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An uncategorized podcast featuring Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley
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The Good, The Bad, The Cilantro
On the surface, it’s just a leafy green herb. Its feathery fronds add a decorative note and a distinctive flavor to dishes across Latin America and Asia, from guacamole to phở. And yet cilantro is the most divisive herb in the kitchen, inspiring both deep dislike and equally deep devotion. What’s the history and science behind these strong reactions—and can cilantro disgust ever be overcome? Some people (like Gastropod co-host Cynthia Graber) absolutely detest cilantro. From their very first taste of the humble herb, they find themselves repelled by what many consider a soapy, metallic, deeply off-putting flavor. These people are not shy about sharing their feelings: there are “I Hate Cilantro” websites, Facebook groups, and blogs. Somehow, cilantro inspires a degree of vociferous loathing that is unlike any other food. And yet there are others (like co-host Nicola Twilley) who adore the herb. It adds what they consider a delightful green, herbal complexity to cuisines from Mexican to Thai to Indian. Billions of people around the world enjoy cilantro daily, and consider their guacamole, noodles, and soups nearly naked without it. What is it that makes this herb a culinary essential for some and a culinary nemesis for others? In this episode of Gastropod, we speak with botanist Michael Balick to learn about the long culinary and medicinal history of the herb, whose recorded use dates back to the Babylonians. With scientist Charles Wysocki, we investigate the popular belief that cilantro hatred has a genetic basis by visiting the annual twin meet-up in Twinsburg, Ohio. And food scientist and author Harold McGee joins Gastropod to coach Cynthia through his recommended cilantro desensitization technique, by adding cilantro pesto to her daily diet. This episode is introduced by best-selling author and marketing guru Seth Godin, a cilantro hater who suggested Cynthia become a guinea pig for cilantro conversion therapy, in his stead. But will Cynthia be able to choke down a daily dose of the green stuff? Will she end up tolerating—even perhaps liking—the herb by the end of the week? Whether you’re a lover or a hater, listen in to find out the answer—and the history and science behind it. Episode Notes Seth Godin Seth Godin is the cilantro hater who asked Gastropod to investigate the science and history behind this divisive herb. He’s also the author of 18 bestselling books on marketing, leadership, and the way ideas spread: the most recent is titled What To Do When It’s Your Turn. He writes one of the most popular blogs in the world. Michael Balick Michael Balick is vice president for Botanical Science at the New York Botanical Garden, and author of Rodale’s Twenty-first Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants. Harold McGee and the Cilantro Desensitization Pesto Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, most famously in his book On Food and Cooking. His 2010 New York Times article titled “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault” suggested making this Portuguese-inspired pesto as the first step in cilantro conversion therapy. Washington Post, 1994 In her senior year of college, Cynthia and her roommate Melissa Strecker gleefully brandished this Washington Post article, “Has a Nation Taken Leaf of Its Senses?” to demonstrate they were not alone in their cilantro dislike. This was the first instance Cynthia had seen of a public display of cilantro loathing, one to which she felt an immediate kinship. An anti-cilantro community. Charles Wysocki Charles Wysocki is an emeritus member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center whose research explores individual variation in smell perception as well as human pheromones. His 2012 paper, “Genetic Analysis of Chemosensory Traits in Human Twins,” identified the genetic associations common to cilantro haters. Twins Festival The world’s largest gathering of twins takes place each year in Twinsburg, Ohio. This episode was sponsored by Squarespace: sign up using the offer code “gastropod” to get 10 percent off your first purchase while showing your support for the show. The post The Good, The Bad, The Cilantro appeared first on Gastropod.
Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar
It’s found in almost every home, whether it’s destined to dress salads or clean surfaces and kill fruit flies. But, effective as it is at those tasks, most of us struggle to get excited about vinegar. Today, however, a handful of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are trying to launch a vinegar renaissance—one in which we appreciate vinegar (nearly) as much as the alcohol from which it’s made. This episode, we visit vinegar attics in Italy, conduct an epic tasting in a backyard vinegar shed in west London, and chat with our in-house microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, in order to explore vinegar’s long, frequently accidental history, its rumored health benefits, and its culinary potential. Plus: is the balsamic vinegar on your shelf the real thing? Listen now for all this and more! The clue to vinegar’s origins lies in its name: vin aigre, or sour wine in French. Michael Harlan Turkell, author of a new cookbook, Acid Trip, dedicated to vinegar’s overlooked charms, told us that the first vinegars were likely made by accident in ancient Mesopotamia, along the banks of the Euphrates, when acetic bacteria in the environment fell into a cask of wine and soured it. Undeterred, people drank the vinegar anyway, before eventually discovering its multitude of other uses: as a health tonic (first recorded in ancient Greece), preservative (in ancient Egypt), and, finally, as a dipping sauce (in ancient China). A set of barrels for aging balsamic vinegar in the vinegar attic at the Museo del Balsamico Tradizionale at Spilamberto. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Until the late 1700s, vinegar was made in much the same way, all around the world, from all sorts of different fruits and grains, from pineapple to pomegranate—anything that contained enough sugar to be fermented into alcohol. It was a slow business: the microbes that transform alcohol into vinegar work at their own pace. Andy Harris, a food writer turned vinegar maker, told us that his single-varietal red wine vinegar can take between three and six months to sour, while Emilio Biancardi, whose family has been making vinegar for at least six generations at their estate just outside the Italian city of Modena, explained that it takes at least twelve years to produce the thick, sweet deliciousness that is traditional balsamic vinegar. Nowadays, however, Biancardi and Harris’s approaches are the exceptions: after Louis Pasteur explained the microbial processes at the heart of vinegar-making, a handful of European scientists designed devices to speed things up, turning industrial ethanol into white vinegar in a matter of hours. Inside Andy Harris’s Vinegar Shed. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Today, celebrities from Katy Perry to Ranulph Fiennes claim that a daily dose of vinegar cures almost everything: arthritis, eczema, diabetes, even dandruff. With the help of our favorite microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University, we look at the science behind vinegar’s undisputed antimicrobial properties and its less well-documented super powers, as well as the secret to its varied flavors. And, for those bold enough to embrace the sourness, we explore the heady world of infused and barrel-aged vinegars, from the deep purple of Michael Harlan Turkell’s favorite purple yam vinegar, to the banana notes of Andy Harris’s Riesling vinegar, all the way to the king of vinegars itself: genuine, aged traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. Enjoy! Episode Notes Andy Harris’s Vinegar Shed Andy Harris sells his own London vinegar, aged in his back garden vinegar shed, on his website, alongside all the paraphernalia you need to make your own vinegar, as well as some of his favorite vinegars from other makers. He’s also shared a handful of recipes to inspire you to start using vinegar more creatively, in stews, soups, and sauces. Andy Harris setting up our epic tasting. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Michael Harlan Turkell’s Acid Trip Michael Harlan Turkell‘s new book is called Acid Trip: Travels in the World of Vinegar, with Recipes from the Leading Chefs, Insights from Top Producers, and Step-by-Step Instructions on How to Make Your Own. His favorite vinegar (if forced to choose) is this Benimosu purple sweet potato vinegar. Ben Wolfe and the Wolfe Lab at Tufts Long-time Gastropod listeners will know and love our go-to microbiologist, Ben Wolfe of Tufts University: his research into microbial ecosystems in cheese and kombucha have made him the star of a couple of previous episodes. The Biancardi villa and vineyards. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Emilio Biancardi’s Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca Our morning in the Biancardi family’s vineyards, vinegar attic, and dining table was among the most delicious and delightful of our travels. You can buy their superb traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (D.O.P.) online here—and, if you’re ever in the region, you should visit yourself! (L) Emilio Biancardi and two bottles of his family’s traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena; (R) a lawnbot mowing between the vines at thei Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. Photos by Nicola Twilley. Sets of balsamic vinegar barrels aging in the Biancardi family’s attic. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Cristina Sereni and the Museo del Balsamico Tradizionale Cristina Sereni is a balsamic vinegar maker and a former master taster, and she works at the fascinating Museum of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar in Spilamberto—which is also the headquarters of the consortium that governs and protects the D.O.P. traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. Cristina Sereni at the tasting table at the Museo del Balsamic Tradizionale, where the consortium gathers to taste and score vinegar before it is allowed to be bottled. Photo by Nicola Twilley. The woods permitted for balsamic vinegar aging barrels, on display at the museum. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Cynthia and the Gran Maestro of the Coterie examine the ruby flecks that characterize the color of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Toni Mazzaglia and Taste Florence Toni Mazzaglia is the best. If you’re planning a trip to Italy, you need to take one of her amazing Taste Florence food tours. And, if you’re a journalist looking to report a story in Italy, Toni has seeming magical powers to make things work: you can reach her here. We can’t recommend her highly enough! Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors. The post Sour Grapes: The History and Science of Vinegar appeared first on Gastropod.
Savor Flavor
Why does grape candy taste so fake? What on earth is blue raspberry, anyway? And what is the difference between natural and artificial, at least when it comes to flavor? Join us as we taste the rainbow on this episode of Gastropod, from artificial flavoring’s public debut at the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition, to the vanilla-burping yeasts of the future. We’ll experiment with Skittles, discover how invented flavors first appeared in our daily diets, and visit a synthetic biology lab, all in our quest to understand what artificial flavor is, was, and might be. Along the way, we’ll learn what exactly goes into designing the perfect pineapple from one of America’s top flavorists, investigate beaver butts, and discover the taste of an extinct banana. Listen now! The Great Exhibition of 1851 was housed in Joseph Paxton’s extraordinary Crystal Palaces, and contained “the wonders of industry and manufacturing from around the modern world,” including folding pianos for yachtsmen, a couple of velocipedes (the early version of a bicycle), and, of course, some lozenges flavored with artificial fruit ethers. Throughout human history, if you wanted to make a dish taste like strawberry, you had no choice but to add a strawberry. But in the 19th century, scientists began to understand how to synthesize flavor chemicals, whether from plants or from byproducts of coal processing, to evoke familiar flavors. While the technology to evaluate the flavor molecules of a particular food have become increasingly sophisticated in the past century, the basic concept of synthetic flavor has remained unchanged. Until now. In this episode of Gastropod, molecular biologists explain how they’re designing yeasts to ferment the tastes of the future. Natural vs. Artificial Let’s start with a graham cracker. Just like Sylvester Graham back in 1829, if you’re baking at home, you’d probably use coarse-ground whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, and wheat germ. These, along with some honey for sweetness, would give your graham crackers their distinctive toasty, malty, and slightly nutty flavor. If you’re making them by the billion, however, at a Nabisco or Keebler factory, the ingredients list looks a little different. That extra wheat germ and bran contain natural oils with a tendency to go rancid—but, when you cut them out to gain shelf-life, you lose the flavor. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: you can add all that flavor back with just a touch of a light yellow, crystalline powder called 2-acetylpyrazine. This is an aromatic, carbon-based chemical, known by flavorists as the “graham-cracker” flavor. It occurs naturally in nuts and toasted grains; as the vital ingredient giving factory-made graham crackers their signature flavor, it can either be extracted from a plant or synthesized using petrochemical derivatives. The major difference is that 2-acetylpyrazine produced by performing chemical reactions on plant matter costs about $25 per lb—compared to the $5 or $6 per lb it costs to produce the kind whose raw ingredients come in a drum. However, using the cheap version comes with another, increasingly significant cost: it means you have to include the words “artificial flavor” on your graham cracker ingredients list. Under FDA rules, if the raw material to make your flavor chemical comes from a plant, animal, or edible yeast, it’s “natural,” for the purposes of labeling. If it comes from anything else, it’s artificial. And consumers increasingly don’t want to buy things that are “artificial.” In fact, Michelle Hagen, a senior flavorist at Givaudan, the world’s largest fragrance and flavor company, told Gastropod that, despite the cost savings, she hasn’t used a single artificial chemical in her flavorings for the past four years—because the companies she mostly works with know that customers are turned off when they see that word on a label. Enter the (Genetically Engineered) Yeast Until recently, the natural flavors that Hagen uses would, for the most part, have been extracted from a plant; a handful of rarer ingredients, more often used in perfumery, would have come from animal sources. Today, advances in genetic engineering, combined with the growing consumer demand for natural flavors, are creating an intriguing new option for the world’s flavorists. In the past, the mention of “edible yeast” in the FDA definition of natural flavors typically referred to savory yeast extracts; now, designer yeasts are beginning to pump out vanilla, saffron, and even grapefruit flavors. For this episode, Gastropod visited Ginkgo BioWorks, one of a new wave of companies redesigning yeasts to produce fragrance and flavor chemicals. As Christina Agapakis, a scientist, writer, and artist who recently joined Ginkgo’s staff, explained, the biology behind genetically modifying microbes to produce other, useful chemicals is not new. More than three decades ago, in 1978, biotech companies successfully inserted genes into bacteria to produce human insulin, meaning that diabetics need no longer depend on a close-enough version extracted from pig pancreases. In 1990, the FDA approved rennet made by inserting cow genes into E. coli bacteria; today, more than 90 percent of all cheese in the U.S. and U.K. is made using this bio-engineered product, rather than natural rennet found in the stomach linings of calves. What is new, Agapakis told Gastropod, is “the ability to create flavors.” Rather than inserting the single gene that codes for the insulin protein, she explained, “to make a flavor, you might need five or ten different enzymes that are creating a whole pathway and are really shifting the metabolism of the yeast.” Fitting all those genes together so that what works in a plant to produce flavor also works