famous labor contretemps. The company owned several paper mills in Vidalon-le-Haut in the Rhône valley south of Lyon, and employed about 150 people, 50 of them children (this was before child labor laws; c’est dommage). A key employee at the time was called a “vatman,” who was basically the craftsperson who dipped the wire mesh into the slurry of pulp. (I could make a__ Vatman and Robin__ joke here, but I won’t.) The creation of the pulp itself was also the purview of the vatmen, and they were highly skilled and in-demand employees. Vatmen’s best practices were referred to as les modes, and any mill that eschewed__ les modes__ could find itself, shall we say, beaten to pulp by the labor market. Enter the Hollander beater, and a confrontation with the vatmen was inevitable. In 1781, there was a lockout, and mill management sought to​ recruit younger workers not as entrenched in les modes. It became a pivotal moment in labor relations in the paper industry.

These mills, by the way, were owned by a papermaking family named Montgolfier. Pierre Montgolfier (1700–1793) and his wife, Anne Duret (1701–1760) had 16 children (yikes), and while son Raymond was groomed to take over the family business, two of the brothers — Joseph-Michel (1740–1810) and Jacques-Étienne (1745–1799) — had other ideas. As legend has it, Joseph happened to be watching laundry drying (and why not? It’s still better than reality TV). He noticed that the laundry, suspended above a fire, tended to billow upward. This was before the understanding about how hot air is less dense than cool air and thus rises, so Joseph believed that smoke contained a special gas, which he called Montgolfier Gas, with a property he called — no kidding — “levity.” The lightbulb (or candle, perhaps, as the lightbulb had yet to be invented) went off over his head and he and his brother went about designing and building what would become the first hot-air balloon. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers became the first humans to slip the surly bonds of Earth and fly in a lighter-than-air craft.

And, to bring things full circle, the first-ever in-flight beverage — not a Bloody Mary — was provided by Benjamin Franklin, who opened a bottle of champagne that was carried aloft on that first balloon flight. I bet it tasted great.


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