Eat This Podcast

Feb 15 2021 17 mins 2.1k

Using food to explore all manner of topics, from agriculture to zoology. In Eat This Podcast, Jeremy Cherfas tries to go beyond the obvious to see how the food we eat influences and is influenced by history, archaeology, trade, chemistry, economics, geography, evolution, religion -- you get the picture. We don't do recipes, except when we do, or restaurant reviews, ditto. We do offer an eclectic smorgasbord of tasty topics. Twice nominated for a James Beard Award.

Still ticking
Feb 15 2021 22 mins  
As a young biology student, one of the things I and my classmates worried about was population. You didn’t need to be a mathematical whizz to understand the force of Thomas Malthus’ argument in An Essay on the Principle of Population, even if you didn’t agree with the methods he proposed for dealing with it. Firebrands like Paul Ehrlich whipped us up, and Limits to Growth from the Club of Rome provided food for thought as we contemplated future famines. And then, just like that, population vanished as a suitable subject for conversation. A textual analysis of loads of published works on how to feed the world confirms this impression. The number dealing with population becomes vanishingly small, even while those about increasing production just keep going up. A conversation with one of the paper’s authors, Giangiacomo Bravo of Linnaeus University in Sweden, prompted me to look back at some of the history. Notes * The trigger paper for this episode was From population to production: 50 years of scientific literature on how to feed the world. It is, alas, behind a paywall. * The Population Bomb is online, as is a 2009 appraisal of their work by Paul and Anne Ehrlich * I’m grateful to The Internet Archive for all the work they do. That’s where I found archive tape of Paul Ehrlich, Newsweek and Joseph van Arendonk. Jørgen Randers was from YouTube. * Just ignore this nonsense 5qikwjcph1aiCyoAte7sdel2P2iot2puh21lcz * Banner photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash. Huffduff it

The quest to conserve rare breeds
Feb 01 2021 26 mins  
Modern livestock breeds are incredibly efficient, gaining weight at a prodigious rate and supplying astonishing quantities of milk and eggs. That efficiency, however, comes at a cost: the food needed to support such a metabolism. Much of that food could be eaten directly by people, and certainly the lush pastures that support modern dairy cows, for example, might be put to better use growing food for people. But then, where will our meat, milk and eggs come from? Lawrence Alderson founded the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK in 1973. Those breeds, he contends, are the key to future food security. It is thanks to the foresight of Alderson and other visionaries around the world that rare and heritage breeds are still here to convert stuff we can’t eat into stuff we can eat. Notes * Lawrence Alderson’s has a website. His new book is The quest to conserve rare breeds: setting the record straight. If you follow that link (which is an affiliate link), you’ll do better by clicking on the flag at top right and switching to the UK front for * Here’s where to find out more about the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. * I remain dubious about the whole Sir Loin story, although I wasn’t going to press the point any harder than I did. Wikipedia seems to agree: “There is no reliable evidence for this explanation and scholars generally hold it to be a myth.” I don’t doubt that James I of England dined on some fine beef at Hoghton Tower in 1617, and the beef could well have come from White Park cattle. Did he knight it? Convince me. * In case you were wondering about the new herds of Northern Shorthorn Dairy cattle, I think this is one of the places Lawrence Alderson was talking about: Stonebeck Raw Wensleydale Cheese. * Rules 4 and 10 of Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits are why you should not plant trees on uplands. * Here is the transcript. * Banner photo of a White Park cow maintaining a Site of Special Scientific Interest on Salisbury Plain by Natural England/Paul Glendell used with permission Huffduff it

How the Brits became a nation of tea drinkers
Nov 30 2020 28 mins  
Erika RappaportErika Rappaport’s study of tea meticulously documents the many ways in which tea, as it became one of the first global commodities, was responsible for so many aspects of modern life. In the course of our conversation, it became obvious that there is no single reason why the Brits turned to tea. They were drinking roughly equal amounts of tea and coffee to begin with, long before coffee leaf rust arrived in Ceylon, but it was mostly Chinese tea. When the British East India Company decided to try their hand growing tea in Assam, they came up against one big problem: back home, nobody much liked the taste of Indian tea. Persuading them to change their minds was a massive undertaking involving racist rhetoric, fearmongering, and little glimpses of heaven on earth. And it worked. “Comparative Consumption,” Sir James Buckingham, A Few Facts about Indian Tea and How to Brew It(London: Indian Tea Association, 1910, p. 4. British Library shelf mark 07076.48 (4). Notes * Erika Rappaport shared just a few stories from tea’s not so glorious history. There is masses more in her book, and if you’re looking for a long read in which to lose yourself (or a loved one), I highly recommend A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. * Not entirely by chance, I also watched a video of William Dalrymple talking about his newish book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. Tea barely gets a look in, but there is so much else to digest. * There is now a transcript, thanks to the show's supporters Huffduff it

Where did the chicken cross the road?
Nov 16 2020 22 mins  
Not so long ago, the only clues we had to animal domestication came from archaeological digs. If you were lucky, you could get a reasonably accurate date for bones that were definitely not from wild animals, although the origin stories they told were vague and unsatisfying. More recently, molecular biology has come to the rescue in the form of DNA sequences, which can even — again with a bit of luck — be extracted from very old bones. Better yet, it has become routine to sequence DNA from all manner of living creatures, and those sequences can shed light on ancient events even when there are no bones in the picture. Olivier Hanotte is one of the foremost experts on livestock DNA, with a particular interest in indigenous African cattle. We spoke about research on chickens, sheep and cattle, and how understanding the history of domestication offers ideas for how to sustainably improve African cattle so that they can feed the growing African population. This picture of a fat-tailed sheep comes from A new history of Ethiopia.: Being a full and accurate description of the kingdom of Abessinia. Vulgarly, though erroneously, called the empire of Prester John. In four books … illustrated with copper plates. by Hiob Ludolf, published in English in 1684. On the subject of “fat and ponderous“ sheep tails, Ludolf says: the least of them weigh Ten and Twelve, the biggest of them sometimes above forty Pound, so the Owners are forc’d to tye a little Cart behind them, wherein they put the Tayl of the Sheep, as well for the convenience of Carriage and to ease the poor Creature, as to preserve the Wooll from durt and nastiness, and being torn among bushes and stones. Notes * The latest paper on African cattle is behind a paywall, but Olivier Hanotte wrote an excellent article about it for The Conversation. * The chicken paper is not behind a paywall. Have fun. * Nor is a paper on fat-tailed sheep from Ethiopia. * A proper discussion of fat-tailed sheep will have to wait, but in the meantime, here’s a fascinating blog post (and comments to match) on Anissa Helou’s website. * Here is the transcript. * Banner photo of cattle in Mozambique by ILRI/Stevie Mann. Red junglefowl photo by budak. Huffduff it

Whole grain labels sow confusion
Oct 19 2020 23 mins  
Timely to a fault, this episode comes out a couple of days after “farmers and meat lobbyists accuse plant-based food producers of ‘cultural hijacking’”. That’s in the EU, where this week the European Parliament will vote whether to ban the phrases “veggie burger“ and “veggie sausage,“ among others. Of course the plant-based food producers will have none of it, saying that “claims of consumer confusion are ridiculous”. Are they, though? Maybe not for meat, but definitely for whole grain foods. A recently published study showed that in the US consumers are indeed very easily confused by whole grain labels. In part, that’s because as long as you’re not actually lying, you can say things like “made with whole grains” without saying how much. There are industry-agreed labels, but they offer a fair amount of wiggle room too. So it isn’t really surprising that consumers often cannot decide which of two foods is “healthier”. Look carefully. There’s actually more salt than whole wheat flour in the one made with whole grains. Parke Wilde, professor of US Food Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, told me about their research. We also talked about labels more generally. Opponents of the EU proposals would prefer terms like “veggie disc” and “veggie tube”. I’m almost willing to bet real money that will never happen. But then there’s a whole ‘nother level of confusion, on which I do side with the farmers and the meat industry. Whatever you call them, plant-based discs and tubes are often touted as healthier alternatives, but given how much processing goes into their manufacture, and that — just like products “made with whole grains” — they may contain large quantities of things like salt, sugar and fat, are they really healthier than the red meat they might replace? Notes * Parke Wilde’s paper is Consumer confusion about wholegrain content and healthfulness in product labels: a discrete choice experiment and comprehension assessment, in the journal Public Health Nutrition. * The episode transcript is here, thanks to supporters of the podcast. * The Whole Grain Council’s page on Government Guidance is a good place to start exploring, if you want to learn more. That's where I got the banner photo. * Quotes about the looming EU battle from The Guardian. * An earlier episode with Parke Wilde was How much does a nutritious diet cost? Huffduff it

Carême at home in New Zealand
Sep 21 2020 18 mins  
I got an email from and absolutely had to follow up. What was Carême, perhaps the first great French chef, doing in New Zealand? Turns out, he is Jo Crabb’s hero, so of course that’s what she named her cooking classes and her website. I wanted to find out more, and Jo was kind enough to agree to chat over, I must admit, a slightly dodgy connection. (I can’t believe I am complaining, but I am. When you can talk forever, for free, halfway around the world, that ought to be enough. But no; I want pristine audio quality too.) Jo mentioned two local foods — abalone and cabbage tree — that I was not familiar with. Well, I knew of the existence of abalone, but not of pāua, which is the Māori name for the species. Jo said they were absolutely delicious, which seems to be confirmed by the fact that, despite stringent regulation, “there is an extensive black market,“ according to Wikipedia. And here’s an older piece from BBC News: Why abalone is New Zealand’s catch of the day. Cabbage tree — tī kōuka to the Māori — turns out to be Cordyline australis, which I recognised immediately despite having no idea that it was both edible and useful. Although it is endemic to New Zealand, you see it almost everywhere growing as an ornamental. Unfortunately, in its native home it has been beset by a mystery disease that started to wipe out populations in 1987. Although the cause is now known, a government site says there is still no cure, and exhorts people to keep planting more young cabbage trees. Notes * Jo Crabb’s website is Carême – Cooking classes in Martinborough. She also has a book — My Two Heavens: A Life in French Food, from Martinborough to Montjaux — available for Kindle. * Episode transcript is now available. * Photos from Jo Crabb. The banner shows students in her Easy French class piping out profiteroles. Huffduff it

How the chilli pepper conquered China
Sep 07 2020 30 mins  
Brian Dott researching chillies in ChinaThink of Szechuan food and you think of hot and spicy, chilli-laden dishes. At least, I do. Chilli pepper is firmly established as the most widely used spice around the world, and nowhere more so than in China. And yet, chillies were unknown in China before about 1570. They arrived by at least three different routes, almost certainly more than once in each area, and found favour with ordinary Chinese people extremely rapidly. The ruling classes were not nearly as taken with them, and by and large failed to understand their importance. That contrast lasted through the first two centuries of the chilli in China, although it did not stop chillies eventually permeating Chinese culture high and low. For the people of Szechuan and Hunan, they became an essential part of their identity. All this, and much, much more, comes from a new book by Professor Brian Dott, of Whitman College in Washington State. He combed through ancient texts and modern to trace the history of chillies in China and how they became such an essential element of life for so many people. Notes * Brian Dott’s book The Chile Pepper in China is published by Columbia University Press. This link will help you buy it from an independent bookshop in the US and this one in the UK. Both probably ship elsewhere too. * You can download a transcript, thanks to the generosity of people who support the show financially. Think about joining them. * I have no idea whether this version of Spicy Girls is a good one, but I thought I would share it anyway. * Banner photo, by Xinhua, shows farmers in Gansu Province airing drying chillis. I got it here uncredited. Huffduff it

Alexis Soyer
Jun 15 2020 18 mins  
Soyer in the Crimea with several of his army stoves, and Lord Rokeby and General Pelissier Alexis Soyer was perhaps the greatest chef of Victorian England. He designed the most modern kitchen of the 1840s and equipped it with many of his own inventions. He cooked unimaginably luxurious — and expensive — dinners for royalty and the aristocracy. He also built soup kitchens for the poor and his Famine Soup fed hundreds of thousands of destitute people in Ireland. His cookbooks sold in the hundreds of thousands, and sauces bearing his name brought luxury to the middle classes. He transformed British army cooking during the Crimean War, and the stove he invented for Crimea was still in use in the Gulf War in 1982. During the Crimean War, people said his name would live alongside Florence Nightingale’s. It didn’t, although lately Soyer, one of the first celebrity chefs, is being rediscovered. Notes * Ruth Brandon’s book The People’s Chef has different subtitles in different places. You should be able to find a copy. * Frank Clement-Lorford maintains a website dedicated to Alexis Soyer, where you can get his book and read, for example, about the restaurant, Soyer’s Universal Symposium of all Nations. There’s a more academic account by April Bullock in Gastronomica. * Many people who write about Soyer try to reproduce his recipes. Lost Past Remembered shares some history of the Reform Club with a version of Soyer’s famous grouse salad. * Hot on the Trail by Thomas A.P. van Leeuwen contains a few errors of fact but is good on Soyer’s inventions. Forgotten history – Soyer’s Stoves offers a more military perspective on his stoves. * Music by Podington Bear. Images from the Wellcome Trust. Huffduff it

Questions of Taste
Jun 01 2020 20 mins  
This is the third in a little mini-series on taste. First came Margot Finn discussing disputations about taste and then Chad Ludington explained how you are what you drink. Now they’re both back, along with a snippet from a long-ago episode with sommelier Marco Lori to round out the discussion. I can’t guarantee that I won’t return to the subject again in the future, not least because I find it endlessly fascinating. The challenge, I think, is disentangling aspects of gustatory taste that are common to all human beings from those that are overlaid — or do I mean underpinned? — by personal experience or cultural context. So when we say sweet is pleasurable and bitter aversive, what does it mean to say that an adult has a sweet tooth? I freely admit to having a bit of a sweet tooth myself, but I also revel in bitter tastes. How did that happen? Another puzzle is the memory of complex flavours and how we analyse, process, store and recall the memory. I’ve never put much effort into being able to discriminate among similar but different tastes; I can just about recognise certain wines, for example, but am in awe of people who can discern a particular maker or, even more so, a vintage. So I’m intrigued by Chad Ludington’s thought experiment, that a bunch of randomly selected people would, over time, converge on liking the same few examples of a particular food. Would they? I’d love to see the experiment tried. Our conversation sent me back to consider some things I first read back in 2011, on the website of Seth Roberts. He was an extremely interesting psychologist and writer who was a great one for self-experimentation. Seth wrote that side-by-side comparisons provided the best opportunity to learn about differences and resulted in an almost instant connoisseurship, which he called the Willats Effect after a friend who pointed it out to him. And, as Seth explained, there’s a downside to this: Five or six years ago I went to a sake-tasting event in San Francisco called “The Joy of Sake”. About 140 sakes. In a few hours I became such a sake connoisseur that the sake I could afford — and used to buy regularly — I now despised. The only sake I now liked was so expensive ($80/bottle) that I never bought another bottle of sake. Starting with The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs and following the links from there you’ll see that although the results are sometimes confounded, it does seem to be the case that side-by-side comparisons very effectively show you what you like. I’m ready to try that with chocolate. Or bitter liqueurs. You know where to find me. Notes * Food Fights, the book that prompted this mini-series, is published by University of North Carolina Press. * Chad Ludington teaches history at North Carolina State University. * S. Margot Finn is “inconsistently” on Twitter. * Marco Lori’s website is Off the Vine * Banner photo from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Those barbels around its mouth are where it keeps its taste buds. Cover photo by Anne on Flickr. Twitter photo by

You are what you drink
May 11 2020 21 mins  
Taste has never really been purely subjective, good taste has always come with the baggage of social status and moral superiority. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in politics, where the extended meanings of taste — refinement, discernment, judgement — brought with them an assumption that these were also the qualities associated with the ability to govern well. If you could choose a superior wine, of course you could choose a superior policy for the nation. Chad Ludington, Professor of History at North Carolina State University, has studied the politics of wine in Britain extensively. He told me how changes in the production of wine, against the background of changes in political relationships between England and France and in the social structure of England, combined to make one’s choice of wine an important statement about one’s self-image. In America, beer plays the part of wine in Britain, but the story is practically identical. Notes * Would you like a transcript? * Professor Ludington’s book is The Politics of Wine in Britain: A New Cultural History. * A few years ago we talked about How the Irish created the great wines of Bordeaux (and elsewhere). * Food Fights, the book that prompted this episode, is published by University of North Carolina Press. * Ale to the Chief (which is pretty clever) provides the background to Barack’s brews. * Official White House photo by Pete Souza. Bottles of port by F. Tronchin on Flickr. Portrait of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, by Jean-Baptiste van Loo. Huffduff it

Disputations about taste
Apr 27 2020 16 mins  
Taste is a very curious thing. We understand that how we taste something is almost entirely subjective, that while it depends to some extent on the physical and chemical properties of the things we’re tasting, the sensation is overlaid with all sorts of cultural and personal memories. Unless you have access to all of those, there’s nothing you can say about my taste. Except, we do that all the time. We slip easily from taste being indisputable to good taste and bad taste and from there to making taste the basis of moral judgements. What’s more, this is nothing new. These thoughts, and many more, were prompted by a new book: Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates. It contains two chapters that cover taste directly (and a third that considers food choice from a slightly different point of view). In an effort to straighten myself out on the subject, I talked to the two chapter authors, and they’re going to be the guests in at least the next two episodes. In the first instance, Margot Finn talked to me about the nature of taste and about how efforts to change people’s taste in food have often stemmed from a desire to change their behaviour. Notes * S. Margot Finn wrote Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution. She is “inconsistently” on Twitter. * Food Fights is published by University of North Carolina Press. Here’s one place to source a copy. * There is a transcript. * Harvard crew circa 1910 from the Library of Congress. Cover photo of cilantro by José Camba on Flickr Huffduff it

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World
Apr 13 2020 29 mins  
Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work as a wheat breeder. The disease-resistant, dwarf wheats that he developed were the foundation of the Green Revolution, banishing global famine and turning India into a food-exporting nation. Many people have hailed Borlaug as a saint, a saviour of humanity. Others have blamed him for everything that is wrong with the modern global food system. The truth, naturally, lies somewhere in between, which is brought out in a new documentary about Borlaug and his work. The documentary airs on PBS in the United States next week. I got the chance to see a preview and to talk to Rob Rapley, the writer, director and producer. As our conversation makes clear, I hope, Borlaug never really imagined he was improving the lot of small subsistence farmers. If he wanted to do that, he would not have been working on wheat. But he was very clear that all he had done was to buy us time. This is what he said in his Nobel Lecture in December 1970: The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. He also said “I believe it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problem of famine”. My fear is that we have done neither. We have not used the time bought us by Borlaug and the Green Revolution wisely, nor have we any idea what to do with the abundance. Notes * Rob Rapley’s documentary The Man Who Tried to Feed the World airs on 21 April in the American Experience strand on PBS; Here's the link for the episode. * The book Rob Rapley mentions right at the start is Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, about Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. Mann appears in the film too. * I cannot pass up the opportunity to promote an episode I made back in 2016. The True Father of the First Green Revolution is about Nazareno Strampelli, an Italian plant breeder whose work foreshadowed Borlaug’s by 40 years. * Small b&w photo of Borlaug with semi-dwarf wheats courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Arthur Rickerby * And, we have a transcript. Sorry for the delay. * Cover (and main) photo shows Norman Borlaug behind the wheel of a combine harvester with the Mexican field technicians who contributed to seed production in the winter at Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, c. 1952. Photo credit: CIMMYT. * Banner photo shows Borlaug in the field at what is now CIMMYT’s CENEB station (Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug, or The Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station), near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, in 1961. Note that the wheat is shoulder high, not a semi-dwarf variety (unless they are on their knees, which I doubt). Photo credit: CIMMYT Huffduff it

Coffee culture in Italy and England
Feb 03 2020 29 mins  
The original espresso coffee, at least as a widely available beverage, goes back only to the earliest years of the 20th century. That’s when Luigi Bezzera, a Milanese inventor, got his first patent on the machine that became the Pavoni Ideale in 1905. But while it was touted as an espresso machine, making coffee expressly for you at express train speed, we would not recognise the cup it offered as a modern espresso. Jonathan Morris, professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, describes it as slightly more concentrated filter coffee. The first modern version of the espresso, in 1947, wasn’t even called that. It was a caffè crema, for the creamy emulsion on top, which distinguished it from all previous coffees. Jonathan Morris and I talked about the growth of modern Italian coffee culture, taking in the fascists’ horror of inessential, un-Italian luxury goods and the transformation of the society from rural and agricultural to urban and manufacturing. More than that, though, the theatricality of the espresso machine helped to launch the London coffee bar which, even if the coffee was nothing like the Italian original, nevertheless drove the rise of the teenager and pop music. Notes * Jonathan Morris’ Coffee: a Global History is available from Reaktion Books. Enter “coffee20” at checkout to get a discount. * Expresso Bongo — “probably the best rock’n’roll movie made in England prior to A Hard Day’s Night" — can be bought from the British Film Institute, with lots of additional material. * There’s a fair bit online about the 2I’s coffee bar in London, not the first, but perhaps the most influential, certainly as far as music goes. I enjoyed this history. * Poster for La Victoria Arduino’s espresso by Leonetto Cappiello. Banner photo by Mark on Flickr.

Why a spurtle makes a superior porridge stirrer
Jan 20 2020 9 mins  
Here, for the New Year, is a confession and apology. I was completely wrong about porridge-stirring implements and I am here to make things right. In the episode about Porridge, I mocked the idea that the traditional Scottish spurtle, which to all intents and purposes is just a stick, might be better for stirring than a spoon. My (faulty) reasoning was that a spoon offered a greater surface area to break up lumps. In fact, as I now know, the stirrer does not break up the lumps directly. I noted in Eat This Newsletter 110 that a friend of a friend, who is a specialist in fluid dynamics, said that he had “a working, testable hypothesis”, which required only some worthy porridge in order to test it. So, I packed a bag of my favourite oats ready to meet up at Georgetown University in Washington DC. I should explain that Dr David A. Gagnon, the physicist in question, is the son-in-law of one of my dearest friends, who happened to be visiting when I was editing the episode. That was how David came to know of my puzzlement – and he has access to wonderful machines that can make very accurate rheological measurements. Rheology is the study of flow, and David’s idea was that the faster the stirrer moved through the porridge, the lower the viscosity of the porridge would be. Shear stress in a material like porridge would be greater at higher flow speeds, and it is the shear stress that gets rid of lumps. You can think of shear stress as being a difference in the speed of flow of the liquid across a small distance, multiplied by its resistance to flow. That resistance to flow is what we think of as viscosity. In a viscous liquid, like honey, the stirrer produces a lot more shear stress than it would moving through water at the same speed. But there’s a crucial difference between honey and water. In water, the viscosity is the same no matter how fast the stirrer moves. Honey is different; the viscosity decreases the faster the stirrer moves. And that means that the stirrer produces more shear stress when it is moving quickly through the honey than when it is moving more slowly. David’s idea was that fast stirring would result in lower viscosity, and lower viscosity would result in greater shear stress. To get back to porridge, and to lumps, consider a lump as the stirrer moves past it. Relatively speaking, the part of the lump in the slower flow near the edge of the stirrer is being held fast, while the part in the faster flow is being pulled away, and that’s what destroys the lump, pulling it apart. The rheometer measures all that. It has two circular plates, one above the other, and the bottom plate can be rotated very accurately through a known distance at a known speed. David carefully loaded a little bit of porridge onto the bottom plate and then lowered the top plate to make contact with the porridge. The layer of porridge mechanically connects the bottom plate to the top plate, which in turn is connected to sensors that accurately measure how fast and how far it rotates. Meanwhile, David had programmed the machine to oscillate the bottom plate over a wide range of frequencies. The faster the oscillation, the greater the stress on the porridge. The machine then takes all those measurements and creates a set of graphs that describe the rheological properties of the porridge. The viscosity graph, photographed directly from the screen.The graph appeared and I confess it was really exciting to watch the points appear. A straight line down from top left to bottom right over a h...

Cow sharing in the European Alps
Dec 23 2019 18 mins  
Well-connected urbanites have become very familiar with aspects of the sharing economy. Why own a car, when you can share someone else’s, complete with driver? In the right places, you can even share power tools that would otherwise spend most of their lives asleep in someone’s tool chest. True sharing is not quite the same as the gig economy, where in essence you are buying a tiny slice of someone’s time to deliver your pizza, walk your dog or assemble your flat-pack furniture, although the two are used somewhat interchangeably. But while the sharing economy would, at first glance, seem to be a feature of city life, it has in fact long been vitally important in the country. Farmers have always depended on their neighbours to help with physical work and, often, to share machinery in a variety of ways. Then there’s community supported agriculture, in which people, usually city dwellers, pay in advance for a share in the produce from a market garden or farm. Cow-sharing agriculture is a new twist on CSA that is spreading through the European Alpine region. There are now around 60 cow-sharing schemes available online, and a recent paper by Katharina Gugerell and her colleagues looked into the similarities and differences among them, asking “What are participants of cow sharing arrangements actually sharing?” Notes * The paper is behind a paywall. If you look hard you may be able to find a copy * The alphorn and vocal music at the start and end of the episode were from Swiss Alpine Music. * I may be guilty of over-romanticising the whole thing with my selection of images, all of which are from Flickr. So, thanks to peter barwick, peter barwick, Jonas Löwgren, perkins_barbara and Robert J Heath.