in a yeast cell is challenging. Ginkgo has been developing its first yeast-fermented ingredient—a rose oil for the fragrance industry—for a couple of years now. In fact, as organism designer Patrick Boyle explained, the main reason that the Ginkgo “foundry” is filled with liquid-handling robots and high-tech machines is to help him and his colleagues rapidly run through all the tweaked yeasts that don’t work. “Failure is usually not very dramatic,” he told Gastropod. “It’s just that we end up with a yeast that looks a lot like the yeast we started with.” Still, a Swiss company called Evolva has recently brought the first of these “cultured flavors” to market: vanillin, the main ingredient in the world’s most popular flavor. Ginkgo’s rose oil smells pretty sweet, and the Boston-based company has half a dozen more flavor ingredients in the pipeline. And scientists in Austria just announced that they have successfully tweaked yeast to produce the key flavor chemical in grapefruit. Photo courtesy Ginkgo BioWorks. The Future of Flavor Redesigning yeast to create flavor molecules offers some potential benefits. For starters, fermentation requires none of the harsh chemicals that are often used to extract essential oils from plants or react with petrochemical precursors. Engineered yeast also offers the possibility of democratizing rare, expensive flavors, like saffron, and, Patrick Boyle points out, it can “relieve some of the supply issues that come from using really rare plants.” But the main attraction of this new technology for food companies is that the resulting flavors can legally be labelled as “natural”—they are produced by a yeast, after all. What’s more, because there is no yeast left in the final product, cultured flavors actually don’t contain genetically modified organisms. Still, companies are nervous—Michelle Hagen at Givaudan told Gastropod that she hadn’t worked with any of these cultured flavors yet, and both Nestlé and General Mills responded to pressure from Friends of the Earth by pledging not to use cultured vanillin. In a press release, Friends of the Earth argued that using yeast to produce vanillin would threaten the livelihood of vanilla bean farmers in Madagascar, as well as the continued existence of the rainforest in which the vanilla orchid grows. But, as Patrick Boyle pointed out, the world demand for vanillin far outstrips the quantity of vanilla beans grown each year, and the synthetic and real vanilla industries have already managed to co-exist for more than a century. Debates over natural vs. artificial aside, perhaps the most interesting aspect of these designer yeasts is the potential they offer for creating entirely new flavor experiences. For Christina Agapakis, the opportunity to learn more about the genes and pathways that plants use to express flavor will, she hopes, lead to productive collaborations with fruit and vegetable breeders—and increased deliciousness in the field as well as in the lab. Listen to this episode to understand how the flavor industry got started and how designer yeasts could one day allow us to get closer to the taste of extinct, long-forgotten species—or even a Paleo flavor palette of pre-domestication plants and animals. EPISODE NOTES Retronasal Olfaction Flavor perception is largely based on a kind of smell that happens in the mouth: retronasal olfaction. This diagram shows that mysterious passage connecting the back of the mouth directly to the nose. A Rather Embarrassing Wine Study In a study published in 2001, Frédéric Brochet, a PhD student at the University of Bordeaux, France, ruffled feathers in the wine world by giving 54 oenology students two glasses of the same white wine, one of which had been dyed red. The students described the red-colored wine as if it was a red wine—demonstrating that our eyes play a much more important role in our flavor perception than most people had imagined. Brochet has apparently since gone on to become a wine-maker. Nadia Berenstein Nadia Berenstein, the flavor historian we spoke to in this episode, maintains a blog called Flavor Added that is one of Nicky’s favorite spots on the Internet. Go get lost in the archives, reading all about mystery flavor Dum-Dum lollipops, an edible meat packaging from the 30s known as Gelafinish, and the Crocker-Henderson system for classifying odors. Artificial Flavors at the Crystal Palace This short description, published in The New York Times on Friday, July 22, 1853, notes that Artificial Essences were on display at the Crystal Palace exhibition in the American section of the Chemical Department—alongside “fine mineral colors, pure spirits and medicinal articles.” Kletzinksi’s Table of Artificial Fruit Essences According to Nadia Berenstein, this table, published in 1866 in Dingler’s Polytechnisches Journal, was used as a standard formulary for artificial fruit essences in America for more than fifty years. The Concord Grape Strikes Back As Nadia Berenstein explains in the episode, fake grape flavor (a chemical called methyl anthranilate) actually tastes much more like native American grapes, rather than the seedless Californian or Chilean grapes we buy at the supermarket today. The Concord grape also provided the basis for the most American of Jewish traditions: Manischewitz wine. Read about the history of the Concord grape and its link to Passover in this great article by Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic. Michelle Hagen and the Tastemakers In 2009, Raffi Katchadourian wrote a wonderful New Yorker article about flavorists and flavoring, featuring none other than future Gastropod star Michelle Hagen. We owe a huge thanks to Jeff Peppet at Givaudan for helping set up our conversation. Christina Agapakis As we mention in the episode, Christina Agapakis recently launched a new online magazine about doing science, called Method. When you’ve finished reading that, check out her Oscillator blog, the cheeses she made with bacteria from people’s bellybuttons, armpits, and in between their toes, and pretty much everything else she’s ever done: it’s all fascinating! Ginkgo BioWorks For this episode, Patrick Boyle was kind enough to give Nicky a tour of Ginkgo BioWork‘s “foundry,” so she could see the processes of organism design and flavor fermentation in action. That kind of transparency in the food world, and particularly in the traditionally rather secretive biotech and flavor industries, is truly admirable. The company also has all sorts of other interesting projects in the works, including developing a line of advanced probiotics in collaboration with DARPA. Photo courtesy Ginkgo BioWorks. Mixed Taste at MCA Denver Thanks to Adam Lerner and Sarah Baie of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, at whose wonderful Mixed Taste lecture series Nicky attempted to explain, in public, what artificial flavor is and why it’s so interesting. Twice. Hopefully the third time’s the charm… Like what you hear? Click here to donate and support our work! The post Savor Flavor appeared first on Gastropod.
It’s Tea Time: Pirates, Polyphenols, and a Proper Cuppa
This week, Gastropod tells the story of two countries and their shared obsession with a plant: Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea bush. The Chinese domesticated tea over thousands of years, but they lost their near monopoly on international trade when a Scottish botanist, disguised as a Chinese nobleman, smuggled it out of China in the 1800s, in order to secure Britain’s favorite beverage and prop up its empire for another century. The story involves pirates, ponytails, and hard drugs—and, to help tell the tale, Cynthia and Nicky visit Britain’s one and only commercial tea plantation, tucked away in a secret garden on an aristocratic estate on the Cornish coast. While harvesting and processing tea leaves, we learn the difference between green and black tea, as well as which is better for your health. Put the kettle on, and settle in for the science and history of tea! It seemed so simple in the mid-1700s: China had tea, Britain wanted tea. First introduced by Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza in 1662, tea soon overtook beer as Britain’s favorite brew. The only problem, according to Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, was that the Chinese weren’t purchasing any British goods in return. Britain was simply dumping its silver into China, creating a serious balance of payments problem. Britain’s solution? Trade drugs for drugs—specifically, the caffeine fix in tea for the poppies that grow abundantly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which at the time was part of the British empire. “They just start dumping opium into China,” explained Rose. But drug-dealing proved to be an expensive headache, and so, in 1848, Britain embarked on the biggest botanical heist in history, as well as one of the biggest thefts of intellectual property to date: stealing Chinese tea plants, as well as Chinese tea-processing expertise, in order to create a tea industry in India. Tregothnan tea bushes and our freshly harvested tea leaves. Today, the 700-year-old family estate of Tregothnan, Cornwall, is actually selling tea back to China. And after Cynthia and Nicky pluck, process, and slurp the estate’s delicious teas, we talk to scientist Jeffrey Blumberg at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy to get to the bottom of the hype surrounding tea’s health benefits. Listen in now for a swashbuckling tale of pirates and polyphenols! Episode Notes For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History We recommend reading Sarah Rose‘s excellent book for the full story of Robert Fortune’s exploits in China—it’s a fabulous tale! And keep an eye out for her next book, all about the history of the women recruited to Churchill’s secret spy agency in World War II. It won’t hit the shelves for a while yet, but it sounds fantastic. Tregothnan Teas Tregothnan is a 700-year-old aristocratic estate, the home of the Earls of Falmouth, near Truro in Cornwall. It boasts Cornwall’s largest historic botanic garden, filled with treasures such as the “dinosaur tree” Wollemi pine, endangered Kea plums that only grow in a single valley, and the world’s largest camellia bush maze. But, for our purposes, its main claim to fame is that it “puts the English into English tea for the first time in history,” ever since it started selling England’s first and only domestically grown tea in 2005. You can order their single-estate loose-leaf tea, with its “muscatel notes and Magnolia florals,” as well as freshly harvested, unprocessed tea leaves and their range of delicious custom blends, online. Hunting bothy, bowling green, and banana plants at Tregothnan. Bella Percy-Hughes and Cynthia looked at a plucked tea bud and leaves at Tregothnan. Jeffrey Blumberg Jeffrey Blumberg is professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, as well as senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.  His research is focused on the biochemical basis for the role of antioxidant nutrients in promoting health and preventing disease.  As part of his work, he chaired the most recent International Scientific Symposium on Tea and Human Health. Cornwall or Darjeeling? The Himalayan Valley at Tregothnan. Nicky disappearing into the camellia maze; Cynthia following Bella into the secret garden. The post It’s Tea Time: Pirates, Polyphenols, and a Proper Cuppa appeared first on Gastropod.
Peanuts: Peril and Promise
Despite their diminutive scale, peanuts play an outsized role in American culture. Peanut butter has long been a mainstay of the American lunchbox, with its sticky, slightly sweet nuttiness flavoring the memories of generation after generation of kids. And it’s hard to imagine ballgames without, as the song goes, peanuts and Cracker Jacks (which, of course, also contain peanuts). But today, peanuts are the source of both hope and fear: while there’s been a surprisingly steep rise of peanut allergies in recent decades that can—though rarely—lead to death, peanut butter is also the basis of a medical therapy used to save the lives of millions of children around the world. This episode, we discover how the humble peanut got to be such a big deal. Though we call it a nut, the peanut is actually a legume, more closely related to soybeans and lentils than almonds and walnuts. It’s also a botanical anomaly: the plant produces a beautiful yellow orchid-like flower, but then pushes out a peg that grows downward into the ground underneath, where it forms into a peanut. This flower-above-ground-then-burrow-underground-to-fruit trick is replicated by only one other plant in the world, the bambara groundnut, native to West Africa. When the Conquistadors first encountered natives eating peanuts in the Caribbean, they likened its taste to that of a hazelnut and quickly incorporated it into their own diet and cuisine. Because of the peanut’s appetite-satisfying crunch and long shelf-life, the nut traveled with sailors around the world to Africa and Asia, where peanuts and peanut oil quickly became staples. Then peanuts crossed the ocean from Africa back to North America, where they found an entirely new level of stardom after meeting a mechanical grinder and their life partner, jelly. Curiously, Senegal-based journalist Jori Lewis, who’s writing a book on peanuts and the slave trade, told us that despite the fact that peanuts were eaten in Mexico, there’s no evidence that the legume crossed the Rio Grande until slave ships carried peanuts back to the U.S. Peanuts gradually became hugely important to Southern agriculture, according to Jon Krampner, author of Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food. In this episode of Gastropod, he helps us untangle the sticky origin story of peanut butter, which pits health-nut and cereal-maker John Harvey Kellogg against snack-food-manufacturer George Bayle, both of whom are credited with inventing the spread. Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, discusses the dramatic rise in peanut allergies, as well as the hypotheses behind the why the peanut has become poison to so many. And Martin Bloem, senior nutrition advisor at the World Food Programme, explains how Plumpy’Nut, a peanut-butter-based squeezable fortified paste, has helped save the lives of malnourished, starving children around the world. Love peanut butter (like most Americans) or find its mouth-gluing stickiness off-putting (like much of the rest of the world)? Either way, listen in for the fascinating story behind peanut power—and our guide to tracking down rare peanut varieties. Episode Notes Jon Krampner, Creamy & Crunchy Author and journalist Jon Krampner is the author of Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, which contains, alongside the story behind America’s favorite sandwich spread, an extensive peanut discography and enough peanut butter recipes to satisfy even the most hardened addict. Jori Lewis Journalist Jori Lewis reports on the environment and agriculture around the world. She’s currently based in Senegal, where she’s reporting a book about peanuts and the slave trade. You can find more of her work online here. Matthew Smith, Another Person’s Poison Historian Matthew Smith is based at the University of Strathclyde. His research focuses on the history of health and medicine, and he’s previously published on the relationship between food additives and hyperactivity. His most recent book, Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy, explores the varying ways in which society and medical experts have responded to food allergies over time. Martin Bloem & Plumpy’Nut Martin Bloem is senior nutrition advisor at the World Food Programme (WFP), as well as the global coordinator at UNAIDS for the WFP. He spoke to us about Plumpy’Nut, the peanut-butter-based squeezable fortified paste that he has used to help save countless lives all around the world. For more background on its origins and the controversy surrounding Nutriset’s patent, this New York Times Magazine feature and BBC article are helpful, and more information about the Clinton Foundation’s work to support local production of fortified peanut paste can be found at their website. Peanut Butter Tasting Notes Nicky and Cynthia, and our partners Geoff and Tim, sampled the following peanut butters in order to taste the different flavors of different peanut varietals: Virginia peanuts: Koeze Cream-Nut Crunchy Peanut Butter (Nicky and Geoff’s favorite) Spanish peanuts: Krema Natural Creamy Peanut Butter Valencia peanuts: Trader Joe’s Organic Creamy Salted Peanut Butter (Cynthia and Tim’s favorite) Runner peanuts: Nicky & Geoff tried Skippy Natural, Cynthia and Tim sampled their house peanut butter, Teddie, but, as nearly all national brand peanut butters are made with runners, you can use whatever you have! Let us know your favorite in the comments! Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors. The post Peanuts: Peril and Promise appeared first on Gastropod.
