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I Can’t Believe It’s MSG, 2017
Multiple (Plastic bag, inkjet print, cardstock and pure monosodium glutamate)
2 x 4” each
Edition of 100
Part of the Accent Series

[The] Chinese restaurant syndrome was, at its core, a product of a racialised discourse that framed much of the scientific, medical and popular discussion surrounding the condition. This particular debate brought to the surface a number of widely held assumptions about the strangely ‘exotic’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘excessive’ practices associated with Chinese cooking which, ultimately, meant that few of those studying the Chinese restaurant syndrome would question the ethnic origins of the condition.

– Ian Mosby, That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,
MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980 Social History of Medicine Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 133–151

In 1968, the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter to the editor from one reader describing radiating pain in his arms, weakness and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He mused that a combination of cooking wine, MSG or excessive salt might have spurred these reactions. Reader responses poured in with similar complaints, and scientists jumped to research the phenomenon, centring on the glutamic salt, MSG. Not long after, the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was born.

When first introduced, MSG was not the antagonized evil that it is often know as today. From the 1930s to late 1960s, MSG was commonly used in North America, often marketed under the brand “Accent” and advised to be used as another seasoning in addition to salt and pepper. As more paranoia came to surround MSG, Western attitudes shifted, assigning the negative connotations of MSG solely on Chinese cuisine. To this day, it is frequently only Chinese and East-Asian restaurants that are forced to attest that they do not use the seasoning in their establishment to assure customers that their business is safe.

Visceral and often communal, food is one of the most accessible ways to engage with a culture. Through its consumption, creation and interpretation, food possesses the unique capability to extend beyond its corporeal restrictions to reflect individual and shared stories, and historical and political climates. Combining a history of product marketing alongside archival materials, Accent presents a case study of the nuanced and racialized undertones within the everyday.

I Can’t Believe It’s MSG presents an artist’s multiple in the form of a small bag of MSG. Stylistically similar to bags used for distributing drugs, I Can’t Believe It’s MSG addresses the contraband nature of the enhancer, combining humour with the visual language of advertising.

I Can’t Believe It’s MSG is available for purchase at Art Metropole

Installation photos by Morris Lum.