Cashews, the World Bank, and Mozambique
Nov 25 2019 18 mins  
In the wake of the previous episode on how capuchin monkeys find their food, I learned that many people were unaware just how difficult and dangerous it is to get cashew nuts. Not for us, of course; you just buy a little bag of them. For the people who process the nuts to fill those bags, however, it is a very different story. Permanently damaged fingers, burned by the acid that protects the cashew, are an occupational hazard for the hundreds of thousands of women who extract the kernels. Mozambique was once the world’s top producer of cashew nuts, and the women who worked there enjoyed better than average conditions. In the aftermath of the civil war there, however, the World Bank stepped in with a rescue package and a cashew nut policy that destroyed the industry. The history of the cashew in the West is relatively recent. A 1917 report on the Indian Cashew-Nut Industry from the Royal Society of Arts says sniffily that the cashew apple “is eaten only by the lowest classes, and quantities of it are wasted”. At that time, total exports from India amounted to about 680 metric tons. The report explains: Cashew nuts are prepared for table use in much the same manner as roasted almonds, the flavour of which they are said to resemble slightly. They are not unlike almonds in shape, though thinner and more elongated, and many of them are concavo-convex. The exported nuts are no doubt bought chiefly by East Indians residing in foreign countries, or by persons who have acquired a taste for them by residence in India. They are sometimes made into confectionary with sugar. Dangerous nuts It isn’t often that the dangers of badly prepared cashews come to light for those of us who view them as a snack rather than work with them directly. The best example I have found dates to April 1982. A Little League organisation in Southcentral Pennsyvania bought almost 3000 bags of cashews to sell as a fund-raiser. Fifty-four people who ate the cashews developed an itchy dermatitis very like a poison ivy rash. Only three of them suffered blisters in the mouth. Most (97%) had the dermatitis on their extremities, while 66% had the rash on their trunk, 45% in the groin, 34% in the armpits and 21% on the buttocks. An unfortunate “four persons reported perianal itching”. All of which raises, for me, the question of how exactly the cashews provoked the reaction. Aside from the mouth and the extremities, and possibly the perianal itching, where it could clearly be as a result of contact, could the irritant have spread internally? Or was it, as I believe happens with poison ivy, the result of scratching the rash in one place and then touching the skin elsewhere? Unfortunately, the report from the Centers for Disease Control does not say. Investigators did examine 14 unsold bags of cashews. Five of them contained pieces of cashew shell. I’m guessing nobody ate cashew shell by accident, so I can only imagine that the acid from the shell rubbed off onto the nuts and from there onto the skin. The nuts, alas, had been imported from Mozambique. Notes * Joseph Hanlon’s paper Power without Responsibility: The World Bank & Mozambican Cashew Nuts describes the state of play in 2000. * Discussion of the Brookings Institution paper in The Harvard Gazette article Mozambique cashew case illustrates hazard of imposed solutions. * Information on gender from

Oct 07 2019 21 mins  
Porridge, for me, is made of oats, water, a bit of milk and a pinch of salt. Accompaniments are butter and brown sugar or, better yet, treacle, though I have nothing against people who add milk or even cream. So, while I’ve been aware of the inexorable rise of porridge in all its forms, I’ve been blissfully ignorant of the details. When I make, or eat, a risotto or a dal, I certainly don’t think of it as a porridge. Maybe now I will, and all because Laura Valli took the trouble to send me a copy of her research paper Porridge Renaissance and the Communities of Ingestion. We had fun chatting about porridge, about how she helped start the only porridge cafe in her native Estonia, and about her participation in the World Porridge Making Championship last year, in Carrbridge, Scotland. As a result of which, despite the fact that I am usually the last person in the world to know about the international day of this, that or the other, I’m totally ready for Thursday 10 October and World Porridge Day. Notes * Thank you Laura for getting in touch and for your photos. * On the spurtle, I welcome further details on why you should use one. In the meantime, I note that Neal Robertson, two time winner of the Golden Spurtle, despite having a quiver-full of spurtles to his name, uses a spoon in this video demonstration * More on the 26th Annual Golden Spurtle® World Porridge Making Championship® and World Porridge Day * NPR had a great article about Norway’s Traditional Porridge last year. * Music adapted from bagpipe shredding by zagi2. Huffduff it

Radish redux
Sep 23 2019 16 mins  
Earlier this summer, I learned about a talk at the annual conference of the American Society for Horticultural Science. The press release said it “holds all the intrigue of a murder mystery and all the painstaking, arduous pursuit of an archeological dig, along with a touch of serendipity”. And it concerned the rediscovery of a kind of radish that in its day was extremely famous. My kind of mystery. Naturally I had to talk to the sleuth cum Indiana Jones, Dr Gary Bachmann. Before I did so, though, I did a bit of digging of my own so that I’d be able to contribute a clue myself. The rediscovery of the radish that put Long Beach, Mississippi, on the map raises all kinds of questions for vegetable sleuths, amateur and professional. Can you identify a variety beyond reasonable doubt? Does that even matter, if the culprit matches the suspect closely enough? And how many radishes would fill a boxcar? The radish in question Notes * There are a few suppliers of Cincinnati Market radish out there, plus just about every combination of the words long, scarlet, cincinnati and radish. I’d get it from the US National Plant Germplasm System, but like I said, I’m a bit obsessive about these things. * Photo of the radish itself from Gary Bachmann. * Resurrecting lost vegetables is not restricted to keen gardeners. Local communities do it too, recovering varieties that they gave to genebanks and later lost. And genebanks work with other genebanks in search of national varieties that they may have lost. During his time at the Nordic Genebank, Svein Solberg’s team repatriated 329 varieties from the Vavilov genebank in Russia. * Music by Black Keys Bob Stevenson. I have no idea who Black Keys Bob Stevenson is, but I thank him and the Internet Archive. Huffduff it

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or
Aug 12 2019 24 mins  
The most recent extension of the containment zone now covers the whole of the Salento peninsulaIn 2013, a few olive trees near Gallipoli, in Lecce province in the heel of Italy’s boot, seemed to be dying of drought even though there was water. Turned out they had a disease caused by a nasty bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, and it was the first time this particular disease had been identified in Europe. In California, where Xylella causes Pierce’s Disease in grapevines, it costs about a million dollars a year to try and control it. Plans were quickly drawn up in an attempt to control the disease, and equally quickly disrupted. One of the 10 potentially resistant olive seedlings discovered in a dead olive grove Instead of killing maybe 3000 trees, more than four million have died in the past six years, and the disease is completely out of hand. When I was in Puglia in 2015, having just got interested in the story, it was quite exciting to see the occasional dead tree, marked for removal. This year, I was sickened to find whole landscapes, once covered with the glittering silver of olive leaves, brown and lifeless. How did that happen? Notes * Many, many sources provided the information that underpins this episode, notably Diffusion of xylella in Italian olive trees, a website that acts as a kind of clearing house, and the pages it linked to. * An earlier episode on Xylella clearly wasn’t pessimistic enough. * Music by Dasgoat and PSOVOD on Freesound and Podington Bear. * Photos by me, except for the seedling, which I found here. Huffduff it

Celebrating Passover and Easter
Apr 15 2019 34 mins  
Whether the last supper was a Passover Seder I do not know. I do know that the rituals of the Passover dinner have been in place for thousands of years, although always open to evolution. And yet, there don’t seem to be any universal elements about Easter celebratory foods. The episode looks at these two contrasting aspects of ritual food. First, Susan Weingarten talks about an essential item on the Passover table that is not mentioned in God’s original instructions for the last supper of the Israelites in Egypt. Then, I talk to Lois Long about a recipe made famous by her mother, Edna M. Holmgren. Magic Marshmallow Crescent Puffs won the Pillbury Bake-Off in 1969 and were subsequently expropriated by some Christians to retell the story of the resurrection. The recipe This copy of Edna Holmgren’s recipe is not quite the original. Lois Long told me that “the flour in the cinnamon sugar mixture was Pillsbury’s idea. I cut it down to 1 tbsp but I don’t like it. The original recipe has no flour.” I do wonder what it is there for. Possibly to soak up melting gooeyness, because many of the comments on the Hall of Fame website are complaints about the mess if the pastry isn’t very carefully sealed. Edna Holmgren and her daughter Lois Long at Pillsbury's Hall of Fame celebration in 1988 Notes * Susan Weingarten’s book Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History is published by The Toby Press. * Huge thanks to Lois Long for sharing her time, her memories, and copies of some of her memorabilia. * The cover image is a print by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen after Albrecht Dürer, from the Rosenwald Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. * The banner image of The Last Supper is by the workshop of Pedro Berruguete, circa 1495–1500, a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. * Oooops. Oh dear. I thought I had double checked the date of Pesach, but I apparently got it wrong. I said Thursday. It is Friday. Sincere apologies. Huffduff it

A historian of bread on the history of bread
Apr 01 2019 25 mins  
In matters of personal taste there are no absolutes. I like this, you like that. But does that also mean that there is no good, no bad? That is a surprisingly complex question, especially when it comes to as fundamental a food as bread. William Rubel is a freelance historian of food who seems to take a delight in pricking the pretensions of people like me, who think that some kinds of bread are better than others. “Why can’t we like what we like?” he asked in a defence of supermarket packaged bread. To which I say, “Like it if you like, but don’t tell me it is good.” He also says that there is no historical tradition of using a leaven among Anglophone bakers, which somehow diminishes the efforts of English-speaking bakers to “revive” the use of sourdough leavens and long fermentation. And that revival denigrates supermarket bread. Well, yes. At least as far as my own tastes go. But I wanted to understand this historian’s view of bread, and was glad that William Rubel accepted my invitation to be a guest on the podcast. Notes * William Rubel's Bread: A Global History is available from Amazon. His website contains some good stuff, although it hasn't been updated in a while * Our exchange started with William’s response to an item someone shared with his Facebook group. That’s where he said “I find the flat out demonization of the Chorleywood process hard to accept. Why can’t we like what we like?” * On my own website – this one, right here – I was more than happy to explain Why I don’t like the Chorleywood Bread Process. * Searching for information on the world’s biggest baker, I was very pleased to learn that Bimbo has replaced hardtack at least for some sailors. * The banner photo of Bimbo bread is by Oatsy40 on Flickr. Huffduff it

Prehistoric food globalisation
Mar 18 2019 20 mins  
For a while, archaeologists treated the origins of agriculture – where it began, how it spread – as a minor element in the grand sweep of human history. That started to change with new techniques that could identify preserved plant remains, especially cereal seeds, in the detritus of archaeological digs. Then came the ability to tell what people had been eating by looking at the chemicals in their bones. And every day new discoveries in genetics add yet more details. Martin Jones, Pitt Rivers professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, has spent his entire working life studying the archaeology of crops. With some colleagues, he has now published a paper that offers a more detailed, and more nuanced story of agriculture. Crops were moving much further much earlier, and as they did so early farmers grew the confidence, the resources and the knowledge to move up into the mountains and down into the river basins. Far from being a minor element in archaeology, the journeys of the first farmers and their crops established the routes along which the rest of human development travelled. Notes * The paper, From ecological opportunism to multi-cropping: Mapping food globalisation in prehistory, is behind a paywall, but there is a very good press release. * That press release is also the source of the animation, which illustrates how four of the ancient world’s most important domesticated grain crops spread across the Old World between 7,000 and 3,500 years ago, by Javier Ventura, Washington University. * The banner photograph I built from Tilling Rice, after Lou Shou, a scroll in the Freer/Sackler Museum. OK, so it’s late 13th century, long after the period we are talking about, but there isn’t any contemporaneous imagery as far as I’m aware and in any case it is charming. Go look. Huffduff it

We need to talk about meat
Mar 04 2019 27 mins  
Francesco Buscemi Meat is once again a central topic in nutrition, sustainability, health and capitalism. Points pro and con fly back and forth with no resolution in sight, not surprising given the doctrinaire nature of the discussion. I know where I personally stand, but I also want to try and understand why it is that people feel so much more strongly about meat than about any other element of the diet. That’s why I was very glad to meet Francesco Buscemi last year, and to persuade him to talk to me about his research on the many meanings of meat. Some chicken … Francesco’s aside about Winston Churchill was sufficiently intriguing to send me searching. What Churchill wrote was We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. The quotation is apparently well-loved by anti-meat campaigners, but was unknown to me. It appears in an essay called Fifty years hence that was published first in Maclean’s magazine in November 1931 and then in many other places, with minor edits. The version easiest to find online is in Popular Mechanics a few months later, somewhat more adventurous in some of its predictions. The chicken quote precedes other prognostications on the same subject. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future. Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished. That gloomy Utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded. The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation. Tabloid, here, is used in the sense of a small, concentrated dose, and I’m surprised it isn’t capitalised, being a brand name trade-marked by the Burroughs & Wellcome drug company. Would Winston have embraced a meat-free vegan chicken drumstick? Are the new foods “indistinguishable”? I have my doubts, but what’s an out of work jobbing journalist to do? Butcher shops in Italy do still display full carcasses, especially in touristy towns. The Adriatic question Aside from Churchill, the other fascinating byway down which Francesco’s book beckoned me was the Regency of Fiume, established by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1920. You can find a fair bit of information in Wikipedia and elsewhere. I haven’t explored all that much, but it does seem that d’Annunzio created a forerunner of facism and hippy communes. The Writer, Seducer, Aviator, Proto-Fascist, Megalomaniac Prince Who Shaped Modern Italy is great fun and gives some of the flavour of the man. Notes * Francesco Buscemi’s book From Body Fuel to Universal Poison: Cultural History of Meat: 1900-The Present is available through Amazon. * Personally, I’m avoiding all discussion of the comparative merits of different forms of non-meat. There’s just too much uncertainty about almost all of the assumptions. * Reducetarianism really is a thing. What kind of thing, I couldn't possibly say. * Postage stamp of d’Annunzio scanned by Stan Shebs, Public Domain.

Moxie Bread, Louisville, CO
Feb 04 2019 27 mins  
Andy Clark left Massachusetts in 1994 and wormed his way into one of the iconic bakeries of Boulder, Colorado. After that, he spent 15 years running bakeries for Whole Foods Market. All the while, he was squirreling away ideas and thinking of his own place, where he could focus on 30 great loaves a day, instead of 30,000 for The Man. The result is Moxie Bread Co in Louisville, Colorado, as warm and welcoming a place as I have ever had the pleasure to visit. We talked about bread, and grain, and about creating a welcoming experience. Oh, and perhaps the most decadent pastry I have ever tasted. That pastry is the kouign amann, an impossibly delicious amalgam of yeasted dough, butter and sugar that comes originally from Brittany in northern France. All the write-ups of Moxie agreed that their kouign amann was out of the world, and I was somewhat miffed that I had never heard of the things. Now that I have … Notes * Huge thanks to Andrew Calabrese for making the introductions and the arrangements. What a great day. * Also to our family and friends in Colorado for their friendship and hospitality. * Moxie Bread Co is, of course, online. * To learn more about kouign amann, I turned first to David Lebovitz, for a recipe and some alleged history. * Eater turned to David Lebovitz too, for its informative piece about The Obscure French Pastry Making it Big in America. * There’s apparently even a National Kouign Amann Day, on 20 June. If I can find one, I’ll be eating it. Huffduff it

Facts about Champagne: Part 2
Dec 31 2018 17 mins  
Mme Pommery's establishment, outside Reims This is the second of two episodes in which Dr Graham Harding traces the rise and rise of Champagne. In Part One, how the secondary fermentation that gives champagne its sparkle went from being a bad fault to a sought-after feature, as the drink itself became drier and drier to accompany food. A Punch cartoon from 1862, as the elite was chasing champagne drier. Generically, champagne signalled status, and the market grew, but the Champagne houses did not advertise to gain market share. Instead, they developed the black arts of product placement and public relations, none more so than Madame Pommery’s director of business in London, Adolphe Hubinet. Where he led, others followed. Pommery placed in a Punch cartoon: Our Derby Day reserves. Derby Day, by William Powell Frith (1856-8) Finally, tip-toeing in champagne’s high-status footsteps came Babycham, prosecco and cava each with their own promise and allure. Graham Harding has views on them too. Notes * Ever wondered about the origins of the Champagne socialist? Jeremy Parzen tracked it down. * Babycham rebooted, kinda sorta, plus the BBC takes a deeper dive into How Babycham changed British drinking habits. * Spraying bubbly after a race? Blame Dan Gurney after his win in the 1967 Le Mans 24-hour. * William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day (1856–8) courtesy of The Tate N00615 (Licenced CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), and taken from the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer, which has Jeroboams of additional information. Huffduff it

Good things from Nürnberg
Dec 10 2018 20 mins  
Nürnberg, or Nuremberg if you want to avoid umlauts, means different things to different people. Indeed it means different things to a single person: me. There’s all the nasty stuff, and then there are the artists, the composers and, first and foremost – the cookies. Lots of things call themselves lebkuchen, but the ones from Nuremberg are the only ones with a protected geographical indication. They are one of the high spots of German festive baking, but one that I have never attempted myself. For ages, I have wanted to know what makes Nuremberger lebkuchen so special, but the first time I visited the city it was springtime and all the traditional lebucken shops were, quite properly, closed. My second visit was last October, in the full flood of lebkuchen season, and I was incredibly lucky that the person I was going to see happened to know of someone he called “a lebkuchen superstar”. Notes * Uwe Felch has a website for his traditional Nürnberger lebkuchen but I don’t think he does mail order. * If you really want to try making Nuremberger lebkuchen at home (I still haven’t) I did find one recipe online that looked authentic and manageable, although I wouldn’t bother with the glaze. No gilded lilies for me. Kim even has a recipe for the spice mixture, though whether it is the same as Uwe’s, only Uwe would know. * Nürnberger Bratwürste also have an IGP and are also delicious. Maybe next time … * Music by the St. Thomas Boys Choir, Leipzig. * Cover and other photos by Joschi Kuphal. Banner photo by me. Coloured woodcut of Nuremberg, aptly, from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Huffduff it

Is that a pickle …
Nov 26 2018 23 mins  
To me, a pedant and a purist, a pickle by rights ought to have gone through a proper fermentation. It might have been pasteurised afterwards and bottled, but at some stage it needs to have supported microbial activity. And yet, I don’t think of kombucha as pickled tea or yoghurt as pickled milk. Maybe that’s because they aren’t salted. Just being boiled in vinegar or soaked in brine doesn’t qualify either, for me. Luckily Jan Davison, author of Pickles: A Global History, has a much more open mind, which is great, because I learned a lot from her little book. And it gave us plenty to talk about. However, there was plenty we didn’t talk about, or at least not in detail. Sushi I had no idea about the history of sushi, so I went looking. * From the bibliography in Jan’s book, I found Traditional Japanese Foods and the Mystery of Fermentation, which in turn led me to Food Culture, a journal published by Kikkoman. That will keep me occupied for years. * Far less demanding, a little article on Fermented Sushi, the origin of Sushi. * And if that gives you a taste for the real thing, Tokuyamazushi: Wild dining from lake and forest in Shiga in The Japan Times has the lowdown. Refrigerator pickles Again, my ignorance knows no bounds. So while I have been perfectly happy slicing cucumbers and onions, sprinkling them with a bit of salt and leaving them in the fridge overnight, I’ve never thought of them as pickles. There are scores and scores of recipes for such things; I’ll leave finding them as an exercise. Piccalilli Truly, I had forgotten the delight of mixing bright yellow picalilli into the mash that invariably accompanied English sausages in my youth. I like to think it was about taste as much as it was about colour, but I may be fooling myself. While I have never made my own, I am resolved to give it a go, using the recipe and instructions shared by my friend Katie Venner at Tracebridge in Somerset. They give lessons too, in fermentation and sourdough. Notes * If you haven’t already seen it, Samin Nosrat’s wonderful series on Netflix is a joy. Episode Two, on salt, has a fair bit on Japanese pickles. * Photos by me, in Izmir, Turkey, and at home. Huffduff it

A communal oven in Christchurch, New Zealand
Oct 29 2018 16 mins  
In 2010 and then again in 2011, Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, suffered two huge earthquakes. The first destroyed buildings, but few people were hurt. The second brought more buildings crashing down and, because it happened around midday when the buildings were full of people, killed 185. Simon Gray is an artist, living on the North Island at the time of the disasters. He had come to regard his regular bread-baking as therapy sessions of a sort, and decided to move to Christchurch to offer bread to the people there as a way to cope with what they had experienced and to help rebuild their lives and their community. I heard about it because Simon sent me information about an event – A Bread Companion – he was organising, one of 55 events at FESTA 2018, which has just ended. FESTA is the Festival of Transitional Architecture, a weekend knees-up to celebrate urban ingenuity and rebirth and tempt people back into the centre of Christchurch. Of course I wanted to chat to Simon Gray about A Bread Companion. Notes * Phillipstown Community Hub has a Facebook page. * The pepper tree that Simon mentioned, as a local spice used by Maori people: it must be one of the species of Pseudowintera. * Rewena bread gets a Wikipedia entry too; for me, it needs more solid information. * Simon told me about the Bread Houses Network, which does similar sorts of things, and I’ve since discovered others. I would love to learn about other people using bread and baking to heal. Photos from Phillipstown Community Hub. Huffduff it

Food as Power
May 28 2018 21 mins  
Shortly after the end of World War 2 in Europe, one of the quintessential boffins who had worked on the war effort turned his attention to the most pressing problem of the peace: a shortage of coal and oil. But where others saw the problem as a lack of transport, Geoffrey Pyke, saw a much more fundamental problem; a lack of food. Food required transport, and there was no fuel to power the engines. Pyke came up with a solution. Use the chemical energy in food to fuel muscular engines. This episode is an abbreviated version of a paper on Food as Power: An Alternative View, which I am presenting on 30 May 2018 at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium. The entire symposium is on Food and Power, so what’s alternative about my view? Pyke’s insight, that the production and transport of food requires muscular power, remains true today, and despite the very clear evidence and advice that Pyke offered in 1946, it also remains more or less ignored. Muscles versus steam engines A crucial part of Pyke’s argument is the greater efficiency of muscles compared to steam engines, and that slips by relatively quickly in the podcast. So, here’s the diagram that Pyke published in The Economist Efficiencies of steam engine and human muscle compared. Apologies for quality; photographed on a monitor. And here’s the detailed logic: A pound of coal contains about 3150 calories, and if fed directly into a steam engine will produce about 175 calories of useful work. A pound of coal can also be used to refine sugar beets, in which case it will produce about a pound of sugar. The sugar contains about 1820 calories. Feed that to a man, and his muscles can turn it into about 365 calories of useful work. The man’s overall efficiency is about 11.5 percent, versus the steam engine’s 5.5 percent. Convert the coal into sugar, then, and you can get twice the useful work out of people than if you feed the coal to a steam engine. Pyke argued that it would be “more economic, and politically necessary” to use what little coal there was to refine beet sugar than to power locomotives. And, as he sagely pointed out: Half of the sugar–given the appropriate equipment– would be needed for the haulers taking the place of the steam engines, but the other half would be available to feed other workers such as coal miners, whose present output is so heavily reduced for want of food. Muscles still do most of the work Seventy years on, FAO estimates that muscles still provide 94 percent of the energy for global food production, about one-third animal muscle and two-thirds human muscle. One of the abiding problems is that women, who produce much of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, often have no choice but to use inefficient tools, designed for and bought by men. So metaphorical power also is relevant. But perhaps the saddest observation is that engineers have done masses of work to create tools and machines that make better use of the muscular power supplied by smallholder farmers and draught animals. These tools and machines have proved themselves in manifold trials on experimental stations, but they are ignored by the farmers for whom they were developed. The Colonial Office, in 1946, warned Pyke that it would be the people, not the equipment, that might pose a problem, and so it has proved. One report I read was rather plaintively subtitled “Perfected but rejected”. Notes * The 2018 Dublin Gastronomy Symposium on Food and Power takes place on 29 and 30 May 2018. * My own paper Food As Power: an Alternative V...