Fake Food
Hamburgers that turn out to be horse, not beef. Honey sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Old, grey olives dipped in copper sulfate solution to make them look fresh and green. Fraudulent foods such as these make up as much as five to ten percent of the offerings on supermarket shelves, according to experts—but which food is most likely to be faked, and what does that tell us about our food system? Join us this episode as we put on our detective hats to investigate food fraud’s long history and the cutting-edge science behind food forensics today—as well as what you can do to make sure what’s on your plate is what you think it is. In 2013, Britain was rocked by a scandal. Horsegate, as it came to be known, broke when horse meat was initially discovered in a brand of cheap supermarket burgers. Over the following weeks, horse DNA was found in all kinds of prepared foods that were never supposed to contain horse: frozen lasagna, jars of bolognese sauce, ready-to-eat chile con carne. In response, the U.K. set up a new national food crime unit. According to Andy Morling, its new head, this is the first of its kind in the world, a police unit devoted solely to fighting food fraud. Though the British public was shocked by the scope of the scandal, Britain has long been a leader in fake food, according to food historian Bee Wilson. In her book, Swindled, she documents how the country’s Industrial Revolution opened the door to food crime on a much more systemic scale. From carefully crafted fake peppercorns made from linseed oil and dust in the 18th century, to pricey Manuka honey stretched with cheap corn syrup today, in this episode, Morling and Wilson reveal the dark arts of food fraudsters past and present, as well as the harm their deceptions have caused. Meanwhile, Nicola Temple, author of Sorting the Beef from the Bull, joins us to discuss how modern forensic tests have evolved to detect even the most sophisticated food fakes—but also why we can’t rely on science to save us. And John Spink, founding director of the pioneering Food Fraud Initiative at Michigan State University, shares his insights into how both companies and individual eaters can avoid being the victim of food crime. Listen in now for horrifying tales of melamine-laced baby food and copper-painted tea leaves, but also for the surprisingly appetizing ways in which eaters can defend themselves against scams. Episode Notes Andy Morling and the National Food Crime Unit The UK’s National Food Crime Unit was founded in 2014, in response to horsegate. Andy Morling joined the unit as its first head in 2015, after a distinguished career in law enforcement, during which he specialized in covert surveillance and fighting online child sex abuse. Keep your eye on his Twitter feed, as the unit will be bringing its earliest cases to trial in the coming months. Bee Wilson’s Swindled Bee Wilson has been a firm favorite here at Gastropod ever since she appeared in our very first episode, The Golden Spoon. You can also catch her in our episode on learning to eat, First Foods, and we refer to her work in our honey episode, too. We highly recommend her fantastic book on this episode’s topic: Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Nicola Temple’s Sorting the Beef from the Bull Biologist turned science writer Nicola Temple is co-author, with biogeochemist Richard Evershed, of Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics. It’s worth a read for its astonishing step-by-step manual to assembling a fake egg alone. John Spink, MSU Food Fraud Initiative John Spink founded Michigan State University’s Food Fraud Initiative in 2009. His 2011 paper, “Defining the Public Health Threat of Food Fraud,” serves as a working definition of food fraud, but also highlights his own focus on prevention as opposed to intervention. Spink also joined Gastropod on stage at our April 2017 Live Show at Michigan State University Science Festival.   The post Fake Food appeared first on Gastropod.
Why These Animals?
In the West, when it comes to which meat is for dinner, we nearly always choose beef, pork, or chicken. Yet cows and pigs are only two of more than five thousand of species of mammals, and chicken is one of ten thousand species of birds. Meanwhile, at different times in history and in different places around the world, people have enjoyed dining on all sorts of animals, from elephants to flamingos to jellyfish. So how do individuals and cultures decide which animals to eat, and which they don’t? And why is this decision so divisive—why do many Americans look with such horror on those who eat, say, horse or dog? Listen in this episode for a healthy serving of myth-busting—about domestication, disgust, and deliciousness—as we explore this thorny question. Growing up in the U.S., Soleil Ho, journalist and host of two podcasts, Racist Sandwich and Popaganda, was asked repeatedly whether she ate dog. “I didn’t understand why people thought this,” she told Gastropod, “because we never even talked about eating dog at home.” But as Ho grew up, she came to realize question wasn’t born out of curiosity about her Vietnamese family’s dining practices, but rather on “ancient prejudices that the West has had against the East.” The question’s subtext, Ho told us, is “‘Why would they do that? That’s insane!'” But is it? While Ho reflected on the racism and xenophobia behind the question “Do You Eat Dog?” in a recent story for Taste, we at Gastropod decided to add to her research by tackling the broader question: How do humans choose which animals to eat? And why does the idea of eating other animals typically fill us with revulsion? To answer this, we assembled a group of experts to explore a series of hypotheses. For example, it seems logical that we eat so much chicken today because our ancestors domesticated it—and that happened because chickens were particularly amenable to domestication and our ancestors found them particularly attractive as food. Not so fast, say Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter archaeologist, and Greger Larson, evolutionary genomicist at Oxford University. Their research shows that the process of domestication doesn’t play out that way at all. The chicken’s jungle fowl ancestors seem to have been first adored for both cockfighting and for the animal’s supposed connection to the divine, Sykes explained. Imagining that our ancestors looked at these stringy birds and saw nuggets is, Larson tells us, “a presentist fallacy.” Another approach is to flip the question: why don’t we eat all the animals? Hal Herzog, psychologist and author of the book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, and Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and expert in disgust, talk us through the varying reasons—logical or (more often) not— that explain why different cultures see insects as disgusting or dinner, and dogs as pets or meat. With Harriet Ritvo, historian at MIT, we explore brave attempts to change these cultural norms, including the “acclimatization movement” of the Victorian period, when well-meaning elites attempted to expand the range of protein available for a growing population by adding various exotic animals to their diets—almost always without success. (The most famous such attempt in the U.S. occurred when an entrepreneur and a politician teamed up to—unsuccessfully— turn Louisiana swamps into hippopotamus ranches.) So, when did those semi-divine jungle fowl become food? Why do French people eat horse, while the idea makes many of their fellow Europeans gag? And how did dog meat go from something everybody ate, according to the archaeological evidence, to the bone of contention between East and West it still is today? Listen in now to find out! Episode Notes Soleil Ho Soleil Ho is a journalist and host of the podcasts Racist Sandwich and Popaganda. Her article for Taste, “Do You Eat Dog?”, provides context for that question and why the sentiment behind it has always been anti-Eastern and anti-immigrant. Hal Herzog Hal Herzog is a psychology professor at West Carolina University who’s spent decades researching anthrozoology, the science of human-animal relations. He’s author of the book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Paul Rozin Paul Rozin is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a world-recognized expert in disgust. His 1987 paper, “A Perspective on Disgust,” published by the American Psychological Association, provides a fascinating introduction to the topic. Greger Larson and Naomi Sykes Greger Larson is director of the paleogenomics and bio-archaeology research network at the University of Oxford, and Naomi Sykes is a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter. As discussed in the episode, they’ve teased out the history of the domestication of and human interactions with chickens, as in this description of their findings published by the University of Oxford. Another recent paper they co-authored is titled “Rabbits and the Specious Origins of Domestication,” which uses a variety of methods to debunk previous theories of rabbit domestication. This is part of their Easter E.g. project, exploring the traditions and animals associated with the holiday. Harriet Ritvo Harriet Ritvo is a professor of history at MIT and an expert in human-animal interactions, particularly during the Victorian age of acclimatization. Among her books are The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, and Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History. Peter Lund Simmonds and The Curiosities of Food Peter Lund Simmonds was a nineteenth-century journalist and author whose works—about themes as diverse as tropical agriculture, Arctic exploration, and waste utilization—are unified by their peculiarly Victorian commitment toward colonial improvement. His fascinating compendium of all the animals eaten by humans, The Curiosities of Food: Or the Dainties and Delicacies of Different Nations Obtained from the Animal Kingdom, is still in print today. American Hippotamus Journalist Jon Mooallem told the story of the doomed attempt to ranch hippo in Louisiana in this long essay for The Atavist. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors The post Why These Animals? appeared first on Gastropod.
Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan
From rainbow-hued enameled stew pots to lightweight nonstick frying pans, the metal and ceramic vessels we use to heat our food are such an everyday aspect of the kitchen that they’re easy to take for granted. But make no mistake: the invention of the pot was, after fire, one of the most important innovations in cooking. You’ll want to hug your favorite skillet after coming along with us on this journey, which ranges from some of the earliest clay pots ever found in what’s now the Sahara Desert, to the British round-bellied cast-iron number that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution, to a legal challenge in Ohio that raised the question of Teflon’s health and environmental impact. Plus, can science help us find the perfect pot or pan? Listen in to find out. In our last episode, we covered one of the most important innovations in human history: cooking food over fire. But, although cooking may have made us human, it is the invention of pots that made us into cooks. As Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork and frequent Gastropod guest, explained: “Pots led to cuisine itself. To me, it’s the great beginning of cookery.” Tens of thousands of years ago, the invention of pots brought with it life-changing benefits: prolonged cooking could slowly break down plants like yams and cassava that would have otherwise been inedible; the process releases more starches from foods and therefore more calories; long boiling kills harmful microbes and thus makes food safer; softened food like grains could be fed to babies, allowing children to be weaned earlier and leading to yet more children and early population growth; and finally, the ability to create dishes that were cooked slowly and indirectly, mingling many different ingredients, made the business of eating a lot more delicious. The power hammer at Blu Skillet (left); Patrick Maher shaping the bowl of the pan by hand (right). Photos by Cynthia Graber. But how did we get from those earliest examples of clay cooking containers to the incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and materials found in kitchen cabinets around the world today—and what stories can those pots and pans tell over the years? In this episode, Gastropod visits Blu Skillet in Seattle, Wash., to watch a carbon steel pan being forged and smithed by hand. Julie Dunne, a.k.a. @thepotlady, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Bristol, describes her discovery of the earliest known pots used to cook vegetables. Metallurgist Richard Williams introduces us to Abraham Darby, whose breakthrough in cast iron pot-making technology funded the R&D that led to the Industrial Revolution. Brown University epidemiologist David Savitz joins us to discuss the question of whether or not the chemicals involved in Teflon pans cause health issues. Finally, food science guru Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, helps us answer a seemingly impossible question: What makes the perfect pan? Listen in now! Patrick Maher shaping the handle for a Blu Skillet pan. Photo by Cynthia Graber. Episode Notes Blu Skillet Finished Blu Skillet pans. Photo by Cynthia Graber. Thanks to Patrick Maher and Caryn Badgett, who welcomed Cynthia into Blu Skillet‘s studio in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood to watch a pan being made. For locals, Blu Skillet hosts studio sales twice a year; otherwise, if you’re in the market for one of their hand-made pans, you’ll have to try your luck in their monthly lottery. They’ve been selling out regularly ever since this piece in Cook’s Illustrated on carbon steel that featured their work. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork Bee Wilson is a food writer and author of Consider the Fork: A History of How we Cook and Eat, among other books. She’s a Gastropod regular, having starred in our very first episode, “The Golden Spoon,” as well as “First Foods: Learning to Eat.” You can find engineer Chuck Lemme’s reflections on the ideal pot in the 1988 Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery. Julie Dunne, @thepotlady Julie Dunne is a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Bristol. Her study on the potsherds found in Libya can be found here, and she’s current working on a multi-year project called Peopling the Green Sahara, which explores the ecological and demographic history of the region. Sara Pennell Historian Sara Pennell is a professor in the department of history, politics, and social sciences at the University of Greenwich, and the author of The Birth of the English Kitchen: 1600–1850. Richard Williams When metallurgist Richard Williams was asked to examine a cast-iron pot in the collection of the collection of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, he uncovered a story that led from kitchen wares to the Industrial Revolution. David Savitz Brown University epidemiologist David Savitz was asked to look into the health impacts of a chemical used in making Teflon called PFOA, as part of the settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by people in Ohio and West Virginia who lived near a DuPont manufacturing factory. The C8 panel he was part of published research on the likely links between PFOA in drinking water and a number of health outcomes. For more detail, here’s a long Mother Jones article on the lawsuit. Dupont and the chemical industry as a whole have since phased out PFOA, though there’s a debate about whether the replacement chemicals are significantly safer. Harold McGee Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, most famously in his book On Food and Cooking. He’s starred on Gastropod before, trying to help Cynthia overcome her dislike of cilantro, as well as explaining the mysteries of caffeine. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors The post Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan appeared first on Gastropod.
Marching on our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troops
For most of us, eggs are perfect packets of portable protein, and pizza is the lazy option for dinner. For the research team at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, pizza and eggs are two of the most nightmarish food-science challenges of the last fifty years—but the struggle to perfect such dishes for the military has shaped civilian meals, too. Join us this episode as we venture into the Willy Wonka-style labs where the U.S. Army is developing the rations of the future, and then take a trip to the supermarket with author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo to see how military R&D has made much of the food on our grocery store shelves longer-lasting, more portable, and convenient—and, yes, more highly processed too. In her book, Combat-Ready Kitchen, Anastacia Marx de Salcedo credits the ancient Egyptians with some of the first real military rations: little cakes made from barley, onions, and some dried, salted fish. For millennia, food on the battlefield remained more or less the same, because preservation methods barely changed. Napoleon’s Europe-conquering ambitions inspired the first big leap forward in rations in thousands of years: canning. But, although it was invented in the early 1800s, canned food remained so expensive and slow to produce that fifty years later, during the American Civil War, cans were still only found in the officers’ rations. In the twentieth century, civilians moved on, embracing refrigerated and frozen food. In the military, however, where packages of food have to last for months—even years—at ambient temperature, the can remained king until 1980. Its replacement was the MRE, a flexible foil pouch filled with pre-cooked, ready-to-eat meals that was the outcome of decades of R&D by the food scientists at the U.S. Army Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. Today, that pouch can be found in pantries across America, holding everything from juice to tuna. But even the pouch couldn’t solve the Army’s egg problem—indeed, the soldiers’ nickname for the veggie omelet in a pouch was the “vomlet.” This episode, we try the military’s next-gen eggs—so cutting-edge they haven’t made it into the ration rotation yet—while we explore the high-tech science required to make lightweight, long-lasting, and at least somewhat tasty food. And we find out why military food matters—both on the battlefield and on the home front. Listen in now for more. Michelle Richardson’s ration-ready pizza. All photos by Nicola Twilley. Episode Notes U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts. The Natick team of scientists, engineers, technologists, and equipment designers are responsible for equipping warfighters with clothing and armor, shelter, and, of course, food! Cynthia and Tom Yang—the next-gen eggs are on the plate in front (L); Tom’s latest creation is the Compressed Salad Bar (R). David Acetta heating his MRE using the flameless ration heater (L); David’s buffalo chicken MRE, before he added the buffalo sauce (R). Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s Combat-Ready Kitchen Revolutionary War and World War II-era rations in the Combat Feeding historical ration display at Natick. Anastacia Marx de Salcedo is a food writer and the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors The post Marching on our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troops appeared first on Gastropod.
