On last Saturday, Maria and I were privileged to attend a Celebration of Life for Tom Abraham. It was good to see Laura and her grown-up sons again, to meet their wives and children. We got to sit with Tom’s sister, her son and his family. I was pleased to meet an old General Foods colleague. I also met a gentleman who had benefitted from Tom’s tireless volunteer work as a scoutmaster in the ’70s and ’80s.
Coming away from Cobourg, we were confirmed in our belief that a person’s life influences and touches far more people than one might expect at first glance. Certainly, my life was not touched by Tom in the intimate and personal way his family’s was. Nor was I a boy scout inspired to live as a better person. At the same time, I cannot deny that Tom had a real influence on me as a young and impressionable food technologist. I’d like to outline three life lessons from him I got in my early 20s. I’ll try to quote him as directly as I can. Tom was a plain-spoken guy so you might hear a bit of him in these quotes.
Lesson #1 – If you ever want to amount to anything around here, you are going to have to learn to taste the right way.
By this, Tom meant learning to taste in a systematic manner using the General Foods Flavor Profile method. All new GF hirees were offered some basic Flavor Profile methodology.
Tom early on recognized my interest in the Flavor Profile and my performance in taste tests convinced him I had the talent, so he went further and asked me to join the Taste Panel in the lab.
I also received training in Texture Profiling as well. These tasting methods served me admirably throughout my 35-year career as a food technologist – so very few colleagues in other companies had the chance to do it as seriously or systematically as I did. I gave Tom the credit for teaching me to taste – both to his face and behind his back – over the many years I worked in the industry. He deserved it. I won’t forget it.
Lesson #2 – Being on the Taste Panel isn’t all fun and games – sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it.
One of the first things did as part of my training was work with Tom to evaluate a bunch of oleoresin spices. We had to taste a number of beakers full of hot, slimy, salty cooked cornstarch dosed with sage, rosemary, thyme, black pepper and cayenne.
Later on, we learned how to taste for “off flavor” – oxidation, fermentation, rancidity. I discovered I had outstanding sensitivity to detect rancid fats. For the rest of my career, if any of my colleagues suspected their product was getting rancid, they would call me in to verify. I have been under the table a number of times if the rancidity was really bad.
Another time Tom asked me to help him evaluate a number of powdered meat flavors. We tasted these in instant potato base. This particular batch of samples was really horrible. When the salesperson called to ask how we liked then, Tom told him in no uncertain terms they were the worst we had ever tasted. “Well,” said the salesperson “they were specially formulated for dog food.” (Gag me.) This sales guy was not on Tom’s Christmas card list that year.
And so we come to Lesson #3. This was the one lesson that went outside the lab, and I think Tom had learned it from Laura through personal experience.
Lesson #3 – When you leave the lab, leave your Panel Training at the door. You don’t want to go home and do a Flavor Profile on whatever you are having for dinner.
This one doesn’t need much further commentary – except it has saved me a lot of static over the years. I try to honor it unless I run into stale coffee or oxidized soda crackers.
So there you have it. Three life lessons learned. A mentor and teacher reaches out and touches the working life of a young and green food scientist. This scientist remembers, and will always be grateful.