Food safety and industry concentration
May 14 2018 16 mins  
In the previous episode, I talked to Phil Howard of Michigan State University about concentration in the food industry. Afterwards, I realised I had been so taken up with what he was telling me that I forgot to ask him one crucial question. Is there any effect of concentration on public health or food safety? It seems intuitively obvious that if you have long food chains, dependent on only a few producers, there is the potential for very widespread outbreaks. That is exactly what we are seeing in the current outbreaks of dangerous E. coli on romaine lettuce and Salmonella in eggs. But it is also possible that big industrial food producers both have the capital to invest in food safety and face stiffer penalties when things go wrong. Are small producers and short food chains better? Marc Bellemare, at the University of Minnesota, has uncovered a strong correlation between some food-borne illnesses and the number of farmers’ markets relative to the population. Phil thinks one answer is greater decentralization. There’s no good reason why all the winter lettuce and spinach in America should come from a tiny area around Yuma, Arizona. Marc says consumer education would help; we need to handle the food we buy with more attention to keeping it safe. Both solutions will take quite large changes in behaviour, by government and by ordinary people. Right now, it probably isn’t possible to say with any certainty whether one system is inherently safer than the other. But even asking the question raises some interesting additional questions. If you have answers, or even suggestions, let me know. Notes * Phil Howard’s work on food-borne illness is on his website. * Marc Bellemare’s work on farmers’ markets and food-borne illness has gone through a few iterations. He’ll email you a copy of the final paper if you ask. * An episode early last year looked at aspects of food safety in developing countries. Spoiler: shorter food chains are safer there. * Banner photo, norovirus. Cover photo, E. coli. Both public domain to the best of my knoweldge. Huffduff it

Apr 02 2018 27 mins  
Brewers have long appreciated the value of hops from the Pacific northwest, but it was Cascade, a variety practically synonymous with craft brewing, that made the area more generally famous among beer drinkers. Cascade was named for the Cascade Range, which runs down the west coast of North America. The home of the Cascade hop is the Willamette valley, roughly halfway between the mountains and the coast. Cascade was released in 1972, but the history of hops in the Willamette valley goes back to the 1830s. The industry has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs, all examined by historian Peter Kopp in his book Hoptopia. The whole question of changing tastes in beer, and how that affects the fortunes of different hops, is fascinating. If you’ve been a listener forever, you may remember a very early Eat This Podcast, about the rediscovery of an English hop known prosaically as OZ97a. Deemed too hoppy and abandoned when first tried, the vogue for craft beers resurrected its fortunes. It’s a fun story, though I say so myself. Notes * Peter Kopp’s book is Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. * Cover photo is Ezra Meeker, the early grower of hops in the Willamette valley who pioneered the global marketing of Oregon hops. The booming hop business made him the territory’s first millionnaire, and perhaps also its biggest bust. Hop King: Ezra Meeker’s Boom Years chronicles that part of his long, rich life. * Banner photo of hops by Paul on Flickr. Huffduff it

Barges and bread
Mar 05 2018 27 mins  
Time was, not so long ago, when you could barely move on the Thames in London for ships and boats of all shapes and sizes. Goods flowed in from the Empire in tall-masted sailing ships and stocky steamers and were transferred to barges and lighters for moving on. The canals, too, were driven by, and served, the industrial revolution, bringing coal and other raw materials to factories and taking away the finished goods by water, the cheapest and quickest system for bulk transport. By the late 1960s, much of the waterborne traffic had gone. Ships unloaded in the docks and goods were transferred by road and rail. A bit of freight continued to move on the water, some of that in the hands of Tam and Di Murrell. Di Murrell’s new book, Barges & Bread: canals & grain to bread & baking traces the interwined development of the grain trade and bread as it played out in the Thames basin and beyond. The importance of bread (and beer) to the people is encapsulated in the Assize of Bread and Ale, a statue of 1266 (though it appears to have codified earlier laws) and the first law in England to deal with food. Loaves were sold by size for a penny, a half-penny and, most commonly, a farthing (quarter of a penny). The finer the flour, the smaller the loaf you got at each price point. The price of grain naturally varied from year to year and from place to place, but the Assize fixed not the price but the weight of a penny loaf and also regulated in minute detail the baker’s profit and allowable expenses. Very roughly, if the price of wheat was 12 pence a quarter (a quarter weighing 240 pounds) then the baker had to ensure that a farthing loaf of the best white bread, called Wastel bread, weighed 5.6 pounds. Wastel bread was not the most expensive. Simnel bread, “because it has been baked twice,” cost a bit more and so called French bread, enriched with milk and eggs, a bit more still. The coarsest “bread of common wheat” was less than half the cost of wastel bread. From every quarter of wheat, the baker was permitted to sell 418 pounds of bread. Anything he could squeeze above that was called advantage bread, and was essentially pure profit. There was, naturally, every incentive for bakers and millers alike to add all sorts of things to increase the weight of flour and bread. It is the connection between money and the weight of bread that is most intriguing. Weights, like money, were expressed as pounds. A pound in money was the pound-weight of silver, while the penny – the only coin in circulation – was a pennyweight of silver. But how much was a penny weight? 32 Wheat Corns in the midst of the Ear according to the Assize of Bread and Ale, which then explained that the 20 pence-weight made an ounce, and 12 ounces made one pound. Notes * Di Murrell’s book Barges & Bread: canals & grain to bread & baking, is available from Amazon and elsewhere, including direct from the publisher, Prospect Books. * Di also has a website, Foodieafloat. * If you really want to get to grips with the Assize of Bread, you need to read Alan S. C. Ross. “The Assize of Bread.” The Economic History Review, vol. 9, no. 2, 1956, pp. 332–342. JSTOR. * Incidental music is the Impromptu from Zez Confrey...

The Hamlet Fire
Feb 19 2018 23 mins  
Industrial accidents, tragic though they may be, can also lead to change. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911 is credited with changing a generation’s attitudes to worker safety, unions and regulation. Eighty years later, another industrial fire also killed workers because, like the Triangle fire, the doors were chained shut from the outside. That fire, at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, changed almost nothing. In his new book The Hamlet Fire, historian Bryant Simon uses the fire to tell what he calls A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government and Cheap Lives. Simon’s thesis is essentially that the Hamlet fire wasn’t really an accident; circumstances conspired to make it likely, and if it hadn’t happened in Hamlet, it would have happened somewhere else. Among the points he makes: at the time of the fire North Carolina, a state that my imagination sees as resolutely rural, was the most industrialised of the United States. It had become so essentially by gutting control, regulation and inspection in order to attract jobs. The USDA, responsible for the safety of the food people eat, agreed that a good way to keep out flies would be to lock the doors of the plant. But the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration had never once inspected the plant. There’s a whole lot of Bryant Simon’s analysis that just wouldn’t fit comfortably in the episode. One nugget I really want to share here is a brief little scene from the first season of The Wire. In a minute and a half, David Simon’s characters offer an object lesson in poultry economics, which Bryant Simon uses to explore the real history of the chicken nugget. And the dipping sauces are the key to overcoming chicken fatigue. Genius. Notes * Bryant Simon is a professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. * His book The Hamlet Fire is available at Amazon and elsewhere. * The music at the front is Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster by Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra, from their album Prairie Home Invasion. Huffduff it

From little seeds …
Feb 05 2018 18 mins  
No apologies for returning to the Irish Seed Savers Association in County Clare. An organisation like that usually sprouts from one person's enthusiasm and drive, and it flourishes with the commitment and passion of volunteers and staff for whom the work is much more than a job. I spoke to Anita Hayes, who started ISSA, and Eoin Keane, who looks after the apple collection, in an episode last October. Today Anita and some of the people who are carrying her work forward talk some more about seed saving and the Irish Seed Savers Association. At home and doing the math in a seedy polytunnel A little context may be in order too. Why does something like ISSA need to exist? Can’t gardeners just buy the seeds they want in the shops? Short answer: no. Many of the seeds on offer to gardeners in Europe are varieties that were bred for commercial production. And older varieties, selected because they offered qualities valuable to home growers, cannot legally be offered for sale. It’s a long story, and one that many people find hard to believe, but in essence the European Common Catalogue, established in the 1960s, says that any variety needs to be registered in order to be offered for sale, and the registration fee is the same for all varieties. That makes registration a trivial cost for a big-selling commercial variety and a huge drain on the profitability of a variety that appeals to even thousands of gardeners. As a result, gardeners in Europe had to establish their own living genebanks, finding, multiplying and distributing seeds using a variety of wheezes. Ever since the Common Catalogue was first published there have been various attempts to open it up, and there has been some small movement. These experiments, however, still have not properly addressed the needs of home gardeners. Until they do, the Irish Seed Savers Association and organisations like it have a valuable job to do. Notes * You can visit the Irish Seed Savers Association website and, better yet, the place itself. * In addition to Anita Hayes, in the episode you heard from Tony Kay, Flora Barteau, Janet Gooberman, Áine Ni Fhlatharta and Felice Rae. Thanks to them, to Jennifer McConnell, (who took the picture of me in the polytunnel) and to everyone else who welcomed me to ISSA. * In case you missed it, here's the episode about Ireland’s apple collection. * The banner photo show's Felice Rae's favourite lettuce seeds, drying before she gets her hands on them. * You can now search the Common Catalogue online and even see all the varieties that have been deleted since the catalogue came into existence. * The music is 12 and 6, one of the tracks from AnTara, a collaboration between Tommy Hayes and Matthew Noone.* Full disclosure: I was closely involved with one of the first such seed libraries in the UK and had a very small part in helping ISSA get on its feet. I’ve also written about it ad nauseam. What I would like Europe to do about agricultural biodiversity is probably the least negative place to start, if you’ve a mind to. Huffduff it

Bread as it ought to be
Jan 22 2018 28 mins  
Huffduff it Jonathan Bethony is one of the leading artisanal bakers in America, but he goes further than most, milling his own flour and baking everything with a hundred percent of the whole grain. He’s also going beyond wheat, incorporating other cereals such as millet and sorghum in the goodies Seylou is producing. I happened to be in Washington DC just a couple of weeks after his new bakery had opened, and despite all the work that goes into getting a new bakery up and running, Jonathan graciously agreed to sit down and chat. Gluten Jonathan impressed me with his live-and-let-live attitude to people who want to be gluten-free. I can only imagine how depressing it must be to have people shun the food you have dedicated your life to making. As he said, “I’m not a poison dealer”. But it did add to the motivation to pursue long fermentations and 100% whole grain flour, which does seem overall to make breads more digestible. The Goods Seylou is open from Wednesday to Sunday and was shut on the day I visited, so there was no chance to try anything. A couple of weeks later we went back for a coffee and something to eat, the proof of the pudding and all that. I was truly blown away. The whole grain croissant was an astonishing revelation. I simply could not imagine anything made of whole wheat could be so light and airy and yet so flavoursome. Same goes for the millet cookie. If I hadn’t been told, I’m sure I would never have guessed that it wasn’t wheat, and it had none of the self-righteous heftitude that “good-for-you” goods often have. Seylou wholewheat croissant; just remembered to snap it before scarfing it down. The bread I tried at my friend’s house. It was obviously not as light as a croissant, nor would I have wanted it to be, but it was moist and chewy and again incredibly tasty. Also, filling. A single slice mid-morning took me well into the afternoon. Seylou's spelt and emmer loaf. As a bread baker myself, perhaps the secret is in the difference between harder and softer wheats, as Jonathan said, and how softer wheats result in bigger flecks of bran, which can make getting a good open crumb more difficult. In Italy I’ll often demonstrate the presence of bran in wholewheat flour by sifting a small sample, leaving the bran behind. When I tried that recently with some high-quality US-milled wholewheat, there was almost no bran left behind. It had been truly pulverised. I’m still a ways away from buying a home mill, but now I’m wondering; if I sifted my Italian flour for a bake and blitzed the bran in a food processor, would that make for a lighter loaf? Varieties You might imagine that an artisanal baker who talks about respect for the farmers and all they do for the land and for their grains would be using only ancient heirloom varieties, handed down from one generation to the next and tightly adapted to the farms on which they grow. You’ld be right, but only partly so. One variety Jonathan bakes with is probably at least 200 years old. Another was born yesterday. Turkey Red is a really old variety with a murky origin story, even after it reached the US. Some say that it was first planted in 1874 in Kansas by immigrant German-Russian farmers fleeing conscription in the Crimea, who brought it with them in their suitcases, trunks and special chests.

Feeding people is easy
Dec 04 2017 31 mins  
“Plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety.” The best advice for a good diet I’ve ever heard. It’s a maxim devised by Colin Tudge, long before anything similar you may have heard from more recent writers. Tudge, more than anyone else I know, has consistently championed the idea that meat ought to be seen in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction, a garnish, if you will. Tudge has been thinking and writing about agriculture and food systems for a long time, and we’ve been friends for a long time too. In fact, it’s fair to say that knowing Colin has influenced my own thoughts about food and farming quite a bit. As far as Colin is concerned, we’ve been going about farming in completely the wrong way for the past 100 years or so. Instead of asking how can we grow more food, more cheaply, he thinks we should focus on what we need – good, wholesome food that doesn’t destroy the earth – and then ask how we can provide that for everybody. He’s expanded and built on those ideas in many books since Future Cook (Future Food in the US), which contained that pithy dietary advice and which was published in 1980. And rather than reform or revolution, neither of which will do the job he thinks needs to be done, he advocates for a renaissance in real farming. Notes * The Campaign for Real Farming and The College for Enlightened Agriculture share a website. * More details on the Oxford Real Farming Conference. * The two books we mentioned are Feeding People is Easy and Good Food for Everyone Forever. Huffduff it

A cheese place
Nov 20 2017 22 mins  
Durrus is a village at the head of Dunmanus bay, south of the Sheep's Head peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. Durrus is also the name of an award-winning, semi-soft cheese, while Dunmanus is a harder cheese, aged a lot longer. Both were created by Jeffa Gill and are hand made by Jeffa and her small team up above the village and the bay. Jeffa is one of the pioneers who turned West Cork into a heaven and a haven for cheese-lovers. One of the special characteristics of Durrus and many West Cork farmhouse cheeses is that they are washed rind cheeses. The young cheese is inoculated with specific bacteria (some cheeses pick their surface moulds up from the atmosphere) and is then frequently washed or moistened with a brine solution, which gives those bacteria a boost and keeps other micro-organisms at bay. The result is what many people call a stinky cheese, although the actual flavour of these cheeses is often mild, sweet and creamy. The really remarkable thing about West Cork is how an entire food ecosystem has grown up there in the past 50 years or so, each part depending on and encouraging the others. The fact that there are so many outstanding farmhouse cheesemakers is no accident; they all gathered originally and shared their ups and downs, from which each developed their own unique cheeses. They were supported by local shops and restaurants, who created demand not just for fine cheeses but for so many other foods too. Surely someone must have documented it; so where is it? Notes * Durrus Cheese has a website. * There’s some cracking stuff on the early history of West Cork cheese on the Milleen’s site * And some equally cracking stuff on washed rind cheeses, at microbialfoods and seriouseats. Huffduff it

Rethinking the folk history of American agriculture
Nov 06 2017 28 mins  
Remember Farm Aid, which launched in 1985? A lot of people do, and they tend to date the farm crisis in America to the 1980s, triggered by Earl Butz and his crazy love for fencerow to fencerow, get big or get out, industrial agriculture. And of course, land consolidation is inevitable, because if you’re going to invest in all that capital equipment to make your farm more efficient, you’re bound to buy up the smaller farmers who weren’t so savvy. Those “facts,” however, are anything but. They’re myths, on which much of the current criticism of American farm policy is built. There are others, too, and they’re all skillfully eviscerated by Nate Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki in a recent paper. One villain or two? And here’s another thing. That first Farm Aid concert apparently raised $9 million. You could presumably help a lot of poor old dirt farmers with that kind of cash. But Farm Aid wasn’t actually about poor old dirt farmers, it was about people like Willie Nelson. He lost $800,000 the year before Farm Aid. Nine million dollars doesn’t go too far when individual people are losing that kind of money. Notes * The paper is The Butz Stops Here: Why the Food Movement Needs to Rethink Agricultural History, by Nathan A. Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki. * John Biewen’s wonderful story about the Wise Family Farm in his series Five Farms tells the story of one black farmer in context. The family also featured in Biewen’s series Seeing White, all of which makes for disquieting and valuable listening. Gravy, the podcast from the Southern Foodways Alliance, also did a great episode on black land loss and systematic racism in the USDA. * I plundered various online archives for the clips of Jimmy Carter, Earl Butz and Willie Nelson. * I owe a real debt of gratitude to Jonathan Kim for helping me to get a good clear recording of Bryce. * When you want photographs of rural America in the 1930s, you turn to Dorothea Lange, so I did. * Under no circumstances should you visit this page to see the utterly reprehensible use that popular culture made of Butz’s “gross indiscretion in a private conversation” which “in no way reflects [his] real attitude”. Huffduff it

Ireland’s apple collection
Oct 23 2017 24 mins  
Nobody knows when the first apples were specifically selected in Ireland. The earliest written record dates to 1598, “when a writer discusses the fruitful nature of Irish orchards and the merits of the fine old Irish varieties contained in them”. (A brief history | Cider Ireland) The next couple of centuries saw a blossoming of native Irish apples, as farmers and landowners selected varieties that suited their conditions. In the middle of the 20th century, however, those myriad varieties began to be lost as consolidation and uniformity took hold. JGD Lamb (“informally known as Keith”) was one of the few people who worried about this loss. Lamb obtained his PhD in 1949 with a thesis entitled The Apple in Ireland: Its History and Varieties. In the process, he collected 53 old varieties, creating vigorous new trees by grafting them onto suitable rootstocks. These new trees formed the basis of the national collection at University College Dublin. Lamb also sent duplicates of many to the main apple breeding centre in the UK at Brogdale and it was just as well that he did, because some time later the UCD collection was grubbed up and destroyed. Whether by accident or design, nobody knows, but if it hadn’t been for the safety duplicates much of Lamb’s work would have been in vain. In the early 1990s, Anita Hayes, founder of the Irish Seedsavers Association, launched a public hunt to recover the varieties Keith Lamb had collected and any that he missed. The end result was a restored national collection, the Lamb-Clarke collection at University College, Dublin, and the start of the Seedsavers own apple collection, which now numbers about 180 varieties. That includes 70 of Irish origin and the rest collected in Ireland but originally brought from elsewhere. And the hunt goes on. Roughly 50 Irish varieties that were documented in the past have so far not shown up. Eoin Keane adding to the apple documentation Documentation is probably the hardest part of keeping a collection of apples (or any long-lived food) alive. Names change with time and place, memories fade, identities are appropriated and forgotten. DNA testing can tell you whether two samples are in fact one and the same, but not, as yet, any more than that. Meticulous, ongoing record-keeping gradually adds to the sum of knowledge but – as Eoin Keane explained in the podcast – sometimes it is a chance encouter that provides a vital bit of information that fleshes out an apple’s story. Unknown J, the apple I tasted and found so delicious, is no less delicious because we know nothing about it. But how much more would I like it if it had a romantic history to relate? Notes * I highly recommend a visit to the Irish Seedsavers Association in Scariff, County Clare. * Tommy Hayes’ Apples in winter is “a celebration of the Irish apple in music, song, dance and film”. If I had my way I’d be enjoying it with a good russet and a sharp Cheddar, but that’s just me. * Photos by me. The small one is Anita Hayes’ mystery medicinal apple. Huffduff it

Antibiotics and agriculture
Oct 09 2017 22 mins  
In the past year or so there has been a slew of high-level meetings pointing to antibiotic resistance as a growing threat to human well-being. But then, resistance was always an inevitable, Darwinian consequence of antibiotic use. Well before penicillin was widely available, Ernst Chain, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin, noted that some bacteria were capable of neutralising the antibiotic. What is new about the recent pronouncements and decisions is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is being recognised, somewhat belatedly, as a major source of resistance. Antibiotic manufacturers and the animal health industry have, since the start, done everything they can to deny that. Indeed, the history of efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture reveals a pretty sordid approach to public health. But while it can be hard to prove the connection between agriculture and a specific case of antibiotic resistance, a look at hundreds of recent academic studies showed that almost three quarters of them did demonstrate a conclusive link. Antibiotic resistance – whether it originates with agriculture or inappropriate medical use – takes us back almost 100 years, when infectious diseases we now consider trivial could, and did, kill. It reduces the effectiveness of other procedures too, such as surgery and chemotherapy, by making it more likely that a subsequent infection will wreck the patient’s prospects. So it imposes huge costs on society as a whole. Maybe society as a whole needs to tackle the problem. The Oxford Martin School, which supports a portfolio of highly interdisciplinary research groups at Oxford University, has a Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. They recently published a paper proposing a tax on animal products produced with antibiotics. Could that possibly work? Notes * The paper by Alberto Giubilini and his colleagues is Taxing Meat: Taking Responsibility for One’s Contribution to Antibiotic Resistance. He also wrote an article explaining why we should tax meat that contains antibiotics. * Claas Kirchhelle’s paper on the history of antibiotic regulation in Britain will be published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His prize-winning D.Phil thesis Pyrrhic Progress - Antibiotics and Western Food Production (1949–2013) will be published by Rutgers University Press. * Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals, published in Science after I had talked to Alberto and Claas, has some interesting things to say about a tax on antibiotics and other ways to tackle antibiotic resistance. * The UK government’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance is a valuable source of information. * Pig pill image from the National Academy of Medicine. Banner image of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus from the Wellcome Trust. Huffduff it

1000 days of noodle soup
Sep 11 2017 24 mins  
In 2014, food historian and professor Ken Albala found himself stuck in a kitchen with no utensils. He headed for an Asian grocery store and bought a little saucepan and some noodles, to make something for breakfast. Thus started almost three years of home-made noodle soup for breakfast, practically every day. Out of that came some spectacular successes, some abysmal failures and a book. Of course, I had to put pulled noodles to the test. Ken says to use a high-gluten flour. I checked scads of sources online, and many of them say the exact opposite. Some insist that in your kneading you have to go beyond building up a strong gluten net and actually break that network down. But none of them suggest allowing the dough six hours of rest and relaxation, as Ken does. Ken’s method, at least in his video, is a little too vague to follow exactly, as he insisted I must. When to start kneading? How often to dip your hands in water while kneading? Nevertheless, I did the best I could and was somewhat amazed that it worked. It really did. And the noodles were delicious. Being the kind of person I am, I made some measurements too: 275 gm of flour weighed 395 gm when I started to knead, for a hydration of 44%. That’s stiff. And it weighed more or less the same after kneading, but maybe the water added equalled the starch removed. I do wonder whether you would reach the same end point by adding the water all in one go at the outset. Notes * The book – Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession – is available for pre-order from Amazon. * In the meantime, you can always search Ken’s website for “noodles”. * Pocket soup, which Wikipedia calls Portable soup, was an early convenience food. I was surprised to find a recipe for a modern version. I haven’t tried it, but I do like instant miso soup. * Cover picture is of Ken’s Hand Made Hybrid Noodles for Newbies. * Banner picture is a video grab of me, amazed that I pulled a noodle. * And those Lucky Peach links? Here you go. * Homemade Ramen Noodles, but beware: as I discovered while hunting, there’s an error: “Apologies to Harold McGee and to all of you who tried to make alkaline noodles with 4 tablespoons of baked soda. Please only use 4 teaspoons. Damnit.” SI units FTW, dahling. * Momofuku Ando and the Invention of Instant Ramen * A Timeline of Ramen Development * On Alkalinity * The State of Ramen: Peter Meehan * A Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan The Internet Archive is a truly valuable a...