Cutting the Mustard
For some Americans, a trip to the ballpark isn’t complete without the bright yellow squiggle of French’s atop a hotdog. For the French, the slow burn of Dijon is a must-have complement to charcuterie. In the U.K., Sunday’s roast beef is nothing without the punch of Colman’s. Yet few realize that this condiment has been equally essential—maybe more so—for the past 6,000 years. In fact, the first spice that we know prehistoric humans used to pep up their dinners is none other than mustard. But why is the sale of mustard oil for consumption banned in the U.S., Europe, and Canada, despite the fact it’s used by millions of people around the world nearly every day? Listen in now for the answer to that mustard mystery and dozens more, including how mustard got its heat, and why we have caterpillars to thank for its particular taste profile. When archaeologist Hayley Saul and her colleagues began investigating the food residues left behind in some particularly well-preserved cooking vessels from Mesolithic sites in present-day Denmark and Germany, she had no clue that the more than 6,000-year-old pots would contain definitive evidence of the first culinary use of spice in human history. “I think there’s been a kind of assumption in general that, in prehistory, people were driven by the need to get a certain amount of energy, and that there was nothing particularly artistic about food practices,” Saul told Gastropod. But, based on her analysis, it seems as though these Mesolithic communities were deliberately seasoning their meat and fish stews with a plant that is still widespread across Europe and Asia today: garlic mustard. By crushing the plant’s mustard-flavored seeds and also adding its more garlicky leaves to their dishes, these Mesolithic chefs were carefully extracting the maximum flavor out of a plant that was otherwise not contributing much in the way of essential nutrients or energy. This episode, Saul shares her experience recreating these ancient meals—with surprisingly delicious results! But how did mustard seeds get their heat in the first place? To understand the plant’s evolutionary history, we speak with Patrick Edger, assistant professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, who describes an epic battle of chemical warfare between butterflies and brassica that took place over tens of millions of years and led to the popular condiment’s potent sinus-clearing powers. Madhur Jeffrey, actress and author of what many consider the first popular cookbooks to introduce the West to Indian home cooking, explains why mustard is so beloved through the Indian sub-continent—and why current food safety rules in Europe and North America make it illegal for Indian chefs to use mustard oil outside of their home country. Finally, we visit America’s one and only mustard museum, in Middleton, Wisconsin, where founder Barry Levenson helps us trace mustard’s journey from ancient Egypt and Rome to the bright yellow squeeze-bottle, while exploring the basic chemistry that creates the different flavor profiles found in the mustard aisle today. All this, plus some unexpected mustard pairings: Dijon-dipped Oreos, anyone? Episode Notes Patrick Edger and Plant Warfare Patrick Edger, assistant professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, loves mustard in all its forms. His 2015 paper on the butterfly-plant arms race traces the 90,000,000-year battle between butterflies and cruciferous vegetables that resulted in many of our most popular vegetables and spices, including mustard. Hayley Saul’s 6000-year-old mustard stews Hayley Saul is an archaeologist at Western Sydney University, and one of the authors of the 2013 paper describing how the garlic mustard phytoliths she discovered in Mesolithic food residues at sites in northern Europe represent the oldest known culinary use of a spice in the world. Madhur Jaffrey Actress and author Madhur Jaffrey is perhaps the most famous writer of Indian cookbooks in the West; her books introduced American and European home cooks to the delight of cooking Indian food at home. Her first book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, was published in 1973 and since then she has written over 15 cookbooks, now considered classics in their field, including, most recently, Vegetarian India. National Mustard Museum Lawyer Barry Levenson’s passion for mustard led him to open the National Mustard Museum in 1992. It’s filled with mustard memorabilia, and holds the world’s largest collection of mustard. Rose Eveleth Finally, special thanks to Rose Eveleth, Gastropod fan and host of the podcast Flash Forward, for inspiring this episode with her mustard collection, her mustard questions, and her mustard pairing tips! Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors. The post Cutting the Mustard appeared first on Gastropod.
Meet Saffron, the World’s Most Expensive Spice
It’s the poshest spice of all, often worth its weight in gold. But saffron also has a hidden history as a dye, a luxury self-tanner, and even a serotonin stimulant. That’s right, this episode we’re all about those fragile red threads plucked from the center of a purple crocus flower. Listen in as we visit a secret saffron field to discover why it’s so expensive, talk to a clinical psychologist to explore the science behind saffron’s reputation as the medieval Prozac, and explore the spice’s off-menu role as an all-purpose beautifier for elites from Alexander the Great to Henry VIII. Saffron’s origins are a mystery, with competing claims placing the wild plant’s origins in regions along a wide, semi-arid swath from Greece, in the eastern Mediterranean, to Central Asia. Today, the vast majority is still grown in that belt, with Iran leading the world’s production. But in the 1500s and 1600s, the center of the saffron universe briefly shifted from the sun-baked Mediterranean to rainy England. One particular region of England became so internationally famous for its saffron—in fact, each autumn, the entire area was carpeted in purple petals—that the local market town of Chepying Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden. But by the 1800s, England’s saffron fields had vanished entirely. Two hundred years later, a restless geophysicist named David Smale decided to try cultivating English saffron again. This episode, we visit his field at a secret location in Essex to learn how saffron is grown, hand-harvested, and dried—and Smale’s uphill battle to uncover the lost art of successfully coaxing saffron from England’s soggy soils. Cynthia taping David Smale in his saffron field in June (photo by Nicola Twilley); the first saffron flowers of the year in the same field in late September (photo courtesy English Saffron). Smale also told us that “crokers,” as people who harvest saffron are called, have to take a break during packing to avoid getting the giggles. “It’s got a distinctive smell,” said Smale. “It’s beautiful and it’s quite heady—you have to get fresh air every so often because it is a narcotic in big quantities.” It turns out saffron’s mood-altering reputation has some serious science—and some surprising history—behind it. To learn more, we talk with clinical psychologist Adrian Lopresti, who’s studying saffron’s efficacy as an anti-depressant. We also speak with musicologist Volker Schier about the cache of letters he discovered, which reveal that medieval nuns were hooked on the stuff. “I call it singing under the influence,” Schier told us. The nuns each had their own stash, he said, which they’d take “if they needed it—as a stimulant.” Join us this episode for all this, plus the recipe for a golden swan, as we explore the secrets of saffron. Margaret Skinner and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani in the high tunnel in which they successfully cultivate saffron in Vermont. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for UVM. Episode Notes David Smale’s English Saffron David Smale started growing saffron in 2004—the first time the spice had been grown in England for two hundred years. Together with his wife, Penny, he now sells his gorgeous, honey-scented saffron to chefs and also from his own online shop, where you can purchase his unique saffron gin as well. You can also see his saffron growing in a small plot at Bridge End Garden in Saffron Walden, and taste it in truffle form at the Hill St. chocolate shop, nearby. David Smale unwraps his saffron stash (L) and shows us its efficacy as a self-tanner (R). Photos by Nicola Twilley. Margaret Skinner, Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, and the North American Center for Saffron Research Saffron flower showing the purple petals, red stigma, and yellow style. Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for UVM. Margaret Skinner is an entomologist who specializes in integrated pest management. Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani is an Iranian with a Ph.D. in agro-ecology whose wife was studying in Skinner’s lab. Over lunch one day, Ghalehgolabbehbahani was chatting with Skinner and suggested that saffron might grow in Vermont. Together, over the past three years, they’ve worked out how Vermont farmers might successfully cultivate saffron in high tunnels, in order to serve as a cash crop that blooms during the slow season. Adrian Lopresti and Saffron Science Adrian Lopresti is a clinical psychologist and researcher at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.  In 2014, he co-authored a review paper in the journal Human Psychopharmacology, titled “Saffron (Crocus sativus) for depression: a systematic review of clinical studies and examination of underlying antidepressant mechanisms of action.” Volker Schier and Katerina Lemmel In 1998, Volker Schier, a musicologist at Arizona State University, and his colleague, art historian Corine Schleif, discovered a cache of 62 letters written by a medieval nun, Katerina Lemmel. Lemmel was a member of a wealthy family of spice traders in Nuremberg, in modern-day Germany, who entered the abbey of Maria Mai in 1516. Her letters contain a wealth of detail about everyday life as a medieval nun, but also include her spice orders for the abbey. Schier and Schleif have collected the letters and their analyses in a book, Katerina’s Windows: Donation and Devotion, Art and Music, as Heard and Seen in the Writings of a Birgittine Nun, as well as several papers, including this one on the nuns’ use of saffron. Pat Willard’s Secrets of Saffron David Smale demonstrates “croker fingers,” stained purple by the crocus petals. Photo courtesy English Saffron. Author Pat Willard‘s Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice was published in 2002. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors. The post Meet Saffron, the World’s Most Expensive Spice appeared first on Gastropod.
Tiki Time!
Tiki bars are hot these days: you can enjoy a fruity tropical drink while surrounded by faux-Polynesian décor in most major cities around the U.S. and elsewhere, with new tiki spots opening every month. The trend is a revival of a nearly century-old American tradition—but the knowledge of how to make these classic tiki cocktails had been all but lost over the intervening decades. It took an amateur sleuth who went on a deep dive into cocktail archaeology and recipe cryptography to bring back the lost flavors. But, while the drinks he rediscovered are delicious, does the classic tiki bar interior, adorned with carvings that resemble traditional Polynesian gods, stand the test of time? Listen in for tales of Hollywood celebrities, backyard luaus, and a savvy restaurateur with a wooden leg. When Donn Beach, né Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, opened his bar Don the Beachcomber in December 1933, Prohibition had ended just days earlier. Marie King, beverage director at the Tonga Hut, the oldest operating tiki bar in Los Angeles, believes he must have been doing some bootlegging or rum running on the side. “He had to have some kind of speakeasy to develop all the recipes,” King told Gastropod. Beach, the son of a Texas wildcatter, had spent his youth—and his college fund—traveling the world, where he first fell in love with the South Pacific. When the money ran out, he ended up in LA, where one of his many hustles involved building movie sets for Hollywood. Beach decorated his new bar with what he called ‘flotsam and jetsam’ meant to invoke Polynesia, most of which he bought from the movie sets he’d once decorated. Don the Beachcomber was a huge hit, and the tiny space was usually filled with a who’s-who of Hollywood: Howard Hughes, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable. It wasn’t just the décor, which capitalized on a 1930s fascination with the South Pacific—it was also Donn’s inventive new drinks. The drinks were based on rum, says Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Cuba was nearby and willing to sell to the U.S., she said, “And so rum was the only spirit that had been readily available in the U.S. while distillers were not in operation.” Plus, she pointed out, rum was cheap at the time—a major selling point for a bar that opened during the Great Depression. Don’s cocktails blended multiple versions of rum, as well as multiple citrus juices, sweeteners, and spices in complicated, innovative recipes that took their inspiration from traditional Caribbean punch recipes but added layers of flavor and nuance, according to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of the tiki bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans. This was truly the second wave of American craft cocktails, Berry told Gastropod. “Nobody ever had drinks like this before,” he said. “Nobody ever made drinks like this before.” Berry tasted his first classic tiki cocktail in the 1980s, when tiki bars had nearly disappeared and cocktails were limited to three-ingredient Harvey Wallbangers. Its balance and complexity stood out like a beacon of hope amidst the sea of cheap spirits and sickly sweet mixers that were popular that decade. But, as he set out to drink more of these delicious tropical cocktails, he realized he had a problem: most bartenders had no idea how to make Donn the Beachcomber’s original drinks correctly, and, to make matters worse, Beach had written his original recipes in code. This episode, Jeff Berry tells Gastropod about the story of how he decoded Beach’s legendary concoctions and fueled today’s tiki renaissance. And we do some detective work  of our own to investigate tiki’s rise, fall, and revival. Why did tiki bars peak in the 1950s and 60s, before nearly disappearing in the ensuing decades, and what brought about the revival today? Sarah Miller-Davenport, author of Gateway State: Hawai’i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire, describes how Polynesian-style bars and restaurants allowed mid-century middle class white Americans to feel cosmopolitan and adventurous, in part by playing on racist stereotypes of Polynesian sexuality. These stereotypes are part of the reason that Kalewa Correa, curator of Hawai’i and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, says tiki bars make him, a native Hawai’ian, uncomfortable—that and the ubiquitous tikis, Polynesian-style carvings that invoke images of Polynesian gods. Are tiki bars a form of cultural appropriation, a 20th-century fad that should offend our slightly more enlightened 21st-century values, or are they a purely American invention that provides harmless, escapist fun? Listen in for the story—and the debate! Episode Notes Marie King and the Tonga Hut Marie King runs the Tonga Hut, LA’s oldest surviving classic tiki bar in North Hollywood, which was established in 1958. If you want to step back in tiki history, this is a great bar to check out. Jeff Berry, the Grog Log, and Latitude 29 Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s decades-long cocktail sleuthing resulted in the revival of classic tiki cocktails, originally detailed in his Grog Log.  You can still find copies of the original spiral-bound, photocopied version online! If that’s too pricey, his other books include Sippin’ Safari and Potions of the Carribean. Today, he runs Latitude 29 in New Orleans. Shannon Mustipher Shannon Mustipher runs the bar at the Caribbean-themed Glady’s in Brooklyn, and you can make her tiki cocktails at home from her new book, Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails. Kalewa Correa Kalewa Correa is curator of Hawai’i and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Sarah Miller-Davenport and Gateway State Sarah Miller-Davenport is a historian at the University of Sheffield, and her first book is Gateway State: Hawai’i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire. The post Tiki Time! appeared first on Gastropod.