Pushing good coffee
Aug 30 2017 29 mins  
Walking down the supermarket aisle in search of coffee, I have this warm inner glow. If I choose a pack that boasts the Fair Trade logo, or that of any other third-party certifying agency, I’ll be doing good just by paying a little more for something that I am going to buy anyway. The extra I pay will find its way to the poor farmers who grow the coffee, and together enlightened coffee drinkers can make their lives better. But it seems I’m at least somewhat mistaken. Certified coffee is certainly better than nothing, but it isn’t doing as much good as I fondly imagine. And the price premium I pay could be doing a lot more. In this episode I hear about coffee that’s more ethical than fair, and about some of the ways in which Fair Trade falls short. Notes * The Acteal massacre that prompted Chris Treter to get into coffee is a horrific story that continues to reverberate. Matt Earley, a friend and colleague of Chris, wrote about the struggle for peaceful existence through coffee. * Chris and Matt also feature in a documentary film, Connected by Coffee. * More about Higher Grounds coffee, including the latest news from Congo. * Cooperative Coffees also shares some interesting stories on its website. * A couple of cool additional listens: Episode 4 of Alexis Madrigal’s series on Containers is all about The Hidden Side of Coffee. And the podcast Start-Up recently told the story of probably the world’s most expensive coffee, at $16 a cup. * It’s easy to fall into despair faced with details of how the foods we enjoy are produced, which almost inevitably involve the kind of power imbalance that makes exploitation and maltreatment not only possible but, apparently, inevitable, not only far away in former colonies but much closer to home. In Europe and in America, producers and consumers are thinking about third-party certification for local growers. What more could be done? * Banner and cover photos of coffee cherries in Colombia by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Huffduff it

It’s putrid, it’s paleo, and it’s good for you
Aug 14 2017 25 mins  
As our ancestors moved north out of Africa, and especially as they found themselves in climates that supported less gathering and more hunting, they were faced with an acute nutritional problem: scurvy. Humans are one of the few mammals that cannot manufacture this vital little chemical compound (others being the guinea pig and fruit bats). If there are no fruit and veg around, where will that vitamin C come from? That’s a question that puzzled John Speth, an archaeologist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He found clues in the accounts of sailors and explorers shipwrecked in the Arctic. Those who, often literally, turned their noses up at the “disgusting” diet of the locals sometimes paid with their lives. Those who ate what the locals ate lived to tell the tale. John Speth told me the tale of how he came to propose the idea that putrid meat and fish may have been a key part of Neanderthal and modern human diet during the Palaeolithic. Notes * Read Putrid Meat and Fish in the Eurasian Middle and Upper Paleolithic: Are We Missing a Key Part of Neanderthal and Modern Human Diet? for John Speth’s full chain of reasoning – and all the wonderful first-hand accounts. * Two articles, one from the University of Pennsylvania and one from the University of Chicago, give a flavour of Paul Rozin’s research. * The Centers for Disease Control in the US has an interesting page on botulism in Alaska. * Discover Magazine did a story on Alaskan food. * But you know, I am just so sick of the whole 73-disgusting-foods-you-won’t-believe-people-not-like-us-eat trope, I could throw up. Get over it, people. * I cobbled together the banner image from two images at Wikimedia, a ball and stick model of viatmin C and an illustration from The Arctic whaleman; or, Winter in the Arctic Ocean: being a narrative of the wreck of the whale ship Citizen. I know the whalers were taken care of by local people, but not whether any succumbed to scurvy. Nobody seems to know where the fish stink-head photo comes from -- unless you do. Huffduff it

Back to the future for the wheat of tomorrow
Jul 31 2017 20 mins  
The plant breeding behind the green revolution has delivered amazing results, way more than two ears of corn where one would grow before. Those gains, however, depend on tailoring the environment in which the seeds are planted to suit those modern varieties. If a farmer can’t afford to do that, or isn’t willing to use the herbicides and fertilisers modern varieties require, they’re kind of stuck. The market isn’t really interested in providing the kinds of varieties you need. Before the explosion of scientific breeding, however, farmers did their own plant breeding, by selecting the best plants and saving their seeds to sow the following year. The plants were genetically diverse, so there were always some that would do better and others that would do worse. Modern varieties are entirely uniform, so if conditions aren’t perfect, the whole field does poorly. While some farmers are rediscovering the benefits of the old varieties created in just such a way, a few are looking to create the future. They won’t adapt the environment to suit their crop; instead, they’re adapting the crop to suit their environment. The process is based on hugely diverse evolutionary populations of wheat, and it is giving the farmers wheat that performs better now and that will be able to track whatever climate change brings. Italy has been suffering a drought this year, but the farmers who are working with these evolutionary populations are much less bothered by it than those who depend on modern wheats. The work with evolutionary populations is part of an experiment organized by Rete Semi Rurale, to help farmers get the kinds of varieties they need, an important part of which is to show local farmers what the experiment is about. I joined them on one such open day in the southern Italian region of Molise. Notes * Matteo Petitti is sharing the results of the research at his website. * Molise is a bit of an undiscovered gem (to me at any rate). The Pettaciato’s farm is not an agriturismo, but there are lots of lovely places to stay in the region Huffduff it

Getting to know the cinta senese on its home turf
Jul 17 2017 18 mins  
In the town hall of Siena is a series of glorious frescoes that depict The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. In one of them is a pig, long snouted and thin legged, black with a white band around its back and down its front legs, being quietly chivied along by a swineherd. It is absolutely recognisable as a cinta senese, a Belted Sienese pig, today one the most favoured heritage breeds in Italy. But it wasn’t always so. Numbers dropped precipitously in the 1950s and 1960s, to the point that the herd studbook, recording the ancestry of all the animals, was abandoned. And then began the renaissance. One place that contributed to the revival of the cinta senese is Spannocchia, a large and ancient estate not far from Siena. I was lucky enough to visit earlier this summer, to see the pigs first hand and to learn about them from Sara Silvestri. Perhaps the biggest surprise, to me, was that not all cinta senese are blessed with the white belt that is deemed a characteristic of the breed. Some have white spots or stripes but not the full band, and some don’t seem to have any white at all. This could be flaky genetics – odd for a breed with a supposedly ancient lineage – or it could be the result of marauding male cinghiale, which are a problem in Spannocchia and elsewhere. Right now, all these visually defective animals (and most of the perfect specimens too) end up on a plate. I wonder how long before every piglet born is properly belted. Notes * La Tenuta di Spannocchia has a couple of websites, one mostly for the Foundation that’s behind the place (alas, mostly broken) and one that’s more commercial, which is where you’ll be sent actually to book a stay, should you wish. * Be careful searching Wikipedia for information on the pigs. There’s a bit in English and much more in Italian, if you can find the correct page. * Photograph by Lucy Clink. Huffduff it

A brief survey of the food of Corfu
Jul 03 2017 20 mins  
The island of Corfu was part of the Venetian republic for hundreds of years. So when I went there on holiday I expected to see some Italian influences, and there were plenty; Venetian lions, eroded by time; elegant buildings; Italian restaurants everywhere; and dishes with Italian-sounding names, like sofrito and pastitsada. Also, a curiously neon version of limoncello, made in this case from kumquats rather than lemons. I was fortunate to have an introduction to Cali Doxiadis, an expert cook who has made her home on Corfu, and over an excellent lunch on her terrace I plied her with questions. Cali wasn’t too keen on kumquat liqueur or its history. You’ll find all sorts of tangled accounts of how kumquats got to Corfu. Many of them mention Sidney Merlin, a Greek-born British marksman and amateur botanist, and most of the stories say he introduced kumquats to the family’s estate in northern Corfu in 1860, which would have been quite a feat as Merlin would have been only four years old. One even gives the date of introduction as 1846, ten years before Merlin’s birth, which was actually the year that plant hunter Robert Fortune brought them from China to Europe. As best as I can tell, Merlin’s kumquat’s arrived in 1924, a few years after he had successfully introduced Washington navel oranges. Wikipedia tells me that “to this day,” the Washington navel “is known in Greece as ‘Merlin’,” a fact I did not know at the time and so could not confirm with Cali or anyone else. Who knows, maybe it was introduced twice, once by Merlin and once, much earlier, by an unknown British colonial officer. Notes * Huge thanks to Aglaia Kremezi for intrdoucing me to Cali Doxiadis and of course to Cali for her hospitality and patience. * The old town of Corfu really is a delight, and a World Heritage Site to boot. * Pastissada de caval can still be found in the Veneto. And here’s a once-over-lightly guide to Corfiote foods. * I snatched a bit of music from John Skolarikis. * Banner photo by Lucy Clink. Those two little blobs are me and Cali talking. Cover photo borrowed from Mavromatis, purveyors of kumquat products. Huffduff it

Australia: where healthier diets are cheaper …
Apr 10 2017 22 mins  
No country has solved the problem of how to ensure that all of its people have enough safe, nutritious food to eat year round, and the variety of approaches is both bewildering and informative. Australia, for example, has a welfare system that doesn’t make any specific provision for food. But it does exempt certain healthier foods – such as fruit and veg, bread, fresh meat, milk and eggs – from the Good and Services Tax. That makes them cheaper than they might otherwise be, a sort of thin subsidy. And yet, Australians prefer to spend more to eat an unhealthy diet. They devote almost 60 cents of every dollar they spend on food to unhealthy stuff. What’s going on? Professor Amanda Lee looked at the cost of what Australians actually eat, based on a large survey, compared to the cost of the country’s national guide to healthy eating. The results were pretty surprising, so surprising that for a while journals refused to publish. Less of a surprise, perhaps, was that people give the answers they think researchers want to hear: among the poorest communities, fully a quarter of the calories actually consumed are missing from reports, and people say they eat eight times more fruit and veg than they actually do. Notes * The research paper that prompted our conversation was Testing the price and affordability of healthy and current (unhealthy) diets and the potential impacts of policy change in Australia. * Another important paper is Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price, from the USDA. * I gave up trying to find a picture of Australian junk food; it looks just the same as more less all junk food, except for the Cherry Ripes. The banner photograph is a detail from Lizard Dreaming 2 by Sue Atkins, a descendant of the Boandik People from Adelaide in South Australia. The image took some tracking down, because the original site had been hacked in various horrible ways, and I have not asked for permission. Huffduff it

Mistaken about mayonnaise — and many other foods
Mar 27 2017 23 mins  
Who invented mayonnaise? Could boiling down tonnes of cattle concentrate beef’s nutritious qualities? Did lemonade put a halt to the plague in Paris? Tom Nealon writes about these and (many) other topics in his book Food Fights and Culture Wars, a title that does the contents no favours at all. The obvious temptation is to talk about the book as a feast of food history, a smörgåsbord of tasty treats, some old, some new, all interesting. It is all that and more, not least because it is lavishly illustrated with fascinating images. All in all, a great read, but a hard topic for an episode, because the only thing that really connects all those dots is Tom Nealon himself. We talked a lot, covered a lot of ground and, inevitably, left a lot of things out. I think I disagree with Tom on at least one thing: cannibalism. I’m just not as persuaded as he is by the evidence, and his argument that if you’re eating “others” from over the mountain, then you’re not really eating people, cuts both ways. What better way to make people seem fundamentally different from "us" than to stress that "they" eat people? But that’s a topic for another episode, I hope. Notes * Food Fights & Culture Wars is currently riding high in Amazon’s New Releases. * Lots more details on mayonnaise in Tom Nealon’s original account of Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War. * To be honest, I had no idea mayonnaise was a topic of such intense interest, but it is. * Hellmann’s Mayonnaise: A History * A Brief History of Mayonnaise and Mayo-phobia: Why do some people hate mayonnaise so much? * On the Etymology of the Word Mayonnaise * For a fine collection of Bovril nonsense, this is the place. Huffduff it

A computer learns about ingredients and recipes
Mar 13 2017 13 mins  
Recommendation engines are everywhere. They let Netflix suggest shows you might want to watch. They let Spotify build you a personalised playlist of music you will probably like. They turn your smartphone into a source of endless hilarity and mirth. And, of course, there’s IBM’s Watson, recommending all sorts of “interesting” new recipes. As part of his PhD project on machine learning, Jaan Altosaar decided to use a new mathematical technique to build his own recipe recommendation engine. The technique is similar to the kind of natural language processing that powers predictive text on a phone, and one of the attractions of using food instead of English is that there are only 2000–3000 ingredients to worry about, instead of more than 150,000 words. The results so far are fun and intriguing, and can only get better. Notes * Jaan Altosaar published an article about his work that gives an explanation of how it all works. It also allows you to investigate the food map and use some of the other tools he built. * A scientific report that may have inspired Jaan (and possibly Watson) to take up the challenge is Flavor network and the principles of food pairing. * That paper offers great explanations for why some novel food pairings work, including Heston Blumenthal’s iconic white chocolate and caviar, published in 2002. * The madcap adventures of Chef Watson are everywhere on the internet. The recommendatiuon engine that is me suggests a report from Caitlin Dewey which includes a recipe for the ubiquitous Austrian chocolate burritos (but no explanation of what makes them Austrian. Just the apricot purée?). * The banner shows a small part of the food map, with East Asian ingredients tightly clustered while North American ingredients are all over the shop. Huffduff it

How much does a nutritious diet cost?
Feb 27 2017 24 mins  
Recently I’ve been involved in a couple of online discussions about the cost of a nutritious diet. The crucial issue is why poor people in rich countries seem to have such unhealthy diets. One argument is about the cost of food. Another is about everything other than cost: knowledge, equipment, time, conditions. My own opinion is that given all those other things, the externalities, a nutritious diet is actually not that expensive. But that’s just an opinion, so I went looking for information, and found it in a paper entitled Using the Thrifty Food Plan to Assess the Cost of a Nutritious Diet, published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs in 2009. The very first sentence of that paper is: How much does a nutritious diet cost? Parke Wilde, author of that paper, is an agricultural economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, and I really enjoyed talking to him for the podcast. Our discussion was limited to the United States and to the peculiarities of SNAP, but it is clear that other rich countries are also grappling with the difficulties of deciding what constitutes a nutritious diet and how to ensure that poor people can afford to eat it. Parke alluded to some of the crucial policy decisions, such as not allowing people to spend their SNAP benefits on things like alcohol while at the same time giving them the freedom to buy sugar-sweetened sodas if they so choose. There are incentives to buy healthier food, but even those come up against an important fact. Unhealthy calories are much cheaper than healthy calories.[1] One study, which I found here, looked at exactly what you can buy for a dollar. If you’re looking for a snack, a dollar’s worth of cookies will buy you 1200 calories. The same dollar on carrots gets you only 250 calories. Thirsty? A dollar of orange juice is worth 170 calories, while a dollar of sugar-sweetened soda is 875 calories. Of course calories aren’t everything. But in the short term, if you’re hungry, calories are everything. A different version of the same sort of story is the “healthy food is more expensive” trope, which crops up regularly. In the UK, a 2014 study claimed that on average 1000 calories of “healthy” food cost about 3 times more than 1000 calories of “unhealthy” food. This kind of study – and others like it – uses government agency definitions of healthy and unhealthy but doesn’t actually take nutrition into account. The cheapest category in that study was starchy carbohydrates – which the UK’s Food Standards Agency places just behind fruit and vegetables in terms of “healthiness”. You could eat a lot of “bread, rice, potatoes and pasta” for calories and a bit of fruit and vegetables for nutrients and end up with a pretty nutritious diet. Would you want to, though? That’s the crux of the matter. A nutritious diet can be had for reasonably little money (given that you know how to cook and have the facilities) but you might not enjoy it all that much. Notes * Using the Thrifty Food Plan to Assess the Cost of a Nutritious Diet * If you really want to get some insight into the tricky triple balancing act of foods, nutrients and cash, Parke Wilde and his collaborators have made their model a...

Food and status
Feb 13 2017 19 mins  
Food has probably been a marker of social status since the first woman gathered more berries than her sister. It still is. Some foods are authentically posh, others undeniably lower class, and there’s no way I’m going to go out on a limb and say which is which. Because foods serve as social markers, the history of cuisine is also a history of the democratisation – some would say vulgarisation – of elite dishes, and perhaps noone has chronicled that more effectively than Rachel Laudan. Her book Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History shows clearly how foods move from high cuisine to low. Recently, in some places, the flow has reversed as elites have taken up what they imagine to be rustic, peasant food. The 100% wholewheat sourdough loaf, chewy of crust and riddled with large holes, became a desirable bread only very recently. As we chatted about these things, one thing became clear. There’s very little chance that food will lose its status as a marker of status any time soon. Huffduff it Notes * Rachel Laudan recently reworked her thoughts on bread: Why did our ancestors prefer white bread to wholegrains?. That will take you to her website and details of Cuisine and Empire. * Our earlier conversation was Sugar and salt: Industrial is best. * Banner photo shows poor old George IV of the United Kingdom, consuming his magnificent Coronation Dinner alone, watched by a crowd of thousands. Well, not quite alone. Aside from the onlookers in the galleries, there were about 170 diners in Westminster Hall with him and a few hundred more scattered through various rooms in the Palace of Westminster. But the King was effectively alone. * Smaller image shows John, Duc de Berry, in blue on the right, exchanging New Year's gifts at a banquet.

In praise of meat, milk and eggs
Feb 01 2017 24 mins  
Excluding animal products from your diet as a vegetarian or vegan is a choice some people have the luxury to make, and if they know what they’re doing, and take care, they can be perfectly healthy. But there are probably far more people who have no choice in the matter. They would eat meat if they could, but they simply can’t afford it. For those people, a little bit of animal source food – milk, meat, eggs – can make a great difference to their health and wellbeing. It can be easy to forget that, in the clamour for meatless Mondays and other efforts to respond to climate change. There’s also the fact that in many parts of the world, animals play a very useful role in transforming things people can’t or won’t eat, like grass, into good food. One of the organisations promoting greater access to animal source foods is ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute. They’re faced with some formidable challenges. One is to ensure that more animal foods doesn’t mean greater emissions of greenhouse gases. The other is to manage food safety as the demand for animal source foods grow. To find out more I talked to two people at ILRI: Shirley Tarawali, Assistant Director General, and Delia Grace, a veterinarian and epidemiologist. Notes * International Livestock Research Institute * Industrial production of poultry gives rise to deadly strains of bird flu H5Nx * Banner photo by ILRI/Dave Elsworth * Other photos by ILRI/Stevie Mann Huffduff it

India’s bread landscape and my plans here
Jan 16 2017 8 mins  
This is the last of the short episodes of the holiday season. It is also something of a meta-episode because it is mostly about this podcast and another podcast. I’ve hinted before that I’d like to do more constructed shows here, where I speak to a few different people about a topic to try and get a broader sense of the subject. They’re harder to do, but more rewarding, and they consistently get more listeners. The problem is that as a one-man band, I don’t have the time I need to do that kind of show very often. As an experiment, I’m going to try chunking episodes into seasons, with a break between seasons when I’ll be working on those more complex shows. I’m not sure yet how long either the seasons or the breaks will be. In anticipation, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast, if you aren’t already doing so, via iTunes or by email, which gives you the added advantage of getting Eat This Newsletter between episodes and during the breaks. (You can also, of course, do both.) I’m also on Twitter and Instagram. Aside from finding time and resources, one of the other things that is really hard for a completely independent production like this is to find new listeners. Reviews and ratings on iTunes probably help, but a word-of-mouth recommendation is even better. I know that’s true for me, and so I want to share a podcast that was recommended to me. Bee Wilson (@kitchenbee) recommended “this wonderful podcast series by Vikram Doctor, The Real Food Podcast … It is superb and worth listening to in its entirety.” On the strength of that, I jumped through a few hoops to ensure I had an episode to listen to on my walk in the park, and I agree. Thoroughly enjoyable and informative. In addition to making podcasts, Vikram Doctor is also the editor of special features for the Economic Times of India. I’ll be subscribing, and if you have any interest in food from an Indian perspective (and not just Indian food) I recommend you take a listen. Huffduff this episode Notes * I’m currently working on two idea for shows suggested by listeners, and I’d love to hear about anything you think I should consider. * Vikram Doctor’s Real Food podcast is at * I’m using that banner photograph knowingly, having shamelessly stolen it from Julia Barton, who started the whole stock mic thing. * And I admit I flipped the cover photograph, which I took from Douglas Self’s strange catalogue of Acoustic Location and Sound Mirrors. * Seriously, though, why is it so difficult both to find new podcasts and to put my own podcast in front of people. I still don’t know.

Long live the Carolina African Runner
Jan 09 2017 7 mins  
Maybe you’ve seen the stories about a peanut, prosaically named Carolina Runner No. 4? In 2017 it will be ready to be grown in commercial quantities, having faded gently away from being the primary peanut before the 1840s to a reasonable contender into the 1910s to presumed extinct by the 1950s. Professor David Shields, an historian at the University of South Carolina, found it in a genebank as part of a project by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, which he chairs, to restore the crucial varieties of the American South. It’s a fine story, but a couple of things bothered me. One, how do they know it is “the first peanut cultivated in North America” or “the South’s original peanut” as all the articles claim. Two, although everyone acknowledges that the peanut came to the USA not from South America, it’s ancestral home, but from West Africa with enslaved people, nobody seems to be much interested in what on earth it was doing in West Africa, or the consequences of its introduction there by the Portuguese. The podcast looks a bit at the question of whether Carolina Runner No. 4 – henceforth Carolina African Runner – is indeed the “ur-peanut”; I conclude that it doesn’t really matter. My article sketching the peanut’s influence in West Africa is here. Huffduff it Notes * My thanks to Professor David Shields and Dr David Williams for their help. Errors, of course, my own. * The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is doing good work. * Music is The Peanut Vendor, played by Louis Armstrong, natch. It too had quite an influence, if Wikipedia is to be believed.

The Great Epping Sausage Scandal
Dec 26 2016 10 mins  
James William Greenwood (that’s him on the left) was a pioneering investigative journalist of the high Victorian period. He broke some sensational stories, most notably by spending a night in the workhouse to document the appallingly squalid conditions of the poor in Victorian London. Greenwood, however, wasn’t above a bit of sensationalism and, perhaps, even a touch of fake news. For example, he was unable to supply any authentication for one of his most horrific pieces, about a fight between a man and a dog. Nor was he above telling more humdrum tales, including three little pieces about sausages – which he referred to as “Veiled Mysteries”. One of them concerned a sausage scandal centred on Epping, just outside London. I first heard about it in Jan Davison’s wonderful book English Sausages. We talked a bit about that story in the podcast, and it stuck with me. Then I found myself in Epping, which in the middle of the 19th century was justly famous for its sausages. People in London sought them out, and they were often in short supply; ideal conditions for creating counterfeits, which were given an extra veil of authenticity by seeming to be delivered direct from Epping itself. Back home, I looked for the original of Greenwood’s exposé, published in 1883. Although he refers to “an individual of an inquiring turn of mind” it turns out that this person was not Greenwood himself, but someone else who had exposed the crooked purveyors of Epping sausages in the 1850s. Greenwood merely retold the tale in his 1883 book Odd People In Odd Places, or The Great Residuum. There are two more sausage stories in Greenwood’s book. I think I’ll save them for 2017. Notes * Jan Davison’s book English Sausages is published by Prospect Books. * The text of Greenwood’s book is available online. * There’s not a huge amount easily available on James Greenwood himself. Spartacus Educational, from whom I stole the picture of Greenwood, is an amazing resource. The Victorianist has adopted Greenwood’s nom-de-plume as his own, but does not appear to have considered the sausage scandals. I found a bit more in Secret Commissions: An Anthology of Victorian Investigative Journalism. * I lifted the music from The Victorian Web. It is played by Professor Derek Scott. Huffduff it

The Culinary Breeding Network
Nov 28 2016 18 mins  
Many vegetables don’t taste of anything much these days, but whose fault is that, really? Plant breeders produce what growers want, and growers want what people will buy. So why aren’t people buying flavour? Mostly because they aren’t being offered a real choice. Lane Selman, who works on organic projects at Oregon State University, discovered that although organic growers say they want disease resistance, for example, they don’t actually grow existing disease-resistant varieties “because they taste terrible”. Lane enlisted a handful of chefs to taste some peppers that a local breeder was working with. From that quiet beginning has blossomed the Culinary Breeding Network, which aims to “bridge the gap between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality”. For the past three years, Lane has organised a variety showcase that pairs chefs with breeders and growers to display their combined talents, creating interesting vegetable varieties and interesting dishes from those varieties. We talked about how the Culinary Breeding Network began and about the latest variety showcase. Notes * The Culinary Breeding Network has a website and the home page currently features a video of this year’s variety showcase. It’s fun. * Lane’s video explaining the overall project is here. * The breeders Lane Selman works with include Frank Morton, of Wild Garden Seed, Bill Tracy at the University of Wisconsin and Michael Mazourek at Cornell University. * The Organic Seed Alliance is also a partner. * All photographs (c) Shawn Linehan. * It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to point you to an earlier episode about backyard vegetable breeding with Carol Deppe. Huffduff it

Foie gras
Nov 14 2016 22 mins  
Any way you slice it, foie gras — the fatty liver of a duck or goose — is a fighting matter. To animal rights activists it is quite obviously cruel and depraved. To many chefs and eaters, it is a delicious extravagance. To many other chefs and eaters, it is something they would rather not countenance. To the vast majority of French people, it is a symbol of their nation and an essential part of their identity, the rare product of smiling rustic grandmothers, making a bit of pin money on the side. And for the industrial producers responsible for 90% of French foie gras, those rustic grandmothers are icons of perfect marketing. The whole foie gras story — which is by no means over yet — offers a fascinating insight into the role of politics in food — which happens to be the subtitle of a new book by Michaela DeSoucey, a sociologist who got caught up in foie gras just before the topic exploded all over the food scene in Chicago. In this episode, we talked about just a few of the things that make foie gras such a special topic. Notes * Michaela DeSoucey’s book is Contested Tastes: foie gras and the politics of food, published by Princeton University Press. * There has been an awful lot written about foie gras in America, more than I care to link to here. But the Chicago Tribune did publish a look back at what they called Chicago’s foie gras fiasco. I took the cover photo from there. * If you want some straight talk on foie gras, and how to prepare it from scratch, you could do worse than visit Peter Hertzmann’s website. * Banner photo of Chef Doug Richey (c) Heather Irwin. * And the music? Sonata IV in C Major for Trumpet and Strings by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Huffduff it

Wine and cheese
Oct 31 2016 16 mins  
Traditionally, the wine to drink with a bit of cheese was always a red wine. But tastes have changed, and nowadays you can find lots of recommendations for white wines to drink with cheeses. Those recommendations — all of them — are based on personal opinion, what one person likes or finds enjoyable. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Most recommendations are just that. But I was somewhat surprised to learn that although there have been lots of studies of how expert tasters describe not oney wine or cheese but just about anything, until now there has been almost no research into how the taste of one thing affects another. A recent paper in the Journal of Food Science asked how cheese affects the taste of wine, using a technique called temporal dominance of sensation, which is itself a fairly new approach to describing taste and especially how it changes over time. As it happens, the conclusions of this scientific study mostly mirror recent advice: white wine is usually a safer choice. I spoke to Mara Galmarini, the researcher behind the paper and to Edward Behr, editor of the Art of Eating newsletter, who has been a long-time champion of white wine with cheese. Notes * Mara Galmarini’s paper, with colleagues, is Use of Multi-Intake Temporal Dominance of Sensations (TDS) to Evaluate the Influence of Cheese on Wine Perception. * Edward Behr’s Art of Eating newsletter is, in my view, indispensable. * Banner and cover photos courtesy of CSGA, Dijon. Additional photo by Isabelle Puaut * If you haven't already heard it, may I suggest you pair this episode with a much earlier one: An Italian wine education. Huffduff it

English sausages
Oct 17 2016 22 mins  
English sausages have a definite dual personality. One of those is a sumptuous, succulent blend of good meat, a bit of cereal, herbs and spices and maybe even a touch of the vegetable, like leeks. The other is a staple of the poor. Who knows what unspeakable things lurk inside its wrinkled exterior? But if, like me, you thought that the suspect sausage was purely a product of the industrial revolution, prepare for a revelation. Jan Davison was the second ever guest on the show, talking about the air-cured sausages of Europe’s mountainous regions. Her new book is all about the English sausage, and digs deep into its Jekyll and Hyde past, served at the court of Richard II and hiding tainted meat and worse from the sight of the urban poor. Notes * English Sausages by Jan Davison is published by Prospect Books, along with much else besides. * Including an enlarged facsimile of William Ellis’ The Country Housewife’s Family Companion, in which you will find his instructions on "How to make complete sausages for sale, or for a private family" along with much else besides, again. * Jan talked a bit about Newmarket sausages, one of many regional specialities and one granted a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in Europe in 2012. There was a bit of a spat because the secret recipes of the two main butchers making sausages in Newmarket were different. The two refused to join forces and promote a single secret recipe, so the PGI leaves a fair amount of room for manoeuvre. Cumberland has a PGI too. * Cover photo by Flickr member John Giacomoni. Huffduff it

Oct 03 2016 20 mins  
If you heard the episode on microshiners you'll know that there is something of a boom in small-scale distilling. And you might be worried that every boom seems to be followed by a bust. One distiller, however, told me that it was an economic bust that kickstarted the malt whisky boom. For most of its history, the only malt whisky most people ever drank was as a component in blended whisky. The stockmarket crash of 1973 and subsequent oil crises meant that people had no cash for whisky, which was costing more as a result of higher oil prices. Distilleries were shut and mothballed, and, desperate for a bit of cash, the big whisky blenders started to market single malts, which had all gone into blends before. That seemed worth investigating in more detail, so I did just that. And I discovered that the story is a little bit more complicated. Booms and busts, however, have definitely played a part in the history of malt whisky. Will the draft distillery story end in tears? Some say no, others yes. Me, I just want to try some of their products. Notes * Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery looks absolutely fascinating. One to try and visit next time I’m in Ireland, for sure. * Whisky Max, Charles Maclean’s website, is a great source of information about whisky and how to enjoy it. * If you want to go deep, very deep, into scotch whisky, you need Alan Gray’s Scotch Whisky Industry Review. * I learned an amazing amount from Scotch Whisky: History, Heritage and the Stock Cycle, a journal article by Julie Bower. * If you want a personal tour of Scotland, Alastair Cunningham is your man. * Aeneas Coffey is easy enough to run to ground. Aeneas MacDonald, the great whisky writer, maybe less so. * Banner image © Glenfarclas Distillery, seen here

Small-scale spirits
Aug 22 2016 29 mins  
I confess, I had no idea there was even such a thing as a craft distillery. Craft breweries certainly, and thankfully, because most mass-produced beer is just not all that good, at least to me. But I’ve never had a problem with mass-produced spirits, probably because I don’t drink them that much. Experts will tell you, however, that they suffer all the same drawbacks as beer: boring, standardised, uninteresting and the same wherever you go. And once I’d started to investigate – and taste – I was forced to agree. Craft spirits are really interesting, and in this episode I’ve taken only the smallest sip. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about craft distilleries is how fast they're spreading, at least where they're allowed. British Columbia has gone from 5 to 50 in about three years. The USA now has more than 1000 registered small distilleries, almost a third of which are so-called "seed to sip" farm distillery operations. The British Isles too have seen a mushrooming of small distilleries. This episode is just a taste of things to come. Notes So many people to thank: * Cobey Williamson and Microshiner. * Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute. * Jim Walter at Whiskey Acres. * Tom Hills at East London Liquor Company. * Kate at Off the Eaten Track in Vancouver. * Gordon Glanz, founder and head distiller at Odd Society Spirits. I wonder if he’d be allowed to make Gordon’s gin? * Also, though they didn’t appear directly in this episode, [1] Craig Harris at Yaletown Distilling Company, Don O’Driscoll at The Liberty Distillery and Mark Reynier of Waterford Distillery in Ireland. * Banner photograph thanks to The Liberty Distillery, other images by me, music stolen from George Jones and Mark Knopffler. Which is by way of a hint that there’s bound to be a follow-up; there’s so much more to say.  ↩

A visit to Elkstone Farm in Colorado
Aug 08 2016 24 mins  
It’s all very well trying to eat local in a place like Rome or San Francisco, where the climate is relatively benign all year round and you can grow a great deal of produce without too much difficulty. But what do you do when you are at an altitude of more than 2000 metres with a growing season that is usually less than three months long? You do what you can, which in the case of Elkstone Farm, near Steamboat Springs in Colorado, means building four greenhouses, one of which is capable of ripening figs, citrus and even, occasionally, bananas. But it isn’t all greenhouses. Outdoors there’s a tangle of many different kinds of annual and perennial crops, which during the short growing season provide an abundance of fruits and vegetables. What came as a surprise to me was that the area used to be famous for its produce, and not just of beef cattle. Strawberries were an important early export, pioneered by a farmer called Lester Remington, who grew a variety called Remington (of which I can find no trace). Remington apparently produced huge berries, which were shipped by rail as far as New York City. A short-lived boom, started in 1900, was bust by 1916, the victim of a couple of years of late frosts and rising wages for strawberry pickers. Other exports included lettuces – shipped to California, no less – and potatoes, all laid low by costs of labour and of transport. Elkstone Farm is one of the places trying to revive local growing. I was lucky enough to visit this summer, and was shown around by Alex Berger. Notes * Elkstone Farm has a website, natch. * That strange herb Alex mentioned is shiso, also known as Perilla. An acquired taste that, once planted, is hard to lose. * The banner photograph is of figs in the greenhouse, and below that, Meyer lemons ripening too. The other photos show the three hoophouses, the inside of one of them, growing tomatoes, peppers and other goodies and, back in the big greenhouse, Algerian mandarins ripening.

Xylella is here and it could be dangerous
Jul 25 2016 20 mins  
Climate change and global trade combine to make it ever more likely that new pests and diseases will threaten food supplies. A classic example is playing out now in Puglia, the region that includes the heel of Italy's boot. The disease is caused by a bacterium -- Xylella fastidiosa -- that clogs the xylem vessels that carry water up from the roots. No water means leaves shrivel and scorch and eventually the host plant can die. In 2013, Xylella was found for the first time in Europe, in olive trees near Gallipoli. Plant health plans swung into action, to try and eradicate, or at least contain, the disease. And so did politicians and activists, blocking progress with ignorance, half-truths and manipulation. In consequence, the disease has now spread to cover the whole of the Salento peninsula. In the view of people much more expert than I, there may now be no stopping Xylella. Rodrigo Almeida, of the University of California, published an article in Science last week, asking Can Apulia's olive trees be saved? As he is an expert, I see no reason to present a different point of view, so you may find the podcast one sided. So be it. Notes * Rodrigo Almeida's article is behind a paywall, but if you want a copy, I'm sure I can help you find one. * Thomas Simpson is keeping a website that offers quick and helpful translations of articles about Xylella. It is a great resource if you want to know more about the foolishness. * While I have your attention, let's hear it for expertise.

Back to the mountains of Pamir
Jun 27 2016 27 mins  
In 2007, Frederik van Oudenhoven travelled to the Pamir mountains in Central Asia to document what remained of the region’s rich agricultural biodiversity. Almost 100 years before, the great Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov became convinced that this was where “the original evolution of many cultivated plants took place.” Soft club wheat, with its short ears, rye, barley, oil plants, grain legumes like chickpeas and lentils, melons and many fruits and vegetables; all showed the kind of diversity that Vavilov said pointed to the places where they were first domesticated. As he wrote, “it is still possible to observe the almost imperceptible transition from wild to cultivated forms within the area.” What van Oudenhoven found was bewildering; incomprehensible diversity in the fields and unspeakably dull food on his plate. It only started to make sense when he began to talk to Pamiri people, and especially the older women, about their food and culture. The result was a book – With Our Own Hands: a celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan – by van Oudenhoven and his co-author Jamila Haider, which documents a culture that remains in danger of disappearing. That book recently won the Gourmand International award for Best Cookbook of 2015, which is why I am now repeating the conversation I had with Frederik van Oudenhoven in July of last year. Notes * With Our Own Hands is published by LM Publishers and is available from them and other booksellers. * For other notes, see the original episode notes. * There are plans to make a documentary about the people and their culture. Watch a trailer here.

The True Father of the First Green Revolution
May 30 2016 20 mins  
Today’s show is something of a departure; I’m talking about someone who is crucial to global food security and yet who is almost unknown. It’s true, as Jean-Henri Fabre, the French naturalist wrote, that “History ... knows the names of the king's bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat.” Most people are blissfully unaware of the men and women who created the plant varieties that keep us fed. I say as much at the beginning of the show, when I guess that perhaps one in a hundred people can name a plant breeder, and that the name they’re most likely to come up with is that of Norman Borlaug. (The true stats, from a very small, self-selected sample, are somewhat different. Two out of 13 – about 15% – can name a plant breeder, although neither of the names they came up with was Borlaug’s.) I thought Borlaug might be the most familiar plant breeder because he is credited as being the Father of the Green Revolution, for work that won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Nazareno Strampelli, an Italian plant breeder, exactly foreshadowed Borlaug’s work by about four decades. His wheats doubled production in Italy and beyond and were crucial to the second green revolution ushered in by Borlaug. He was born on 29 May 1866, 150 years ago as I write this. He deserves to be better known (as do all plant breeders, actually). Notes * There is very little about Strampelli’s life and work in English. I am indebted to Sergio Salvi for his books, articles and time, without which I could not have produced this episode. * Music for the show graciously provided by Jon Fuller, aside from bits of soundtrack lifted from archive Italian newsreel. * The banner image I grabbed from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator; it’s a little in joke for anyone who does know even a smidgen of the history of wheat. * There is so much more to the story of Strampelli and the early days of plant breeding; would you be interested in an e-book?

It is OK to eat quinoa
Apr 18 2016 26 mins  
Quinoa -- that darling of the health-conscious western consumer -- came in for a lot of flack a few years ago. Skyrocketing prices caused some food activists to claim that the poor quinoa farmers of the high Andean plains in Bolivia and Peru were no longer able to afford their staple food. Every mouthful we ate was taken direct from a hungry peasant. Some people even gave up eating the stuff. Other writers retaliated by saying that high prices were the best thing that ever happened to those poor farmers. And agricultural economists saw an opportunity to prove their worth. The results are in. High prices are indeed good for farmers. And they had no impact on nutrition among either quinoa farmers or those who merely buy it from time to time. If you gave up on quinoa, you can take it up again with a clean conscience. But that's not to say all is perfect. In this episode, the impact of high prices on quinoa farmers, the problems to come and how western consumers can be part of the solution. Notes * There’s quite a lot about quinoa’s various ups and downs over at the other place. This is a good place to start. * Bellemare, Fajardo-Gonzalez and Gitter’s paper is Foods and Fads: The Welfare Impacts of Rising Quinoa Prices in Peru. * Andrew Stevens’ paper is Quinoa Quandary: Cultural Tastes and Nutrition in Peru. * Bioversity International has lots of information about Payments for agrobiodiversity conservation services. * Lots more from Andean Naturals at their website. * The banner photograph I took in Cotacachi, Ecudaor. And the cover image uses a Wikimedia image by Christian Guthier - originally posted to Flickr as Homegrown Quinoa!, CC BY 2.0.

Welcome to the Wonderbag
Apr 04 2016 14 mins  
At this year’s Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food I talked to Jon Verriet, who’s been researching the history of the haybox. That’s an insulated container, into which you put hot food, which then keeps cooking thanks to the retained heat. Jon made the point that hayboxes often see an upsurge during times of war and hardship, when they can be promoted as good for the country because they save energy and money. Environmentally-aware types also like them, to save energy as they cook their lentils. Researching the haybox myself, I came across its modern incarnation, the Wonderbag, which neatly ties those two motivations together. When you buy one, perhaps for environmental reasons, you’re actually paying for two, one of which goes to a poor family to save money, fuel, time, water, everything. I thought that was worth a follow-up, and so sought out Sarah Collins, a South African social entrepreneur who developed the Wonderbag. Notes * The Wonderbag website tells the story and links through to the Wonderbag Foundation. * The University of California at Berkeley study mentioned in the podcast concluded that the Wonderbag saves 8–21% of the time family members spend cooking, 10–36% of fuel costs, and allows families to spend 36–60% more on food. * Banner photograph thanks to Annie Templeton at Goedgedacht Trust. Cover photo by Edrea du Toit for Netwerk 24. * The haybox through history episode, for convenience. Huffduff it

Chewing the fat about chewing the fat
Feb 22 2016 20 mins  
Karima Moyer-Nocchi is an American woman who teaches at the University of Siena. When she had been here almost 25 years she developed something of an obsession. On the one hand, she watched “a bewildering decline in the quality and craftsmanship of Italian food together with a skyrocketing deification of it”. On the other, “in a vicious circle, the decline stimulated the explosion of the gastronomic nostaliga industry, which in turn, hastened the very process it claimed to quell”. This is not something you would notice. The modern idea is that Italian cuisine has always been more-or-less what it is, and that if there were a difference between social classes, it was more about how often they ate certain dishes, or the quality of the ingredients, than about what they actually ate. As Karima Moyer-Nocchi discovered, that rose-tinted view is at odds with what actually went on. In an attempt to make sense of the changes, Moyer-Nocchi turned to women, now aged 90 and more, who had grown up under fascism and who, perhaps, could shed light on the recent history of Italian food. She gently coaxed their memories of food from them, and created a book that is part oral history, part academic history, and that puts the current mania for Italian cuisine in perspective. There’s no way we could cover it all in one interview, but I think you can get some idea of how things have changed, mostly for the better, and also how little one knows about the real history of food in Italy. Notes * The book is Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that if you follow that link straight to Amazon and buy it, I get a teeny reward. * The banner image, from a photograph by Henri Roger-Viollet (I think), shows Mussolini taking part in the first wheat threshing in Latina in 1932, a temporary victory in the Battle for Wheat. The podcast cover image is from a photograph by Mario Giacomelli. * In another episode about food in Fascist Italy, I talked to Ruth Lo about the festa dell’uva Huffduff it

The haybox through history
Feb 08 2016 12 mins  
Huffduff it This year’s Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food was dedicated to The material culture of cooking tools and techniques and was full of fascinating stuff. I especially enjoyed a talk on the hay box, the original slow cooker. The principle is simplicity itself. Bring a pot full of food to the boil and then insulate it really well so that it cools down very slowly. The food continues to cook as it cools down and if your insulation is good enough you can come back hours later to find a hot, properly cooked meal. The haybox actually has quite a long history, with three Gold Medals awarded to a Mr Johan Sörensen at the Paris Exhibition in 1867. Various patents were granted to Sörensen and others, and the idea was promoted for "fishermen, pilots, and others whose small vessels are not generally so constructed as to enable them to procure hot food while at sea" and, eventually, domestic cooks. In his talk, Jon Verriet traced the ups and downs of the haybox from around 1895 to the present day. It was most popular in times of war, but always with a moral element to it, even if the moral lesson shifted slightly. Notes * There’s a terrific account of The Self-acting Norwegian Cooking Apparatus in the New York Medical Journal, vol 10 (1870). Do not be distracted by either the preceding item (The Effects of Hashish) or the one after (When to Trephine). Thanks to Hedon for the link. * The most recent incarnation of the haybox is the Wonderbag, created by a development worker after a restless night and now offering to save the planet and pull people out of poverty. * Aside from that, most of the online writing about the haybox is survivalist stuff. I’m not linking to that. * The banner image is from Ford Madox Brown’s The Hayfield. I’d like to think that his supper is under one of the little haystacks. The cover illustration is from The Fireless Cook Book, by Margaret J. Mitchell.

An experiment in sound and taste
Dec 21 2015 23 mins  
Maybe you've read about experiments that show that when potato crisps crunch louder, people say they're fresher. And beyond crisps, all sorts of taste sensations can be manipulated by the sounds that surround them. Heavy metal apparently renders a Cabernet Sauvignon more robust. The drone of an airplane engine renders the umami of tomato juice more or less irresistable, a fact I can attest to. Top chefs are using sound to manipulate the dining experience, but when it comes down to it, I was very doubtful that drinking beer while listening to music would have any noticeable effect. I was wrong. The revelation took place on a freezing morning in a deconsecrated church in Kilfinane, a little village between County Cork and County Limerick in Ireland. Caroline Hennessy -- minus white coat -- conducted the proceedings, plying us with samples from the Eight Degrees Brewing in nearby Mitchelstown, while Brian Leach played some music he'd recorded specially for the occasion. It was all part of the Hearsay Audio Festival 2015, a delight in so many ways, and although I hadn't intended to produce a podcast there, I couldn't pass up the chance. So here it is, and if it sounds a little rough around the edges, that's because it was possibly the most difficult episode I've ever assembled. Notes * Of course that shoudn't be a Guinness in the photos, it should be a Knockmealdown Irish Stout from Eight Degrees Brewing, but as you can tell I've been in a terrible rush. * If you're looking for a guide to Irish craft brews, Caroline Hennessy's book Sláinte is available from Amazon. * Brian Leach was kind enough to let me have clean copies of all his music. My apologies if I massacred it in the mix. * I would have made an even bigger mess of things if Andrea Rangecroft, a superb audio producer, had not let me have her recording. * I have no words to thank Hearsay Audio Festival. It really was a wonderful experience in so many ways, thanks to them, the other participants and the people of Kilfinane. I hope to be back.

Aquae Urbis Romae
Dec 07 2015 23 mins  
Visitors to Rome are often astonished not so much by the big famous fountains that dot the city but by the smaller flows that gush or trickle from what seems like every street corner. All that water, going to waste. Those drinking fountains – known locally as nasoni or big noses – deliver endless streams of delicious, cold water night and day, summer and winter, and it surprises many people to learn that public water fountains have been a feature of the city since well before the Republic. Indeed, clean water was the right of every Roman citizen. Dotted around the city and its environs you’ll also see traces of the engineering that made the public drinking fountains possible: the long, straight lines of the aqueducts and, more often, the occasional broken arch. In many cases, the city's water supply still traces the routes of the aqueducts and even uses their structures. There is a lot of information about the waters of Rome online, but nothing beats a personal tour guide. I was lucky enough to persuade Katherine Rinne, who supplies a lot of the online information, to show me how it all worked. Notes * Katherine Rinne’s book The Waters of Rome: Aqueducts, Fountains, and the Birth of the Baroque City gives much, much more detail. There’s also a much earlier book of the same name by H.V. Morton, which lacks some of the scholarship that Rinne supplies. * If you think I’ve belaboured the antiquity of the Roman public water supply, you’re right. Because a very popular podcast slighted my adopted home by ignoring it completely. * I highly recommend drowning yourself in the interactive timeline of the waters of Rome. Hours of desktop diversion. Alas, it does need Flash player

How to measure what farms produce
Nov 23 2015 12 mins  
How should we measure what farms produce? The answer drives some pretty important trends. For the past 60 years and more, the key metric has been yield – tonnes per hectare or equivalent. And it has resulted in extraordinary improvements in productivity, at least as measured by yield, and at least for some crops. Over the past 60 years, the productivity of the three major cereals – wheat, rice and maize – has gone up 3.2 times, more than keeping up with the 2.3-times increase in population. And the total production of those three has gone up from 66 per cent of all cereals to 79 percent over the same period. Largely as a result, we no longer see the same large-scale famines that we used to. Yield, however, isn’t everything. Nor are calories, which some people have embraced as a better measure than yield. The world produces enough calories for everyone (ignoring for now the fact that there are problems with distribution) but calories are not enough. As Ruth DeFreis says in the podcast, “If calories were everything, why would we have a billion iron-deficient people?” Ruth and her co-authors have come up with an alternative measure, nutritional yield: “The number of adults who would be able to obtain 100% of their recommended DRI [dietary reference intake] of different nutrients for 1 year from a food item produced annually on one hectare”. To me, this makes intuitive sense. Food – as opposed to, say, biofuel – is for nourishing people, not powering machines. So of course there’s more to it than calories. I’ve tried saying as much to pundits gung-ho for yield or calories, even before I read the paper, but with no great success. So when the topic came up again I jumped at the opportunity to speak to the lead author. Notes * Ruth DeFries recently published The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis. * Metrics for land-scarce agriculture is in the 17 July 2015 issue of Science. * My side of the little rant is at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. The calorie-fans can put their own side up if they’re so minded. * A couple of weeks later, my compadre Luigi wrote about the Science paper and added his own views.

The Dark Ages were a time of prosperity
Nov 10 2015 22 mins  
The Dark Ages ran for about 400 years, from around the fall of the Roman Empire, in the middle of the 6th century, to around the 10th or 11th centuries. It was dark because the light of Rome had been extinguished, while that of the Renaissance had not yet burst into flame. And it was supposed to be a time when the culture and economy of Europe slumped. Peasants in scattered rural settlements scratched out a living in ignorance and obscurity. Recent archaeological excavations, however, have changed the way people look at the Dark Ages. Richard Hodges, President of the American University in Rome, wrote a book back in the 1980s called Dark Age Economics, and it subscribed, more or less, to the prevailing wisdom. Recently, though, he has completely written the story, and Dark Ace Economics: A New Audit reinterprets this fascinating period in Europe’s development. He presented a very brief introduction at the recent sustainability conference organised by the American University of Rome and the American Academy in Rome, where he said that farming in the Dark Ages was much more productive and sustainable than people previously thought. Luckily, the American University in Rome is close at hand. There is a lot more I would have liked to go into; the spread of the plough, animal breeding, the wool economy. I confess I find this sort of thing very beguiling, and I hope you do too. Maybe another time. Notes * Dark Ace Economics: A New Audit is published by Bloomsbury. * I remember reading Marshall Sahlins’ The Original Affluent Society when it first came out, and it made a huge impression. (As did Marv Harris, but that’s a story for another day.) * The extreme weather events of 535–536 were news to me; they shouldn’t have been.

Going further than food miles
Oct 26 2015 24 mins  
Wendell Berry, the American farmer, writer and thinker, famously said that "Eating is an agricultural act". The quote now has a life of its own, but it is worth remembering that Berry used it to introduce a longer version of his advice to the urban consumer who wants to know what they can do. The short version is "eat responsibly". To do that, though, you have to understand how agriculture and the food we eat are connected, how they form part of an entire system. My guest on this episode understands more than most people about how the various parts of the food system fit together, and it is a lot more complex than many people can imagine. For a start, take the label on the apple in the image on the left. In case you cannot read it, it says: “Forget organic. Eat local.” Nice, simple advice. But more or less pointless. There’s so much more to food systems than just the distance the food travels. Tim Lang – who coined the phrase food miles – agrees. When he visited Rome recently for a conference on sustainable food I took the opportunity to get together to chat about the complexities of food systems. Our conversation ranged from high-level government policy to what you do with the skin of a mango you’ve just eaten, the point being that once you start to look at food systems as a whole, those two aspects of how we eat become closely intertwined. Notes * Gareth Edward-Jones’ paper Does eating local food reduce the environmental impact of food production and enhance consumer health? is a good introduction to some of the difficulties with a simple view of food miles. * Tim mentioned the work of Carlos Monteiro, of the University of Sao Paolo, on ultra-processed food, and Barry Popkin, of the University of North Carolina, on the nutrition transition. * That quote of Wendell Berry’s is a pithy soundbite, but the whole essay The pleasures of eating is well worth your time. * And if you fancy a really deep dive into recent thinking on some aspects of food systems, how about this report from the European Commission: Energy use in the EU food sector: State of play and opportunities for improvement. * Banner photo by Duncan Brown.

Just Mayo and justice
Sep 28 2015 20 mins  
It’s hard to know what this episode is really about. Government bullying private enterprise? An evil conspiracy to crush a competitor? Confused consumers unable to read a label? All of the above? In a nutshell, on 12 August 2015 the US Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek Foods, informing him that two of Hampton Creek’s products: are in violation of section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 343] and its implementing regulations found in Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 101 (21 CFR 101). Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha are the two products, and their crime is that they do not contain eggs. So they cannot be called “mayo”. Who sicced the FDA on Hampton Creek? has become the big question, as a pile of emails winkled out of the government by a Freedom of Information Act request seem to show that the American Egg Board orchestrated a campaign against Hampton Creek. I mentioned the story in my newsletter three weeks ago, which prompted Peter Hertzmann, an independent researcher and a friend, to suggest that the reality, as ever, is not quite so straightforward. Peter was good enough to fill me in on some of the background. Notes * Peter Hertzmann’s website is well worth exploring for all sorts of good things. * The American Egg Board is just one of several commodity checkoff programs. There have been some very interesting challenges to the whole idea of a mandatory checkoff, one of which recently featured on BackStory, a history podcast. I did ask if I could use it, but no reply yet; you can hear the segment here, but you will need a sharper legal brain than mine to decide whether mandatory funding of something called government speech raises First Amendment concerns. * What got Peter and me into the sciencey discussion of mayonnaise and emulsions was his mention of the Harvard University Science and Cooking lecture series. I’m mortified to admit that I didn’t know about it. Many of the lectures are on YouTube, and one in particular that Peter pointed me to showed Nandu Jubany from Can Jubany restaurant in Spain making an aioli from nothing but garlic, salt and olive oil, and a bit of water. You can see him do that from about 13:30 to 17:30 in this video, but the intro, on emulsions, is worth watching too if you want to a better understanding. * I’m sharing, without comment, some of the AEB material obtained by Ryan Shapiro. * The FDA’s letter is, of course, online. * The banner image of a mayonnaise emulsion under the microscope is from a scientific paper on substituting eggs with a modified potato starch.