Super Fry: The Fight for the Golden Frite
Shoestring, waffle, curly, or thick-cut: however you slice it, nearly everyone loves a deep-fried, golden brown piece of potato. But that’s where the agreement ends and the battles begin. While Americans call their fries “French,” Belgians claim that they, not the French, invented the perfect fry. Who’s right? This episode, we take you right into the heart of the battle that continues to be waged over who owns the fry—who invented it, who perfected it, who loves it the most? And then we take you behind the scenes into another epic fight: the struggle for the perfect fry. Can food scientists create a fry with the ultimate crispy shell and soft inside, one that can stay that way while your delivery driver is stuck in traffic? Plus, the condiment wars: does mayo really have the edge over ketchup? Listen in now to find out! Potatoes were domesticated in what’s now Peru approximately ten thousand years ago, but fries—sticks of potato cooked in oil so that a crispy shell surrounds a creamy potato interior—are a European invention. Exactly where and when these crispy delights evolved, however, remains a matter of debate. The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe from their South American colonies in the 1500s, but, although they undoubtedly fried pieces of potato in olive oil, the results wouldn’t have been fries as we know them. It took Northern Europeans, with their animal fat-based deep frying, to create the true fry. But which Northern Europeans: the Belgians or the French? To get to the bottom of this mystery, we travel to Belgium to both visit the world’s largest and smallest fry museums—the Frietmuseum, in Bruges, and the Home Frit’Home micro museum, in Brussels. With the help of the museums’ founders, Eddy van Belle and Hugues Henri, we examine the evidence—books, engravings, fairground posters, missing letters, and dead journalists—and declare a victor. And then, undaunted, Gastropod wades into another battlefield: the fight for the perfect fry. The perfect Belgian fry as served at the Frietmuseum: a Bintje potato fried in beef tallow and served with mayonnaise. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Thanks to food scientists, this is a battle that has largely been won. “About fifty, sixty years ago, it would be not unusual to walk into a restaurant and eat a fry that was soggy, doughy, mealy, limp, or very hard,” Kantha Shelke, principal at Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm, told us. “You don’t get that today. Practically every restaurant has fries that are crisp and deliciously and sensually soft inside.” We go behind the scenes with Shelke, as well as Deborah Dihel, vice president of innovation at Lamb Weston, one of the largest producers of frozen french fries in the U.S., to learn the scientific secrets of that success. We also hear about the failures along the way—from Lamb Weston’s fry shape graveyard to Shelke’s undercover operation to try to make a certain fast-food restaurant’s fries match up to those of their competitor. (Shelke wouldn’t reveal the name of either restaurant, but we have an educated guess!) A Freedom Fries watch on display at Home Frit’Home. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Today, however, there’s a new challenge facing fry scientists: the rise of delivery. “When you make fresh French fries and you put them in a closed package, you create a little sauna in there,” explained Dihel. Dihel’s team has spent years fighting soggy delivery fries—one of her colleagues even signed up to be an Uber Eats driver, to better understand the challenge facing fries. Can they deliver a fry that stays crispy all the way from the restaurant to your front door? Listen in to find out! Episode Notes Eddy van Belle, and the Frietmuseum Cynthia and Eddy van Belle at the Frietmuseum, Bruges. Photo by Nicola Twilley. You can find everything you need to know about Eddy van Belle’s Frietmuseum on its website, here. And, if you do get to Bruges for an in-person visit, why not check out van Belle’s chocolate museum and lamp collection, too? Hugues Henri, and Home Frit’Home Cynthia and Hugues Henri at Home ‘Frit Home. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Hugues Henri’s fry micro museum is also an Airbnb lodging, should you wish to fully embrace frite culture on your next visit to Brussels. Kantha Shelke Kantha Shelke is principal at Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm, and a regular guest on Gastropod: you can hear her talk to us about the science of jelling agents and plant milks in our Watch it Wiggle and Who Faked My Cheese? episodes. Deborah Dihel Deborah Dihel is vice president of innovation at frozen potato company Lamb Weston, where her most recent triumph is the “Crispy on Delivery” project. The post Super Fry: The Fight for the Golden Frite appeared first on Gastropod.
BONUS: Introducing Science Rules! with Bill Nye
We interrupt our regular programming to bring you news of a new podcast you might like. Bill Nye is on a mission to change the world—one phone call at a time. On his new podcast, Science Rules!, he tackles your questions on just about anything in the universe. Perhaps you’ve wondered: Should I stop eating cheeseburgers to combat climate change? How often should I really be washing my pillowcase? Can I harvest energy from all those static-electricity shocks I get in the winter? Science Rules! is out NOW—find it in your favorite podcast app. The post BONUS: Introducing Science Rules! with Bill Nye appeared first on Gastropod.
The Curry Chronicles
Curry is, supposedly, Indian. But there is no such word in any of the country’s many official languages—and no Indian would use the term to describe their own food. So what is curry? This episode takes us to India, Britain, and Japan on a quest to understand how a variety of spicy, saucy dishes ended up being lumped together under one name—and then transformed into something completely different as they were transported around the world. From a post-pub vindaloo in Leeds to comforting kare raisu in Kyoto, we explore the stories and flavors of curry—a dish that’s from nowhere and yet eaten nearly everywhere. According to Lizzie Collingham, food historian and author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, to trace the origins of curry, we need to go back to when the Portuguese first set up shop in Goa, in the early 1500s. “And they’d say, Oooh, what are you eating?” said Collingham, “And the Indians replied using a word like khari or caril.” At the time, Collingham explained, those words likely referred to a particular spice blend, as well as the finished dish it was used in; the same words are still in use, but they now mean sauce or gravy. Today, that’s Raghavan Iyer’s definition: he authored a doorstop of a cookbook called 660 Curries, and he uses “curry” to refer to “anything that has a sauce or gravy—it can be with or without spices.” But how did India’s many and varied ragouts and stews all come to be known as curry? For that, we have to look to the British. With Collingham’s help, Gastropod teases out the origins of dishes such as biryani and vindaloo, tracing their journey from complex, regional specialties to simplified, curryhouse classics, thanks to a combination of colonialism, empire, and immigrant entrepreneurialism. Along the way, we pinpoint the rise of curry powder, trace curry’s global diaspora, and spend some time with Mr. Bean. We even get to the bottom of why the Japanese—a nation whose cuisine is defined by its exquisite aesthetic—love their own brown, gloppy version. Listen in now to discover the world of curry. Episode Notes Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors Lizzie Collingham is a historian and author of a number of books, including, most recently, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Her 2006 book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, is a deeply enjoyable read, and even contains a few historical recipes, for the adventurous. Raghavan Iyer‘s 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking Chef and culinary educator Raghavan Iyer is author of several cookbooks, including the epic 660 Curries: The Gateway to Indian Cooking. Takashi Morieda  Takashi Morieda is a photojournalist based in Tokyo. He’s written extensively about Japanese curry culture, including this essay, titled “The Unlikely Love Affair with Curry and Rice.” Vindaloo! Vindaloo is a song by British prank art collective/band Fat Les, whose members are Blur bassist Alex James, actor Keith Allen, and artist Damien Hirst. It was released in 1998, in the run up to the football World Cup, as a parody of football chants. It has been stuck in Nicky’s head throughout the time we’ve been working on this episode. Comedy Gold For your viewing pleasure: curry scenes from Only Fools and Horses, Gavin and Stacey, Peep Show and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Astonishingly, a British man (Vern Slade from Newcastle) actually had Smithy’s curry takeaway order from Gavin and Stacey tattooed on his arm while on a lad’s holiday. Also for your enjoyment: Rowan Atkinson’s sketch about drunk Englishmen in an Indian restaurant, and the cast of Goodness Gracious Me “going out for an English.” What’s a Ruby? Cockney rhyming slang for a curry! Ruby Murray was one of the most popular singers in the British Isles in the 1950s. Murray, of course, rhymes with curry—so, fancy a Ruby? Correction In the episode, Nicky says that long pepper is not related to black pepper. This is incorrect: they are both in the Piperaceae family, and are close relatives. We apologize for the mistake! The post The Curry Chronicles appeared first on Gastropod.
Lunch Gets Schooled
Across the United States, school lunch is being transformed, as counties and cities partner with local farms to access fresh vegetables, as well as hire chefs to introduce tastier and more adventurous meals. This is a much-needed correction after decades of processed meals that contained little in the way of nutrition and flavor. But how did we get to trays of spongy pizza and freezer-burned tater tots in the first place? While it seems as if such culinary delights were always part of a child’s day, the school lunch is barely a century old—and there are plenty of countries in the world, like Canada and Norway, where school lunch doesn’t even exist. This episode, we dive into the history of how we got to today’s school lunch situation, as well as what it tells us about our economic and gender priorities. Listen in now for all that, plus the science on whether school lunch even matters.  In centuries past, few children other than those of wealthy, aristocratic families received a formal education, certainly not one that had them sitting in a classroom for hours on end, from morning through early afternoon. That all started to change around the time of the Industrial Revolution, according to Andrew Ruis, medical historian at the University of Wisconsin and author of a new book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States. “You have a large number of people moving into cities, moving into new kinds of employment, working in factories and mills,” Ruis told Gastropod. “That has a pretty wide ranging effects on social structures,” he said—one of which was that many families were no longer working alongside each other on the farm or in the family trade, where they could break for a midday meal together. As children instead began working in dangerous factories, European authors and philosophers reacted by starting to write about childhood as a time of innocence—one that deserved protection. Gradually, authorities in Europe and North America responded: first, by passing child labor laws, and then by mandating compulsory education. Children—all children—now had to attend school. Which raises an important question: if kids are spending the majority of their day in school, how should they be fed? This question gets to the heart of the school lunch debate, one that has raged around the world for more than a century. As Jennifer Geist Rutledge, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Feeding the Future: School Lunch Programs as Global Social Policy, explained to Gastropod, the decisions that countries made about school lunch—decisions that mean Sweden offers school lunch and Norway doesn’t, and the U.S. feeds its schoolchildren while Canada assumes the family will do so—were a reflection of prevailing attitudes to issues as seemingly unconnected as farming, national identity and security, and the role of women in society. As we discover in the episode, the same underlying attitudes shape school lunch even today. The groups behind the first school lunch programs in the U.S. attempted to measure its effects on students academic performance and health, though the resulting data weren’t particularly scientifically rigorous. In past decades, however, scientists have teased out the fact that access to school lunch does indeed improve student achievement. But does the nutritional quality of the lunch matter? Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, one of the authors of a recent Brookings Institute study titled “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance,” reveals what her research shows about the connection between healthier lunches, test scores, and student health. Meanwhile, as activists, school districts, and nonprofits across the country try to improve school lunch, we talk to food writer Jane Black about what happened in Huntington, West Virginia, once British chef Jamie Oliver and his “Food Revolution” left town, leaving the local food service director to pick up the pieces. Finally, while our experts agree that school lunch is important for all kids—a consensus reflected in New York City’s recent decision to make school lunch free for all—why is it threatened today? EPISODE NOTES Andrew Ruis and School Lunch in the U.S. Andrew Ruis’s book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States, traces the origin of school lunch in the U.S. and the debates and compromises that created the program students know and, ahem, love today. Jennifer Geist Rutledge and School Lunch Around the World Jennifer Geist Rutledge’s book, Feeding the Future: School Lunch Programs as Global Social Policy, expands the school lunch discussion to countries around the world. In our episode, we didn’t have the opportunity to delve into the role of the UN’S World Food Programme in creating school lunch in more than 100 countries, and what’s happening in those countries as the WFP gets out of the lunch business. We included that story in our our special sustaining-supporters-only email, which you can sign up for at Patreon or here on our website—or you can read Jennifer’s book! Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie on the Impact of Healthier Options Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie was one of a team of economists and nutritionists who studied whether healthier school lunch affect test scores and obesity in the recent Brookings Institute study, “School Lunch Quality and Academic Performance.” A commentary on the research was published here. Jane Black on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in West Virginia Food writer Jane Black was fascinated by British chef Jamie Oliver’s attempt to remake school lunch in Huntington, West Virginia, and so, over the following years, she watched what happened in town after Jamie left. The result was her article, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” published in the Huffington Post and supported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors. The post Lunch Gets Schooled appeared first on Gastropod.
Eating to Win: Gatorade, Muscle Milk, and… Chicken Nuggets?