100% food insecure: poor people in a rich country
Aug 17 2015 17 mins  
The O-Pipin-Na-Piwin Cree Nation have suffered generations of maltreatment at the hands of various official entities. Moved from their homelands further south, they now occupy small scattered settlements in northern Manitoba, where summers are short and the land infertile. Having adapted to some extent to their new circumstances, large dams, built to supply energy to the rest of the province and beyond, flooded their traditional fishing and hunting grounds, destroying their livelihoods even further. Being so remote, the supply chain for outside foods is tenuous and expensive, with prices way beyond those found further south. No wonder, then, that the people are suffering an epidemic of malnutrition and its attendant diseases. But after years of maltreatment, the people are starting to reclaim their foodways and learning new ways to feed themselves sustainably. Andi Sharma, a policy analyst with the Northern Healthy Foods Initiative, told me about the problems and some of the incipient solutions. Notes * The banner image is part of a very early map of the area now occupied by the indigenous people and Manitoba Hydro. * The Northern Healthy Foods Initiative is trying to improve food security in a variety of ways. * I didn’t spend much time following up on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I’m struck by the historical similarities between Canada and Australia, and, again, by the power of food as a political weapon.

Larder inessentials
Jul 20 2015 20 mins  
The heat here in Rome has been something the past couple of weeks. Not up to 2003 of blessed memory, but hot nevertheless. The last thing I needed was for the fridge to start playing up, but it did, making horrible noises. Ignoring the disaster foretold, I defrosted the darn thing, which not only solved the problem (temporarily) but also provided inspiration for this episode of Eat This Podcast. At the back of the fridge I found things I had completely forgotten. That prompted me to dig around in the back of the store cupboard too, where there were lots of other things of which I was vaguely aware, but not aware enough actually to have used them. All of which prompted a musing on store-cupboard essentials, gifts from well-meaning friends, and the whole neophilia-neophobia tension. I hope I didn’t ramble on for too long. Some the things that did not make it into my rambles: * The whole business of gleaning that gave rise to grano arso I find fascinating. Gleaners were surely the first dumpster divers. The practice is enshrined in the Old Testament and I like the idea that richer landowners sometimes deliberately left fruit behind in their vineyards and orchards and grain in their fields that the poor might gain. I am not competent to say anything more about Ruth than that I find her’s a very moving story. * The other story behind grano arso is that it was not the stubble-cleansing fires that burnt the gleaned wheat grains but rather the heat from steam-powered threshing machines. Probably both. I don’t know whether any Pugliese who remembers the old stuff would agree that smoked or oven-burnt flour is in any way a substitute, but I like it. * Here’s a recent entry point to my adventures with grano arso. * I do feel rather ashamed about the garum thing. After my podcast Lauren Stacy Berdy was so kind to send me a bottle of her American garum and I still haven’t tried it. But I will, and soon, I promise. And perhaps I’ll report back here.

Culture and agriculture in the Pamirs
Jul 06 2015 26 mins  
The Pamir Mountains of Central Asia hold a fascinating diversity of food crops. Exploring the area in the early years of the 20th century the great Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov became convinced that this was where “the original evolution of many cultivated plants took place.” Soft club wheat, with its short ears, rye, barley, oil plants, grain legumes like chick peas and lentils, melons and many fruits and vegetables; all showed the kind of diversity that Vavilov said pointed to the places where they were first domesticated. As he wrote, “it is still possible to observe the almost imperceptible transition from wild to cultivated forms within the area.” Frederik van Oudenhoven first travelled to the Pamirs in 2007 to document what remained of that rich agricultural biodiversity. What he found was bewildering, until he began to talk to Pamiri people, and especially the older women, about their food and culture. The result is With Our Own Hands: a celebration of food and life in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, a new book by van Oudenhoven and his co-author Jamila Haider, that documents a culture that remains in danger of disappearing. Notes * With Our Own Hands is published by LM Publishers, who say it will be available from tomorrow, 7 July. If you think you might want a copy, order without delay; until tomorrow the price is reduced to €34.50 from €54.50. You can get a taste here. * There are also a couple of scholarly articles online. Imagining alternative futures through the lens of food in the Afghan and Tajik Pamir mountains and Food as a method in development practice. * Photos by Frederik van Oudenhoven. The banner shows an Afghan settlement in Darvaz, along the Panj River, in autumn, with yellow mulberrry trees and red apricots. the other picture is Frederik and his co-author Jamila Haider.

Lead poisoning of hunters and game
May 18 2015 18 mins  
This episode of Eat This Podcast is only tangentially about what people eat. At its heart, though, it is about how what people leave behind affects the other animals that eat it. Hunters routinely clean up the animals they’ve shot out in the field. That leaves a gut pile, consisting not only of the guts but also, usually, the heart and lungs and any meat damaged by the bullet. The hunter takes home the meat and scavenger animals get to snack on the gut pile. It's been that way for a long time. Unfortunately, recent research has shown that much of the gut pile, and some of the meat the hunters take home, is contaminated with microscopic pieces of lead. That could be damaging the people who eat the meat, and it has been accused of hampering the recovery of the Californian condor. I heard the story from Matt Podolsky, a wildlife biologist and film maker who worked with the condor recovery programme. That's him (in the hat) with one of the condors; even the size of that tag doesn't give a very good impression of the size of the bird. Notes * Matt Podolsky’s film Scavenger Hunt tells the story of the efforts to persuade hunters in Arizona to adopt non-lead ammunition. * Not everyone agrees that lead in deer carcasses is the main source of lead in condor blood. Start here. * Banner photograph of the Vermillion Cliffs, site of the Arizona condor releases, by Jerry and Pat Donaho. * Chef and hunter talk on Nordic Food Lab Radio. Beware, it auto-plays. * It is a good thing I don’t have a loaded weapon any time I visit SoundCloud. * And if you want to know more about my close encounters with Californian condors, you’ll have to find a copy of my book Zoo 2000 or persuade me to scan and share the relevant pages. I no longer have any copies of the TV shows on which it was based, although there is one on YouTube.

Enjoying life on a rather restricted regimen
May 04 2015 15 mins  
By great good fortune, there is nothing I cannot eat. There are a couple of things I'd prefer not to eat, but nothing, at least as far as I know, that would make me ill. As a result, I am fascinated by people who have to forego certain foods to stay well. I used to follow someone on the web who swore that something called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet-- which, I learn, apparently requires initial caps and a TM symbol -- was the only thing that kept her alive. I never really investigated further, because that was before I had a podcast to feed and she more or less stopped writing about it. So when the chance arose to talk to someone who is living with the disease and the diet, I leaped at it. Victoria Young is a journalist who has been following the SCD for about seven years. She says that it has actually renewed her relationship with food, partly by making her think hard about what she eats. Far from being a dull diet that is all about avoiding things, it forces her to be inventive with the things she can eat. And she says she's never felt better. The medical establishment may not be too keen on the SCD but the proof of the pudding -- assuming you can in fact make a pudding that complies -- does seem to be in the eating. Notes * Victoria Young's website links to her blog How to eat (when you can't eat anything at all). She tweets @tory21. * The mother lode on the SCD is Elaine Gottschall's book Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health Through Diet. * Once again, I'm plaintively asking you to rate and review the show on iTunes. I know that's pathetic, but it honestly does help. * The banner photo of a stained section of inflamed bowel is from Wikimedia, and doesn't it take me back ...

A second helping of citrus in Italy
Apr 06 2015 27 mins  
This episode is a repeat of one first published in October 2014, and the reason is that it has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. I'm utterly thrilled by the news, and gratified that more people have downloaded episodes and subscribed to the show. Strangely (at least to me) the original did not see huge renewed interest, which is why I thought it worthwhile repeating. If you've heard it, and don't feel like listening again, you could go and listen to one of the other two nominees, in the notes below. Being nominated is an immense honour. I won't know whether I have actually won until the award ceremony on 24 April. The original show notes:Citrus, thanks to what writer Helena Attlee calls their great “suggestibility,” confound the botanist and the shopper alike. What is the difference between a clementine and a mandarin? That was one of the few questions I didn’t ask Helena Attlee when we met recently to talk about citrus in Italy, the subject of her new book The Land Where Lemons Grow. And not just lemons. Attlee writes beautifully about all the citrus and all of Italy, from Lake Garda in the north to Palermo in the south. She covers not merely the tendency of citrus to interbreed and mutate, but also history and economics, culture, cooking and organised crime. Through it all runs a continuous thread that links the very difficulties of growing citrus productively to the desirability of the finished products, on which fortunes and entire communities were built. The Land Where Lemons Grow proves, as if it needed proving, that food provides a perfect lens through which to view the entire world, as a result of which I had to cut some choice sections from our conversation. That, however, has prompted me to try something new here, which will become apparent in a day or two as I also attempt to tidy up a bit here. Notes * More about Helena Attlee at her website * The other award nominees are Gravy and The Feed. * Intro music by Podington Bear.

A little about allotments
Feb 23 2015 16 mins  
Allotments seem to be a peculiarly British phenomenon. Small parcels of land, divided into smaller still plots, furnished often with a shed and make-shift cold frames, greenhouses and what have you, where, in time-honoured tradition, old men in baggy corduroys and cardigans go to smoke a pipe and gaze out on serried ranks of cabbages, leeks and potatoes. But they are also places where young families are growing their own food, where immigrants are introducing new kinds of fruit and veg, and where people can find a respite from the city. Just recently, they’ve become the backdrop to yet another reality TV “game show”. In that respect, perhaps, like cooking food, growing food may be more of a passive entertainment than an active pastime. Nevertheless, allotments remain in demand. They have a long history, born out of food riots and strife, and in many cases a threatened future as the land they occupy is much more valuable for building plots than for garden plots. Jane Perrone, gardening editor at The Guardian, spilled the beans. Notes * Jane Perrone’s book The Allotment Keeper’s Handbook: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Growing Your Own Food is available from Amazon and elsewhere. She also has a blog. * James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution is the book Jane Perrone credited with introducing people to new things to grow on their allotments. * Banner photo of Stuart Road Allotments modified from one by sarflondondunc. The spade handle, likewise, modified from a picture by Paul Zappaterra-Murphy

Agricultural foundations
Jan 26 2015 24 mins  
One of the things I find most frustrating in agricultural research is that, despite the subject matter, it often bears little relationship to the fundamental facts of life. Too often, we hear all sorts of extravagant claims being made that a bit of more analytical thought would show were somewhat less than likely to work out. No names, no pack drill; let's just say that natural selection has had an awful long time to try things out, and if something hasn't arisen (yet) there may well be a good reason why it isn't that great an idea. There are some people, however, bucking that trend, and Ford Denison is one of them. His book, Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture came out in 2012, and I devoured it. Some recent publications reminded me that I have long meant to talk to Ford Denison about his ideas. He was kind enough to agree, and while that is no substitute for reading his work, it might just provoke people who haven't already done so to try. I hope so. No bones about it, the resulting episode is a personal pleasure for me. There is a danger, though, that in talking to someone about something I think I understand, at least partially, I forget to keep other listeners in mind. So I'd be interested to know what you thought of the show. And, more generally, would you be interested in more basic science of this kind, related, always, to food and drink? Notes * Just to be transparent, the link to the book is an Amazon Affiliate link; if you buy it, I get some paltry percentage. But nobody has yet, to my knowledge, ever done that for any of my links. * My somewhat gushing review is here. I stand by it all. * Banner image by Arnaud Sobczyk and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Another helping of turkey
Dec 15 2014 11 mins  
The domestication of the turkey probably first took place around 2000 years ago in south central Mexico, possibly for their feathers and ritual value rather than their meat. Their rise to the top of the American festive table came much later, not with the Pilgrims but with Charles Wampler, whose efforts to promote turkey raising started Rockingham County, Virginia, on its path to Turkey Capital of the World. That much we heard in the previous episode of Eat This Podcast. In between domestication and proto-industrialisation, however, the wild turkey almost vanished from America, hunted to the edge of extinction. Nature types – and hunters – really thought the turkey was a goner, and it was the hunters who brought it back, to the point where there are now turkeys in 10 states, including Hawaii, that originally had none. In carrying out this successful conservation story, however, the wildlife managers mixed up the turkey’s genetics something rotten, moving birds all over the country and confusing the subspecies no end. Modern genetic analysis has shown just what a mess things are. The bigger question, though, is: does it matter? After all, the Mexican subspecies that gave rise to the domestic turkey is actually extinct. And the remaining five subspecies presumably arose because their ancestors adapted to different environments in different ways. Given time, these new, mixed-up wild turkey populations should do the same. But, as I heard from Joe Smith, an ecologist and wildlife biologist, the lack of genetic diversity in some of the new populations may prove problematic. Notes * Joe Smith has a gorgeous website. His article about wild turkey genetics is well worth a read, as is this piece hailing the wild turkey as “the greatest conservation success story”. * If you’re interested in that kind of thing, take a look at the deeply fascinating National Wild Turkey Federation, to whom thanks for the banner image. * I know it is a forlorn hope, but I’d love to have a single, coherent account of turkey domestication. Here’s some more confusion. * Subscribe! Tell your friends to subscribe!

A partial history of the turkey
Dec 01 2014 15 mins  
As Thanksgiving ebbs into memory and Christmas looms on the horizon, Eat This Podcast concerns itself with the turkey. For a nomenclature nerd, the turkey is a wonderful bird. Why would a bird from America be named after a country on the edge of Asia? The Latin name offers a clue; the American turkey is Meleagris gallopavo, while the African guineafowl is Numida meleagris. But why did the first settlers adopt a name they were already familiar with, rather than adopt a local indigenous name such as nalaaohki pileewa for the native fowl. Simple answer: nobody knows. Then there's the question of how a somewhat shy bird of the underbrush turned into the monstrous spectacle that graces holiday tables? And why is Rockingham County, Virginia, the turkey capital of the world? That last question is actually rather easy to answer, as I learned from Nancy Sorrells, a local historian in Rockingham County. The domestication question, however, is far from simple. Greg Laden, a biological anthropologist and science writer, did his best to explain it all. And at the end of the day, I confess, I prefer goose. Notes * Of course Wikipedia has a List of names for turkeys. * The Main Squeeze (James Madison University alumna) clued me in to the crucial role of Rockingham County in the turkey story, which led me straight to Nancy Sorrells’ article * Greg Laden writes at Science Blogs, and elsewhere. * You surely don’t need to be told that the Turkey Trot was performed by Little Eva. * Samuel H. Blosser, pioneer of artificial incubation, lived to be very nearly 90. * Banner photograph modified from an image by Don DeBold. Huffduff it

The festa dell’uva of the 1930s
Nov 17 2014 17 mins  
These days, every little town and village in Italy has its sagra or festa, a weekend, or longer, in celebration of a particular local food. Although they have a whiff of tradition about them, most of these are relatively recent inventions, designed to attract tourists as much as honour the food and cement community relationships. I was surprised to learn, then, that in 1930 Mussolini’s Minister of Agriculture, Arturo Marescalchi, proposed a national celebration of the grape – the festa dell’uva – throughout the peninsula. There were many reasons. A glut of table grapes was certainly one, as the government sought to persuade the public to eat Italian. There were also political motives, celebrating Italy as a young nation and strengthening support for the fascists. The result, for a few glorious years, was an annual spectacle of amazing proportions. In Rome, markets were set up for each region to sell its table grapes, there were processions of outlandish grape-themed floats, and a good time seems to have been had by all. Ruth Lo, a PhD student at Brown University and scholar at the American Academy in Rome has been studying the period and generously agreed to talk to me about her work. Notes * Ruth Lo recently presented a paper – Celebrating the festa dell’uva: Grapes and Urban Spectacle in Fascist Rome – at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Society in Atlanta, Georgia. * L’istituto Luce, L’Unione Cinematografica Educativa, was another arm for fascist propaganda. Some of the films Luce made are on YouTube. Two of my favourites, well worth the visit as historical documents, are the celebrations at the Basilica di Massenzio, these days the home of a literary festival, and one from Marino in the Castelli Romani, apparently Marescalchi’s inspiration and still going strong today.

Exploring Kazakhstan’s apple forests
Nov 04 2014 16 mins  
Kazakhstan stretches across Central Asia from the Caspian Sea in the east to China in the west. The country is famous for many things – it is the largest landlocked country in the world, says Wikipedia – but among food and plant people it is most important as the home of the apple. The name of the former capital, Almaty, is often translated as Father of Apples, and it was to Almaty that Ben Reade, today’s guest, recently went with a botanist friend in search of good wild apples. He found them, and much else besides. It is worth pointing out that the now common wisdom – that the domestic apple Malus domesticus was selected from a wild relative Malus sieversii, rather than being a hybrid – has only recently been accepted. Barrie Juniper, of Oxford University, brought all manner of evidence to bear on the question, including some of the first DNA studies of crops. His book, The Story of the Apple is a great read, and some of his knowledge has clearly found its way to his daughter Sarah, The Apple Factor. I also spent a little time looking into Ben’s throwaway remark about “lightly fermented carrot salad”. The New York Times, no less, avers that “Korean carrot salad, morkovcha koreyska, … is a legacy of Stalin’s mass deportations of ethnic Koreans from the far eastern Soviet Union to its western frontiers.” I found a couple of recipes here and here, and although I haven’t tried either, I plan to do so soon. Neither seems to be “authentic,” not least because I’m not sure they would ferment at all. I’d be interested to know more. Notes * I Went to the Fatherland of All Modern Apples is Ben Reade’s own account of his trip. * The first ever Eat this Podcast consisted of Ben talking about bog butter. The guy gets around. * Photos on this page from Ben, and there are lots more in his article.

A novel approach to food security
Oct 20 2014 19 mins  
It is so easy to forget that very few people know anything about plant breeding and how vital it is to having enough to eat. The time it takes, and the resources it needs -- financial, genetic, human -- are just not something most people know about. No wonder, then, that many people don't quite grasp the urgency with which we need to get cracking now to breed crops adapted to predicted climate conditions. Susan Dworkin's new book The Commons sidesteps that by hurling us 150 years into the future, to a world in which the failure to respond almost doomed our species to extinction. I thought it might be fun to talk to Susan and she agreed, but first I had to read the book. It turned out to be a rollicking good read, full of interesting characters and strange plot twists. All our old familiar friends are there. Large parts of the world have become very inhospitable, thanks to climate change. There's an all-knowing Corporation that owns just about everything, including 85% of all humans in its domain. And the humans are shareholders in the whole enterprise. It all seems rather wonderful, except that there's a problem: a new stem rust of wheat threatens a reprise of the famines and hardship of 100 years before. To say much more would be to give too much away. Let's just say that the search for a solution is what drives the story forward. Of course, I'm not the intended audience, so I have absolutely no idea how The Commons will be received by anyone else. I'm not even sure what the author would like us to be doing now to avoid the future she depicts. That was just one of the topics we talked about in a discussion that could have gone on a lot longer. Notes * The Commons is available from Amazon as an e-book and a paperback. * If you are in the Washington DC area on 24 October, Susan Dworkin will be lecturing on "The Weather in the Supermarket: Climate Change, Seed Banks and Tomorrow's Food" at the US Botanic Garden. * I "borrowed" the music -- Mavis Staples singing Hard Times Come Again No More -- from Beautiful Dreamer, a wonderful tribute album to Stephen Foster. Buy it if you don't already have it (and if you like that kind of thing). * The banner photograph is my own.

Rice from Randall’s Island, New York
Aug 25 2014 18 mins  
Randall’s Island is a small piece of land just east of 125th Street in New York’s East River. It is also around 2 degrees further south than the northern limit of rice growing on Hokkaido in Japan. What could be more natural, then, than for a community farm on Randall’s Island to have a go at growing rice, a staple that the kids who come to the farm enjoy, but one that they’ve never seen growing? The assistant horticulture manager scored some rice seeds and with advice from her grandmother in Korea set to. They built a miniature paddy, like a flooded raised bed, and managed to harvest about six kilograms of rice. And that’s when their trouble began. Rice is darn difficult to hull and clean. A piece by Rachel Laudan tipped me off to the Randall’s Island rice, and I was excited to discover that the person who origially wrote the story for The New Yorker was Nicola Twilley, a writer whose Edible Geography (and other projects) I have long admired. Luckily for me, she was happy to talk. What intrigued me about the story of hulling rice in the northeastern US, was how it resonated with the plight of subsistence farmers in India, Bolivia and elsewhere. The women in many communities spend hours a day of hard and often dangerous work to prepare the seeds they have grown and harvested. I can’t blame them if they would just as soon sell their back-breaking crop and buy prepared convenience foods, and hang the nutritional consequences. I’ve seen for myself how electrical mini-mills remove this drudgery for women in the Kolli Hills of India, and in so doing boost the consumption of nutritious millets. The same sort of approach, an inexpensive, locally-built machine, has made processing quinoa much easier for farmers on the Altiplano of Bolivia. There’s something fitting about New York rice being treated in a similar way. Notes * Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley’s website, is endlessly interesting and entertaining. If you’re into podcasts, don’t miss the great show Roman Mars and 99pi did based on her research into cow tunnels. * Rachel Laudan has made something of a specialty of pointing out that growing cereals is the easy part; preparing them for food is what takes hard work and ingenuity. * Ecological Rice Farming in the Northeastern USA is not nearly as silly as it may first seem. * And for all the details of Don Brill’s rice hullers, you need to head over to Brill Engineering, which sounds a lot grander than an inveterate tinkerer with a basement full of bits and pieces. * Daniel Felder, head of research at Momofuku, takes research into fermentation and terroir very seriously. Nicola has written about that too. * Photo of Don Brill and a volunteer rice peddler by Nicola Twilley, as are all the others. Thanks.

Japanese food through Canadian eyes
Aug 11 2014 23 mins  
I’m fascinated by Japanese food, but from a position of profound ignorance. I’ve never been there and I’ve never having eaten anything I could definitely say was “genuine,” aside from a wasabi chocolate cake baked by a Japanese friend. So the opportunity to talk to a Westerner living in Japan was one I leaped at. Jason Irwin is a Canadian who has been helping people in Japan learn English for the past seven years. He’s not in a big city, and he is part of a Japanese family, so he probably has a better understanding than many. He’s also leaving Japan soon. Time, obviously, to talk. As I mention in the podcast outro, I still find it rather remarkable that I can be online friends with a Canadian living in Japan and record us having a conversation. The recording bit is nothing special these days, I suppose, but the online friendship is the result of this thing called app dot net, aka ADN. It’s a special kind of social platform, one where the people who use it are the customers, as opposed to the others, where users are just a bulk commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. ADN celebrated its second birthday two days ago, and I've been there two years today. I've I get a lot out of ADN, not least my conversations with Jason, although I have never done anything to evangelize about it. Consider this a plug. Notes * Cover photo is Ise-ebi: Crawfish or Spiny Lobster and Ebi: shrimp by Utagawa Hiroshige. * Jason’s website is well worth a read. On food, I thought I would single out two posts about some of the Canadian foods he missed in Japan: Food I miss the most and I am not a chef ... but you'll have to ask him yourself for the details of how to prepare ham cooked in Canada Dry Ginger ale. * Aside from everything else that people say it could be, I find ADN to be just a very fine micro-blogging platform. You might too. * Banner photograph modified from an original by Linh Nguyen.

Who invented dried pasta?
Jul 29 2014 22 mins  
The history of pasta, ancient and modern, is littered with myths about the origins of manufacturing techniques, of cooking, of recipes, of names, of antecedents. Supporting most of these is a sort of truthiness whereby what matters most is not evidence or facts but – appropriately for us – gut feeling. Combine that with the echo chamber of the internet, and an idea can become true by virtue of repetition. So it is, by and large, for the idea that Arabs were responsible for inventing dried pasta and for introducing it to Sicily, from where it spread to the rest of the peninsula and beyond. You can find versions of this story almost everywhere you look for the history of dried pasta. Anthony Buccini’s gut feeling, however, was that this story was not true. His expertise in historical linguistics and sociolinguistics tells him that the linguistic evidence for an Arab origin gets the whole story backwards; rather, one of the principal elements in the spread of dried pasta through Italy and beyond was the commercial expansion of Genoa. The stuff itself was being made in southern Italy, the Genoese took the word and the stuff to the north and to Catalonia, and it was the Catalonians who took them to the Maghreb and the Arabs. So what did the Arabs do? They wrote it down in their cookbooks. And a bit more besides. Notes * The 2nd Perugia Food Conference Of Places and Tastes: Terroir, Locality, and the Negotiation of Gastro-cultural Boundaries took place from 5–8 June 2014. It was organized by the Food Studies Program of the Umbra Institute. * World Pasta Day falls on 25th October. Enough time to prepare something special? * Banner photograph taken by Su-Lin in Vancouver. Used with permission.

Vermont and the taste of place
Jul 14 2014 22 mins  
What do artisanal cheese and maple syrup have in common? In North America, and elsewhere too, they’re likely to bring to mind the state of Vermont, which produces more of both than anywhere else. They’re also the research focus of Amy Trubek at the University of Vermont, a trained chef and cultural anthropologist. Trubek gave one of the keynote speeches at the recent Perugia Food Conference, saying that terroir – which she translates as the taste of place – combines two elements. There is the taste itself, which when people talk about it with one another becomes a social experience that, she said, lends meaning to eating and drinking. And it is “a story we tell to assure that our food and drink emerges from natural environments and conditions.” Vermont cheese, at least the lovingly crafted artisanal kind, as much as maple syrup, reflects those concerns with natural environments and conditions. In our interview, we didn’t dwell too much on the scientific research underpinning Amy Trubek’s ideas. I found the idea that simply knowing the personal story of a cheese – who makes it, where, why – can influence how you respond to it fascinating. Taste, surely, is physiological. How would the story affect that? But it does. In one study of four different cheeses, people heard either a generic story about that cheese category, taken “from dairy science manuals,” or “socially and contextually relevant production information”. No matter how much they actually liked the cheese, or their “foodiness” on an established scale, people who had been told personal stories about the cheesemakers liked the cheese more than those told about the cheese alone. (See Note 3 below.) What’s more, according to Rachel DiStefano, who did a Master’s thesis with Amy Trubek, cheesemongers are vital allies in telling the stories and thus helping consumers to value artisanal cheeses. By contrast, terroir for maple syrup does seem to be less about personal stories and more about the soils the trees are in and the details of turning sap into syrup. Trubek has worked with a large, multidisciplinary team to create new standards and vocabulary that take discussions well beyond “sweet”. And yes, there is some evidence that soil does affect taste: [S]yrup produced from trees on limestone bedrock had the highest quantities of copper, magnesium, calcium and silica, which scientists hypothesized had a role in the taste. Shale syrups came in second in all of these substances, followed by schist. A final thought: Amy Trubek’s throwaway remark about fake maple flavour sent me down an internet rabbit hole that in the end proved surprisingly productive. Notes * The 2nd Perugia Food Conference Of Places and Tastes: Terroir, Locality, and the Negotiation of Gastro-cultural Boundaries took place from 5–8 June 2014. It was organized by the Food Studies Program of the Umbra Institute. * Sign photograph by Katherine Martinelli. * Consumer sensory perception of cheese depends on context: A study using comment analysis and linear mixed models. * Rachel DiStefano has written about her field work,

What makes Parmigiano-Reggiano Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Jun 30 2014 17 mins  
Great wheels of parmesan cheese, stamped all about with codes and official-looking markings, loudly shout that they are the real thing: Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP. They’re backed by a long list of rules and regulations that the producers must obey in order to qualify for the seal of approval, rules that were drawn up by the producers themselves to protect their product from cheaper interlopers. For parmesan, the rules specify how the milk is turned into cheese and how the cheese is matured. They specify geographic boundaries that enclose not only where the cows must live but also where most of their feed must originate. But they say nothing about the breed of cow, which you might think could affect the final product, one of many anomalies that Zachary Nowak, a food historian, raised during his presentation at the recent Perugia Food Conference on Terroir, which he helped to organise. In the end the whole question of certification is about marketing, prompted originally by increasingly lengthy supply chains that distanced consumers from producers. One problem, as Zach pointed out, is that in coming up with the rules to protect their product, the producers necessarily take a snapshot of the product as it is then, ignoring both its history and future evolution. They seek to give the impression that this is how it has always been done, since time immemorial, while at the same time conveniently forgetting aspects of the past, like the black wax or soot that once enclosed parmesan cheese, or the saffron that coloured it, or the diverse diet that sustained the local breed of cattle. One aspect of those forgettings that brought me up short was the mezzadria, a system of sharecropping that survived well into the 1960s. Zach has written about it on his website; some of the memories of a celebrated Perugian greengrocer offer a good starting point. Will some enterprising cheesemaker take up the challenge of producing a cheese as good as Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP somewhere else? No idea, but if anyone does, it’ll probably be a cheesemaker in Vermont, subject of the next show. Notes * The 2nd Perugia Food Conference Of Places and Tastes: Terroir, Locality, and the Negotiation of Gastro-cultural Boundaries took place from 5–8 June 2014. It was organized by the Food Studies Program of the Umbra Institute. * Wikipedia has masses of information about Geographical indications and traditional specialities in the European Union and, of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano which may, or may not, be parmesan. * Official site of the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano. * Thanks to Zachary Nowak for his map of the soils of the Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP. * 2019-05-05 Updated with link to Internet Archive./li

Bones and the Mongol diet
Jun 16 2014 16 mins  
The growing popularity of “Mongolian” restaurants owes less to Mongolian food and more to, er, how shall we say, marketing. To whit: "It’s actually not a cuisine, but an INTERACTIVE style of exhibition cooking modeled after a centuries-old legend. According to this legend, 12th century Mongol warriors, led by the mighty warrior, GENGHIS KHAN heated their shields over open fires to grill food in the fields of battle!" The question of what the Mongols under Genghis Khan actually ate, however, is really rather interesting. In particular, did conquering that vast empire change their diet in any way? Jack Fenner and his Mongolian colleagues Dashtseveg Tumen and Dorjpurev Khatanbaatar analysed bones from three different cemeteries, representing Mongol elites, Mongol commoners and Bronze-age people from the same area, looking for differences in what they ate. They found some, but interpretation remains difficult. I didn’t think to ask Jack about using a shield as a wok. Notes * Read Food fit for a Khan: stable isotope analysis of the elite Mongol Empire cemetery at Tavan Tolgoi, Mongolia if you have access to the Journal of Archaeological Science. * There is also an accessible write-up at the Bones don’t lie website. * I don’t plan to visit the Genghis Grill, although I’m happy enough to plunder their advertising copy. And to point out that the mighty warrior didn't become Genghis Khan until the 13th century. * Images from Michael Chu, Dave Gray and Wikimedia. * Music by Chad Crouch, aka Podington Bear. * This show is a week late; apologies. There's a sort of explanation at my other website, which also provides hints of shows to come. * Plus, an explanation of what Flattr is all about, and why I think you should flattr me and other content creators.

Edible aroids
May 26 2014 13 mins  
A Dutch food writer tries to discover the origins of pom, the national dish of Suriname. Is it Creole, based on the foodways of Africans enslaved to work the sugar plantations of Surinam? Or is it Jewish, brought to Suriname by Dutch Jews? So began Karin Vaneker’s immersion in the world of edible aroids. Aroids are a large and cosmopolitan plant family, more commonly known as the arum family, and they include some of the most familiar houseplants. Many of them have starchy roots or tubers, and although these often contain harmful substances, people have learned how to process them as famine foods. A few species, however, are widely cultivated. The best-known of these is probably taro, Colocasia esculenta, which originated in southeast Asia and spread through the Pacific and beyond. That, however, proved not to be the elusive pomtajer that Karin and the Surinamese inhabitants of Amsterdam were looking for, which turned out to be a species of Xanthosoma. My conversation with Karin ranged far and wide, and to tell the truth I never did ask whether pom was Jewish or Creole. Most sources say it is indeed Jewish. Notes * The whole question of Jews in Suriname sent me scurrying to the search engines, to discover that starting in the 17th century there was indeed an attempt to establish an autonomous Jewish territory there, on the Jewish savanna. This I gotta read more about. And having found that, I rushed to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, only to be massively disappointed that neither pom nor Suriname feature in the index. * The big photo is of purple-stemmed Colocasia, which I took at Longwood Gardens. * As promised, a recipe for pom. You’ll have to find your own pomtajer. * Karin has written on Cooking Pom and other edible aroids.

Food prices and social unrest
Apr 14 2014 17 mins  
“If you can tell your story with a graph or picture, do so,” says Marc Bellemare, my first guest in this episode. The picture on the left is one of his: “a graph that essentially tells you the whole story in one simple, self-explanatory picture.” Yes indeed, social unrest is caused by higher food prices. ((Yes, caused; this is no mere correlation.)) I could leave it at that, along with a link to the paper from which I lifted the picture. But this is a podcast. I have to talk to people, and that includes Marc Bellemare. Bellemare’s paper is a global investigation that doesn’t even attempt to ask whether the relationship between food prices and social unrest holds for countries or smaller areas. My sense, though, is that the relationship is strongest in more authoritarian regimes. At least, that’s where we’ve seen most food riots of late. In this, however, it seems I am mistaken. Marc pointed me to Cullen Hendrix, who has studied the links between social unrest and political regimes. Placating the urban masses who eat food at the expense of rural people who produce it has always been a fraught proposition, perhaps even more so for democracies. All of which raises the question that, I hope, keeps food policy wallahs and agricultural development experts awake at night. What’s so wrong with high prices anyway? Notes * Marc Bellemare’s blog post on his paper Rising Food Prices, Food Price Volatility, and Social Unrest. He also examined some of the reactions to the paper. * “Even when presenting to the smartest people in the world, a picture is really worth a thousand words.” Find this and Marc’s other tips for conference and seminar presentations here. * Cullen Hendrix’s website contains a copy of his paper International Food Prices, Regime Type, and Protest in the Developing World * The sound montage at the beginning draws on various reports on Haiti, Egypt and Tunisia, all glued together by a splendid recording of a protest march. * The banner photograph is adapted from an original by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.

Food and finance
Mar 17 2014 16 mins  
Sure, you've seen Trading Places. But do you know about the history of futures contracts, or why some things are traded on commodities markets and others aren't? I didn't, not really. So I spoke to Kara Newman, food writer and author of The Secret Financial Life of Food. One of the things Kara is keen to stress is that where money is involved, there's always a temptation to cut corners, and her book is full of delicious food-based scandals. One of her favourites is The Great Salad Oil Swindle. If you've never heard of it, there's an interesting reason why. The story of The Great Salad Oil Swindle has been told in a book by Norman C. Miller, based on his Pulitzer-winning articles. Some of Miller's original articles are online, and there's a nice account originally published in Accountancy. Bottom line seems to be that while everyone was making money, no-one was inclined to investigate too closely. And an interesting coda to the story, from those articles. The bankruptcy of De Angelis brought American Express almost to its knees. While it's share price was depressed, Howard Buffett bought a sizeable stake, believing the company fundamentally sound. It was a pretty shrewd investment. Notes * Kara Newman's book is the Secret Life of Food: From Commodities Markets to Supermarkets. She also has a website. * Trading Places turned 30 last year. NPR's Planet Money did a bang up job of asking how accurate it was, with added Roman Mars. * Photo of bacon and eggs by Phil Lees Engage

Culture and Cuisine in Russia & Eastern Europe
Mar 03 2014 28 mins  
About a month ago I got wind of a conference called Food for Thought: Culture and Cuisine in Russia & Eastern Europe, 1800-present, at the University of Texas at Austin. In some dream world, I would have booked a flight there and then, packed my audio gear, and plunged in. Next best thing, thanks to the kind offices of Rachel Laudan, was to talk to Mary C. Neuburger, the conference organiser. It isn’t clear whether the symposium will give rise to a publication. I hope so. And if, by chance, any of the authors have made versions of their talks available, I would be delighted to link to them here. Just let me know. Other sources include The Austin Chronicle, which took the opportunity to visit and review a local Russian restaurant. And Mary Neuburger also mentioned Anya von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. That, I hope, is another story for another time, preferably not in a dream world. Looking through the conference programme, I had singled out a few papers that I thought might be of interest, and Mary was kind enough to deal with almost all of them, and more besides. Specifics: * Bella Bychkova-Jordan, University of Texas “Traveling Foods: Diffusion of Native Food Complexes from the New World to Different Parts of Eurasia.” * Michael Pesenson, University of Texas “Feasting and Fasting in Muscovite Rus.” * Irina Glouchshenko, Moscow School of Higher Economics “Industrialization of Taste: Anastas Mikoyan and the Making of Soviet Cuisine in the 1930s.” * Brian Davies and Kolleen Guy, University of Texas San Antonio “Why Don’t We Drink Russian Malbec: The Crimean Origins of a ‘French’ Varietal?” * Nikolai Burlakoff, Independent Scholar "Borsch (Borscht, Bortsch, Borschch): From Hogweed Soup to Outer Space, the Improbable Odyssey of the World’s Best Known Soup Dish.” * Mary Neuburger, University of Texas “Cooking for Bai Tosho: A Bulgarian Celebrity Chef Serves up the Past.” Engage

Feb 17 2014 17 mins  
There’s supposed to be this whole mystique surrounding “proper” pasta: how to cook it, which shape with what sauce, how to eat it, all that. And if you’re not born to it, you’ll never really understand it. Well, maybe not, but with a little effort you can get a whole lot closer to authenticity. Maureen Fant, a writer and scholar who has lived in Rome since 1979, has a new book out with her collaborator Oretta Zanini de Vita, making their Encyclopedia of Pasta a tad more kitchen-friendly. Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way is a curious blend of the constrained and the relaxed … just like Italy. One of the things they’re relaxed about is shapes for sauces, which came as a bit of a surprise. One of the things they’re not relaxed about is overcooked pasta, which did not. There was so much else we could have talked about, and the book is a one of those cookbooks that is as much a good read as a manual of instruction. As for my beloved cacio e pepe, fashionable or not, I am greatly encouraged by the the news that “[t]his is not a dish to make for a crowd … The smaller the quantity, the better the result.” That’s all the encouragement I need. Notes * Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way is available from Amazon and elsewhere. * I’m not too sure what to make of the whole mathematical pasta trope. It smacks to me of an answer in search of a question. * Maureen Fant recently gave a great little interview on spaghetti carbonara that tries to set the record straight on this canonical dish. * Cover photo by Stijn Nieuwendijk. Special treat If you listened to the podcast and made it this far, you know I promised you a special treat. Here it is. Little Richard sings On Top of Spaghetti. ’Nuff said? Engage

Food — and bombs — in Laos
Feb 03 2014 19 mins  
A bombie cluster munition on a farm in Khammouane Province, Laos.©2010/Jerry Redfern Karen Coates is a freelance American journalist who writes about food – among other things. She emailed to ask if I would be interested in talking to her about a book that she and her husband, photographer Jerry Redfern, have produced. It’s called Eternal Harvest, but it isn’t about food, at least not directly. Its subtitle is the legacy of American bombs in Laos. Some of those bombs are 500-pounders. Lots of them are little tennis-ball sized bomblets, which are as attractive to farm kids as a tennis ball might be, with horrific consequences. The story of unexploded ordnance in Laos was an eye opener, for me. But I also wanted to know about food in Laos, and so that’s where we began our conversation. Over the course of nine years and a bombing mission every eight minutes, round the clock, more than 270 million cluster bombs – or bombies – were dropped on Laos. The cluster bombs were a small part of the 2 million tonnes dropped on Laos, almost half a tonne of ordnance for every man, woman and child in the country. Some was aimed at breaking the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The rest was jettisoned by pilots who had been told not to return to base with any bombs left in their planes. The failure rate, as Karen said, was around 30 percent. Unexploded ordnance remains an ever-present threat, and not only during the business of farming. About half the people killed, according a a 2009 report, were going after scrap metal. A scrap metal collector can make $5 a day, compared to the average wage of about $1 a day. And that’s not the only way the bombs are “beneficial”. Many farming families use craters – created by bombs that did explode – as fish ponds, improving both their income and their nutritional status. Casualties have dropped, from about 1450 a year in 1975 to about 350 a year in 2009, but less than one per cent of the land has been cleared. A technician with a UXO Lao bomb disposal team scans for bombs in a woman’s yard as she continues weeding. They work along a new road built atop the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.©2006/Jerry Redfern Notes * Eternal Harvest: the legacy of American bombs in Laos has a website and is available from Amazon. * I started reading up about bomb crater fish ponds at Nicola Twilley’s Edible Geography. Fascinating accounts of individual farmers bring an otherwise dry FAO field manual on common aquaculture practices in Lao PDR to life. The maps in this online post by Xiaoxuan Lu about her thesis give some idea of the scale of the problem. * Karen writes online at The Rambling Spoon and elsewhere. There’s plenty there about restaurants, Lao cookbooks and that nine-day field trip we talked about. * The music is a Lao folk tune called Dokmai (Flower) by a group called “Thiphakon (roughly, resonance of angels)”. I found it online. Engage

Baking bread: getting big and getting out
Jan 20 2014 20 mins  
Ah, the self-indulgent joy of making a podcast on one of my own passions. “They” say that turning cooking from an enjoyable hobby into a business is a recipe for disaster, and while I’m flattered that people will pay for an additional loaf of bread I’ve baked, there’s no way I’m going to be getting up at 3 in the morning every day to sell enough loaves to make a living. But there are people who have done just that, and one of them happens to be a friend. Suzanne Dunaway and her husband Don turned her simple, delicious foccacia into Buona Forchetta bakery, a multi-million dollar business that won plaudits for the quality of its bread – and then sold it and walked away. Suzanne was also one of the first popularisers of the “no-knead” method of making bread, with her 1999 book No need to knead. Using a wetter dough, and letting time take the place of kneading, has been around among professional bakers and some, often forgetful, amateurs for a long time, but it was Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times that opened the floodgates on this method. Since then, as any search engine will reveal, interest in the technique has exploded, both because no-knead is perceived as easier and because the long, slow rise that no-knead usually calls for results in a deeper, more complex flavour. I've had my troubles with it, and had more or less given up on the real deal. But I’m looking forward to seeing how a quick no-knead bread turns out, especially now that I know that in Suzanne's case it was the result of a delicious accident. Notes * If you created the graphic riff on Breaking Bad, or you know who did it, please let me know. I would really like to give proper credit. Engage

Fermentation revisited
Dec 18 2013 14 mins  
Apologies for the delay in publishing this podcast. One of the joys of not being tied to "proper" radio is the freedom to give a story the length it deserves. The downside is that nobody is cracking the whip to whip things into shape on time, so that sometimes, even with the best will in the world, the schedule slips. Maybe if this were my day job ... Bread, yoghurt, pickles: I do love my domestic microbiology. So does Ken Albala, of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. His enthusiasm outstrips mine, though, not least because he probably has more space for his experiments. One manifestation of that enthusiasm is a Facebook group dedicated to The Cult of Pre-Pasteurian Preservation and Food Preparation. For Ken, sterilising fermented food is a no-no. Who better, then, to explain how it is that “pickled” has come to mean “boiled in vinegar” rather than “naturally fermented”. Of course, the whole business of home fermentation has reached fever pitch, manifested by the pickle trend being the number one sketch on a trendy comedy series. Let us not, however, throw the baby out with the brinewater. It really is remarkably easy, and if you want to start, there are endless reams of advice on the internet. Just ignore anything that suggests you boil the proceeds. Emboldened by Ken, I do plan to try sausages some time in the New Year. Notes * If you’re on Facebook, do check out Ken Albala’s Cult. * The current main man on fermentation is Sandor Katz; here’s what he has to say on facultative anaerobes (i.e. Lactobacillus species) versus obligate anaerobes such as Clostridium botulinum, and why you really have nothing to fear. * Katz also did a great interview with NPR’s Fresh Air. Engage

Hunger and malnutrition
Dec 02 2013 21 mins  
One week jam, the next global hunger and malnutrition. That’s the joy of Eat This Podcast; I get to present what interests me, in the hope that it interests you too. It also means I sometimes get to talk to my friends about how they see the big picture around food. Dr Jessica Fanzo, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at Columbia University’s Insitute of Human Nutrition, Special Advisor on Nutrition Policy at the Earth Institute’s Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, also at Columbia, and much else besides, is one such friend. She was in Rome recently for a preparatory meeting for a big UN conference on nutrition next year, so I took the opportunity to catch up, and to ask some very basic questions about global hunger. I confess, I have very little time for the global talk shops that meet so that, somehow, magically, the poor can eat. And having attended a few, there does seem to be a dearth of people who have studied malnutrition and hunger first hand, and made a difference. Jess Fanzo has been promoting the idea of nutrition-sensitive agriculture as a way to make a difference locally, while recognizing that there can be no simple, global solutions. You have to see what works in one place, and then adapt it to your own circumstances. There are no simple global solutions. The primary point – that governments have some responsibility for ensuring that their citizens at least have the opportunity to be well-nourished – seems often to be lost in the din of governments talking about other things. And interfering busybodies declaring war on hunger don’t seem to have much luck either. I don’t have any solutions. Notes * Check out Dr Fanzo’s credentials at the Institute of Human Nutrition and the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development. * She was also the first winner of the Premio Daniel Carasso; there’s a video about that too. * She’s written about her fieldwork and how it informs her global view. (And, as an aside, how come big-shot bloggers don’t care about spam? Come on, people. Your negligence makes life worse for everybody.) * The Integration of Nutrition into Extension and Advisory Services: A Synthesis of Experiences, Lessons, and Recommendations reports on ways to promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture. And the research extends to social media. * The paper I mentioned, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is Comparative impact of climatic and nonclimatic factors on global terrestrial carbon and water cycles. * Photo of Jess Fanzo in Timor Leste by Nick Appleby. Engage

Jam tomorrow?
Nov 18 2013 12 mins  
Vivien Lloyd about to add warm sugar to her simmered fruit. What is jam? “A preserve made from whole fruit boiled to a pulp with sugar.” Lots of opportunities to quibble with that, most especially, if you’re planning to sell the stuff in the UK and label it “jam,” the precise amount of sugar. More than 60% and you’re fine calling it jam. Less than 50% and you need to call it reduced-sugar jam. Lower still, and it becomes a fruit spread. All that is about to change though, thanks to a UK Goverment regulation that will allow products with less than 60% sugar to be labelled jam. There’s nothing like a threat to the traditional British way of life to motivate the masses, although as an expat, I had no idea of the kerfuffle this had raised until I read about it on the website of the Campaign for Real Farming. Changing the rules for what is labelled jam may seem like a tempest on a teacake, but it is symptomatic of the growing distance between what were once simple methods of food processing – in this case to preserve it – and the industrial version of a similar product. And making jam at home isn’t that hard. There is, though, the problem of getting it to set properly. I had a little read to remind myself of what Vivien Lloyd called the magic of pectin, and it isn’t simple. Pectin is a long string of a molecule, present in the glue that cements cell walls together. Some fruits have loads of it, others less. The long strings bind together and form a mesh that traps any liquid inside the spaces between the pectin molecules, but they bind together only under specialised conditions. Acid reduces the tendency for pectin molecules to repel one another, while sugar attracts water, and so allows the pectin molecules to come together. And fruits supply acid and and sugar. “Sounds like a cinch,” says Harold McGee … “But as anyone who has tried knows, it’s anything but a cinch. Making preserves is a tricky business because the necessary balance between pectin, acid, and sugar is a very delicate one. Food scientists have found that a pH between 2.8 and 3.4, a pectin concentration of 0.5 to 1.0%, and a sugar concentration of 60 to 65% are generally optimal, but you would have to be cooking in a well-equipped laboratory to measure the first two condition (sugar content is easily measure by boiling point).” That’s one reason I asked Vivien Lloyd to share her recipe for raspberry jam, which she kindly did. Download the recipe for Raspberry and Vanilla Jam. Notes * More science of pectin. * Photo of Vivien Lloyd by Robert Walster. * Music – in and out – was, of course, Strawberry Jam, by Michelle Shocked. And no, I don’t understand what she’s been saying lately; this is not an endoresement of any kind, it is just good music. * I make good jam.

Backpackers and their food
Nov 04 2013 16 mins  
When you’re on holiday, or just away from home, do you seek out the “authentic” local food, or look for a reassuringly familar logo? Backpackers, keen to distinguish themselves from the vulgar hordes who are merely on holiday, seek out the authentic, at least to begin with. Dr Emily Falconer has been studying women backpackers. That’s her in the photo, doing a little field research over a bowl of something exotic in Thailand. And she says that while they start out seeking the grottiest places to eat, after they’ve been on the road for a while, their thoughts stray guiltily to familiar, comforting foods. I know the feeling Emily Falconer didn’t set out to study backpackers and food, but soon discovered that no matter what the subject, the people she was talking to sooner or later brought up food. I’m no exception, and although I’ve never been a great backpacker myself, I do prefer to seek out reasonably local eating places where I can, and I’ve had some memorable meals as a result. The most memorable of those was in Kunming, China, where I detached myself from the group I was with and went in search of something to eat. I didn't find it at the food fair that was on at the same time, but in the end I fetched up in a place so authentic it didn’t even have photographs of the food. I indicated to the waiter that I was hungry and he brought me food. I had no idea what any of it was, and aside from one soupy dish that was almost too hot even for me, it was all delicious. Next time I might take with me a book, this book. Notes * Emily Falconer is a senior research assistant at the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research at London South Bank University. * Her paper is Transformations of the backpacking food tourist: Emotions and conflicts. * She also mentioned Food in tourism: Attraction and Impediment, by Erik Cohen and Nir Avieli. * Intro music, as ever, by Dan-O at * While Jimmy Buffet – and how appropriate is that? – provided the outro music.

Pecans and history
Oct 21 2013 21 mins  
The Guadalupe River that flows through Texas used to be known as The River of Nuts, a fact that Wikipedia does not confirm. The nut in question is the pecan, Carya illinoinensis, and the pecan tree is the state tree of Texas. The groves of wild pecans that lined the rivers of Texas are, however, threatened by the very popularity of the nuts they bear, and in particular by the fickle global nut market. The Chinese, you see, have gone nuts for pecans, increasing their purchase of American pecans from 3–4% in 2006 to 30–40% today. And if they abandon the pecan as quickly as they took it up, the wild pecan groves might be abandoned too. All this, and much more, I learned from James McWilliams, professor of history at Texas State University. His new book is one of those delights that looks at the global sweep of human endeavour through a little lens, in this case the pecan. Why it was the Chinese, rather than the French, the English or some other country, that chose to absorb the pecan surplus, I guess we’ll never know. McWilliams told me that Chinese people he spoke to believe the nuts prolong life; irrational as that may seem, no American grower is going to say they don’t. And while the high prices are good news for growers, they’re not so good for people who want pecan-containing industrial food. Notes * James McWilliams’ book is The Pecan: a history of America’s native nut. There’s an extract in Texas Monthly online. * iTunes artwork photo by Melanie McDermott * Outro music Pecan Pie by Golden Smog.