Ancient Greek Olympians swore by beans to give them a competitive edge. Japanese sumo wrestlers rely on a protein-rich soup called chankonabe to get into peak condition. And NBA all-stars Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, and Steph Curry credit their success to a pre-game PB&J. Throughout history, athletes have traditionally eaten something special they hope will give them an edge. But is there any science behind these special drinks and diets—and will consuming them help those of us who are not destined for sporting glory, too? Listen in this episode as we reveals the backstory behind such stadium staples as Gatorade and Muscle Milk—and the evidence for their efficacy. When the Florida Gators beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to win the 1967 Orange Bowl, a hydration legend was born. The Florida football team supposedly had a secret weapon to beat the heat: a lemon-flavored salty water mixed up by the doctor, Robert Cade. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets relied on the regular stuff from the tap. As their coach Bobby Dodd said after the game, “We didn’t have Gatorade. That made the difference.” Today, Gatorade—the “professional thirst-quencher”—is chugged by 5K fun runners and ultra marathon racers alike. But what are electrolytes—and how can we replenish them? Do we really need to drink before we even feel thirsty, as the Gatorade marketing messages would have us believe? Christie Aschwanden, who explores the science of recovery in her new book, Good to Go, joins us to untangle the science behind the hype. That’s hydration, but what about nutrition? Is carbo-loading—the traditional spaghetti dinner the night before a sporting event—the way to go, or are athletes who eat a high fat diet better equipped to take advantage of their body’s fuel reserves instead? Louise Burke is head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sports, where she works with and studies many of the world’s best athletes. She shares the wisdom gained from decades spent teasing out the impact of high carbohydrate and high fat diets on athletic performance. Today, another macro-nutrient is enjoying its day in the sun: protein. Once the exclusive province of body-builders, today everyone and their aunt can be found downing high protein snacks and supplements. Casey Johnston, a powerlifter and writer known for her advice column, “Ask a Swole Woman,” tells us how Muscle Milk made the leap from niche to mainstream. Faced with conflicting advice about nutrition and hydration, what is an elite athlete—or a weekend warrior—to do? And why is it so hard to tease out how to use food to go faster, higher, further, for longer? Listen in this episode as we discuss everything from the merits of beer as a recovery drink to the curiously oedipal logic behind Muscle Milk’s original formula—and reveal the best advice science can offer today. Episode Notes Christie Aschwanden and Good to Go Christie Aschwanden is an athlete, editor, and science writer. Her new book is Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery. Louise Burke Louise Burke is head of sports nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, as well as a professorial fellow at Australian Catholic University. With John Hawley, she recently published a review paper on sports nutrition in Science titled “Swifter, higher, stronger: What’s on the menu?” Casey Johnston Casey Johnston is an editor, journalist, and powerlifter. She writes a regular column for Self called “Ask a Swole Woman,” and last year, she explored the origin story of Muscle Milk in a feature titled “How Protein Conquered America,” for Eater. The post Eating to Win: Gatorade, Muscle Milk, and… Chicken Nuggets? appeared first on Gastropod.
Gastropod on Gastropods
Finally, Gastropod is tackling gastropods! In this episode, Cynthia visits one of America’s first and only snail farms. Though Gastropod is, as regular listeners know, a podcast about the science and history of all things gastronomical, we do share a name with Gastropoda, the taxonomic class that includes slugs and snails. And, as it turns out, the history and science of heliciculture, or snail farming, is completely fascinating. Join Cynthia on a trip to rural Washington State to learn how to raise snails and whether fresh and vacuum-packed taste any less rubbery than canned. Plus, you’ll hear about the earliest evidence for human snail consumption, how the Romans fattened theirs up, and all about the bizarre world of snail sex. Episode Notes Little Gray Farms, an Escargotière Ric Brewer’s small snail farm in Quilcene, Washington, and his warehouse in Seattle make up Little Gray Farms. At the moment, Ric is only selling to restaurants, but he hopes to be able to soon start packing up escargots to send to customers around the U.S. via two-day snail mail. Here are some photos Ric provided of the snails on the farm and in the warehouse. Ric Brewer’s cabin in Quilcene, Washington. Photograph by Ric Brewer. Snails in Brewer’s warehouse in Seattle. Photograph courtesy Ric Brewer. The snail pen at Quilcene. Photograph by Ric Brewer. American Snail Ranchers When Ric started investigating snail farming, he couldn’t find any like-minded farmers in the U.S. Now it looks like there are at least a handful of foragers, ranchers, and entry-level farmers. One is Mary Stewart of California, who was covered in this article in the New York Times. Out on Long Island, chef Taylor Knapp is finalizing the necessary USDA permits so he can acquire snails for what will become the Peconic Escargot farm. Competition for the French While France doesn’t produce enough escargot to meet their needs (50 million snails a year!), French snail farmers are increasingly concerned about competition from Eastern European farmers. Could the French snail farmer become extinct? Ancient Snail Eaters According to archaeologists, humans may have been eating snails as far back as 30,000 years ago. Last year, scientists found evidence of the world’s first snail feast, along the Mediterranean coast in Spain. Thousands of years later, the Romans enjoyed their snails fattened on milk, while monks in medieval Europe kept snail gardens, as the snails, neither fish nor meat according to the Catholic church, could be eaten during Lent. International Institute of Heliciculture Just south of Turin, in Italy, the Istituto Internazionale di Elicicoltura offers technical advice to would-be snail farmers and hosts an annual festival of all things gastropod. We really want to go! Snail Smut As promised! Movie by Ric Brewer. The post Gastropod on Gastropods appeared first on Gastropod.
Omega 1-2-3
Based on all the hype, you’d be forgiven for believing that the fish oils known as omega-3s are solution to every problem. Heart disease, dementia, depression, even obesity—the list of ailments that experts claim a daily dose of omega-3 can help prevent seems endless. And with more than ten percent of Americans taking a capsule of fish oil daily, omega-3s are one of the most profitable supplements in the world, too. Listen in this episode, as author Paul Greenberg and scientist JoAnn Manson help us figure out what these supposedly miracle molecules are, and what consuming them is doing to our bodies—and to our oceans. Paul Greenberg had already authored a couple of successful and award-winning books about fish by the time he hit his mid-40s—an age when he, like many people, started to feel the first, faint signs that he was no longer young. “When you Google all the things that are going wrong with you in middle age—your joints hurt, your high blood pressure, losing your memory—what comes up again and again are omega-3 supplements,” he told Gastropod. Greenberg knew those supplements are made from fish—millions of tiny fish that no one eats, like the menhaden and the Peruvian anchoveta. And so he set out to write his most recent book, The Omega Principle, which follows fish oils from their evolutionary origins at the dawn of photosynthesis, to their discovery by a Spam scientist, to the enormous extraction industry that feeds our hunger for them today. The secret to omega-3’s success lies in their chemical structure, which makes them more flexible and dynamic than other fatty acids. That means they show up anywhere that needs to move or transmit signals rapidly—hummingbird wings, sperm, and, especially, the human brain. Experiments in the 1930s proved that fatty acids including omega-3s were essential for life, but, until relatively recently, they were mostly studied by scientists looking to extend the shelf-life of processed foods, as the dynamism of omega-3’s chemical structure also gives them a tendency to go rancid quickly. Then, in the 1970s, two Norwegian researchers published a paper linking low rates of cardiovascular disease among the Inuit to their elevated consumption of omega-3s. Since then, more than 20,000 papers have been published examining their health benefits—but, according to Harvard epidemiologist JoAnn Manson, many of those studies were flawed. She’s the lead researcher on the first large-scale, randomized clinical trial of the efficacy of omega-3s in preventing cancer, heart disease, and stroke in the general public. Her VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL (VITAL) study launched in 2010, and recently published its first results—which Manson shared with us this episode. So, are omega-3s really the key to a healthy old age? And, if we should be consuming more omega-3s, then how much, and in what form? From cod liver oil to cardiovascular risk, listen in this episode for the history and science of America’s favorite fatty acid. Episode Notes Join Our Fifth Birthday Celebrations! We’re turning five in September (we know, we don’t look it! or even act it sometimes…) and we need your help to put together a special birthday episode. Nominate your favorite Gastropod stories and moments from our first five years here, so we can revisit them in the show. Paul Greenberg and The Omega Principle Paul Greenberg is an award-winning journalist who writes mostly about the ocean and environmental issues. He’s the author of Four Fish, American Catch, and, most recently, The Omega Principle. JoAnn Manson and the VITAL study JoAnn Manson is chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and director and principal investigator of the VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL (VITAL). Transcript For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors   The post Omega 1-2-3 appeared first on Gastropod.
Eat This, Not That: The Surprising Science of Personalized Nutrition
This episode, we’ve got the exclusive on the preliminary results of the world’s largest personalized nutrition experiment. Genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector launched the study, called PREDICT, to answer a simple but important question: do we each respond to different foods differently? And, if so, why? How much of that difference is genetic, how much is due to gut microbes, and how much is due to any one of the dozens of other factors that scientists think affect our metabolic processes? You’ve heard of personalized medicine, will there be such a thing as personalized diets? And should there be? Can teasing out the nuances of how each individual body processes different foods make us all healthier? To find out, we signed ourselves up as study participants, sticking pins in our fingers, weighing our food, and providing fecal samples, all for science—and for you, dear listeners. Listen in now as we take part in this ground-breaking study, discover our own differences, and find out the early results! Episode Notes Tim Spector Tim Spector is a professor of genetics at King’s College, London, and the author of two books, Identically Different and The Diet Myth. PREDICT Find out more about the PREDICT study here, and sign up to take part yourself, if you’re interested. Jennie Brand-Miller Jennie Brand-Miller is a professor of human nutrition at the University of Sydney. Among her many books is Low GI Diet: Managing Type 2 Diabetes. Tim Caulfield Tim Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. His TV show, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, can be found on Netflix, and his most recent book is titled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (To which we reply, pretty much!) Dave Szalay Listener and illustrator Dave Szalay is the genius behind the custom artwork for this episode. We love his work, which you can see more of here. PREDICT and Gastropod in The New York Times We wrote an article for The New York Times to go with this episode: check it out online here. Sponsors Find The Splendid Table online here.   The post Eat This, Not That: The Surprising Science of Personalized Nutrition appeared first on Gastropod.
The Cocktail Hour
Whether you sip it with friends, chug it before hitting the dance floor, or take it as a post-work pick-me-up, there’s clearly nothing like a cocktail for bracing the spirit. In addition to its peculiar history as a medicinal tonic, plenty of hard science lies behind the perfect cocktail, from the relationship between taste perception and temperature to the all-important decision of whether to shake or stir. What’s more, according to historian David Wondrich, mixology is “the first legitimate American culinary art”—and one that has since caught on around the world. Raise a glass, and listen in as we discover the cocktail’s historical origins, its etymological connection to a horse’s butt, and its rocky history, post-Prohibition. We also check out an original copy of the world’s first cocktail recipe book at New York City’s bartending mecca, Cocktail Kingdom; take a private cocktail science class with Jared Sadoian of The Hawthorne in Boston; and talk red-hot pokers with culinary scientist Dave Arnold. Cheers! The Secret Ingredient No Cocktail Should be Without It might seem counterintuitive, but, in a world overflowing with fancy bitters and spherical ice makers, the thing your cocktail is missing is actually much simpler: salt. Dave Arnold, the mixologist behind high-tech cocktail bar Booker and Dax, shared this secret with Gastropod. It’s just one of several scientific tricks contained in his new book, Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail. Of course, the most important ingredient in a cocktail is the liquor. The sugar, acids, and ice choices also have flavor implications, making every cocktail recipe into a kind of calculus that factors in the physics of energy transfer as well as variations in the molecular structures of different sweeteners. Cocktail construction chart, created by the U.S. Forest Service in 1974, now housed in the National Archives. But salt can play a crucial role. Arnold is quick to point out that you should only add a very tiny amount—”we are not talking about salting the rim of your glass here!” he told Gastropod. Arnold’s insight draws on the same logic that calls for adding a pinch of salt to most baked goods, from ice cream to pastry. “These very, very small quantities of salt really just cause all the flavors to kind of pop,” Arnold explains, because of the way our taste buds work. Recent research has begun to tease out how the receptor cells on our tongues responds to sour, bitter, sweet, and salty tastes differently depending on their concentration and how they are combined. For example, if you add a tiny sour note to a bitter-flavored drink, it will actually boost the bitter sensation, but at a more moderate concentration, sour tastes suppress bitterness. (Try this at home, by adding a drop of lime to a margarita, versus the full ounce.) Similarly, at very low concentrations, salt doesn’t register as a taste at all, but instead reduces bitterness and boosts sweet and sour notes in the food or drink you add it to. Basically, says Arnold, “next time you make a cocktail, add a tiny little pinch of salt to it and stir—and then tell me you don’t like it better.” The 007 Question: Shaken or Stirred? James Bond is famous—some might say notorious—for preferring his martini shaken, not stirred. But science-minded bartenders would urge you not to follow his lead—though Dave Arnold is quick to point out that the right way to make a drink is the way it tastes good to you. Still, there’s some solid science behind why a martini should be stirred and a daiquiri shaken, rather than the other way around. Both methods chill, dilute, and blend your drink—but they have different effects on flavor and texture that work better with some cocktail recipes than others. Typically, Arnold explains, when you shake a drink, it will get colder—and thus more diluted—than it would be after stirring. “Banging ice rapidly around inside a shaking tin is the most turbulent, efficient, and effective manual chilling/dilution technique we drink makers use,” he explains. Because flavor perception, and sweetness, in particular, is blunted at cooler temperatures, a shaken drink needs to start out significantly sweeter than its stirred equivalent. Shaking also adds texture to a drink, in the form of lots of tiny air bubbles. That’s a good thing when you’re making a cocktail with ingredients that taste nice when they’re foamy, like egg whites, dairy, and even fruit juice, and not as good when you’re mixing straight liquor with bitters. Sorry, Mr. Bond. The other thing to bear in mind is that you really shouldn’t linger over a shaken drink. “The minute that someone hands you a shaken drink, it is dying,” says Arnold. “I hate it when people don’t drink their shaken drink right away.” We can’t responsibly advise you to chug them, so we recommend making your shaken drinks small, so that you can polish them off before the bubbles burst. Boozewashing: the Ultimate At-Home Mixologist Nerd Trick Ever since the first ice-cube was added to the original cocktail recipe of liquor, bitters, and sugar, mixologists have loved their bar gear. Ice-picks, mallets, swizzle sticks, shakers, strainers, and even red-hot pokers were all standard features of the nineteenth-century celebrity bartender’s toolkit. Today, Dave Arnold has added rotary evaporators, iSi whippers, and liquid nitrogen to the mix, placing the most cutting-edge cocktails out of reach of the home mixologist. But there is one super trendy, high-tech trick that you can try at home. It’s called “booze-washing,” and it makes use of protein to remove the astringency from a drink. It actually has a historic basis—even Ben Franklin wrote down his own a recipe for milk punch that uses the casein protein in milk to strip out the phenolic compounds and turn a rough-around-the-edges brandy into a soft, round, soothing drink. But Dave Arnold came up with the idea when he was trying to make an alcoholic version of an Arnold Palmer, the delicious iced tea/lemonade mix. “I knew that adding milk to tea makes it less astringent, which is why the Brits do it,” Arnold explained. “And then I wanted to get rid of the milk, because I didn’t want a milk tea, I wanted a tea tea.” So he added citric acid, which caused the milk to curdle, so he could separate it out in a centrifuge. “And only afterwards was I like, oh yeah, milk punch!” Arnold demonstrates booze-washing in a sequence of photos from his new book, Liquid Intelligence. Photos by Travis Huggert, who is also responsible for the image used in the embedded Soundcloud player, above. Arnold washes drinks to remove flavors, rather than add them. He’s taking advantage of the chemical properties of protein-rich ingredients—milk, eggs, or even blood—that preferentially bind to the plant defense chemicals that can give over-oaked whiskey, certain red wines, tea, coffee, and some apple varieties a mouth-puckering dryness. He’s found that as well as smoothing out a drink, booze-washing has the side benefit of creating a lovely, velvety texture. The good news is that you don’t need a centrifuge to make the perfect milk punch or alcoholic Arnold Palmer at home. You can follow Arnold’s recipe (see below), let it sit overnight, and then strain out the curds through a cloth and then through a coffee filter. According to Arnold, your yield will be a little lower than with a centrifuge, but the result will be just as tasty. His only word of warning is that you have to drink the resulting cocktail within a week, or else the proteins will clump together and the drink will lose its foaming power. But that shouldn’t be too difficult… Listen to Gastropod’s Cocktail Hour for much more cocktail science and history, including an introduction to the world’s first celebrity bartender, an unexpected use for Korean bibimbap bowls, and a cocktail personality test based on Jungian analytics. Cocktails photographed by Travis Huggert for Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence. Episode Notes Imbibe! David Wondrich‘s history of the American cocktail and its first celebrity, pioneering bartender Jerry Thomas, won a James Beard Award when it was first published in 2007. It was updated and reissued this year to include new research, including Wondrich’s discovery of the curious etymology behind the term “cocktail.” Wondrich is also the author of several other books of alcoholic history, including Punch, on the mixed drink that preceded the cocktail. Jerry Thomas pours his signature Blue Blazer. Liquid Intelligence Dave Arnold runs Booker and Dax, a high-tech cocktail bar in New York City’s East Village. His recent book, Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, is a gorgeous full-color mixological bible that covers every aspect of cocktail science you’ve ever wondered about, and several that you undoubtedly haven’t. He’s lectured on cocktail science at Harvard, he is Founder and President of the Museum of Food and Drink, and he also hosts the radio show Cooking Issues on Heritage Radio, where Jack Inslee was kind enough to record our interview. Jared Sadoian at The Hawthorne Jared Sadoian is a MIT-trained technologist turned mixologist: he manages the bar at The Hawthorne in Boston and lectures on the science of distilling and mixing drinks. Cocktail Kingdom Cocktail Kingdom, a mecca of all things cocktail, not only has a small supply store that features such delights as custom-designed strainers, swizzle sticks, and ice cube molds, but owner/founder Greg Boehm has also amassed one of the world’s most impressive collections of vintage cocktail books. Manager Ethan Kahn showed us a first edition Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide: How to Mix Drinks, a Bon Vivant’s Companion from 1862; the company also sells reprints of that and other vintage cocktail books, including The Flowing Bowl, by The Only William in 1891, which includes a cocktail poetry section. Julep strainers at Cocktail Kingdom. Photograph by Nicola Twilley. Bompas & Parr’s Cocktail Monolith Sam Bompas and Harry Parr specialize in culinary spectacle, flooding a terraced house with punch, cooking steaks with lightning, and publishing the memoirs of a stomach. In April 2015, they unveiled their “Cocktail Monolith” at a festival at London’s Ministry of Sound. The Monolith presented festival-goers with a series of questions, analyzed the results using a framework inspired by psychotherapist Carl Jung, and then mixed a drink using ingredients that would both suit and enhance each individual’s personality traits. Cynthia the Logistician’s Hallucino-tini (left) and Nicky the Mediator’s Wise Sour (right), as prescribed by Bompas & Parr’s Cocktail Monolith. Photograph by Ann Charlott Ommedal. Recipe: Dave Arnold’s Tea Time (republished with permission from Arnold’s Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail) Boozewashing to Make Tea Vodka 32 grams tea (Arnold specifies Selimbong second-flush Darjeeling) 1 liter vodka (40 percent a.b.v.) 250 ml whole milk A fat 1 oz (33 ml) freshly strained lemon juice (Arnold uses 15 grams of 15 percent citric acid solution) Add the tea to the vodka in a closed container and shake it up. Let the tea infuse for 20 to 40 minutes, shaking occasionally. The time will change based on the size of the leaves you use and the type of tea you use if you don’t use the Selimbong; what’s important is the color, which provides a decent indicator of brew strength in tea. Go dark. When the tea is dark enough, strain it from the vodka. Put the milk into a container and stir the tea vodka into the milk (note that if you add the milk to the tea vodka instead, the milk will instantly curdle and reduce the effectiveness of the wash). Let the mix rest for a couple of minutes, then stir in the citric acid solution. If you don’t want to buy citric acid, use lemon juice, but don’t add all the lemon juice at once; do it by thirds. When the milk breaks, stop adding. Don’t stir too violently after you add the acid. Once the milk breaks, you don’t want to reemulsify or break up the curds at all, or you’ll make straining more difficult. After the milk breaks, you will see small clouds of tan curds floating in a sea of almost clear tea-colored vodka. If you look closely, you’ll see that the vodka is still faintly cloudy. It still has some casein in it that hasn’t agglomerated onto the curds. Take a spoon and gently move the curds around to mop up the extra casein. You should see the vodka get noticeably clearer, and the curds will get noticeably more distinct. Do the gentle curd-mopping several times, then let the vodka sit undisturbed for several hours to settle out before you strain the curds with a fine filter and a coffee filter (or just spin the stuff in a centrifuge right away, as I do). Ingredients for Tea Time (makes 137 ml drink at 14.9 percent a.b.v.) 60 ml (2 ounces) milk-washed tea-infused vodka 15 ml (0.5 ounce) honey syrup (to make honey syrup, add 200 g of water to 300 g of honey) 15 ml (0.5 ounce) freshly strained lemon juice 2 drops saline solution or a pinch of salt Combine all the ingredients, shake with ice, and serve in a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with pride in a job well done. Fat-washing While Arnold uses booze-washing to remove unwanted flavors, other bartenders have developed a related technique, called fat-washing, which works in reverse. It uses the power of alcohol to capture volatile aromatic molecules to create deeply savory cocktails infused with bacon, brown butter, or even sesame flavors. Thank you! We owe a huge thanks to listeners for all the cocktail stories you shared with us. It was such a treat to hear your inspired discoveries and drinking disasters while we made this episode. Thank you! Finally, if you like what you hear, then please donate to support future episodes. The post The Cocktail Hour appeared first on Gastropod.
Caffeine: The World’s Most Popular Drug
A tablespoon of it will kill you, but most of us feel like death without it: we’re talking about caffeine this episode. Inspired by a listener question — does green tea have more or less caffeine than black? and what about yerba mate? — Cynthia and Nicky explore the history and science of the world’s most popular drug. Listen in as we discover the curious effect of birth control pills on how our bodies process it, calculate how much of an edge it gives athletes, and learn what dolphin dissection and the American Constitution have to do with each other, and with caffeine. Caffeine is a miracle of plant chemistry—one that evolved on four separate continents, thought experts are not entirely sure why. The prevailing hypothesis has been that caffeine functions as a pesticide, but, on this episode, food science guru Harold McGee shares more recent science that seems to contradict that. In any case, humans quickly figured out that caffeine-rich plant products—cacao beans, coffee berries, tea leaves, kola nuts, and more—made them feel great: sharper, less tired, and even a little stronger. Murray Carpenter, author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, gives us the scoop on the science behind how caffeine affects our brains and bodies, while author Bennett Alan Weinberg demonstrates caffeine’s impact by telling us the fascinating story of what happened when the stimulant finally arrived in Europe, a continent without a native source of its own. And, finally, we answer our listener Erik’s question, and not just by saying, “It’s complicated”—although, of course, it is. All sorts of variables, from particle size to roast darkness to steeping time, affect how much caffeine is in your afternoon pick-me-up. And that’s before we even get to variations in how different people metabolize caffeine—and how other drugs and foods can speed that process up or slow it down. Could that variation help explain the current “bulletproof coffee” craze, or is it all just the placebo effect? We talk to The New York Times Magazine‘s Jenna Wortham to find out what putting butter in your coffee does to your buzz. Listen in now—you’ll never look at your espresso, English Breakfast, or energy drink the same way again. Episode Notes Murray Carpenter’s Caffeinated Journalist and caffeine fiend Murray Carpenter’s book, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, includes all sorts of fascinating snippets about the drug. For example, did you know that one of Monsanto’s first products was caffeine? Or that synthetic caffeine and its natural counterpart are chemically identical, but can be differentiated using radiocarbon dating? (The carbon in synthetic caffeine comes from fossil fuels, so it’s much older than the carbon in plants.) Check out Murray’s book for all that and much more! Harold McGee Harold McGee writes about the chemistry of food and cooking, most famously in his book On Food and Cooking. He’s starred on Gastropod before, trying to help Cynthia overcome her dislike of cilantro. Bulletproof Coffee In her article, “You, Only Better,” Jenna Wortham meets the entrepreneur behind bulletproof coffee, Dave Asprey, as well as lots of other biohacking and self-optimization enthusiasts: read her story here, and follow Jenna on Twitter here. The World of Caffeine Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer co-authored The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug and maintain the World of Caffeine website. The post Caffeine: The World’s Most Popular Drug appeared first on Gastropod.