Why save seeds?
Oct 07 2013 12 mins  
What, really, is the point of conserving agricultural biodiversity? The formal sector, genebanks and the like, will say it is about genetic resources and having on hand the traits to breed varieties that will solve the challenges tomorrow might throw up. Thousands of seed savers around the world might well agree with that, at least partially. I suspect, though, that for most seed savers the primary reason is surely more about food, about having the varieties they want to eat. David Cavagnaro has always championed that view. David’s is a fascinating personal history, which currently sees him working on the Pepperfield Project, “A Non-Profit Organization Located in Decorah, IA Promoting and Teaching Hands-On Cooking, Gardening and Agrarian Life Skills”. I first met David 15 or 20 years ago at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited there again, and I lost no time in finding time for a chat. David pointed out that immigrants are often keen gardeners and, perforce, seed savers as they struggle to maintain their distinctive food culture in a new land. That’s true for the Hmong in Minneapolis, Asian communities in England and, I’m sure, many others elsewhere. What happens as those communities assimilate? The children and grandchildren of the immigrant gardeners are unlikely to feel the same connection to their original food culture, and may well look down on growing food as an unsuitable occupation. Is immigrant agricultural biodiversity liable to be lost too? Efforts to preserve it don’t seem to be flourishing. Seed saving for its own sake, rather than purely as a route to sustenance, does seem to be both a bit of a luxury and to require a rather special kind of personality. John Withee, whose bean collection brought David Cavagnaro to Seed Savers Exchange and people like Russ Crow, another of his spritual heirs, collect and create stories as much as they do agricultural biodiversity. And that’s something formal genebanks never seem to document. Notes * John Withee’s bean cookbook looks like it would be very interesting. Indeed, the whole Yankee bean-hole thing would be fun to explore. * Are you aware of people adopting “immigrant” foods not just to eat, but to conserve? My mother-in-law had red shiso (Perilla frustescens) volunteers all over the place, although I’m pretty sure she never used it as a herb. The lemongrass on my balcony hardly counts. * Can you point me to a public or private bean-hole party that might welcome a nosy reporter? * Would you consider reviewing Eat This Podcast on iTunes? * Or nominating it for a podcasting award? * Intro music by Dan-O at

How to bake bread in a microwave oven
Sep 23 2013 12 mins  
Say you wanted to bake bread in a microwave – I can’t think why, but say you did – you could go online and search the internets for a recipe. And you would come up with a few. Just reading them over, they didn’t seem all that appetising. One, for example, warned that you had to serve the bread toasted. What’s the point of that? Anyway, that didn’t deter Ken Albala, a professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, but rather than search the internet, he turned to ancient Egypt for inspiration. In thinking about ways in which the material culture of food might change in the future, for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, he came up with not only the plate that keeps crispy things crunchy, but also a way to bake bread in a microwave. Not great bread, but acceptable bread. Why? Well, partly because it is hot where Ken lives, and he doesn’t like putting the oven on just to bake bread. And partly because he foresees a future in which space is at a premium, cooking, maybe, is deskilled, and ovens, where they exist, are used for storing stuff, not baking. Turns out, though, that there’s method to Ken’s madness. I’d always thought that microwaves heat water molecules and that’s that. Apparently not, as I learned from Len Fisher at Bristol University. Apparently some ceramics absorb microwaves and others don’t, and if you have a ceramic that absorbs microwaves, watch out. It can get very hot. Hot enough to turn bread dough to toast in less than 7 minutes. Len admitted that he didn’t fully understand the physics of different ceramics in the microwave, which means there’s no chance for me and you. But he did think he’d invented something along the lines of Ken’s bread mould. Turns out someone had already patented it, although as far as I can tell the patent has lapsed and nobody ever did anything with it. Or did they? If you’re aware of a container designed to bake bread in the microwave, please leave a comment. Notes * Ken Albala blogs and has an interesting Facebook page. * Len Fisher also has a website, and it is well worth exploring. * Intro music by Dan-O at

Crispy crunchy mega-munchy
Sep 09 2013 12 mins  
I am reliably informed that the taste of a soggy potato crisp – or chip, if you prefer – is identical to that of a crispy one. But the experience falls far short of enjoyable. A crisp needs to be, well, crisp. If it isn’t, it actually tastes bad. That’s not quite so true of things like fried or oven-roasted potato chips; they still taste pretty good when they’re not quite so crispy, but they’re even better when they are crispy, and that goes for a whole lot of other cooked crispy things too. Which is why it is such a shame that by the time you get to the bottom of a plateful of fries or nachos, they’re soggy. Not to mention thin-crust pizza in a box. Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton California, happens to be an accomplished ceramicist, so he invented a plate that helps keep foods crispy. And that prompted an episode on crispy crunchiness. The argument that the appeal of crispiness is innate – that is was selected for by evolution – is not that far-fetched. John S. Allen, a research scientist at the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, writes that “[c]rispy foods are certainly not the only type of food that humans find appealing, and of course some people do not even like them. But the pervasive appeal of crispy is clearly something that emerges out of our multiple, interacting histories”. There’s more to it than just the texture or the sound of the food breaking in our heads, but there does seem to be something to Allen’s ideas. What, though, is the difference between crisp and crispy? My sister says that, for her, carrots are crisp, while fried noodles are crispy, and that’s an importance distinction, for her. I’m not so sure. I think one could possibly separate out the texture from the flavour, at least experimentally, and see whether there really is a difference. Of course all sorts of sensations affect the experience of eating something, but whatever the truth of the matter, I’d just as soon not have to eat soggy crisps. Notes * Ken Albala blogs and has an interesting Facebook page. * Why Humans Are Crazy for Crispy is an essay by John S. Allen, adapted from his book The Omnivorous Mind. * Intro music by Dan-O at

Backyard vegetable breeding
Aug 26 2013 16 mins  
Carol Deppe was a guest here a few months ago, talking about how most people misunderstand the potato, which is about as nutritious a vegetable as you could hope for. I found out about that because I was checking out her new book, The Resilient Gardener, which offers all kinds of advice for making the most of home-grown food. In that, Carol talks about having bred a delicata squash with a taste like a medjool date. That sounded intriguing, but in a way not all that surprising. If anyone could breed a squash – or pumpkin – that tasted like a date, it would be Carol Deppe. Her earlier book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, is a wonderful, informative and accessible book about the science of plant genetics. It is, in fact, better than all the text books I’ve ever read on the subject. Which is not surprising, as that’s what Deppe set out to write. The whole business of squashes seems fraught with difficulty. First off, what do you call them: zucchini, pumpkins, courgettes, summer squash, winter squash? Is there any difference (in England) between a baby marrow and a courgette, or between an overgrown zucchini and a marrow? ((Questions to which I returned in 2016: When is a zucchini not a zucchini?)) And calling them by their Latin names doesn’t really help, because the same species can be used in different ways, and it is the usage that tends to determine what they’re called. The idea of drying a summer squash for use through the winter is very appealing, and Carol says that costata romanesco, and old Italian heritage variety, is one of the few varieties suitable for treating in this way. Looking at pictures, it does seem to be very similar to the variety I see on the market here, so I’m determined now to see whether I can persuade my local vegetable seller to bring me an overgrown zucchini – a zuchone, or just a zucca? He’ll probably think I’m mad, when everybody else wants them as tiny as possible. Notes * The Resilient Gardener is published by Chelsea Green Publishing. * A keen amateur breeder called Rebsie Fairholm was doing wonderful things breeding a purple-podded mange-tout pea, inspired and informed by Carol Deppe’s work. Alas, she seems to have stopped for now, although you can still read about her efforts on her website. * Banner photo by McBeth. * Intro music by Dan-O at * Outro music, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn, is Tonight, tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins. Sometimes obvious is good.

Industrial strength craft beer
Aug 12 2013 27 mins  
Italy, land of fabled wines, has seen an astonishing craft beer renaissance. Or perhaps naissance would be more accurate, as Italy has never had that great a reputation for beers. Starting in the early 1990s, with Teo Musso at Le Baladin, there are now more than 500 craft breweries in operation up and down the peninsula. Specialist beer shops are popping up like mushrooms all over Rome, and probably elsewhere, and even our local supermarket carries quite a range of unusual beers. Among them four absolutely scrummy offerings from Mastri Birai Umbri – Master Brewers of Umbria. And then it turns out that my friend Dan Etherington, who blogs (mostly) at Bread, cakes and ale, knows the Head Brewer, Michele Sensidoni. A couple of emails later and there we were, ready for Michele to give us a guided tour of the brewery. Mastri Birai Umbri is owned by the Farchioni family, which has become a powerhouse in basic agricultural products since the late 18th century. Farchioni olive oil is ubiquitous, and their flour only slightly less so, and while the quality of these products is high, they’re not the sorts of commodities I associate with a craft brewery. But I am starting to rethink the casual opposition between “industrial” and “craft” or “artisanal”. It’s true that industrial food processes are often soulless, repetitive and designed to serve only the bottom line, degrading the notion of quality about as far as it will go before people revolt. But my conversation with Michele showed me that it is possible to take an industrial approach to the production of a high-quality product. He insists on repeatability – that the brew should taste the same each batch and present the drinker with the same experience each time. That is probably the major distinction from a more artisanal or craft approach that instead of stomping out all the differences uses a different kind of skill to allow the product to vary slightly from batch to batch. The quality of Michele's beer, however, is unimpeachable. The other big distinction, I suppose, is quantity. When I asked him what the future might hold for craft beers in Italy, Michele thought it unlikely that 500 breweries could survive, because many are too small to compete. But why should that matter? If you’re big enough to survive at some scale, perhaps only in a local market, do you have to keep growing. This is one of those eternal business mysteries that I’ve seldom heard explained to my satisfaction. Why is perpetual growth necessary? Of course, demand may increase. But if you’re making as much as you want to and need to, and don’t want to regulate demand by increasing the price, that’s an opportunity for someone else to enter the market. You don’t have to do it yourself. All of which is probably a bit deep for a consideration of well-made beers. In any case, I think I need to stop using “industrial” as a term of opprobrium and focus instead on the product, rather than the means of production. Notes * Le Baladin is a somewhat strange enterprise, and I am not as familiar with their beers as I would like to be. Their design sense is definitely quite odd. As Dan says, “It’s kinda scrappy, cartoony, vaguely Keith Haring, vaguely hippy, like someone’s mate did it, someone who’s not a professional designer. But remember kids, don’t judge a beer by its label.” * No link to the Farchioni website, because it autoplays noise, and I hate that. * The whole pure yeast vs wild fermentation debate is fascinating. Here’s a recent account from Australia:

What’s the beef with frozen meat?
Jul 15 2013 17 mins  
Most dilettante foodies I know probably regard frozen beef as an acceptable substitute only when fresh is unavailable. Sure the fresh must be grass-fed, dry-aged, properly hung and all that – but mostly it must be fresh, not frozen. However, unless your climate is wonderfully mild, that grass-fed beef is going to be eating something else over the winter, and that's not great for the meat. Ari LeVaux, a syndicated food writer, reckons that except at the end of the growing season, when the animals have just finished feasting on lush pastures, well-frozen good beef is a far better option than fresh. When we spoke last week, I started by asking Ari why most people – foodies included – have such a poor opinion of frozen beef? In fact, I’d say there is a general misconception about “freshness”. There was a rage for fresh pasta in England a while ago. And to me it was unfathomable. Good dried pasta is so superior to the slimy industrial stuff that it is almost another food. Sure, fresh often is good. But with foods that can be preserved in other ways, and have been, a good product properly prepared is often superior. As for the nutritional composition of grass-fed versus conventional beef, there clearly is a difference. A mega-review by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that milk and meat from grass-fed animals has lower total fat than conventional, but the fat is higher in what might loosely be termed “good” fats, things like omega–3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid. On the other hand, the evidence for health benefits is more mixed. Some studies on animals and people have shown benefits, but they are by no means absolutely conclusive. So on its own, better nutrition is perhaps not enough reason to seek out grass-fed beef. On the other hand, if omega–3 fats are what you really want, you can do much better eating oily fish. But hey! It can’t hurt, and eating great beef less often is a win in so many other areas. Notes * The problem with fresh beef, by Ari LeVaux, prompted this podcast. * The Union of Concerned Scientists’ review is Greener pastures: How grass fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating by Kate Clancy. More recent research work, for example A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef says much the same, adding that because feedlot cattle have more total fat, in the end the difference may not be as great because the conventional-beef consumer eats more total fat. * I drove through the Wind River Reservation, many years ago, and it is the most beautiful place. The rise and fall of the deal between Arapaho Ranch and Whole Foods is an intriguing story that demonstrates beautifully just how complex food systems can be. * Intro music by Dan-O at * Outro music is, obviously, Get along little dogies, by Marty Robbins. But for a real blast from the past, you must see Arlo Guthrie do it for the Muppets. * Photo from Highland Cattle World. Podcast “cover” photo (used so far without...

Early agriculture in eastern North America
Jun 24 2013 15 mins  
The Fertile Crescent, the Yangtze basin, Meso America, South America: those are the places that spring to mind as birthplaces of agriculture. Evidence is accumulating, however, to strengthen eastern North America's case for inclusion. Among the sources of evidence, coprolites, or fossil faeces. Fossil human faeces. And among the people gathering the evidence Kris Gremillion, Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. She was kind enough to talk to me on the phone, and I made a silly mistake when I recorded it, so please bear with me on the less than stellar quality. I hope the content will see you through. And I'll try not to let it happen again. A few words about the picture; after failing to come up with anything striking, I gave in to the inevitable and searched for coprolites. The guy in the picture is Dennis Jenkins, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon. In his forceps is a piece of dried human faeces dated to 14,300 years ago. The sample is not without interest, but it is also from way across the other side of North America. Still, it is a coprolite (or at the very least palaeofaeces), and it is the best I could find. In looking for it, though, I stumbled across The Cambridgeshire Coprolite Mining Rush. Wikipedia has the bare bones of the story – coprolites rich in phosphorus were discovered outside Felixstowe in 1842 and became the basis of a boom industry to extract the phosphorus as fertilizer. The man credited with discovering the coprolite deposits was John Stevens Henslow, the Cambridge botanist who gave up his place on HMS Beagle to his young friend and protégé, Charles Darwin. The coprolites came a decade or so after the Beagle set sail, and the company that extracted the fertilizer went on to become Fisons, a glorious name in British agrochemicals. Small world, eh? Funnily enough, another account makes no mention of Henslow, and describes the coprolites as “phosphatised clay nodules”. I’m afraid that’s all the digging I have time for; I gave up just as soon as I struck this somewhat broken motherlode, which tantalisingly says coprolites were “thought by some at the time to be fossilised dinosaur droppings”. Thought to be? No doubt there’s a lot more to know. Notes * If you know me from the other place, you know that I reviewed Kristen Gremillion’s book Ancestral Appetites there, and that’s what prompted this interview. * You want more coprolite stuff? And not just human? You need The Dung File. * Intro music by Dan-O at * End music by Douglas Blue Feather, who might just possibly be from around the Kentucky area, which is a close enough connection for me.

Sugar and salt: Industrial is best
Jun 10 2013 17 mins  
Henry Hobhouse’s book Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind (now six, with the addition of cacao) contains the remarkable fact that at the height of the slave trade a single teaspoon of sugar cost six minutes of a man’s life to produce. Reason enough to cheer the abolition of slavery, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean that everything is sweetness and light in the business of sugar. Or salt. A photo gallery in The Big Picture made that very clear, and inspired Rachel Laudan, a food historian, to write in praise of industrial salt and sugar. One critic asked: OK, I totally get why people should not live in poverty and desperation. But why does that translate into cheers for industrially processed foods? Don’t we actually consume more sugar and salt than we need to? How about something in between? Well made, fairly and sustainably produced. And consumed with reason. Laudan makes a good case for industrial sugar and salt, although at the end she casually adds “rice, flour, wine, chocolate and many other foods we cherish”. Here, I think, is where we part company, because, unlike the critic quoted above, I want to distinguish foods from ingredients. On flour, for example, too right I don’t want to be grinding my own grain, as Rachel herself has made clear in much of her writing. But I also don’t want to be using only extremely industrial flour, and luckily I can afford to buy flour that is “well made, fairly and sustainably produced”. (“Consumed with[in] reason,” not so much.) At least I have the option. With very few exceptions, I cannot feel the same way about artisanal salt and sugar, although I confess that if I could get it easily, I would buy Maldon Sea Salt, and if I did, I would almost certainly eat more salt than I do at present. I also feel, although I didn't want to abuse my position as host and labour the point, that the very cheapness of sugar and salt does contribute to overconsumption. I'm pretty sure that the reason sugars, in all their forms, are cheap has more to do with subsidies and unpaid externalities than anything else, but whether getting rid of those would make a difference to consumption now, I have no idea. I doubt that it would make much difference to how much of either salt or sugar would be available for preserving. Notes * Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, Rachel Laudan’s eagerly anticipated new book, will be published in September. * Sugar has been the focus for many wonderful books, articles and the rest of it. Reading around for this episode I came across Mike Rendell’s website, which has some interesting historical insights. And ‘The Dunghill of the Universe’ The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War looks worth a read too. * The Food Programme, on BBC Radio 4, took a new look at Sugar: Pure, White and Deadly? -- their question-mark, not mine -- at the end of May. And pretty good it was too. * Barbarities in the West Indies by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 23 April 1791, copyright National Portrait Gallery and used with permission. * Podcast cover image of

Seed Law
May 27 2013 13 mins  
Introducing a blog post with the words “The European Commisssion recently decided …” is possibly a guaranteed turn-off, unless the decision concerns something really important like straight cucumbers. Illegal seeds, though, that might just stir some interest. And so it was, three weeks ago, with a proposal for a new draft of the laws that govern the marketing of plant reproductive material – seeds, among other things – in the European Union. I wrote about this over at the other place, but I also thought it would be worth doing something here, because for much of the food we eat, everything starts with the seed. You can’t have a really sustainable, locally-adapted and diverse diet if you can’t have a diversity of seeds. Bottom line: the new EU proposal is an improvement, and is not nearly as bad as some people seem to think, but it could be better still. Not everybody is as interested in the arcana of seed law as I am, so I may have taken too much for granted in the podcast. There’s more information at a couple of the links below, which would be a good place to start if you want to explore further. Notes * The full text of the proposal. Remember, this still has to be accepted by the Parliament. * How the European Common Catalogue destroys biodiversity. * Future prospects for European crop varieties was written back in 2007 and with the new proposal seems a tad too pessimistic. We shall see. * Intro music by Dan-O at

Potatoes are (almost) perfect
May 13 2013 10 mins  
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service runs a program for Women, Infants and Children that subsidises specific foods for eligible women and their children. Back when it started, the WIC program excluded potatoes, on the grounds that “Americans already eat enough potatoes”. Potato growers – and their representatives – don’t like that. For one, they think it sends the wrong message about the nutritional value of potatoes. And so, in 2010, the Executive Director of the Washington State Potato Commission, Chris Voigt, launched a protest. He decided to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days, gaining massive amounts of publicity but not – yet – a change in the WIC list of approved foods. ((Mr Voigt says that "Potatoes are still excluded from the WIC program, unless you buy them at a Farmers Market.".)) However, while the world marvelled at Voigt’s dedication to the people who pay his salary, one grower in neighbouring Oregon said “Hey, what’s so hard about that? Last winter, I ate pretty nearly all potatoes for about six months. It was a feast all winter!” Carol Deppe – author of Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener – ate almost nothing but potatoes because that’s what she had, and because she really understands the nutritional value of potatoes. She points out that potatoes contain more than 2% protein, which doesn’t sound like much when you compare it to the 9% in rice or the 12% and more in wheat. But those are dry-weight values. On that basis, potato comes in at better than 10% protein, and that protein is both more balanced and better absorbed that wheat protein. This isn’t exactly news. It’s been known since the late 19th century that if you’re getting all your calories from potatoes, then you’re probably getting all the protein you need too. But that knowledge seems to have been forgotten, and Deppe thinks she knows why: When the USDA denies WIC-program women, infants, and children their potatoes, in spite of the potato’s known excellence as a food, in spite of how much we all like it, I think I detect a subtly Euro-centric as well as classist message: “The right way to eat is like upper-class Europeans, not like New Worlders or peasants.” The problem is bigger than failing to recognize that Americans are not all Europeans, that even most European-Americans now embrace food traditions from many lands and cultures, and that most of us are closer to being peasants than to being medieval European royalty. To reject the potato is to be several hundred years out of date. Rejecting the potato represents a failure to learn some of the most important climate-change lessons of the Little Ice Age. I think the USDA should revisit its potato policy. So do lots of other people, including potato growers, and although potatoes are again up for consideration, it isn’t clear whether this time they will make it onto the hallowed WIC list. In the meantime, they remain an excellent and nutritious food. Notes * The Effect of Food Restriction During War on Mortality in Copenhagen is Dr Mikkel Hindhede’s account, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of the impact of the World War I blockade on deaths in Denmark. By encouraging Danes to switch to a more vegetarian diet, Hindhede effectively saved 6300 lives. Mortality was actually lower during the blockade than before...

Neanderthal Diets
Apr 29 2013 14 mins  
Neanderthals did not descale their teeth regularly, for which modern scientists can be very thankful. Embedded in the fossilized calculus, or tartar, on teeth from the Shanidar cave, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and elsewhere are some remarkable remains that are beginning to shed far more light on what Neanderthals ate. I don’t want to give too much away just yet. Let’s just say that if, like me, when you think of the Neanderthal diet you think of a bunch of cavemen and women sitting around chewing their way through a woolly mammoth, you’re in for a surprise. My guide through the recent discoveries on Neanderthal diet is John Speth, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Amanda Henry’s research clearly points to moist-cooked starch grains in the mouths of Neanderthals (but did they swallow?). Archaeologists, however, have found almost no evidence of Neanderthals using the hot-rocks boil-in-a-bag method of modern people who lack fire-proof containers. And surprisingly, they didn’t know what John Speth discovered while watching TV in a motel room: that it is perfectly possible to boil water in a flimsy container over a direct fire. In the interests of time I had to cut his fascinating description of an experiment to make maple syrup by boiling the sap in a birch-bark tray over an open fire, which concluded that it was “both efficient and worthwhile”. So, now that they know it can be done, how long before they discover it was done? There is evidence that Neanderthals ate moist-cooked starch. There is evidence that one can moist-cook without fire-proof containers and hot rocks. All we need now is evidence that Neanderthals used similar techniques, and the palaeo-dieters can add a nice mess of potage to their daily fare. Notes * Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). (A scientific paper.) * National Geographic’s early report on Amanda Henry’s discovery of plant remains on Neanderthal teeth and a more recent report from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. * More on Neanderthal diets at John Hawks’ weblog. * Photograph of the Regourdou Neanderthal mandible used by permission of the photographer, Patrick Semal, and the Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord. * Intro music by Dan-O at * Final music played by Ljuben Dimkaroski on a replica of a Neanderthal bone flute found in a cave in western Slovenia. Huffduff it

OZ97a — a great British hop
Apr 15 2013 9 mins  
Perhaps you saw an article in a recent BBC News magazine about how US craft beer is inspiring British brewers. The Americans say they're not bound by tradition, with the clear implication that the Brits are. And yet it was insipid American beers -- like making love in a canoe, we used to say -- that triggered the rise of microbreweries and craft beers. Now very hoppy beers with all kinds of flavours are big there, and increasingly big in the UK, and one result has been a resurgence of interest in British-bred hops. One of these, OZ97a, is being hailed as a new star of British brewing, not least by Mark Dredge, an award-winning beer writer. I read about OZ97a at Pencil and Spoon, Mark’s blog. Of course I had to talk to him. The thing about OZ97a is that it isn’t a new variety. It was bred in the late 1940s or early 1950s, but when brewers first got a whiff of it, in 1960, they rejected it out of hand. Way too tasty, with all that fruitiness. Not what beer-drinkers want. But with the rise of intensely flavourful US beers, by 2012 OZ97a was ripe for a renaissance, and a couple of test batches confirmed it as a great hop. So how had it survived? In a field genebank, run by the British Hop Association. It is quite common to hear that genebanks should be maintained as a source of breeding material to adapt to changing conditions. But this is the first time I’ve heard of the changing tastes of consumers being the conditions that need adapting to. Notes * Mark Dredge’s book Craft Beer World will be available at the end of April 2013. * The Food Programme has reported on hops and on the rise of US craft beers * Another genebank beer in the news is about to be launched. It was brewed from Chevalier, a century-old barley in the John Innes Centre’s genebank, re-evaluated because it is resistant to Fusarium wilt. * Photo of a hop flower by Ronald Bunnik. * Music by Dan-O at Engage

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