No Scrubs: Breeding a Better Bull
In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons. In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine—but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it. Along the way, we’ll introduce you to the insane logic of the Lifetime Cheese Merit algorithm and the surreal bull trials of the 1920s. This is the untold story behind that most wholesome and quotidian of beverages: milk. Prepare to be horrified and amazed in equal measure. New and Improved Bulls Something extremely bizarre took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, inspired by a confluence of trends. Scientists had recently developed a deeper understanding of genetics and inherited traits; at the same time, the very first eugenics policies were being enacted in the United States. And, as the population grew, the public wanted cheaper meat and milk. As a result, in the 1920s, the USDA encouraged rural communities around the U.S. to put bulls on the witness stand—to hold a legal trial, complete with lawyers and witnesses and a watching public—to determine whether the bull was fit to breed. Livestock breeding was a normal part of American life at the dawn of the twentieth century, according to historian Gabriel Rosenberg. The U.S., he told Gastropod, was “still largely a rural and agricultural society,” and farm animals—and thus some more-or-less scientific forms of selective breeding—were ubiquitous in American life. Meanwhile, the eugenics movement was on the rise. Founded by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics held that the human race could improve itself by guided evolution—which meant that criminals, the mentally ill, and others of “inferior stock” should not be allowed to procreate and pass on their defective genes. America led the way, passing the first eugenic policies in the world. By the Second World War, twenty-nine states had passed legislation that empowered officials to forcibly sterilize “unfit” individuals. A “Better Sires: Better Stock” accredited dairy herd. Combine the growing population, the desire for cheap meat and milk, and the increasing popularity of eugenics, and the result, Rosenberg said, was the “Better Sires: Better Stock” program, launched by the USDA in 1919. In an accompanying essay, “Harnessing Heredity to Improve the Nation’s Live Stock,” the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Industry proclaimed that, each year, “a round billion dollars is lost because heredity has been permitted to work with too little control.” The implication: humans needed to take control—and stop letting inferior or “scrub” bulls reproduce! Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Welcome to the Court of Bovine Justice The “Better Sires: Better Stock” campaign included a variety of elements to encourage farmers to mate “purebred” rather than “scrub” or “degenerate” sires with their female animals. Anyone who pledged to only use purebred stock to expand their herd was awarded a handsome certificate. USDA field agents distributed pamphlets entitled “Runts and the Remedy” and “From Scrubs to Quality Stock,” packed with charts showing incremental increases of dollar value with each improved generation as well as testimonials from enrolled farmers. The “Better Sires: Better Stock” certificate, awarded to farmers who pledged to use purebred rather than scrub bulls. By far the most peculiar aspect of the campaign, however, came in 1924, when the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial.” This mimeographed pamphlet contained detailed instructions on how to hold a legal trial of a non-purebred bull, in order to publicly condemn it as unfit to reproduce. The pamphlet calls for a cast of characters to include a judge, jury, attorneys, and witnesses for the prosecution and the defense, as well as a sheriff, who should “wear a large metal star and carry a gun,” and whose role, given the trial’s foregone conclusion, was “to have charge of the slaughter of the condemned scrub sire and to superintend the barbecue.” In addition to an optional funeral oration for the scrub sire and detailed instructions regarding the barbecue or other refreshments (“bologna sandwiches, boiled wieners, or similar products related to bull meat” are recommended), the pamphlet also includes a script that begins with the immortal lines: “Hear ye! Hear ye! The honorable court of bovine justice of ___ County is now in session.” The County’s case against the scrub bull is laid out: that he is a thief for consuming “valuable provender” while providing no value in return, that he is an “unworthy father,” and that his very existence is “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.” Several pages and roughly two hours later, the trial concludes with the following stage direction: “The bull is led away and a few moments later a shot is fired.” Within a month of publication, the USDA reported receiving more than 500 requests for its scrub-sire trial pamphlets. Across the country, the court of bovine justice was convened at county fairs, cattle auctions, and regional farmers’ association meetings, forming a popular and educational entertainment. The Order of Procedure, from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924. The Genomic Bull These bull trials may seem like a forgotten, bizarre, and ultimately amusing quirk of history, but, as Rosenberg reminded Gastropod, “they are talking about a lot more than just cattle genetics here.” Indeed, the very same year—1924—that the USDA published its “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” the State of Virginia passed a Eugenical Sterilization Law. Immediately, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, Director of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, filed a petition to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old whom he claimed had a mental age of 9, and who had already given birth to a supposedly feeble-minded daughter (following a rape). Buck’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., upholding the decision in a 1927 ruling that concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions. The verdict (a foregone conclusion), from the USDA’s “Outline for Conducting a Scrub-Sire Trial,” 1924. Eugenics, with its philosophical kinship to Nazism, largely fell out of favor in the U.S. by World War II. But the ideas promoted in the bull trials—that humans can and should take increasing control of animal genetics in order to design the perfect milk machine—have gained ground throughout the past century, as breeding has become ever more technologically advanced. As we discuss in this episode of Gastropod, the drive to improve dairy cattle through livestock breeding has led to huge innovations—in IVF, in genomics, and in big data analysis—as well as much more milk. But it has also continued, for better and for worse, to highlight the ethical problems that stem from this kind of techno-utopian approach to reproduction. In this episode of Gastropod, we find out about the bull trials of the 1920s and meet the most valuable bull in the world, as we explore the history and the high-tech genomic science behind livestock breeding today. Along the way, we tease out its larger, thought-provoking, and frequently deeply troubling implications for animal welfare and society in general. Listen now! Episode Notes Alexis Madrigal’s “The Perfect Milk Machine” Alexis Madrigal is currently Silicon Valley bureau chief for Fusion. This article, written while he was senior editor at The Atlantic, provides a terrific introduction to the concept of Lifetime Net Merit, to today’s “fast-paced bull semen market,” and to the (former) most valuable bull in America, Badger-Bluff Fannie Freddie. It’s a fantastic read. Lifetime Net Merit The Lifetime Net Merit algorithm for placing a dollar amount on the value a bull’s semen would add to his daughter’s productivity was developed by the USDA and introduced in 1994. You can read a short history of its subsequent evolution here. Still from “When the Cows Come Home,” a USDA Extension film, c. 1935, extolling the benefits of livestock improvement. At one point, the voiceover intones: “Domestic animals are supposed to be the slaves of man, but the man who owns a low-producing, non-profitable herd has this idea reversed.” Via the Prelinger Archive. Heather Huson’s Odyssey Lab Heather Huson is the Robert & Anne Everett Professor of Dairy Cattle Genetics at Cornell University. Her research uses genomic analysis to examine the evolution of heat adaptation, predisposition to mastitis, and population dynamics, including inbreeding, in the global dairy cow population. Outside the world of dairy cow DNA, she is part of the African Goat Improvement Project. A pampered dairy cow from the Cornell herd makes use of the back scratcher. Photo by Nicola Twilley. Gabriel Rosenberg Gabriel Rosenberg is an Assistant Professor in Duke’s Women’s Studies program, where his research explores the intersection between agriculture and human sexuality and gender. His first book, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America, will be published later this year. He is currently working on a second book, Purebred: Making Meat and Eugenics in the Modern United States, which will cover the 1920s scrub-sire trials. Michael Moss and the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center, Nebraska Michael Moss is a New York Times investigative reporter and author of Salt, Sugar, Fat. His recent article, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit,” revealed shocking examples of sustained animal cruelty at the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. As we describe in the episode, Moss’s article has prompted widespread concern and legislative action. Tom Philpott’s response at Mother Jones is here, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s response is described in this Reuters story, and proposed bi-partisan legislation to remove the agricultural research loophole in animal welfare legislation is outlined here. De Su Observer ET De Su Observer ET, via Progressive Genetics. In April 2013, De Su Observer ET toppled Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie to become the most valuable bull in America, with a Lifetime Net Merit of $792. According to a report in The Country Today, De Su Observer ET “transmits excellent production (1,602 pounds of milk) and protein (52 pounds and 0.02 percent).” In a press release, Select Sires semen providers claimed that his daughters “have exceptional udders (3.02 Udder Composite),” and “at 6 percent DBH (Difficult Births in Heifers), he’s a calving ease specialist.” Genomic Bulls In 2008, USDA began predicting Lifetime Net Merit scores based on the DNA of bulls that are too young to have sired daughters. (Previously, semen companies would have to wait four or five years, until the bull was old enough to have produced enough daughters to receive a Lifetime Net Merit score.) These so-called genomic bulls are typically better value for money than “proven” bulls, but carry the risk that their performance won’t match their genetic prediction. The post No Scrubs: Breeding a Better Bull appeared first on Gastropod.
Everything Old is Brew Again
Pull up a bar stool and prepare to open both your mind and your palate: it’s time to meet beer before it settled down into the fizzy brown brew we know and love today. The ales in this episode of Gastropod represent the future of flavor, but take their inspiration from the pre-industrial pint. Join us as we meet brewers who are making beer with local herbs, roast chicken, and yeasts scraped off the skin of wild blueberries—and then taste the surprisingly delicious results. Humans have been drinking beer for at least nine thousand years—and, for almost all that time, beer looked nothing like the industrial lager or hop-heavy craft brews popular today. All across the ancient world, from Egypt to China to South America, our ancestors figured out how to ferment wet grains, and then flavored the buzz-inducing result with whatever they thought might make it more palatable. Though today brewers consider hops a crucial ingredient in beer, it wasn’t until medieval Europe that the bitter plant became a popular addition; until then, hops were just “one of the bazillion things you could put in a beer,” brewer Butch Heilshorn told Gastropod. Cynthia, Butch Heilshorn, and Nicky at Earth Eagle Brewings. Photo by the awesomely talented Kathi Bahr. But, five hundred years ago, two Bavarian Dukes passed the Reinheitsgebot: a purity law that stipulated that beer must only contain barley, water, and hops. And while many contemporary craft brewers certainly do include additional ingredients that would violate this purity law, hops have become a foundational ingredient in nearly all beers around the world. Earth Eagle Brewings, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based brewery Heilshorn co-founded in 2012, is the exception to the rule. Heilshorn brews a new hop-free “gruit” every week. Just like generations of pre-Reinheitsgebot brewers, Heilshorn relies on a gruit, or blend of herbs, to bitter, preserve, and flavor his brews—the same functions performed by hops, but without the plant’s soporific effects. Made with local weeds such as sweet gale and yarrow, the resulting ales taste herbal, earthy, even medicinal—and completely unlike anything most modern drinkers would recognize as beer. Yeast is another crucial ingredient in beer that’s become standardized and industrialized. Before the 1860s, when Louis Pasteur proved that yeast causes fermentation, brewers unwittingly relied on wild local yeasts floating in the air, or cultured their own house yeast through intuition rather than science, re-using barrels or saving the dregs of one batch to inoculate the next, giving each local brew a distinctive taste and aroma. Post-Pasteur, yeast became stabilized, purified, and optimized: today, most brewers simply order one of a few dozen yeast strains—German Ale, say, or Czech Pils—from a catalogue. In the second half of this episode, we visit Bryan Greenhagen of Mystic Brewery, who is among a handful of brewers exploring the pre-industrial flavors created by wild and local yeasts. In 2013, Vinland 2, which Greenhagen made using yeast cultured from a Maine wild blueberry, became the first beer fermented solely with indigenous yeast to win a prestigious Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Recording Bryan Greenhagen at Mystic Brewery’s tap room. In this episode, we taste contemporary beers made with wild yeasts and herb blends—beers that, in many ways, more closely resemble those our ancestors drank for millennia, before purity laws and scientific advances. But Heilshorn and Greenhagen are not obsessively hewing to historical recipes in an attempt to reconstruct the past; instead, they’re part of a new wave of independent brewers who are trying to expand the flavor profile of beer by drawing inspiration from its more creative, less rigid roots. And that’s something to which even the most hop-mad, IPA-obsessed craft beer fan can raise a glass. Episode Notes “Remembering the forgotten (and then drinking it),” Draft Magazine Writing for Draft Magazine in May 2016, Belgian beer expert Joe Stange noted a recent wave of enthusiasm for pre-industrial ales, offering as evidence a series of recent conferences and events, as well as a new Smithsonian initiative to document American beer history. A Brief History of Beer Will Glenn and Trish Parry of Wish Experience present this “one-hour, drinkeractive comedy where the audience travels through time,” all the way back to the origins of beer in Ancient Sumeria. They’re on tour on the East Coast of the United States right now. Beer Purity Law Turns 500 This recent New York Times article marking its anniversary serves as a good introduction to the origins and implications of the five-hundred-year-old Reinheitsgebot. For a deeper dive, check out this piece in All About Beer magazine. Earth Eagle Brewings Earth Eagle Brewings is based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; we spoke with co-founder and co-owner Butch Heilshorn. Here’s a link for more on John Josselyn’s ale, the first recorded beer recipe from the New World. Emerson (Tad) Baker Emerson Baker is a professor of history at Salem State University. His most recent book is A Storm of Witchcraft, all about the Salem Witch Trials. International Gruit Day To find a gruit in your neighborhood, check out International Gruit Day, held at bars and breweries around the world every February 1. Mystic Brewery Mystic Brewery is in Chelsea, Massachusetts; we spoke to founder Bryan Greenhagen. In 2013, Mystic’s Vinland 2 won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, in the “Indigenous” category. Greenhagen is currently preparing Vinland 5 for release. The post Everything Old is Brew Again appeared first on Gastropod.
Are Insect Guts the Secret to the Most Delicious Kimchi?
This side dish of spicy, bubbly, funky pickled vegetables is such a staple in Korea that no meal is considered complete without it—but, recently, kimchi has found its way into burgers, pasta, grilled cheese, and even tacos. This episode, we trace the behind-the-scenes story of the “kimchi diplomacy” that turned Korea’s favorite fermented cabbage into an international food trend. And then, because we’re Gastropod, we take part in our very own cutting-edge science experiment to understand one of kimchi science’s most mysterious questions: where do the microbes that transform the sugars in cabbage into such tangy, savory flavors actually come from? Is it our hands? The soil? Or could the secret to all that deliciousness actually lie in the stomach of beetles and bugs? Listen in this episode for kimchi secrets, kimchi explosions, and a little bit of kimchi K-pop, too. “Koreans traditionally have kimchi at all three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” food ethnographer Kevin Kim told Gastropod. Some scholars say the true origin of kimchi lies in China and Chinese fermented vegetables, and others point out that the chili pepper that gives most kimchi its distinctive spiciness is a New World ingredient. But kimchi is so quintessentially Korean that, according to historian Michael Pettid, as early as 2,000 years ago, Chinese records remarked on the special fondness that the people living in the Korean peninsula had for fermented vegetables. More recently, Kim told Gastropod, Korean politicians have invested heavily in supporting kimchi producers, kimchi science, and kimchi marketing campaigns as a “soft power” strategy to promote the country and its culture overseas. Their efforts have paid off. As Lauryn Chun, creator of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi and author of The Kimchi Cookbook, can attest, today, kimchi is found on grocery store shelves across America, where it’s beloved for its salty, spicy, garlicky crunch, as well as its probiotic potential. Some credit the kimchi taco, which chef Roy Choi first served from his Los Angeles-based Kogi food truck in 2008, with inspiring kimchi’s cult status among foodies, but kimchi has since gone mainstream: in the past decade, the condiment has begun popping up on chain restaurant menus from TGI Fridays to California Pizza Kitchen. The microbial diversity of Cynthia’s kimchi, as plated by Esther Miller. Surprisingly, it turns out that all that deliciousness is dependent on a set of microbes—specifically, lactic acid bacteria—that are extremely hard to find on cabbages and in the field. “One thing that I find really fascinating about kimchi compared to other fermented foods is that, unlike cheese or salami or yogurt, where you use starter cultures—these microbes that you buy—kimchi is not inoculated,” said Tufts University researcher Benjamin Wolfe, who also serves as Gastropod’s in-house microbiologist. This made him wonder: if these bacteria don’t really like to hang out on cabbage leaves, and we don’t intentionally add them to our ferments, where do the microbes that turn cabbage into kimchi come from? To investigate, we team up on an experiment of our own, making multiple large jars of kimchi in an attempt to discover whether the microbes in the final ferment differ depending on the farm where the cabbage was grown. Listen now to find out the results of the experiment—and hear stories of insect-smushing, kimchi block parties, and the kimchi that was specially designed for space! Esther Miller with her sterile cabbages. Photo by Kevin White. Episode Notes Benjamin Wolfe You can find our microbiologist-in-residence Ben Wolfe at Tufts University, where he heads the Wolfe Lab, as well as on Twitter @lupolabs. He starred in our kombucha episode, as well as our episode all about cheese. Graduate student Esther Miller joined the Wolfe Lab in 2015, and her research focuses on microbial dynamics in the cabbage phyllosphere. Cynthia’s microbial terroir kimchi experiment in the lab. Kevin Kim Kevin Kim is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, in the department of American Studies. His focus on food ethnography includes research on “kimchi diplomacy.” Lauryn Chun Lauryn Chun is the founder of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi, and author of The Kimchi Cookbook. Michael Pettid Historian Michael Pettid’s book, Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History, is a definitive guide to kimchi’s origins and traditional cultural significance.   The post Are Insect Guts the Secret to the Most Delicious Kimchi? appeared first on Gastropod.
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Podcast Details
Sep 6th, 2014
Latest Episode
Dec 3rd, 2019
Release Period
No. of Episodes
Avg. Episode Length
42 minutes

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